by Piet Coetzer

US election

Too close to call – not that it matters for Africa

The White House
White House.JPG

 Americans go to the polls today (Tuesday, 6 November) to elect the United States’ (US) next president. Serving president, Barack Obama, seems to have a slight  edge in the quest for the 270 electoral votes needed to remain in the White House. But the contest remained remarkably close and the final result can still go either way to favour Obama or Republican Mitt Romney. In the end, does it really matter al that much who wins?

The race for the White House is so close that some experts are of the opinion that, for the first time in history, the votes of thousands of Americans living abroad might be the deciding factor.

What might, however, matter even more than the presidential result itself, and deserves some attention, is what happens in the Senate and House of representative elections that coincide with presidential election. Results on that front could have a direct influence on to what extent the president elect will be allowed to be “his own man,” in dealing the major challenges waiting for him.

What comes to mind is that either of the presidential candidates may be 'a lame-duck president' and may be hard pressed for enough congressional support for his policies and programmes.

As specified in the US Constitution, this year’s presidential election coincides with some Senate elections where one-third of the 100 Senate seats are contested, and House of Representatives elections (which occurs biennially) to elect the members for the 113th Congress.

Whoever is elected president is likely to be faced with a deeply divided congress, which will make it very difficult to engineer consensus on extremely serious challenges facing the US on especially the financial and economic fronts. The president elect will also be in the situation that he knows that almost 50% of the voting public did not support him.

One of the most pressing challenges that he will face, in fact, stems from the deep divides in the Congress on how the country’s finances and the continuing financial crisis since the 2008/09 housing bubble should be managed.

What has popularly become known as 'the fiscal cliff' is facing the US within months, while 23 million Americans are unemployed, working part time or out of patience looking for work. Obama and Romney have both promised a more robust economic rebound but they're deeply divided over the best way to get there. So is the congress, and  the “fiscal cliff”has its roots in these congressional divisions.

In less than two months after the election a battery of tax increases and spending cuts will kick in, which could see the US’s slowly healing economy dropping back into recession.

Almost every tax cut enacted since 2001 that was intended to stimulate the economy, is due to expire at the end of this year. The resulting collective $500 billion tax hike would raise the average American household's tax burden by $3 500.

At the same time, the first $110 billion of a planned $1.2 trillion in spending cuts over 10 years recommended by the a fiscal commission, will begin at the start of the new year unless plans are amended before then.

"If you watch cable news on any station the day after the election, all you're going to hear is 'countdown to the fiscal cliff',” Erskine Bowles, who co-chaired the fiscal commission which came up the spending cuts, said in a recent media interview.

The reality is that the cuts were never intended to actually take effect. They were an onerous incentive for lawmakers to reach a broad deficit-reduction deal, but that never happened. There is no reason to believe that this situation will change any time soon.

Romney wants to extend all the Bush-era tax cuts; Obama wants to extend it only for middle income individuals and married couples. Both will also forge a battle for congressional consensus for their approach.

Whoever is elected will also have to immediately get cracking to mobilise congressional support to increase government’s debt limit to avoid a crippling default. The next congress vote on this could come up in February, only weeks after the president's inauguration.

The government's current funding extends only until March 27.

In 2011 the battle between the White House and Congress over a debt-ceiling threatened the US's credit rating and sent stocks tumbling. Obama's administration and congressional Republicans cut a last-minute deal then to avert a government shutdown after weeks of brinksmanship. There could be more of the same ahead.

International scene

And, on the international front the world and global hot spots have also not taken a pause to wait for the outcome of the US elections.

Potential crises in the Middle East (especially the situation in Syria), Iran's apparent slow march toward a nuclear bomb with its ever threatening conflict between it and Israel, the enduring European global economic slowdown and ever growing international strategic challenge and trade competition from China will strongly compete with the domestic needs to mend fences after a brutal election campaign for attention.

The 11-year long US-led war in Afghanistan is also still ongoing. The United States and its partners plan to end the war at the close of 2014. The elected president will have to decide when and how to bring home some 68 000 US troops, who remain and whether to cut a deal with the Afghan government to leave some lasting U.S. military presence there.

Africa

With Obama's African heritage, Africa had great expectations that, with his election, he would prioritise a new and better US-Africa relationship. But instead of a benevolent approach, the continent was confronted with hard-nosed 'security first' focus.

American air bases made their appearance across Africa with the US focusing its military attention on al-Qaeda affiliated militants and other groups it regards as a threat to its own interests and security. American drones, in places like Pakistan, are now also operational in African skies and special forces is to be found on the ground in many parts of the continent.

United States Africa Command, or Africom, introduced by Bush only weeks before Obama took office and which operates as a nerve centre for US military operations and military-to-military contacts in the region, was enthusiastically expanded under Obama. It now boasts 2 000 designated staff.
 

In short, Africa is not treated differently to any other part of the world in terms of what the US regards to be its strategic, security and economic interests. This will not change, regardless of who is sent to the White House today.

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