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Europe ponders U.S. woes

LONDON (CNN) -- They may be too polite to say it out loud, but millions of Finns must be feeling vindicated this week as they behold America grappling with a voting system in which a presidential candidate can conceivably win the popular vote -- yet lose the election.

Perched on Europe's northern fringes, Finland had its own electoral college system for nearly 70 years, starting two years after the country gained independence from Russia in 1919.

It endured until 1988, when voters, fed up with so-called "black horse" candidates who pipped their way into power despite widespread popular opposition, opted to ditch the system in favour of a direct popular vote.

And in 1994, Finland's former president, Martti Ahtisaari, became the first Finnish president chosen by direct vote in a two round election.

The decision to jettison electoral-college voting came six years after a politician who had lost a bid to win his party's nomination for president caused a furore by asserting that the electoral college can elect anybody -- even someone who openly flouts the people's will.

U.S. Election 2000: Europe's View
Election 2000

"After that, they (the Finnish people) decided we had to change the system," said Risto Uimonen, a political journalist with Finland's largest daily, Helsingin Sanomat.

Many political observers in Europe seem mildly befuddled that America has clung so tenaciously to the electoral college -- an institution they suggest clashes with the image the country projects of itself as the world's most representative democracy.

"The system is not good," said Uimonen. "The Americans cast nearly 100 million votes and when the difference is as small as it has been, it produces a result where the one who won less votes, wins. … (The Americans) can learn something from us."

Some Europeans -- including those who say they admire the United States -- seem to take perverse pleasure in the spectacle of an American political system suddenly forced to grapple with its own vulnerabilities.

A problem in low voter turn-out

"The general European view is that Americans go around the world extolling the (values) of American democracy," said Nicholas Whyte, a research fellow at the Centre for European Policy Studies, based in Belgium.

Whyte said that while Europeans tend "to make allowances for Americans and their hang-ups about the magic of the constitution," he found it hard to condone a voting system in which just over half of all eligible voters turn out.

By contrast, he notes, voting is compulsory for every eligible citizen in Belgium, Greece and Luxembourg -- at the risk of being fined.

"There is a very weak model in the US," Whyte said. "There are problems where only about half of the registered people take the election of the most powerful man in the free world seriously enough to come out and vote."

Whyte added that Europeans "look on aghast" at the outsized influence of money on the election process. He voiced concern that a system where so much money courts so few people can lead to the selection of a candidate who is not democratically accountable in the purest sense of the term.

Some suggest that the US election limbo debunks a perception of Americans as virtually infallible when it comes to matters of organisation.

"It's just sort of brought the American psyche down a peg or two," said Alex Folkes, a campaigns officer with the London-based Electoral Reform Society.

And some newspapers in Europe found playful angles on Thursday in their coverage of the U.S. election confusion.

The left-leaning French daily, Libération, was openly teasing in its main article, writing: "America awoke Wednesday morning to discover that it didn't have an elected President and that the November 7 election had devolved into a mix of banana-republic farce and suspense worthy of a World Cup (football) final decided on penalty kicks."

For some political analysts, however, such judgments may be overly harsh.

Cynthia Ghorra-Gobin, the director of research for the Paris-based National Centre for Scientific Research, CNRS, said that she sensed a desire, at least at the local levels of American politics, to reform the system.

She also saw hope for change in the fact that the United States - unlike its transatlantic European cousins - is still a "young and dynamic country."

Gobin said that Americans generally show rapid-fire reactions to any signs of disarray that might arise within their system.

World reels at U.S. election deadlock
November 9, 2000
Bill Press: Time to get rid of the Electoral College
November 8, 2000

Federal Election Commission
UK Electoral Reform Society
Centre For European Policy Studies (CEPS)
Finnish government

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