The world is watching the final stages of the race between Mitt Romney and President Obama, and how other countries have covered the contest often tells as much about how they feel about themselves as it does about how they perceive the American political process.
For weeks, coverage of the U.S. presidential race in Russia’s state-controlled media has been obscured by a layer of derision, cast by top commentators as a mudslinging brawl or a “beauty contest” in which indistinguishable candidates vie for the loyalty of voting blocs, “some who love ample, fatty brunettes — and some preferring skinny anorexics.”
But for those who believed that Russia had nothing at stake, Monday’s televised debate served to concentrate the mind. By lunchtime on Tuesday, a top analyst had rendered his verdict in the newspaper Izvestiya: If Mitt Romney wins, Fyodor Lukyanov wrote, “it’s not that relations between Russia and the United States will be spoiled — they will halt. And they will not exist for a long time.”
As the race between Romney and President Obama rounds its last curve, the world is watching — and how other countries have covered the race often tells as much about how they feel about themselves as it does about how they perceive the American political process.
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Japanese reporters have followed candidates on the campaign trail, scrutinizing their tactics as a blueprint for the vibrant two-party system Japan would like to build.
Brazilian commentators, drawing on their familiarity with American cultural icons, are poring over details — expressing shock, for example, at Romney’s idea of ending the subsidy for PBS, whose Big Bird is fondly called Garibaldo in Brazil’s version of “Sesame Street.”
Disillusionment has tempered news coverage in many countries — even Germany, a nation addicted to American political arcana. In contrast with 2008, when coverage of the Democratic primaries was breathless, front-page news all over Germany, this season’s analysis has been sober and far less enthusiastic.
“Everyone was asking in 2008, ‘Where is the German Obama?’ ” said Christoph von Marschall, Washington bureau chief for Germany’s daily Tagesspiegel newspaper. “Nobody asks this anymore. Obama is no longer the messiah. He is also just a politician, a normal and sometimes nasty politician.”
In Japan, by comparison, major newspapers and television news run daily stories on the campaign, pointing out the candidates’ missteps and setbacks with analysis that would seem zealous in American outlets. Their enthusiasm is largely practical. Three years ago, a historic election ended 57 years of one-party rule in Japan, and its leaders are searching for a model for a two-party system.
“The whole world is watching the election of the superpower,” the Mainichi Shimbun, one of Japan’s biggest dailies, said recently in an editorial. “We expect an energetic battle of words on such issues as” the dispute with China over islands in the East China Sea. But if they were waiting for rigorous discussion of issues of regional interest, Japanese newspapers have seemed disappointed so far.
“In contrast to the ferocity of their verbal give-and-take, the debates have left those of us outside the United States feeling dissatisfied,” the Nishi Nippon Shimbun said in an editorial on Thursday.
In Brazil, which ranks second after the United States in users of both Facebook and Twitter, news outlets, agitated over the fate of Big Bird, seemed relieved when the Obama campaign released ads attacking Romney for suggesting that PBS could be defunded. Brazilian correspondents have fanned out to Colorado, Nevada and New Hampshire.
An influential political columnist, Elio Gaspari, on Sunday dissected a chain of events in which Romney and Obama split the Electoral College with 269 votes each, sending the race to a vote in the House of Representatives. That way, he wrote, Romney could win the presidency even if Obama won the popular vote.
“American democracy will look terrible in that light,” he wrote.
That sense of drama is not reaching Chinese viewers. Though the main national television channel, CCTV, has opened a large new bureau in Washington, the presidential race has not been given much prominence in news reports, and no Chinese reporters have been out on the campaign trail.
This is partly a matter of timing; Election Day in the United States comes just two days before the opening of the all-important 18th Communist Party Congress, which will usher in a new set of leaders in the second peaceful transfer of power in China’s Communist era.
The capital is consumed with its own internal political jockeying, and there is little sense of how the top government leaders view Romney and Obama.
The campaign has drawn interest among Chinese who have frequent contact with Americans. Students and young workers say they are fascinated with the open debate, and what seem like major differences between the two major parties.
“The clash of ideologies in the United States is so much more dramatic than that in China,” said Guan Xin, who translates such American material as “The Daily Show” and “Real Time With Bill Maher” into Chinese. “You always hear phrases like ‘bitterly polarized’ in news reports. The partisan division between the right and the left is so big now. I haven’t seen the phrase ‘class warfare’ in a Chinese newspaper in ages.”
Russian coverage is similarly muted. The American race comes after a string of three largely noncompetitive elections in Russia, which have extended the rule of President Vladimir Putin and the main pro-Kremlin party, United Russia. The authorities here are preoccupied with controlling domestic dissent, and have asserted that the U.S. State Department is responsible for a rise in antigovernment activism.
On television, which heavily influences public opinion, much commentary on the hard-fought American race has been neutral or negative.
“Dumb and dumber,” announced an anchorwoman on Sunday’s edition of “Vesti,” a news roundup, as she introduced a segment on the election.
Behind this veneer of disdain lies some concern about what a Romney victory would mean here, especially after Monday’s debate, when he accused Obama of showing a submissive face to Putin. Some hard-liners in the Kremlin, who have warned of external threats to Russia as a way to unify the country, may see a useful foil in Romney, who has proclaimed Russia “our No. 1 geopolitical foe.”
Despite cooling perceptions of the United States, Obama is preferred by ordinary Russians; in a survey released this month by the All-Russian Center for Public Opinion, 42 percent said his victory would benefit Russia, whereas only 4 percent said the same of a Romney win.
“Look, Obama is a partner,” said Alexei K. Pushkov, who hosts the political talk show “Post-Scriptum” and is the head of the State Duma’s foreign-affairs committee. “We may be disappointed with him, but we consider him a partner. Romney does not look like a partner at all.”