LONDON – An indecisive U.S. presidential election hurtling toward legal challenges transfixed the world Wednesday, with viewers in Europe, Asia and elsewhere riveted by the pitched battle between President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden and appalled by Trump’s demand to stop counting votes.
“Trump-Biden: The United States is tearing itself apart,” the newspaper Le Monde said in a front-page headline, summarizing French coverage of the election that has often depicted a country coming apart at the seams.
“OK, America, so what the hell happens now?” wrote Marina Hyde, a columnist for The Guardian, Britain’s main left-leaning newspaper. She answered her own question by venturing, “Rule nothing out, except maybe optimism.”
By Wednesday afternoon, Biden predicted “we will be the winners” but stopped short of declaring victory. Trump vowed legal challenges to what he cast as fraudulent Democratic votes.
In Australia and Indonesia, crowds converged around televisions in cafes, trying to steal a glimpse of states turning red or blue. In Iran, the hashtag #Elections_America trended on Persian Twitter, while in Japan, Fuji Television covered the election with graphics that mixed old-school cardboard cutouts with the avatars common in video games.
All over the world, the results trickling in from across the American electoral map made for confounding, fascinating must-watch drama. The stakes are global, and so was the audience, illustrating the truism that presidential elections in the United States affect everyone, even those ineligible to vote in them.
“It’s kind of like the World Cup Finals,” said Moch Faisal Karim, an international relations professor at Binus University in Indonesia.
For many, the election was an opportunity to watch the hoped-for defeat of Trump, who has frayed alliances, started trade wars and vexed many foreign leaders with his erratic, transactional style. After the nonstop drama of his first term, much of the world hungers for the United States to shift back toward the more traditional course Biden has promised.
For those countries that have benefited from Trump, the prospect of a President Biden awakened more conflicted emotions. In Israel, where Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has forged close ties with Trump, right-wing commentators seized on the closeness of the race to vilify American news media that had foreseen through polling a more clear-cut advantage for Biden.
“The gap between what they said and what happened is simply too wide to believe they did not see this,” said Shimon Riklin, an ally of Netanyahu, said on Twitter. “We had predicted the most organized and splendid fake news in history.”
Many viewers wanted nothing more than a quick resolution, but instead there was uncertainty and angst. First came the quadrennial refresher course on the complexities of the American process for electing a president — and then, as votes were counted, the hours of waiting, as news websites and television channels filled with the 50-state maps and charts familiar to Americans.
They tried to make sense of images of stores boarded up against potential violence. When Trump appeared at the White House around 2 a.m. in Washington and prematurely declared that he had won, warning that he would go to the Supreme Court to try to shut down the rest of the vote counting, anxieties deepened.
“Donald Trump is playing with fire in a context that is already quite explosive,” Le Monde declared.
Michael Fullilove, executive director of the Lowy Institute, a research institute in Sydney, said, “President Trump’s statement should concern anyone who believes in democracy.”
“A contested election may be the worst possible result for the United States,” Fullilove added. “COVID had already made America look seriously unwell. Now it appears febrile and disoriented.”
In South Africa, where opinion polls showed a strong preference for a Biden presidency, many on social media noted the implications of Trump’s wide support in the United States.
“It does not matter who wins, the USA is a very divided population,” James Bernstein, a financial risk analyst, said on Twitter. “Trump with all his disgusting characteristics and amid bungling COVID pandemic, is still able to garner 50% of the US population approval — that says a lot.”
Feyi Fawehinmi, a Nigerian author and analyst, summed up what the election meant to many Africans following from afar: “No other country could have scripted this. This is pure entertainment. Edge of seat stuff.”
In Asia, the election results came in while the markets were trading, setting off wild fluctuations. Stocks in Asia ended mixed.
In a region that has mostly controlled the coronavirus, many people tried to fathom how Trump, a leader who had falsely claimed the scourge would disappear in the United States, could still garner so much support among a population where infections are still rampant.
South Korean newspapers relayed real-time updates on the vote counting with banner headlines on their websites, and cable channels had uninterrupted coverage, making this the most closely watched U.S. election in the country in recent memory.
In India, where the mother of Kamala Harris, the Democratic vice presidential candidate, was born, viewers took a special interest in watching updates on television all day — particularly in the southern village of Thulasendrapuram, birthplace of Harris’ maternal grandfather more than 100 years ago.
“Usually we don’t follow American elections,” said Pradeep, the manager of a small hotel in the village, surrounded by lush rice paddies. “But this time we have been following the elections very closely, like our own elections.”
Pradeep, who goes by one name, expressed dismay that the election was so close and blamed what he called racist voting patterns, saying it was “evident this time as the whites have completely voted for Trump.”
In China, the state news media repeatedly highlighted the potential for riots or other election-related violence. CCTV, the state broadcaster, aired footage of the heavy police presence in Washington and protesters shoving one another near the White House, though protests there Tuesday evening had been largely peaceful.
For some countries, hopes rose that the election would augur a shift in the United States’ relationship with the world.
In Indonesia, some analysts said a Biden victory would soften the U.S. approach to the Muslim world, while in Iran, where the economy has been battered by Trump’s sanctions, there was a sense among some that the election would have a greater impact on Iranians than on Americans.
“The slogan for the revolution was ‘no to the West, no to the East,’” Ebrahim Alinia, a real estate agent, wrote on Twitter. “But after 41 years we are looking to America’s election to save our economy.”
In Afghanistan, where Trump has vowed to extricate U.S. forces in a deal with the Taliban insurgents they have been fighting since 2001, there was some hope that Biden would prevail.
Many Afghans, particularly women, see Trump as having abandoned them. “We are worried about losing our two decades of achievements,” said Marzia Rustami, a women’s rights activist, who expressed hope that if Trump loses, “the Afghan people will be given more attention.”
In Brazil, where President Jair Bolsonaro is a populist ally of Trump, critics pinned their hopes on Biden to change Trump’s policies. “A change in U.S. policy can help to postpone and even reverse the tipping point of the Amazon rainforest,” Natalie Unterstell, an environmental activist, said on Twitter.
Bolsonaro, who has said he fears a Biden White House would seek to curb development of the Amazon, unabashedly expressed support for Trump during the ballot counting Wednesday. “I hope he is re-elected,” he told supporters outside the presidential palace.
While the gravity of the election was evident in news coverage, in Japan it came with a bit of whimsy, intended or not.
On Asahi TV, the hosts explained the Electoral College with puzzle pieces of battleground states imprinted with electoral vote counts. A vote counter on the bottom of the screen showed images of the candidates reacting to increases in the counts: Trump was depicted with his mouth agape, hands waving on either side of his face. Biden appeared with a soberly thrust fist.
Even Alexei Navalny, the Russian opposition leader who has challenged President Vladimir Putin and nearly died after being poisoned with a nerve agent, found humor in the uncertain outcome.
“Woke up and went on Twitter to see who won,” he posted Wednesday. “Still unclear. Now that’s what I call elections.”
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