US election watch

SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan (The Philippine Star) - November 6, 2020 - 12:00am

In 2016, top pollsters and analysts in the United States got the outcome of their presidential election wrong.

This time, few analysts have dared to give their fearless forecast on the White House race. But the few who have dared mostly see a win by Democratic challenger Joe Biden.

Pre-election surveys in the US also showed the former vice president ahead of Republican President Donald Trump. The betting was that with all the scandals during his four years, plus the 233,000 coronavirus deaths (as of Election Day) and nearly 10 million infections in the US – the worst in the world – Trump did not stand a chance.

So considering the COVID situation, plus all the criticisms heaped on him, you have to hand it to Trump: he’s not only putting up an impressive fight, but there’s a chance he might actually stage another upset and bag a second term.

If he’s reelected, it will no longer be an “OMG it’s Trump (again)” moment for the world. More likely, it will trigger contemplation about American support for his policies – toward immigrants and his isolationism, toward China and Russia, and of course toward managing the COVID crisis.

In 2016, we thought Trump’s victory was a fluke. This time, even if he loses, we can see that he is truly what nearly half of American voters want.

US analysts consider Trump to be stronger in economic matters, and Biden in the coronavirus issues. There is also voter support along party lines, in a country with a strong two-party system. The US parties stand clearly on various hot button issues such as gay rights, abortion and gun ownership. We can see from the campaign rallies that Trump’s aversion to face masks in the time of COVID is shared by many of his party supporters.

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Inevitably, each country views the US poll outcome in terms of national interest. We have already seen the state of bilateral relations under Trump, and his personal rapport with President Duterte. It was a remarkable warming from the frosty relationship with Barack Obama, whom Duterte slammed for criticizing the drug war.

How different might it be under Joe Biden?

American diplomats previously posted in Manila have given me a common message: their foreign policy is defined by US strategic interests rather than personalities, so the broad view rarely changes from one president to the next. Regardless of who sits at the White House, Washington’s ties with its treaty allies including the Philippines will be maintained.

Pursuing those interests, however, may be influenced by personal styles. If Biden wins, he might have learned, from serving as Obama’s vice president, that the current Philippine President detests being told by fellow world leaders, especially in public, how to run this country.

Duterte particularly abhors criticism of his war on drugs and his human rights record. Under Obama, such US criticism led to Duterte’s avowed pivot toward China and Russia, in what he has described as an “independent” foreign policy. (Philippine security and foreign affairs officials, however, have refused to go along with the pivot.)

When Canada’s Justin Trudeau expressed concern that 16 Bell helicopters ordered by the Philippine government would be used for internal security operations rather than for rescue and humanitarian missions, Duterte promptly canceled the $234-million deal.

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Critics of Duterte tend to believe that a Democratic US president will give more weight than a Republican to civil liberties and democratic ideals in dealing with the world.

While America and many of its organizations continue to champion civil liberties, however, Washington has been inconsistent in pushing for human rights and democratic values around the world.

The US in fact ranks pretty low in certain human rights indicators. We have seen that racism is very much alive in America. In pursuit of US strategic interests, it has also maintained alliances with several strongmen and authoritarian regimes.

US drug enforcement operatives have backed Latin American governments in brutal crackdowns on the narco cartels.

Filipinos hoping for Biden’s support against the Anti-Terrorism Act might want to consider that Democratic president Obama did not shut down the Guantanamo prison facility for suspected terrorists. The US continues to have arguably the world’s harshest anti-terrorism laws, which allow, among other things, the indefinite pre-trial detention of terror suspects.

Obama also did not stop the practice of extraordinary rendition of suspected terrorists. As for multilateralism (or lack of it), Obama did not notify Pakistani officials when he sent US SEALs to kill Osama bin Laden in a compound just over a kilometer away from Pakistan’s military academy and a military base in Abbottabad.

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Biden has vowed to bring the US back to the World Health Organization and the 2015 climate treaty.

When dealing with China, however, Biden and Trump have espoused similar views. Several analysts in fact think Biden would be even tougher on Beijing, but without the public belligerence. A Biden presidency could be bad news for China, since his multilateralism could win more supporters for an international coalition to compel Beijing to abide by global rules – including in the South China Sea.

Who would be more likely to wage war? Republican president George W. Bush sent US forces to fight al-Qaeda in Iraq and Afghanistan. But Democrats Harry Truman and Lyndon Johnson sent Americans to the Korean peninsula and Vietnam, respectively, to wage wars against communism. The US waded into World Wars I and II under Democratic presidents Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, respectively.

As for economic matters, Trump, despite his “America first” policy and anti-China rhetoric, must have also been mindful of how intertwined the two economies are. In 2019, the US and China were each other’s top trading partners.

Even Biden, however, has also spoken about bringing American jobs back to America and promoting “buy American.” How far he will pursue this policy remains to be seen… if he wins.

As of last night, Biden seemed to be on the verge of victory.

Malacañang has said President Duterte and the Philippine government expect a good working relationship with whoever wins in the US race.

If it’s Biden, when he assesses his country’s alliance with the Philippines, he might take note that Duterte once said Obama “can go to hell” for criticizing the war on drugs. On the other hand, Duterte sang “You Are the Light” to Trump at a state dinner in Manila.

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