Democracy in action

2012-10-06 10:04

Every four years, the US engages in its biggest test of democracy: presidential elections.

During this time, American voters are asked to make a clear choice on the future direction of our country.

Because we are faced with such an important decision, we are inundated with political campaigns offering differing viewpoints and ideas about what is best for our country and the world.

And because of the high stakes involved, these elections tend to elicit sharp views and high emotion.

The US and South Africa share these experiences with democracy – it can be contentious and messy at times, but ultimately proves to be more inclusive and enduring than any other form of government.

Having been involved in several previous US campaigns, I have closely followed the ups and downs of this election between President Barack Obama and Governor Mitt Romney.

I only wish the time zone difference did not force me to go to bed so late or get up so early to watch the Democratic and Republican national conventions, and to watch the first presidential debate this week.

As ambassador, I am often surprised by the intense interest that South Africans have in these elections, the first I have observed from outside of America.

Time and again I am asked about this poll, that speech, or a certain political advertisement.

People both here and in the US follow our election as much as they would a sporting match. The difference is that the goals are scored by those with the ideas, policies and the style that most appeal to the American public.

The debate on Wednesday night was the first of three “head-to-head” televised debates between the two candidates.

Over 50 million Americans and over 100 million people overseas watched live as both sought to define their visions for the future of our country.

Just as in the political conventions, each man worked hard to outline how he differs from his opponent and it is clear the candidates have fundamentally different beliefs about the direction America should take at home and abroad.

This election has been notable for its openness and the wide variety of debate on real issues. Whenever a major speech or news event was held by one side, the other side immediately aired its views and analysis.

Major media covered both parties’ positions extensively and, within minutes of each speech, all sides of the issues were being debated, blogged, tweeted and talked about throughout the country.

In today’s digital age, Americans are not only using traditional outlets such as newspapers, magazines and TV news programmes to debate and form their opinions, but also YouTube videos, comedy shows, text messages, Facebook and Twitter feeds.

This diversity of sources has made it harder for candidates and political parties to control their own messages, but it has also made our elections more open and more democratic than ever before.

The free debate that surrounds an election today forces each party and each candidate to respond to the public and the media or face instant criticism. When every statement a candidate makes can be replayed via the internet and contrasted with what they say the very next day, there is little margin for error.

Of course, the US presidential election system is not without its problems.

Analysts criticise the large amount of money spent on modern campaigns, the influence of political action committees and the overreliance on television advertisements that can distort or mischaracterise an opponent’s position.

Minor gaffes or misstatements are often overplayed or taken out of context by supporters to score political points.

At times, the negative tone and constant ups and downs of the campaigns may not seem to be an effective way to choose our nation’s leader.

But despite all of the challenges and shortcomings that the marathon campaigns entail, it is hard to think of a better way to measure a candidate’s ability to actually do the job.

The nature of the campaign process itself assures us that any candidate who survives and wins has been tested in the public spotlight.

The length of time and the amount of resources devoted to the presidential elections in the US may be unique, but the free expression of views in the political arena is not.

Other democracies follow their own dynamic forms of political competition and, as is often the case, those who endure the toughest challenges learn to respect the power of the ballot box, and become stronger in the process.

No one has perfected the right way to democratically elect leaders, but we can all learn from each other.

Of course, democracy is not a result in itself, but a process that must be practised and perfected over time.

That is why it is so important that countries like South Africa and the US share their experience and expertise with nations that are either undergoing democratic transitions for the first time, or where democratic institutions are under threat and need bolstering.

For example, the work of South Africa’s Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) to provide training to other election management bodies in Africa has helped strengthen democratic institutions across the continent.

In support of this effort, the US has partnered with the IEC and the University of South Africa to train members of the South Sudan High Elections Committee, a critical institution in Africa’s newest democracy.

For the next 30 days, Republicans and Democrats will continue to challenge each other every day as they debate whose path is the best for America’s future.

The presidential and vice-presidential candidates will participate in three more live televised debates, watched by millions of voters.

They will run countless advertising campaigns and travel tirelessly around the country explaining their visions. And Americans throughout the US and overseas will spend that time – in their homes, in their schools, at work, on FaceBook and Twitter – discussing which candidate and which path they believe in.

In a process concluding on November 6, Americans will go to the polls and complete their ballots. I am asked all the time who will win and my response is that only the American people can provide the answer.

Here in South Africa we will all find out together. It will be a long, sleepless night for those, like me, who will be staying up to watch the results.

One thing I can predict is that in the early hours of November 7, all of us here in South Africa will be able to watch the most important part of the entire process.

That is when the losing candidate congratulates the winner and pledges to work together for the good of the country, and the winner commits himself to being a leader for the whole nation, including those who didn’t vote for him.

That is what true democracy should be about.

» Gips is the US ambassador to South Africa

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