The world is watching America's election

Story highlights

  • Frida Ghitis: The world is fascinated by America's most bizarre election in living memory
  • US allies have a sense of alarm about Donald Trump, writes Frida Ghitis

Frida Ghitis is a world affairs columnist for the The Miami Herald and World Politics Review, and a former CNN producer and correspondent. The views expressed in this commentary are her own.

(CNN)The world can't take its eyes off America's most bizarre election in living memory. I started noticing that many months ago, when I began informally surveying global interest in the campaign. Everywhere I went I found great interest. People were asking "Who is Donald Trump?" "What are Hillary Clinton's chances?" "How did this all get so strange?"

But now, with only days to go, something has changed dramatically.
    Before, people sounded a mixture of entertained and puzzled by the campaign. But watching America is not just a spectator sport -- people around the world are also asking how it is going to affect them. Increasingly, the amusement and befuddlement have given way to alarm and disgust. And in authoritarian countries where "democracy" comes in quotation marks, authorities are deriving visible pleasure from describing American democracy as a chaotic sham.
    Frida Ghitis
    From Mexico to Iran, from Russia to India, this may just be the most closely watched election anywhere, ever.
    Across Latin America, for example, people have told me they've never paid more attention to a US election. Diego Martin, a businessman in Cali, Colombia, told me he has countless friends and relatives in the United States, and he worries about their future if Donald Trump is elected.
    In Mexico, the election is particularly personal. Trump's attacks on Mexican immigrants struck the country as a national insult, and when President Enrique Peña Nieto invited Trump to Mexico, he left people fuming, with many calling it his "worst mistake."
    In India, the US election "is a very big deal," Bobby Ghosh, editor-in-chief of the Hindustan Times, said. With India growing closer to the United States, Ghosh said each election cycle creates more interest than the one before.
    Trump adds to the fascination, and a sense of disbelief in India that someone like him -- who Ghosh says is reminiscent "of the more uncouth and outrageous Indian politicians" -- could come so close to winning the US presidency.
    In countries with traditionally close ties to the United States, many people are stunned by what has been happening. Like Americans, many are tired of the drama but simply can't stop watching.
    Heidi Kingstone, a Canadian writer living in London, says both the British and Canadian public alike are "riveted." She described the election as a "seismic shift," not just because of the entire campaign spectacle, but because of the possible fallout, the uncertainty of what comes next if Trump wins.
    Among US allies there is a distinct sense of alarm about Trump. Months ago, The Economist Intelligence Unit listed a Trump presidency as one the top 10 threats facing the world, explaining that this election could trigger devastating global trade wars and a spike in terrorist recruiting.
    During a trip to Japan in May, President Barack Obama said he had found global leaders "rattled" by Trump's rise.
    In South Korea, where North Korea's nuclear program is a source of constant worry, Trump's suggestion that he might bring fundamental changes to the alliance has certainly captured everyone's attention.
    The Korea Times noted: "South Korea is watching the election more closely than ever" after Trump said, "We are better off, frankly, if South Korea is going to start protecting itself. ... They have to protect themselves or they have to pay us."
    Trump also floated the idea of South Korea and Japan possibly acquiring nuclear weapons, a suggestion he has since appeared to backtrack from.
    Not everyone, however, is displeased with what has been transpiring in the United States.
    This campaign has been filled with sordid, dispiriting moments. But for dictators, despots and other manipulators and enemies of democracy, there has been plenty to enjoy. After all, what could possibly give them more satisfaction than providing them evidence for their people that democracy does not work, and that America's claims to have a system worth emulating are built on quicksand?
    In Iran, the government is serving the public heaping spoonfuls of the US election. For the first time, state television broadcast the presidential debate.
    And the twists and turns of America's election drama are being aired in Iran along with another program, Netflix's make-believe story of wicked, murderous, amoral American politicians, "House of Cards." A website linked to the regime's Revolutionary Guards explained that the show describes the deception of "liberal American civilization" and the "promiscuities and crimes" of the rulers.
    Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, meanwhile, offers his expert commentary on the elections via Twitter, telling followers that the race proves the "collapse" of America's humanitarian values.
    And China has also given outsize coverage to the elections, displaying the schadenfreude of other US rivals and enemies. The state-owned Xinhua news agency routinely carries headlines such as "Scandal-riven US Presidential Election Shames Uncle Sam Abroad," while a piece in the Global Times explained that "the chaos of the election" has "unearthed malpractices of the US political system."
    Most troubling for Americans, Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has eroded democracy in his country to a decorative shell, has taken pains to undercut the credibility of the American election and to promote the perception in the United States and Russia that democracy simply does not work in the United States.
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    The state-run RT network broadcasts and publishes a steady stream of propaganda, with headlines such as "Americans not buying democratic mask of US elections anymore," or "Leaked emails, rigged elections, media blackout: Welcome to democracy, American-style."
    This election has already damaged American democracy at home and abroad. But the ultimate impact will depend on the outcome of the vote and what comes after the results are announced.
    A Trump victory opens a path of uncertainty. A Clinton win, if not accepted by Trump, would cause more lasting harm. That's why the majority of those I have spoken with are hoping for a decisive Clinton win. It might not undo all of the damage done by this contest. But it would at least start the process of repairing America's international standing.