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Democracy Delayed: COVID-19’s Effect on Latin America’s Politics – Chatham House

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This article is not about the coronavirus.  Or at least not directly. It’s about the elections, political processes and protests in Latin America and the Caribbean that only a few months ago seemed destined to shape many countries’ democratic futures.  In Bolivia, Chile and the Dominican Republic, public health concerns over COVID-19 have forced the postponement of critical elections; in all three countries social and political upheaval preceded the delays.  

In the best of circumstances elections serve as a safety valve for political and social tensions.  What will their postponement mean as the countries feel the economic and social effects of the pandemic?

In Bolivia, a make-up presidential election has been postponed. In Chile, a plebiscite on whether and how to amend the constitution has been pushed back to 28th October.  In both of those cases, the special elections were called in the face of public protests.  In the other country to postpone elections, the Dominican Republic, the government was forced to delay presidential and legislative elections originally scheduled for 17 May to July.  In that case too, the rescheduling came on the heels of protests; a suspicious technical meltdown in urban voting systems in the 16th February municipal elections sparked nearly two weeks of political demonstrations and forced a re-do on 25 March – which in turn forced a delay in the government’s imposing social distancing measures in response to the country’s COVID-19 outbreak.   

And in Venezuela…. well, the complete absence of predictability and the politicization of the country’s electoral commission means scheduled National Assembly elections could occur almost any time; the one thing that is sure is under the current electoral authority, the process will never meet international standards for free and fair elections.  

Discontent, Protest and Elections

International observers had determined the 20 October 2019 presidential and legislative process in Bolivia riddled with state-sponsored fraud. As evidence mounted that the election had been stolen, protestors took to the streets to demand that President Evo Morales – already running for a constitutionally questionable fourth term – step down. In negotiations, Morales allegedly agreed to call new elections under a new election commission, but then things got messy.  The head of the military intervened to force Morales out and opposition politician Jeanine Áñez was appointed interim president.  Upon assuming office, the former senator cracked down on pro-Morales protestors on the streets and rounded up supporters, efforts that stepped up under the COVID-19 quarantine.  

The partisan attacks raised the concerns of international human rights groups while Áñez’s decision to run as a candidate in the fresh elections triggered concern among democrats.  In the end, what once appeared to be a peaceful, consensus solution to election-fraud upheaval that convulsed the country turned into a coup and a vendetta, re-polarizing the country.  And that was even before the elections were postponed. 

In Chile, President Sebastian Piñera had called for a national referendum to potentially rewrite the constitution after months of social protests tore through the country shutting down large parts of the capital city, Santiago.  While there is evidence that some protesters were supported externally, from countries such as Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela, the social upheaval had been brewing for years over a lack of social mobility, the unequal educational system and a closed political system marked by a constitution originally drafted in 1980 during the reign of General Augusto Pinochet.  Originally on 25th April voters were to head to the polls to answer two questions: 1) whether to amend the constitution at all and 2) how that body charged with redrafting the charter should be elected.  But on 19 March the Chilean Congress postponed the referendum to October 26, 2020.   

The protests petered out as Piñera declared a nationwide state of emergency on 18 March in response to the virus but the frustrations and inequities that led to them remain and continue to fester.  Whether or not a constitution rewrite could have addressed the political, social and economic demands of a majority of Chileans that led to the protests is an open question. For many Chileans, though, it was seen as a critical step with according to one survey 86 per cent supporting the process and a majority holding the view that a new or reformed magna carta would improve the economy and social policies.  With now even the October vote in doubt and social distancing effectively limiting large scale peaceful demonstrations, the means for Chileans to channel their demands and push for a collective solution have become limited. 

The COVID-19 postponement of elections in the Dominican Republican comes under a similar cloud of political and social discontent.  The demonstrations that erupted after the technical failures of the municipal elections stemmed from longstanding distrust over the government of President Danilo Medina and his party’s creeping control over the state and allegations of corruption. While the municipal elections were eventually held without incident, the larger contest of legislative and presidential elections were seen as a crucial test of Medina’s Dominican Liberation Party (PLD), with even one of its standard bearers and two-time president Leonel Fernandez, running against it under the newly created People’s Force (FP) party.  Up until the electoral commission delayed the balloting, the opposition candidate Luis Abinader of the Modern Revolutionary Party (PRM) had been leading the governing party’s candidate, Gonzalo Castillo, with potentially enough to avoid a second round. The future of the July elections is unclear with President Medina at the end of April extending the quarantine to 17 May but the number of infections is still rising, recently to over 11,000. 

Democracy is often depicted as a means to peacefully resolve political conflict and socioeconomic discontent through free and fair competition.  But what happens when that essential safety valve of elections has been closed off?  To this we can add to the risk the economic contraction the world and the region will face in 2020 and likely beyond.  The World Bank recently predicted that the Bolivian economy will contract by 3.4 per cent this year the worst in 34 years.  The International Monetary Fund (IMF) revised sharply downward its projects for the Chilean economy, predicting it would shrink by three per cent in 2020.  And according to the World Bank the Dominican Republic’s will remain flat, after years of steady growth.  Add to that the reactions to the COVID-19 infection and its unequal effects on the populations in these countries and you have a pressure cooker. 

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Amid protests, US faith leaders engage racism and politics – Rimbey Review

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Amid protests, U.S. faith leaders engage racism and politics

NEW YORK — As days of anti-racism protests sparked by police killings push Americans toward a national reckoning, religious leaders are stepping more directly into the politics surrounding discrimination, entering into a dialogue that cuts across lines of faith and colour.

Groups from multiple denominations across Christian, Jewish and Muslim faiths have publicly called for action against racism, aligning with peaceful demonstrators’ goals following the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Even beyond those statements, the amount and diversity of religious involvement in the ongoing protests suggests a possible sea change for faith-driven engagement in racial justice issues.

“I’ve seen people of different faiths coming out and saying ‘this was wrong’ in ways I didn’t see before,” said Rev. Traci Blackmon, associate general minister of justice at the United Church of Christ and an early spiritual leader in the Black Lives Matter movement.

Religion’s role in struggles against racial bias long predates Floyd’s killing, which sparked mass demonstrations across the United States and even in other countries. But a notable shift has taken place this week.

Among those who’ve publicly backed protesters are clergy from the Southern Baptist Convention, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and Orthodox and Reform Judaism.

Meanwhile Catholic and Episcopal leaders openly criticized President Donald Trump after peaceful demonstrators were forcefully cleared to make way for his brief visit and photo-op outside the historic St. John’s Church near the White House.

On Wednesday, Bishop LaTrelle Easterling, leader of the United Methodist Church’s Washington-area conference, joined Rev. Mariann Budde, the bishop of Washington’s Episcopal diocese, which includes St. Johns, and other faith leaders for a prayer vigil that aimed to orient the religious conversation around fighting racism.

“I think that all leaders that consider themselves to be religious or moral leaders have an obligation to rise and to speak to this moment, because institutional racism and supremacy cannot be dismantled by African American leaders alone,” said Easterling, who is African American. “Those who enjoy the privilege of those systems must rise.”

The vigil was initially set to take place at St. John’s but had to move to a nearby block after local law enforcement extended the security perimeter around the White House.

Budde, who expressed outrage Monday over Trump’s use of St. John’s as a backdrop, said white Americans need to engage more in “the realities of this country that we … are allowed to be blind to in ways that cost people of colour.”

Trump’s visit, in which he held up a Bible and said “we have a great country,” was at least in part intended as a show of solidarity with faith, according to the White House. But the manoeuvr nudged Budde and other religious leaders to wade further into the political realm, airing their disagreement.

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Polarized Politics Has Infected American Diplomacy – The Atlantic

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The Atlantic

Moments of national crisis ought to bring Americans together. Instead, led by a divisive president, our society is being ripped apart, as the country is battered by a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic and centuries-old pathologies of racism and inequality. The consequences of our division are profoundly troubling at home, but no less worrisome abroad.

The style and substance of our polarized politics have infected American diplomacy. Policies lurch between parties, commitments expire at the end of each administration, institutions are politicized, and disagreements are tribal. The inability to compromise at home is becoming the modus operandi overseas. In the past, a sense of common domestic purpose gave ballast to U.S. diplomacy; now its absence enfeebles it.

Partisan divides about foreign policy are hardly new. I saw my share of them as a career diplomat, from the battles over Central America policy in the Reagan era to the war in Iraq two decades later. We’ve had plenty of painful fractures, bitter policy fights, and dramatic about-faces between administrations.

But as Stanford University’s Kenneth Schultz demonstrates in an important study, partisan animus and schizophrenia are more and more the rule, not the exception. Once a regular phenomenon, Senate approval of international treaties grew ever more tenuous over the last few decades. By the Obama administration, it had become nearly impossible. Even when Bob Dole—grievously wounded in World War II, and later a Senate majority leader and GOP presidential candidate—sat in his wheelchair on the Senate floor in 2012 and asked his fellow Republicans to ratify an international disability treaty modeled on U.S. law—nearly all of them walked past him to vote nay, bent on denying Barack Obama a victory of any kind.

If that seemed like a new low in reflexive partisan opposition, President Donald Trump—as with most everything else he does—proved he could dig even deeper. He has scrapped one agreement after another, with disruptive glee and no regard for Plan B. The Iran nuclear deal (“an embarrassment”), the Paris climate accord (“very unfair”), and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (“a rape of our country”), all negotiated by the administration of his Democratic predecessor, wound up on the trash heap. New START, following the president’s exit from the Open Skies Treaty, may be next. Meanwhile, the administration is channeling General Buck Turgidson in Dr. Strangelove, threatening to resume nuclear testing and spend rivals “into oblivion” in a new arms race.

If Representative Mike Pompeo’s Benghazi hearings showed the power of weaponizing foreign policy for domestic purposes (where polarization is the end, not the means), Secretary of State Pompeo’s tenure has been marked by the weaponization of domestic politics on the world stage. The impeachment scandal—the distortion of Ukraine policy to pursue what Fiona Hill aptly termed “domestic political errands”—is not the only example, just the most dramatic.

The erosion of the bipartisan foreign-policy consensus in itself is not a tragedy, given its innumerable flaws, blind spots, and uneven track record. But the intense divisiveness and scorched-earth tactics that have poisoned our domestic politics over the past decade are crippling American diplomacy as well. The consequences are severe. Three in particular stand out.

First, America’s credibility, reliability, and reputation for competence are damaged. Credibility is an overused term in Washington, a town prone to badgering presidents into using force or clinging to collapsing positions to prop up our global currency. But it matters in diplomacy, especially when America’s ability to mobilize other countries around common concerns is becoming more crucial, in a world in which the U.S. can no longer get its way on its own, or by force alone.

If our elected representatives won’t give a negotiated agreement a fair hearing, support it, or at a minimum avoid undercutting it even before the ink dries, why would any friend or foe enter into any kind of good-faith negotiations with the U.S.? And why should they have any confidence that the American government will deliver on its commitments if they do? I remember an Iranian diplomat asking me during an especially difficult moment in the nuclear talks why he should believe that an agreement wouldn’t simply be thrown overboard in a different administration. With less than total conviction, I replied that if all parties complied with their obligations, our system would uphold it. I certainly got that wrong.

The U.S. is stuck in the mud of its own polarized dysfunction, its already-bruised reputation for getting big things done suffering badly. Others around the world have always had grievances with America’s policies and its geopolitical weight, but they usually had a grudging respect for our competence, and for the power of our example. Today, the U.S. government can’t pass a budget, let alone bring the world together to stop the spread of a ruinous pandemic. Trump once claimed that foreigners were laughing at us. The reality today is far worse—they pity and discount us.

A second effect of polarization is the demolition of diplomacy’s apolitical role. I served 10 secretaries of state. They all had finely tuned political antennae, or they wouldn’t have gotten the job in the first place. All of them, however, were scrupulous about keeping domestic politics out of foreign policy. Pompeo, by contrast, has been the most partisan secretary of state in living memory—systematically sidelining career professionals in favor of political allies, waging a war against an imagined “deep state,” relishing political skirmishes, attacking “opposition” media, stripping away safeguards (like firing the State Department’s independent watchdog last month), and barely concealing his use of the department as a platform for future political ambition.

If the world gets used to dealing with distinct brands of Democratic and Republican foreign policies, the temptation to ignore career diplomats, meddle in our politics, and wait out the clock on seemingly adversarial administrations will grow at the expense of our national interests.

Finally, leaders undercut diplomacy’s potential when the “no compromise” feature of our domestic politics becomes a feature of our diplomacy as well. I remember a story about a mistranslated U.S.-military pamphlet released over Saddam Hussein’s forces during the 2003 invasion. It mistakenly read “Surrender and die” as opposed to “Surrender or die.” The former is a pretty good slogan for much of the Trump administration’s approach to diplomatic negotiations, embodied most fancifully in its “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran.

The Trump White House is not the first to embrace lazy maximalism. That has been a ruinous habit of American diplomacy for some time. But in fanning the flames of polarization in foreign policy, the administration has done more than any of its predecessors to suffocate the potential of American diplomacy when we need it most.

Depolarization is hard. As my colleague Thomas Carothers has argued, it’ll be an especially tough challenge in the United States. Ours is a particularly acute form of polarization—it has been around longer than in most other countries, and it’s more deeply rooted and more multifaceted, an amalgam of ethnic, ideological, and religious divides.

The polarization of our foreign policy is still largely confined to the political elite, not the general public. That’s the good news. The bad news is that while polarization may start among elites, it rarely ends there. And once it spreads, it becomes nearly impossible to extinguish.

Partisan divides are stark today over a number of foreign-policy issues, such as climate change and immigration. But on some foundational policy questions, public opinion is far less fractured than it is in Washington. Despite President Trump’s “America First” rhetoric, a growing majority of Americans support an active, disciplined role for the United States on the world stage; strong alliances; and open trading arrangements. More important, there is an increasing appreciation for the need to root foreign policy more firmly in the needs and aspirations of the American middle class.

A foreign policy more representative of the American public’s concerns than those of an inbred foreign-policy elite is a good start toward depolarization, but it’s not enough. American leaders will also have to deliver results—with far greater discipline abroad, and the kind of political skill at home that goes beyond just playing to the predispositions and passions of a partisan base.

That will require working with new constituencies—including mayors and governors, who have a decidedly more practical approach to foreign affairs—and renovating institutions charged with advancing our interests. Leaders will need to reinvent a foreign-policy consensus that reflects new global realities and domestic priorities, and avoid the temptation to solve foreign-policy polarization by shoehorning all our concerns into one unifying global crusade—even as central a challenge as our rivalry with China.

Polarization was a pre-existing condition in America, well before Trumpism. Change at the ballot box in November will be a powerful therapeutic, but not a cure. Reaching across the fissures laid bare by pandemic and protests will take time, vision, and hard work. And now, with an unforgiving international landscape, there is far less margin for error.

We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to letters@theatlantic.com.

William J. Burns is a contributing writer at The Atlantic, the President of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, former deputy secretary of state, and author of The Back Channel: A Memoir of American Diplomacy and the Case for its Renewal.

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View: As fear of defeat rises, Trump ups politics of division – Economic Times

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By Bhairavi Singh

President Donald Trump is fighting a pitched battle with his own people, five months before the U.S. goes to polls. Trump is facing an unprecedented backlash, first for his erratic response to the coronavirus and then for his strongman approach to protests that have erupted over the death of George Floyd.

In the world’s oldest democracy, there has been a long history of racism but Trump’s response has been like no other president’s. In over ten days, America — which was looking to recover from the pandemic and its economic fallout — has been plunged into chaos with the president’s outbursts merely fueling more violence and division. Republican lawmakers in an election year have little choice other than to stay silent or actively promote Trump’s line.

At least four latest opinion polls in America, including one by rightwing network Fox News, show Trump clearly trailing Joe Biden. The latest Post-ABC poll of registered voters showed the presumptive Democratic nominee ahead 53% to 43%, a clear 10 per cent points, whereas it was a dead heat just over two months ago.

But that hasn’t stopped Trump in his tracks. He has always seen his political rise beholden to his hawkish policies and his abrasive attacks on critics, and he is not likely to change tack with just months to go for the polls.

Trump started the week, four days after Floyd was killed, with a tweet which called protesters ‘’thugs’’, and adding that ‘’when the looting starts, the shooting starts’’. It was subsequently taken down by Twitter for violating its policy against promoting violence. Since then, Trump has called the protesters ‘’rioters, looters, arsonists’, provoking more people to come out and protest in city after city. More than 10,000 people – no mean number – have been arrested over the course of a week and eight have died in police action or violence. But protests have continued in cities despite a night curfew.

Over these days, rights groups have slammed Trump, his former aides have spoken up against him, former presidents have shown dismay, military veterans have warned of consequences of involving the forces in civilian action, and his own daughter Tiffany has supported protesters on social media. But has that stopped Trump? No.

Earlier this week, Trump’s former defense secretary James Mattis issued a statement against treating American cities as ‘’battlespaces” saying the “use of military against its own civilian population, militarizing our response, sets a conflict- a false conflict between the military and the civilian society’’. Truer words could not have been spoken. A vibrant democracy like America bringing out troops to guard cities against its own people is without precedent. Mattis’ statement was followed by Trump’s own defence chief Mark Esper publicly saying he was not in favour of using the military to quell protests.

On June 1st, true to character, Trump announced he was talking to state governors to bring in the military. Since then several Republican states have agreed to the measure. The National Guard was sent to Washington, while its mayor warned that ‘’out of state troops must leave’’ the country’s capital. Three Democrat states of New York, Delaware and Virginia refused to use the National Guard to support the police.

The Floyd protests have shown deep divisions within the Republican party, the Centrists and the police force. For the Republicans, it’s a peculiar situation. The GOP is nervous about Trump’s handling of the Floyd protests- they want him to play a more compassionate note. Lisa Murkowski, a Republican senator recently supported Mattis’ statement as “true, honest and necessary”, while Tim Scott, another Republican called Trump’s church visit a photo op. However, many top Republican faces, like Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell, chose to stay silent.

White supremacy transcended from racism to segregation over the years, but its weaponisation for political gains has now led to a dangerous tipping point. Already African Americans and other minorities there were disproportionately hit by the coronavirus and its economic aftermath. Trump’s mismanagement has redefined those divisions — white, black, Hispanic, Muslim, extreme left, extreme right. America’s response to this crisis would carry a larger message to the rest of the free world.

(Bhairavi Singh has been a television journalist for 12 years, she covers foreign policy and current affairs)

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