Leading Article: A surprising vote in favour of democracy

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THERE'S SOMETHING magisterial about elections, even when they are just mid-term US polls in which 62 per cent of the eligible voters don't bother to show up. The talking stops, the people speak, and the show moves on with the cast of characters rearranged and the script altered.

Before Tuesday, no one knew how the plot would develop. Most important, if the Republicans had significantly increased their representation in Congress, Bill Clinton might well have spent the remaining two years of his presidency tied up in impeachment proceedings - or, worse, removed from office. Now, after losing five seats in the House of Representatives (and failing to make any net gains in the Senate), even the House Republican leader, Newt Gingrich, is describing impeachment as a "secondary" matter.

Whatever your views of the rights and wrongs of the Lewinsky affair, it is a relief that the uncertainty has come to an end. Clinton, the Teflon kid, will survive again, and those who do business with the US have the comfort of knowing with whom they will be dealing until January 2001.

Of course, there were many local matters at issue in the US elections, but one welcome theme is the success of the moderate right in the Republican party - a harbinger, perhaps, of the retreat of the "moral majority" with its anti-abortion crusades and love of handguns. Another is the increased turnout of minority voters - blacks and Hispanics - and the critical role their votes played in many contests.

There is one more lesson for the UK. Admirers of the Jenkins report may like to consider the case of Jesse "The Body" Ventura, a former professional wrestler, who is the surprise independent victor in the contest for governor of Minnesota. He won by splitting the Democrat and Republican votes. The Alternative Vote would have seen him off, but he wouldn't have been able to say: "The American dream lives."