Local Political Climates Shape International Perception of U.S. Election | KCET
Local Political Climates Shape International Perception of U.S. Election
Part of our analysis on how the world views the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Watch the full episode here.
On a recent Tuesday morning in Kampala, 32-year-old Bigirwa Moses woke up early, dressed himself in a crisp navy blue suit with a white shirt and a red tie, and made his way over to the U.S. embassy in Uganda’s capital. He and a group of about 14 other people were ready to campaign for U.S. Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump by 9 a.m., he said. They carried pink posters that read, “A vote for Trump is a vote against African dictatorship.”
By 9:45, he and one other Ugandan Trump supporter, the two leaders of the group, had been arrested. They were charged with unlawful assembly, said Andrew Felix Kaweesi, the spokesperson for the Uganda police.
Moses and the other Trump supporters are members of Uganda Young Democrats, one of several political opposition groups in the country. Their disgust at Uganda’s political scenario fuels their support of a right-wing candidate in the United States, he said.
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“If he becomes the president in the U.S., he will fight the dictatorship that is taking place in Uganda,” Moses told me in a phone interview when he was still in custody at a local jail cell (he was released from police custody 48 hours after his arrest on a police bond, Kaweesi said).
The situation is one of many examples of how citizens of other countries, as well as Americans abroad, are understanding the U.S. elections with lenses colored by foreign policy, personality, and the politics of their current environments.
Uganda’s presidential elections took place in February amidst irregularities and claims of intimidation and vote rigging in favor of the incumbent, President Yoweri Museveni. The government shut down access to social media and mobile money services on voting day, which remained in effect for the next three days. Kizza Besigye, a popular opposition candidate, was arrested multiple times following the election. Longstanding leader Museveni is now in his 31st year of power.
The feeling among many Ugandans is that the election was stolen from them by an establishment politician. It makes the case for why some would find a rebellious candidate like Trump appealing, said Rodney Muhumuza, an Associated Press correspondent based in Kampala.
“Many of those things Trump is accused of, including racism and misogyny, don’t resonate among many Africans,” he said. “And remember, successive U.S. governments have not been eager to criticize leaders like Museveni, who is a U.S. ally on security matters.”
Moses echoed this view when I asked him about Clinton. “She doesn’t care about African affairs,” he said. “If Clinton wins, she will be a continuation of Barack Obama. And that did nothing for us.”
In a similar fashion, China’s political climate and social norms govern how many middle-class Chinese see the two U.S. presidential candidates, said Isaac Stone Fish, a senior fellow at the Asia Society’s Center on U.S.-China Relations, who is currently on sabbatical from Foreign Policy Magazine. Because of the sensitivity of political polling in China, no reliable statistics are available on the levels of support for the two American candidates. But anecdotally, some people comment on Hillary Clinton in a positive or deprecative way because of her femininity, he said. “I think the more common response you get when asking Chinese about Hillary is that she’s tough on China,” he said, noting her criticism of China’s human rights records.
With Trump, however, it’s less policy and more persona that people respond to. Given the current generation of rich people in China are almost all self-made, Trump’s identification as a wealthy entrepreneur hits some of the younger, more ambitious Chinese in a certain way. “People forget Trump’s father was wealthy as well,” Fish said.
Beyond that, though, most people don’t understand the intricacies of what’s happening in U.S. politics, he said. “Just like most Americans are ignorant about elections around the world, most Chinese are ignorant about the American elections.”
Austria’s presidential elections, which took place in April and May, is one of those elections that garnered little attention among most Americans. The race, a very tight one, was between a populist candidate on the right, Norbert Hofer, and a former politician with the Austrian Green Party, Alexander Van der Bellen. The outcome unfolded in a confusing drama: Hofer announced the evening of the elections — before any results were released — that he believed the voting had been manipulated. The following day, Van der Bellen was declared the winner by a margin of about 30,000 votes — less than one percentage point. Hofer’s political party promptly sued the government for election fraud, and in July, Austria’s highest court announced the election would be “re-run.” The re-election will now take place on December 4, though a number of well-known law experts have criticized the decision, said Anna Goldenberg, a journalist with Falter, an Austrian weekly paper.
“In Austria, people talk a lot about Trump’s rhetoric of rigged elections, and we’re like, ‘Been there, done that,’” she said. “We have a raised awareness of how damaging such a thing can be to a working democracy.”
That sort of raised awareness is also at play in the United Kingdom, where people are still reconciling with the fallout of “Brexit,” the U.K.’s decision in June to leave the European Union, according to Benjamin Plackett, a 27-year-old native of England who currently lives in London. “As a baseline, people in the U.K. are usually smug about U.S. politics,” he explained, noting that Trump’s remarks on Muslims, Mexicans, and women would never fly there. But post-Brexit, people are much more cautious and a lot less judgmental, he said.
“At dinner parties, people will talk about it,” he said. “‘Oh yeah, I wouldn’t think less of America if they were to vote for Trump. Because after Brexit, I could understand how that sort of thing were to happen.’”
Had Brexit turned out differently, that conversation would be different, Plackett admitted. “It would be very preachy, like, ‘These Americans are so different…[Brexit’s] taken the wind out of people's sails about it,” he said.
The “disturbing growth in ethnic nationalism” around the world, as Yale professor Robert J. Shiller put it, has attracted particular steam in Europe. It’s also pointed in India, where a Hindu nationalist leader, Narendra Modi, rose to power in 2014, and trollish Hindus on the Internet — “bhakts,” as they are called — enjoy bashing minority communities and heckling the press.
Optics might have you believe that Indians, particularly Hindus, who make up about 80 percent of the Indian population, see Donald Trump as the American version of Modi. Some 5,000 Indians in the U.S. — many of whom are recent immigrants — attended a Bollywood-themed anti-terror charity concert in New Jersey, which featured Trump as its guest of honor. In India, Hindu nationalists have rallied behind the Republican nominee, offering him ceremonies of worship and celebrating his birthday. They express their views on Twitter as well:
MR. DONALD TRUMP, WE WISH YOU THE BEST LUCK IN THE ELECTION . ( ALL MYANMAR TAMIL HINDU FANS OF PM MODI )— VISWALINGAM (@ifblmyanmar) October 20, 2016
We hope that many American Christians, Trump fans & imbeciles will reciprocate the favor by rooting for Modi during 2019 Indian elections— Siditious Devious (@Calvinator_18) October 17, 2016
While these supporters are numerous, they aren’t representative of a country of 1.3 billion people, said Surendra Rajput, a political and social analyst based in Lucknow, the capital of India’s most populous and politically-sensitive state, Uttar Pradesh. And these people don’t necessarily see Trump as an Indian or Hindu force but as an anti-Muslim force, he said. “Whoever is [a] Muslim basher, they will support them.”
The Republican Hindu Coalition, which sponsored the anti-terror charity concert, recently released a new TV ad interspersing an image of Mumbai’s 2008 terrorist attacks with clips of the concert and Donald Trump attempting to speak Hindi. Trump recited the words, “Ab ki baar, Trump sarkar.” The saying is a spin on one of Modi’s 2014 election slogans, “Ab ki baar, Modi sarkar,” which translates to “This time, a Modi government.”
It’s simultaneously amusing, provocative, and intriguing, depending upon who you ask. But middle-class, urban Indians generally think Trump is not as smart as Modi, according to Byomkesh Mishra, an NGO leader in Lucknow who follows both American and Indian politics with keen interest. “I think there is a general feeling that all this is a little late in the day,” he told me, regarding the ad.
The fact that Trump has no clear policy decisions on several matters also affects the way Indian politicians, including those affiliated with Modi, consider the candidates, said Milan Vaishnav, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace who specializes in South Asia. “One BJP insider told me,” he said, referring to the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, "Better to deal with the devil you know than the one you do not."
But, regardless of whether people have already made up their minds, the damage from the U.S.’ election cycle — particularly from Trump — is lasting, said Maria de la Guardia, an American freelance videographer and photographer who now considers Kabul home.
De la Guardia, who is 32 years old, has spent more than half her life outside of the U.S. She is casting her absentee ballot for the first time this year. Having lived through the regimes of different presidents in countries where their policies and personas are directly felt — for example, having to apologize for George W. Bush while working across the Middle East, while receiving the utmost respect in Kenya because of the pride Kenyans feel for Obama — she knows the influence the U.S. president has on American citizens living abroad.
“The perception of your leader, not just the power…it really does affect your security and your place in society when another country is hosting you abroad,” she said.
The same is true for immigrants and refugees who now face the prospect of calling the United States home. In a refugee camp in Jordan, one man, a Syrian refugee whose family had been living in the camp for three years, asked de la Guardia point-blank, “Should we go or are we safer here?”
The family has the opportunity to resettle in Texas. “They are willing to stay in these conditions just so they don’t have to endure what they are seeing in the news,” she said. “People don’t forget when someone declares hate toward you.”
DISCLAIMER: Anna Goldenberg and Byomkesh Mishra are friends of the author.
Top image: Members of rightwing Hindu group Hindu Sena cutting cake to celebrate the birthday of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump on June 14, 2016 in New Delhi, India. Mohd Zakir/Hindustan Times via Getty Images
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