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Virus collides with politics as German election year starts – CTV News

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BERLIN —
The coronavirus pandemic is colliding with politics as Germany embarks on its vaccination drive and one of the most unpredictable election years in the country’s post-World War II history.

After months of relatively harmonious pandemic management, fingers are being pointed as the centre-left junior partner in Chancellor Angela Merkel’s coalition government takes aim at what it says has been a chaotic start to vaccinating the population.

The discord is likely a sign of the times to come. An electoral marathon in Germany starts in mid-March, when two of six state elections scheduled this year will be held, and culminates on Sept. 26, when voters choose a new national parliament. Germany’s choices will help set the tone for Europe in the coming years.

Merkel, who has led Germany since 2005, plans to step down at the September election. It’s the first election since post-war West Germany’s inaugural vote in 1949 in which there is no incumbent chancellor seeking another term.

Surveys have shown high approval ratings for the 66-year-old Merkel during the pandemic. She has taken a science-led, safety-first approach that has helped her centre-right party into a strong poll lead, although Germany has struggled since the fall to get the coronavirus under control.

“We can be glad in Germany and Europe to have such an experienced chancellor as Angela Merkel in this pandemic,” Health Minister Jens Spahn said Wednesday.

But with the new year, the end of the Merkel era is looming closer. This week, the centre-left Social Democratic Party, which only reluctantly entered a coalition with the longtime leader after Germany’s last election, latched onto frustration with the slow start of vaccinations to open political hostilities.

“It was always clear that the start of vaccinations would be the point at which we would see the end of the tunnel,” the party’s general secretary, Lars Klingbeil, said. “And now we see that we are in a much worse position than other countries. We ordered too little vaccine. There is barely a prepared strategy.”

The responsibility for that, he said, lies with Spahn, a rising star in Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union. Finance Minister Olaf Scholz, who is Merkel’s vice chancellor and the Social Democrats’ candidate for chancellor in this year’s federal election, reportedly sent Spahn a list of questions about vaccine-related issues.

Spahn rejected the criticism, saying politicians must learn from mistakes but that Germany’s vaccination campaign is going according to expectations.

“It has been clear for weeks and months … that we would have too little vaccine in the beginning” because production capacities are still limited, he said, not because too little was ordered.

The health minister also noted that a deliberate decision was made to vaccinate the most vulnerable people in nursing homes first, and that process is relatively time-consuming.

Germany had vaccinated nearly 477,000 people by Friday, a week-and-a-half after it started giving shots against the coronavirus. That’s a better showing than in several European countries, but critics point to faster progress in the U.K., the United States and Israel.

Some in the governing coalition and elsewhere have accused the European Union of bungling the ordering of vaccines. But Merkel insists that having the EU take the lead in ordering doses was and is the right thing to do.

Germany’s management of the public health emergency was a relative bright spot in Europe during the early phase of the pandemic. However, virus-related deaths increased significantly in the past two months, and the government this week extended and tightened the country’s second lockdown.

Spahn is a tempting target for political opponents not just as health minister, but because it’s still unclear which centre-right candidate will seek Merkel’s job — and he is a possible contender.

Her party is choosing a new leader on Jan. 16. That person likely will have the best chances of running for chancellor. It’s unclear whether any of the three main candidates for CDU party leader — conservative-leaning Friedrich Merz, a one-time rival of Merkel; Armin Laschet, a more liberal state governor; and prominent lawmaker Norbert Roettgen — will be able to match Merkel’s broad appeal. Spahn is bidding to be Laschet’s deputy.

At some point after that, the centre-right bloc of Merkel’s CDU and its Bavaria-only sister party, the Christian Social Union, will choose a candidate for chancellor.

Bavarian governor Markus Soeder, the Christian Social Union’s leader, has gained stature during the pandemic as a strong advocate of tough shutdown measures, and is viewed as another possible contender to succeed Merkel. Or the two parties could turn to someone other than their leaders.

The parties currently in Germany’s government are traditionally the country’s biggest. But the Social Democrats, who provided three of Germany’s eight post-war chancellors, are very weak in polls after serving as Merkel’s junior governing partners for all but four years of her tenure.

The party has lower support in polls than the environmentalist Greens, who are likely to make their first run for the chancellery this year but have yet to nominate a candidate.

The co-leader of the Greens, Robert Habeck, described the squabbling in the governing coalition as “pathetic.”

“The (vaccination) strategy is OK, but its implementation is miserable,” he told German television channel n-tv.

It remains to be seen how polls will develop as the political battleground takes shape in 2021.

While that happens, Merkel’s coalition risks regaining its lacklustre pre-pandemic image, a result of persistent squabbling. Government spokeswoman Ulrike Demmer assured reporters Wednesday that “of course the government is fully functional” — the kind of statement that had become scarce in recent months.

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The risks of corporate political spending after the Jan. 6 insurrection | Column – Tampa Bay Times

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Ever since the 2010 Supreme Court case Citizens United v. FEC, corporations have had the ability to spend money in politics. Now after the Jan. 6 insurrection, many corporate political spenders are feeling the sting of getting into bed with the wrong politicians. These corporations are learning something that I have been writing about for years — dabbling in politics comes with huge reputational risks.

Ciara Torres-Spelliscy
Ciara Torres-Spelliscy [ File photo ]

This year is not the first time that electoral votes have had congressional objections. Back in 2004, there were limited objections to Ohio’s electoral college votes. In 2004 the objection was from Ohio Rep. Stephanie Tubbs Jones and California Sen. Barbara Boxer. Rep. Tubbs Jones was joined by several members of the Congressional Black Caucus, who raised the objection to draw attention to the long lines and other voting difficulties experienced by Black voters in Ohio. The objection was resolved after a few hours. A big difference from 2021 was that the 2004 objection was not accompanied by violence in the halls of Congress.

The Capitol riot presents unique risks for corporate financial supporters for members of Congress who backed President Donald Trump’s position on Jan. 6.

Independent journalist Judd Legum’s Popular Information was the first to ask corporate PACs whether they would continue their financial support for members of Congress who objected in 2021 to the Electoral College votes in swing states on Jan. 6. In 2021 multiple swing states were subject to objections (instead of just one state), and this time more than a hundred House Republicans and a dozen Republican senators originally objected. This meant corporate donors to far more members of Congress were under scrutiny for supporting what some are now calling the sedition caucus.

Popular Information broke the news on Jan. 11 that three major corporations — Marriott, BlueCross BlueShield and Commerce Bank — suspended PAC donations to the 147 Republicans who objected to the Electoral College vote. A day later they reported that dozens of corporations would also suspend political support.

A month after the insurrection, the New York Times Deal Book highlighted that Morgan Stanley, Microsoft, BlackRock, Coca-Cola and Hilton all paused donations to the 147 objecting Republicans in Congress including House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy.

A new survey by the Conference Board provides a new data both on how broadly corporations have pulled back from on political spending. The survey of 84 companies found that “about 28 percent of companies have announced their PAC’s actions both internally and externally, while another 25 percent have announced their PAC’s decision but only internally.” This indicates the firms that have been captured by Popular Information and the New York Times likely understates how many corporations have changed their political spending behavior since the changes haven’t all been public. Moreover, the Conference Board survey indicated that “concerns about company reputation was a key factor (nearly 45 percent) in driving the organization’s response (to Jan. 6).”

As I explained in my book Political Brands and in a law review article entitled “Shooting Your Brand in the Foot,” corporate political spending comes with many reputational risks including associating a well-crafted corporate brand with a toxic politician. If a politician that a corporation has supported gets into an embarrassing scandal or legal trouble, the corporation can be harmed through guilt by association. This can lead to boycotts and other shunning.

Also if the political spending is being done transparently through a corporate PAC, then there’s another lesson to hard learn: Records of political spending online last forever. Even if firms stop giving to Sens. Josh Hawley or Ted Cruz today, all their past political support is easy to find on sources like www.followthemoney.org or www.opensecrets.org. For forever and a day, the public, including a firm’s shareholders and customers, can find which corporate PACs supported Donald Trump or his congressional enablers.

Investigations into the Jan. 6 events are on-going. The FBI continues to arrest individuals who participated in the riot from the outside. New reporting notes that the Capitol Police are investing 35 officers of their own organization for their actions that day. Then there is a police investigation. about exactly which members of Congress may have given tours of the Capitol on Jan. 5 to aid and abet the future rioters. So what is now a political nightmare could get even worse if any members of Congress that were supported by a corporation gets into criminal trouble too related to the insurrection. The downside for the donor corporations can be enormous and long lasting.

Ciara Torres-Spelliscy is a professor of law at Stetson University College of Law, a Brennan Center Fellow and the author of “Political Brands.”

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Are There Politics on Mars? – The New Yorker

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Photograph courtesy NASA / JPL / Caltech

This week, after a six-month, 292.5-million-mile journey, NASA’s Perseverance rover touched down on the surface of Mars. The United States is the only country to have successfully landed on the Red Planet, but spacecraft from China and the United Arab Emirates recently arrived in Mars’s orbit. In the fifty years since the Cold War space race was at its peak, other governments and private businesses have launched ambitious space programs. How long can the United States remain the leader in space exploration? Adam Mann joins Dorothy Wickenden to discuss the Perseverance mission and the past and future of America’s space program.

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‘Victim Blaming’ and Sex Education in the Boys’ Club of Australian Politics – The New York Times

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Scott Morrison’s words, critics said, revealed a disturbing sentiment.

The Australia Letter is a weekly newsletter from our Australia bureau. Sign up to get it by email.

When Brittany Higgins first alleged earlier this month that she had been raped in a Parliament building, the Australian government’s initial response was silence.

The following day, it went into damage control, announcing a review of support processes and professional behavior among staff. Eventually, after consulting his wife — who he said clarified things by asking him to imagine that his own daughters had been assaulted — the country’s prime minister, Scott Morrison, apologized.

“There should not be an environment where a young woman can find herself in such a vulnerable situation,” Mr. Morrison said. “Despite what were the genuine good intentions of all those who did try to provide support to Brittany,” he added, “she did not feel that way.”

Critics denounced Mr. Morrison for his response: “Shouldn’t you have thought about it as a human being? What happens if men don’t have a wife and children? Would they reach the same compassionate conclusion?” asked one reporter. A Twitter account satirizing the government posted: “are women people.”

His words, critics said, were reluctant and patronizing. Worse, they revealed a disturbing sentiment: that when a woman is raped, and unable to enlist the support of her colleagues to bring the perpetrator to justice, the blame lies not with the accused, or the victim’s superiors, but with her. As Ms. Higgins herself said in a statement released last week, “The continued victim-blaming rhetoric by the Prime Minister is personally very distressing to me and countless other survivors.”

Mr. Morrison and others have not expressly blamed Ms. Higgins for having become too inebriated on the night she says she was raped, or for what she wore that evening — such obvious victim blaming belongs in the past. But they insinuate that the fault lies with her, women’s rights advocates say, by couching her allegations in terms of Ms. Higgins’s perception of the attack and her emotions in response to what followed.

As Jacqueline Maley wrote in The Sydney Morning Herald, “It may not have been deliberate, but the persistent use of Higgins’ first name, and Morrison’s comments about consulting his wife Jenny on how to handle the alleged rape, all gave the impression that this was a matter to do with Women’s Feelings.”

“Women’s Feelings,” she explains, “is a private emotional realm, tricky to navigate and best left to the ladies. It has little to do with male leaders, and nothing to do with important matters of state.” The problem, she adds, with this characterization is that it “minimizes what should be an obvious point: rape is a crime.”

Part of the problem is cultural, experts say. Australia has a dearth of sex education, so it should be no surprise that Mr. Morrison, the leader of among the most male-dominated spaces in the country, can’t fully comprehend issues of consent, or articulate an appropriately condemning response, they add.

“There’s a huge lack of willingness to talk about it,” said Sharna Bremner, an assault survivor and the founder of End Rape on Campus Australia. Australia, she added, is still enmeshed in a “blokey culture” and tends to be significantly behind other countries in addressing sexual assault and sexual harassment.

“The boys’ club of politics is hardly a place that is invested in supporting a culture of enthusiastic consent,” said Rachael Burgin, a lecturer in criminology at Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne.

“Talking about sex education doesn’t win elections,” she added.

So where does this leave us? Women’s rights advocates say Ms. Higgins has provided the country with an opportunity for self-reflection; with an opportunity to strip back a culture that is complicit in crimes of sexual assault and violence.

“If we want to fix misogyny and sexual assault, that’s the conversation we need to have as a country,” said Clare O’Neil, a member of the opposition Labor Party. “If our Parliament can’t do that, then how can we ask Australians to?”

We want to hear what you think: Has the rhetoric from the government around Ms. Higgins’s accusations bothered you? And what kind of sex education have you received in your own experience in Australia? Let us know at nytaustralia@nytimes.com.

Now, on to the week’s stories:


Cornell Tukiri for The New York Times

Stefani Reynolds for The New York Times

Last week, we asked how you felt about Facebook’s decision to ban news in Australia, and whether it had changed your social media habits. Here are some reader responses:

In its actions Facebook demonstrated both its arrogance and lies. And hypocrisy. Punishing — in their view — a nation of users because it didn’t like a law shows that Facebook sees itself above the law. I thought that Facebook couldn’t easily monitor content? That’s why they didn’t have to apply decency and fact-checking filters. But now we see that they can block links down to the resolution of individual users. Cognitive dissonance and bullying.

— Jenni L. Evans

Spent the weekend downloading apps for news sites. Who needs Facebook?

— Pamela Bryant

The Facebook news ban was the impetus I needed to finally delete my Facebook account for good.

— Caitlin Clarke

Enjoying the Australia Letter? Sign up here or forward to a friend.

For more Australia coverage and discussion, start your day with your local Morning Briefing and join us in our Facebook group.

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