Nearly four weeks on from the US presidential elections, it is still not known who is to succeed President Clinton next month. Two courts, one the highest in the land, the other in Florida, are set to rule on aspects of the contested result. It must be recognised that the long delay and the grave uncertainty arise from the closeness of the vote rather than any inherent defect in US democracy. This is a law-governed system, operating according to established procedures in what are admittedly highly unusual circumstances. That is what is giving the Democratic candidate, Mr Al Gore, continuing determination to fight the legal battle to the bitter end. He is convinced a recount in three Florida counties, Miami-Dade Palm Beach and Nassau, could give him victory.
Mr Gore must take careful account at this stage of whether persevering with his legal strategy could backfire on him. It would make it more difficult to stand again if he gains the reputation of being a bad loser. But psychologically he appears to be in no mood to admit or concede defeat. Were he to keep up the legal pressure and secure a victory such factors would be irrelevant. The presentation of his case for continuing with the court actions last week was convincing enough, but there is evidence that US voters are increasingly unsympathetic.
Mr George W Bush's team has been displaying more and more impatience with the electoral impasse. A victory in the Supreme Court this week for his case that all the Florida recounts should be cancelled would certainly multiply political pressure on Mr Gore to concede. But it would not categorically settle the issue, because the two court cases proceed independently of one another. The Supreme Court could refuse to decide either way, because of a reluctance to become involved in such a political controversy; or it could go some of the way to affirm Mr Gore's position that the Republican-led legislature in Florida has no right unilaterally to appoint its own nominees to the US Electoral College that must vote on December 18th.
There is still time to have the matter settled before that - and in the meantime Mr Clinton still occupies the White House. He will be in Ireland later this month with important work to do on the peace process here. That visit symbolises the continuity of US democracy, despite the extraordinarily close result being played out in the courts. Whoever does emerge the winner will have a hard job establishing his credibility and effectiveness after a result of such unprecedented closeness. But once it is declared the system will immediately establish the winner as President - and consign the loser to bitter obscurity.