World watches, worries and wags a finger as U.S. election count moves along

President Trump and Democratic challenger Joe Biden
President Trump and Democratic challenger Joe Biden during one of their two presidential debates.
(Getty Image / Associated Press)

Transfixed by a U.S. presidential vote that failed to swiftly yield a clear winner, a watching world responded Wednesday with a mixture of worry, disbelief and, in some quarters, scorn.

Many foreign allies weighed in with precisely the kind of counsel that U.S. diplomats and officials for generations have handed down whenever shaky democracies stand at a political crossroads: Let the voting process play out, and let’s hope it’s a fair one.


In much of the world, ordinary people and governments alike had already internalized the prospect that this divisive electoral contest might drag on for days or even weeks.

But still, it was a morning-after laden with a sense of the surreal — that the United States, which for so long held itself up as a flawed but inspirational political model, had come to this. In South Korea, an editorial cartoon in the Hankyoreh newspaper depicted a shattered Statue of Liberty, with President Trump and Democratic rival Joe Biden tussling amid the fragments and each yelling: “I won!”

Traditional U.S. allies in Europe, who watched the erosion of transatlantic ties under Trump with trepidation, had already signaled a willingness to work with whoever emerged victorious, saying that longtime strategic alliances overrode political personalities.

President Trump’s campaign has accused a Michigan election official of failing to ensure that challengers and bipartisan observers watch the processing of absentee ballots.

But some senior European government officials, noting Trump’s demands that vote counting be halted and his false claim to have won the election, expressed open dismay over the tense aftermath of the balloting.

German Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, speaking on ZDF television, called the situation “explosive.”

“It is a situation of which experts rightly say it could lead to a constitutional crisis in the U.S.,” she said. “That is something that must certainly worry us very much.”

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In a stinging role reversal — emblematic of the U.S. loss of stature as a global democratic leader — international election monitors Wednesday sharply criticized Trump’s efforts to undermine the credibility of the vote.

One of the leaders of a monitoring mission from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, Urszula Gacek of Poland, cited “deliberate efforts by the incumbent president to weaken” the electoral system.

In Britain, perhaps the closest historic U.S. ally and one of the world’s oldest parliamentary democracies, Prime Minister Boris Johnson ducked a pointed question about whether Trump had been wrong to call for a halt to vote counting.

“We don’t comment, as the U.K. government, on the democratic process of our friends and allies,” Johnson, who has cordial personal relations with Trump, told lawmakers after Keir Starmer, head of the opposition Labor Party, queried him about the president’s wee-hours demand.

Under Trump, relations with China have been mercurial, but Beijing’s official stance on the balloting was restrained.

“The U.S. presidential election is the country’s internal affair. China doesn’t take a position on it,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said at a news briefing Wednesday.

But many intellectuals, businesspeople, and individual commentators followed the election in granular detail throughout the day Wednesday, engaging in lively social media discussions about individual states being called.

Some were openly derisive of the U.S. electoral system.

“A small number of white people in a few swing states who have not attended university determine the fate of this country and even of the world,” wrote Wang Yongqin, an economics professor at Shanghai’s Fudan University, on the microblogging site Weibo.

Others, apprehensively eyeing the discord from across the globe, made clear the high stakes beyond U.S. shores. Penny Wong, the leader of the opposition in the Australian Senate, pointed to “historic numbers” of Americans voting in this election.

“They deserve to have their voices heard. The democratic process must be respected, even when it takes time,” Wong wrote on Twitter. “It’s in Australia’s interest that America remains a credible, stable democracy.”

Some said that whatever the ultimate outcome, the U.S. failure to decisively repudiate Trump would embolden strongman leaders elsewhere, such as Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Richard Heydarian, a Manila-based political analyst, said the hard-fought vote was a boon for Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, who has faced little pressure from Washington over his violent crackdown on political opponents, rights workers and alleged drug users, which has resulted in thousands of extrajudicial killings.

“Were we to have a [Biden] landslide early on, then it would have made it easier for the world to say 2016 was an aberration, and it was time to clean up the mess,” said Heydarian. “Biden, with strong momentum, could have restored international order and focused on human rights, multilateralism and climate change. Now all of that is out the window.”

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In Latin America, a region that is no stranger to disputed elections, there was widespread bewilderment on social media and in the press about the complex balloting in the United States and the lack of a clear winner. The Mexican news site Milenio reported that Trump declared that his lead had “magically” begun to disappear as the count went on.

“Democracy is damaged when a losing candidate makes accusations of fraud without a basis,” tweeted Javier Aparicio, a Mexican academic. “Despite the fact that Trump (or his advisors) know that mail-in voting doesn’t have major problems, they constantly attacked [the process] during the campaign.”

The U.S. electoral college system continued to perplex many in Latin America, where election laws dictate that the majority decides who wins.

“Whatever happens, Donald Trump will have lost the popular vote by millions in two consecutive elections,” tweeted Mexican journalist León Krauze. “The democracy of the United States should reflect upon its incongruity.”

Liebano Saenz, a Mexican columnist, played on the old adage: “Poor Mexico, so far from God, so close to the United States.” Tweeted Saenz: “Poor USA, so far from Jefferson, Hamilton, Washington and Madison .. and yet so close to Trump.”

Some recalled last year’s electoral tumult in Bolivia, where allegations of fraud eventually resulted in the forced exit of three-term President Evo Morales, who later denounced a coup.

“Now that we see new chaos in the elections in the USA, I would like to remind you that, in Bolivia, solely because of a delay of a few hours … there were unfounded charges of electoral fraud, which later justified the coup,” tweeted Ezequiel Adamofsky, an Argentine historian.

Others in the region noted that the results likely augured more years of political division that could affect Washington’s relations with Latin America.

“Whoever wins, the United States faces hard times,” said Jesús Seguias, a political analyst in Venezuela. “The new demographic and cultural configuration of the country, the challenges of governance, the loss of competitiveness and the threat of China are systemic issues. Either Trump or Biden will lead while facing existential challenges.”

In the view of some, Trump’s attempt to pronounce the race over before all ballots were counted could undermine U.S. calls for free and fair elections abroad, particularly in Myanmar, which goes to the polls Sunday for only the second time since a military junta relinquished its monopoly on power.

“I think the days when the West could micromanage change in other people’s countries are long gone,” said historian Thant Myint-U, author of “The Hidden History of Burma.” “If recent crises in the West, including whatever may now come in America, tell us anything, it’s that the rest of the world [has] to figure things out for themselves.”

Although reaction was muted among the most Trump-friendly leaders while the final result was up in the air, a few were ready to go all-in on the prospect of a second term for the president.

Those included Janez Jansa, the right-wing prime minister of Slovenia, First Lady Melania Trump’s native country. He claimed on Twitter that it was “pretty clear that American people have elected Donald Trump.”

But hours after the tweet, it still wasn’t.

Staff writers Bengali reported from Singapore, McDonnell from Mexico City and King from Washington. Staff writers Victoria Kim in Seoul, Alice Su in Beijing, David Pierson in Singapore and Tracy Wilkinson in Washington contributed to this report, as did special correspondents Cecilia Sánchez in Mexico City, Andrés D’Alessandro in Buenos Aires, and Mery Mogollón in Caracas.