World is watching Calif. race, finding humor in process

Tuesday, August 26, 2003

LONDON -- Bitterly divided over the United States' role in the world, the world's commentators agree on one topic: a spectacle like the California recall race could only happen in America.

Most consider that a good thing.

"A circus fit for the fruit and nut state," said a headline in British newspaper The Guardian about the 135-candidate race to replace Gray Davis as governor of America's most populous state. The Independent called it a "farcical race for California's hot seat."

Around the world, the campaign is viewed with amusement -- and the occasional hint of admiration.

Arnold Schwarzenegger, the Republican front-runner, has dominated the world's headlines, though the most recent poll shows him far behind the leading Democratic hopeful in the Oct. 7 recall.

The new poll, conducted by the Los Angeles Times, has Democratic Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante with 35 percent support among likely voters, compared with 22 percent for Schwarzenegger.

World headlines focus on the Austrian-born actor with a liberal use of the obvious puns on his movie roles, including "The Governator," "Total Recall" and -- in the words of Greek daily Eleftherotypia -- "Conan the candidate."

Excluding coverage

Much press coverage has focused on Schwarzenegger to the exclusion of almost all other candidates -- and not just in his homeland of Austria.

"King Arnie -- How an Austrian is conquering America's politics," said the cover of the weekly magazine News in the actor's birthplace.

The magazine's Aug. 13 issue devoted eight pages to the California recall, twice as many as it allotted to coverage of Austria's presidential election next spring.

In Britain, bookmaker William Hill is taking bets on the campaign -- but only on Schwarzenegger, whom it considers an 8-11 favorite.

"From a British point of view, he's the only celebrity angle," said spokeswoman Jenny Prest.

For some, especially in Europe, the election symbolizes all that is wrong with America.

The Italian weekly L'Espresso was one of several publications to call the campaign a "circus" because of the long list of candidates, including former "Diff'rent Strokes" star Gary Coleman, pornographer Larry Flynt and a billboard model named Angelyne.


"It is hard to imagine a great-er responsibility than the election in the most populous, rich and electorally significant state in the United States, but it is impossible to say that the current vote is serious," sniffed Russia's Kommersant newspaper.

A Republican-led petition drive forced the recall after collecting 900,000 voter signatures. The Oct. 7 ballot will allow voters to decided whether to oust the governor and, if so, who among the crowd of candidates should replace him.

Davis, whose popularity has plunged amid California's $38 billion budget deficit, its energy crisis and its slumping economy, has branded the drive to oust him "a hostile takeover by the right."

In China, where pirated DVDs of Schwarzenegger movies go for about $1 on the street, the Communist Party newspaper People's Daily played coverage straight with an Aug. 11 news story about the governor's race cobbled together from news agencies' reports.

Its only flourish: It referred to Schwarzenegger's candidacy as "a bid to terminate Governor Gray Davis' political career."

Some foreign media counseled non-Americans not to underestimate Schwarzenegger. Svenska Dagbladet in Stockholm said the actor, although a Republican, has liberal European values.

"On moral issues, Schwarze-negger stands for much of what most Republicans associate with a degenerate Hollywood left wing," the paper said.

Some called the campaign inspiring. In Britain's Guardian, a writer lauded the fact that two leading candidates -- Schwarzenegger and Greek-born commentator Arianna Huffington -- are immigrants.

"How many European elections are contested by foreigners with foreign accents?" he asked.

The writer, Duncan Campbell, noted that California is often a trendsetter, and the recall could be a sign of things to come in the United States and abroad.

Not everyone wants to see that happen. Britain's Charter 88, which campaigns for greater democracy and electoral reform, said the election showed the pitfalls of direct democracy.

"At first we were keen on it, because it's a way of getting people involved," said the group's director, Karen Bartlett. "But it seemed that rather than allowing people to participate in democracy, it was another chance for corporations and wealthy people with pet causes to pervert the course of democracy."

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