30 October 2004

Two racehorses - one owner

By Ian Sinclair

George W Bush vs John F Kerry. Republican vs Democrat. Alleged draft dodger vs war hero. On Tuesday the American people will go to the polls to elect a new President. But what kind of choice do they really have?

Bush and Kerry were both born into wealth and privilege, attended the same elite university (Yale) and joined the same secret society (Skull & Bones). Forbes magazine estimate the Kerry family fortune to be an extraordinary $525 million, while Bush's assets are worth as much as $19 million. Both candidates rely heavily on corporate funding. Currently, Bush has raised $260,500,000 of private money for his campaign, while Kerry has received $248,000,000. More importantly, both are funded by largely the same corporate powers - with the two candidates sharing four of the same ten largest corporate donors to their campaigns.

Concerning foreign policy, differences between the two candidates are so small, that they are almost invisible. In August, Kerry said he still would have voted to authorise the war on Iraq even if he had known that weapons of mass destruction would not be found. Kerry does criticise the Bush Administration's foreign policy, but always within very narrow limits - referring to "bad predictions" and "errors of judgement". America's right to intervene around the world is taken for granted then, and will be preserved for another four years. History isn't on Kerry's side either. In the modern era, most of America's wars have been initiated by Democratic presidents - Truman in Korea, Kennedy and Johnson in Vietnam and Carter in Afghanistan.

All this is not lost on the American people. On the eve of the 2000 Presidential election, surveys showed over 80% of respondents felt the government was "run for the benefit of the few and the special interests, not the people", while 53% of respondents answered "only a little " or "none" to the question: "How much influence do you think people like you have on what government does?" It shouldn't be a surprise then to find voter turnout in 2000 was just 51% of the population.

The situation is not much better here in the UK. All three of the main political parties offer no real alternative to the dominant corporate agenda, and voter turnout in 2001 was a post-war low of 59%.

Is this how democracy works? If the (self-professed) centre of the free world is like this, what hope is there for the rest of us? To answer, it is worth focusing briefly on the other big election story of the year in the Americas. In contrast to the US, the August 2004 Presidential recall vote in Venezuela was the largest poll in the country's history, with a voter turnout of 70%. Selma James, an international observer at the recall vote noted "participation in politics, especially at the grassroots has skyrocketed", mobilising the working-class into action, traditionally the least active voters.

The existing President Hugo Chavez managed to gain 59% of the vote, in spite of hostility from the US Government, international capital and the powerful Venezuelan elite, who control the mass media. Commentators put this down to Chavez implementing home grown development and using the nation's oil revenues for social programmes for the poor, such as adult literacy drives, land distribution and free healthcare.

An important victory for democracy in Venezuela then - but we shouldn't underestimate what is at stake on November 2. There are small differences between the US Presidential candidates, and in a governmental system as powerful as the United States, this can translate into important differences for the average person. On domestic issues, Kerry has a more moderate programme than the Republicans, who seem intent on destroying every progressive social advance of the twentieth century - cutting back on the already limited medical care system, social security, education and progressive income tax. For the 45 million Americans with no healthcare, women, ethnic minorities, gays, lesbians and transsexuals, there are real consequences from the outcome of this election.

Progressives in the United States and around the world will undoubtedly be hoping for a Kerry victory on Tuesday, but let's not be under any illusions about what that really means. Movement building - for peace, for fair trade, on environmental issues, against corporate-led globalisation - needs to continue whoever wins.

Rather than focusing solely on the personal qualities of two very similar candidates, perhaps it is time to critically examine the system that only lets rich, conservative, white males who are overwhelmingly funded by big business, run for President in the first place?