BAGHDAD — Rival protesters took to Iraq’s streets Friday as their leaders vied for political dominance, just 10 months after a U.S.-backed election that was meant to heal the country’s fractures left many more exposed.
IN KUALA LUMPUR, the chief city, as elsewhere in Malaysia, white flags hang from windows—cries of help from households for whom the pandemic has brought economic distress and even too little to eat. For the relatively prosperous country’s success in handling the coronavirus in 2020 has turned to calamity this year, with over 1.1m infections and a tardy roll-out of vaccines.
Among proudly middle-class Malaysians, the pandemic has crystallised how their country too often benefits mainly the well-connected. Certain factory-owners have been allowed to continue operating even during lockdowns (thus seeding infections among workers). Politicians flout health rules that carry swingeing penalties for other infringers.
In this context, the black flags that mostly young, educated Malaysians are also hanging outside their flats represent not a cry for help but a political statement: the bendera hitam, or black-flag movement, is a protest against the elites’ various failures of governance, of which the pandemic is just the most glaring. Young medical workers demand better pay and conditions, while activists call for a political promise to lower the voting age, from 21 to 18, to be kept. The hashtag #Kerajaangagal (“failed government”) is popular on social media. Bridget Welsh of the University of Nottingham Malaysia says such challenges represent “a new political training ground”, one confronting the old political hierarchies that have dominated for so long and that operate through patronage, corruption, colonial-era anti-sedition laws and gerrymandered elections.
It was not supposed to be this way. When the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), which had ruled since independence, was at last dislodged by an opposition coalition in 2018, Malaysians expected politics to change. But the new government, itself led by defectors from UMNO, proved unwieldy and fissiparous. The current prime minister, Muhyiddin Yassin, brought it down last year by re-defecting. He then cobbled together a new a parliamentary majority, including UMNO, through back-room machinations.
Although Mr Muhyiddin stuffed his cabinet with backers, many quickly grew disenchanted. Early this year he sought emergency powers until August 1st from the agong, or king (a handful of sultans take turns at the job). That was not only in order to deal with the pandemic, the ostensible reason, but also in order to suspend Parliament and so head off any challenge from a no-confidence vote. In late July the prime minister suspended Parliament again as soon as it had reconvened, citing infections in the building.
The move may only buy time, argues James Chin of the University of Tasmania. A rare rebuke from the king after Mr Muhyiddin unilaterally withdrew emergency ordinances—the agong declared that Parliament should have been consulted—may prove fatal. On August 3rd Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, UMNO’s leader, withdrew support for Mr Muhyiddin, so doing away with his majority. Facing down calls for his immediate resignation, on August 5th Mr Muhyiddin said the king had agreed to a no-confidence vote in September.
But anyone imagining that the opposition or even the king are chiefly motivated by the wishes of the people should think again. The mercurial Anwar Ibrahim, who for decades has eyed the top job and is chief among those calling for Mr Muhyiddin to go, has ruined his reformist credentials, not least by allying with some of UMNO’s sleaziest elements. UMNO itself appears unreformable: Mr Zahid, for one, faces 87 corruption charges. As for the hereditary sultans, their authority has flourished during the bickering and with it their huge but opaque business interests. Despite his dressing-down, Mr Muhyiddin has bent over backwards to please the current agong, the acquisitive sultan of Pahang.
Ordinary Malaysians, meanwhile, feel angry and ignored. The pandemic has emptied the exchequer and, Ms Welsh points out, revealed gaping holes in the safety net. Among the young, unemployment has reached nearly 12%. Mr Muhyiddin now hopes to get credit for a vaccination programme that is starting to pick up speed. Beyond that, little suggests the elites care to sort out popular concerns. On the contrary, bendera hitam supporters attempting to march on Parliament were stopped by police, who all too predictably are now probing the movement for evidence of sedition. There is no doubting Malaysia’s sense of crisis. Yet the stench of politics is still a long way from being cleared.
This article appeared in the Asia section of the print edition under the headline “Flagging enthusiasm”
Taiwan blames politics for cancellation of global Pride event – CNN
(Reuters)Taiwan on Friday blamed “political considerations” for the cancellation of WorldPride 2025 Taiwan after it said the organizers had insisted the word “Taiwan” be removed.
Why Wisconsin Is the Most Fascinating State in American Politics – The New York Times
What happens there in November will offer a preview of the political brawls to come.
Wisconsin has long been a crucible of American politics. It remains so now.
It’s where two once-powerful senators, Joseph McCarthy and Robert La Follette, defined two of the major themes we still see playing out today — what the historian Richard Hofstadter called the “paranoid style,” in McCarthy’s case, and progressivism in La Follette’s.
It’s a place that has also proved time and again that elections have consequences. McCarthy won his Senate seat in the 1946 midterms amid a backlash against President Harry Truman, who was struggling to control the soaring price of meat as the country adjusted to a peacetime economy. He ousted Robert La Follette Jr., who had essentially inherited his father’s Senate seat.
Four years later, McCarthy used his new platform to begin his infamous anti-communist crusade — persecuting supposed communists inside the federal government, Hollywood and the liberal intelligentsia across the country. His rise came to an end after a lawyer for one of his targets, Joseph Welch, rounded on him with one of the most famous lines ever delivered during a congressional hearing: “Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last?”
The state’s modern political geography, which is rooted in this history, as well as deep-seated patterns of ethnic migration and economic development, is as fascinating as it is complex.
La Follette’s old base in Madison, the capital and a teeming college town, dominates the middle south of the state like a kind of Midwestern Berkeley. But unlike in periwinkle-blue coastal California, Madison and Milwaukee — the state’s largest city, which is about 90 minutes to the east along the shores of Lake Michigan — are surrounded by a vast ocean of scarlet.
Much of the state remains rural and conservative — McCarthy and Trump country.
And as in much of the United States, even smaller Wisconsin cities like Green Bay (the home of the Packers), Eau Claire (a fiercely contested political battleground), Janesville (the home of Paul Ryan, the former House speaker), Kenosha (the hometown of Reince Priebus, the sometime ally and former aide to Donald Trump) and Oshkosh (the home and political base of Senator Ron Johnson) have gone blue in recent decades.
The so-called W.O.W. counties around Milwaukee — Waukesha, Ozaukee and Washington — are the historical strongholds of suburban G.O.P. power, and political pundits and forecasters watch election trends there closely to tease out any potential national implications. Other portions of the northwestern area of the state are essentially suburbs of Minneapolis, and tend to toggle between the parties from election to election.
The Republican Party’s origins can be traced to Ripon, Wis., where disaffected members of the Whig Party met in 1854 as they planned a new party with an anti-slavery platform. The party’s early leaders were also disgusted by what they called the “tyranny” of Andrew Jackson, a populist Democrat who built a political machine that ran roughshod over the traditional ways politics was done in America.
On Tuesday, the state held its primaries, and the results were classic Wisconsin: Republicans chose Tim Michels, a Trump-aligned “Stop-the-Steal” guy, as their nominee to face Gov. Tony Evers, the Democratic incumbent, over Rebecca Kleefisch, the establishment favorite. Robin Vos, the Assembly speaker who has tilted to the right on election issues but who refused to help Trump overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election, barely held on to his seat.
To understand what’s happening, I badgered Reid Epstein, my colleague on the politics team. Reid has forgotten more Wisconsin political lore than most of us have ever absorbed, and here, he gives us some perspective on why the state has become such a bitterly contested ground zero for American democracy.
Our conversation, lightly edited for length and clarity:
You started your journalism career in Milwaukee, if I’m not mistaken. Give us a sense of what’s changed about Wisconsin politics in the years you’ve been covering the state.
In Waukesha, actually. Back in 2002, The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel still had bureaus covering the Milwaukee suburbs, and that’s where I had my first job, covering a handful of municipalities and school districts in Waukesha County.
A lot of the same characters I wrote about as a cub reporter are still around. The then-village president of Menomonee Falls is now leading the effort to decertify Wisconsin’s 2020 election results, which of course can’t be done. The seeds of the polarization and zero-sum politics you see now in Wisconsin were just beginning to sprout 20 years ago.
Republican voters chose to keep Robin Vos, yet nominated Tim Michels. Help us understand the mixed signals we’re getting here.
Well, it helped that Michels had more than $10 million of his own cash to invest in his race, and Adam Steen, the Trump-backed challenger to Vos, didn’t have enough money for even one paid staff member.
Vos, whose first legislative race I was there for in 2004, nearly lost to a guy with no money and no name recognition in a district where the Vos family has lived for generations. He won, but it was very close.
Behind the Journalism
How Times reporters cover politics.
We rely on our journalists to be independent observers. So while Times staff members may vote, they are not allowed to endorse or campaign for candidates or political causes. This includes participating in marches or rallies in support of a movement or giving money to, or raising money for, any political candidate or election cause.
What is it about Wisconsin that has made politics there so zero-sum? I’m thinking of developments like the Democrats’ attempted recall of Gov. Scott Walker in 2012, his crackdown on union power, and the Legislature’s efforts to curtail the power of Tony Evers, the current governor. What’s the deal? How did the state get so starkly divided?
The Wisconsin political and media ecosystem has long been dominated by conservative talk radio hosts. More than any other state in the country, Wisconsin’s right-wing talkers control the political agenda, and like Fox News nationally, they generate ratings by stoking outrage — usually against Democrats, but sometimes against fellow Republicans.
Scott Walker was raised in this environment. He was a backbench state assemblyman who became widely known from calling into the Charlie Sykes show on WTMJ in Milwaukee. Those shows always had a villain — usually, whichever Democrat or newspaper reporter was in the host’s cross hairs for the day.
When Sykes would spend a segment attacking one of my articles in the morning paper, my voice mail box at the office would be full of angry callers by the time I got to my desk. Imagine what that does to elected Republicans when are on the receiving end.
Skyes has since reinvented himself as a never-Trump podcast host and columnist — and he now trains his considerable rhetorical talents against the Republican Party he once enthusiastically supported. He’s traded his local influence for a national platform.
You cover a lot of the machinations over the control of American democracy. Is there anything unique about how these battles are playing out in Badger country?
Republicans have such control of the levers of power in Wisconsin that voters are almost immaterial. It is the most gerrymandered state legislature in the country — a 50-50 state where Republicans hold 61 out of 99 seats in the Assembly and 21 out of 33 seats in the Senate.
There is at the moment no functional way for Democrats to carry out any sort of policy agenda in Madison; their only hope is to have a governor who will veto things. And the Wisconsin Supreme Court has a 4-to-3 conservative majority that has, with some exceptions after the 2020 election, toed the party line for Republicans.
Some states, like Michigan and North Carolina, have managed to work through many of these same issues and create a more level playing field that reflects the real balance of power between the parties. Why hasn’t Wisconsin done so?
Wisconsin doesn’t afford its citizens the opportunity to petition things into law or the state constitution like Michigan and dozens of other states do. So the only hope is through the Legislature, where Republicans have shown no compunction about maintaining their hold on power through whatever means necessary.
What to read on democracy
Jane Mayer of The New Yorker writes that state legislatures are torching democracy.
Historians privately warned President Biden recently that the current moment in America is among the most perilous in modern history for democratic governance, The Washington Post reports.
There are now fewer competitive congressional districts than at any point in the last 52 years because of gerrymandering, according to the Brennan Center for Justice.
Also from the Brennan Center: Lawmakers from the whitest districts in the most racially diverse states are most likely to sponsor anti-voter bills, while racially diverse states controlled by Republicans are far more likely to pass restrictions on voting.
A ‘vote-a-rama’ in Congress
On Politics regularly features work by Times photographers. Here’s what Haiyun Jiang told us about capturing the image above:
When the Senate began its “vote-a-rama” for the Inflation Reduction Act, a marathon series of votes on amendments, I was on Capitol Hill trying to capture the mood and action as senators prepared for an inevitably long weekend.
Around 9 p.m., Senator Ron Wyden, the Democratic chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, walked into the press gallery for a briefing with reporters. “I heard that you all wanted a little post-dinner entertainment,” he said as he sat down.
A tall man, Wyden was visibly uncomfortable in a sofa chair that was low to the ground. As the briefing went on, he periodically stretched his legs. I decided to wait for the moment when he stretched again.
His posture conveyed the exhaustion and weariness that I hoped to capture, with a long night of debates and votes looming over everyone on Capitol Hill.
Thanks for reading. We’ll see you next week.
Is there anything you think we’re missing? Anything you want to see more of? We’d love to hear from you. Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Baghdad gripped by protests as political rivals vie for power – The Washington Post
The aftermath of those polls has forced years-long tensions to the surface. In a country where elites rule by consensus, rival Shiite, Kurdish and Sunni politicians have been unable to agree on key government appointments. The election’s biggest winner, powerful Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, has withdrawn his parliamentarians from the process, sending his supporters instead to occupy the leafy grounds of the legislature.
He is now calling for early elections, which would be the second in less than a year.
As dusk approached Friday, Sadr’s supporters gathered in provinces across the country and outside the parliament to echo his demands. But they were not alone. Several miles away, near Baghdad’s heavily fortified Green Zone, thousands of foot soldiers for the cleric’s rivals — former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and leaders of armed groups linked to Iran — gathered too, protesting what they described as a “political coup” by Sadr.
By nightfall, a crowd of hundreds was building tents in the capital, and people said they were setting up for the long haul.
“We’ll stay as long as it takes,” said Ali Hassan, a 30-year-old government employee from Baghdad. “The people know our demands, and they know that they are legitimate.”
While the politics were complicated, the core problem was simple, analysts said. Twenty years after the U.S.-led invasion, winners from the kleptocratic political system it ultimately installed are now fighting over who reaps its spoils.
Locked out of that system are millions of ordinary Iraqis who have seen little benefit from the nation’s immense oil wealth. Hospitals are crumbling, and the education system is among the worst in the region. For three days last week, as a heat wave pushed temperatures past 125 degrees, three southern provinces failed to even keep the lights on, as the extreme heat pushed an already shaky power grid to the breaking point.
Iraq’s last elections took place several months early, as a response to mass protests that demanded the overthrow of the political system. The young and mostly Shiite demonstrators were met with brutal repression, and Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi was forced to step down after almost 600 people were killed.
In October, fresh polls left Sadr with the largest bloc in parliament, and Maliki with the second, as historically low voter turnout left powerful parties with large bases as the biggest winners. Many Iraqis viewed the polls as an exercise in reshuffling the political deck chairs, and said that none of the major factions represented them.
But the atmosphere was festive outside Baghdad’s parliament on Friday as men in black T-shirts streamed through the streets carrying photographs of Sadr and his father, a revered cleric killed by dictator Saddam Hussein’s regime, to demand more elections, and the sidelining of all the “old faces” — apart from Sadr.
A tinny loudspeaker blasted music through the air as bands of protesters sang and swayed, others enjoyed free kebabs or large chunks of melon. “We’re here to dissolve the parliament and to stand with Sayeed Moqtada’s demands,” said Hassan al-Iraqi, a religious studies student in his 30s who said that he had made the five-hour journey from the northern city of Mosul.
Sadr derives his strength in part from millions of impoverished supporters who view him as a sacred figure of storied lineage, and as someone who has resisted occupation and injustice. For weeks, he has used his Twitter account to praise his supporters’ efforts on the streets, likening their efforts to a “revolution.”
The messages have been received with a mix of excitement and reverence, as bands of teenagers pass around cellphones to read his posts.
By nightfall Friday, politicians from the opposing bloc were tweeting statements in praise of their own supporters too.
Maliki called the rallies “massive” and peaceful.
“Today you have brought joy to the hearts of Iraqis,” wrote Qais al-Khazali, a Shiite cleric aligned with Maliki. “The martyr Muhandis is all happy when he sees his sons defending Iraq and the interest of the people and the state with courage and awareness,” he wrote, in reference to a powerful militia leader killed alongside Iranian general Qasem Soleimani in a January 2020 drone strike ordered by President Donald Trump.
Experts point to that drone strike as a seminal moment in Iraq’s latest unraveling — both of the slain men were pivotal figures in maintaining unity among the country’s now divided Shiite factions.
In Baghdad’s city center, another group also gathered Friday as the heat ebbed and traffic snarled the streets. They were secular activists, and they had planned their own protest in a place etched in the annals of the American invasion: Firdoos Square, where U.S. troops once pulled down a statue of Saddam Hussein.
“This whole system was built on a mistake,” said Najad al-Iraqi, an activist, who said he had not voted in a single election since Saddam’s fall. “None of these parties have ever worked for us,” he said. “They’re all corrupt, every one of them.”
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