eyes on the U.S.

What Alabama Senate Loss For Republicans Means For Trump

An already razor-thin margin in the Senate becomes even more tenuous for the Republicans. The mid-term 2018 elections are not so far away.

Roy Moore on campaign trail before his defeat
Roy Moore on campaign trail before his defeat
Dan Balz

WASHINGTON — Tuesday's special U.S. Senate election in Alabama was never destined to bring good news for the Republican Party, no matter the outcome. But the stunning victory by Democrat Doug Jones was a devastating blow to a party wracked by divisions and intraparty rivalries — and a humiliating defeat for President Donald Trump.

For some Republicans, the fact that the controversial and flawed Roy Moore will not be their new senator from Alabama came with some measure of relief. But the consequences of that outcome will reverberate over the coming months in one legislative battle after another. An already razor-thin margin in the Senate becomes even more tenuous for the party in power.

Beyond that, the tumultuous election served to expose further the fissures, fault lines and rivalries that have only widened in the 13 months since Trump captured the White House. The election provided the capstone to a year of tumult inside the GOP, and at a time when the party controls the levers of power in Washington and states across the country, the Alabama campaign was one more reminder that this is a party facing a major identity crisis and no easy answers for how to resolve it.

In the face of results that showed Jones leading by 20,000 votes and by more than a percentage point, Moore signaled late Tuesday that he had not given up the fight. He refused to concede the race and said he would seek a possible recount. That decision will produce more heartburn among establishment Republicans, who would prefer to see him fade quickly and quietly into obscurity.

Trump suffered mightily after fully embracing Moore in the final weeks of the campaign, despite credible allegations that Moore had engaged in sexually improper behavior with teenage girls when he was in his 30s.

It was the second such setback for the president in a state he won by 28 points just a year ago. In the GOP primary earlier this year, he had endorsed, with limited enthusiasm, Sen. Luther Strange, who had taken the seat of Jeff Sessions when Trump made Sessions his attorney general. For Trump, nothing good has come from that appointment — from a special counsel investigation into Russia's role in the 2016 election to a pair of losses in the Alabama races.

Bannon will be viewed differently as a result of what happened on Tuesday.

The outcome was a bad moment as well for Stephen K. Bannon, once the president's White House strategist and a man with the expressed commitment of bringing down the GOP establishment. More than Trump, Bannon was all in for Moore, campaigning on his behalf while railing against those in the establishment who had been overtly critical of the GOP nominee.

Bannon has threatened a year of turmoil for the GOP, but in this high-profile test, both he and the president proved to have limited ability to transfer Trump's popularity to another candidate. This won't be the last the party hears from Bannon, but he will be viewed differently as a result of what happened on Tuesday.

For those reasons, many Republicans will privately be pleased to see Bannon and even Trump get their comeuppance. But that doesn't resolve the split within the party over the direction it should take. As long as Trump is president, this is the division and the reality that Republicans will live with — an uneasy coalition at best.

Moore brought to the race a history of defiance to the rule of law, twice having been removed from the state Supreme Court for defying orders. He was hardly popular despite defeating Strange in the primary, but in channeling Trump's outsider, "drain-the-swamp" rhetoric, he appealed to many in the Trump and GOP coalition who wanted to stick the party's congressional leadership in the eye.

His candidacy took a damaging hit after the primary, when The Washington Post reported the accusation that he had initiated a sexual encounter with a 14-year-old girl when he was in his 30s as well as accounts of other women who said he preyed on them as teenagers. The race turned from an almost-certain victory for the Republicans to a competitive contest that would leave the party with no good outcomes, win or lose.

The fact that he will not be in the Senate spares Republicans from what could have been a spectacle of controversy — a likely ethics investigation that could have led to Moore's expulsion but that even if it did not, would keep him and the allegations against him in the forefront of the political conversation — to the detriment of the GOP.

A number of Republicans said Tuesday they had feared the worst from a Moore victory, that with him as a sitting senator, supported by the president and the Republican National Committee in his campaign, the party would have put itself on the side of a candidate with racial and other views anathema to most Americans and on the wrong side of the issue of sexual harassment at a moment when the ground is shifting dramatically toward zero tolerance for such behavior.

These Republicans expressed concerns that the GOP could lose the support of young voters for a generation as well as declining support from suburban women who have been part of their coalition in their rise to power. The preliminary exit polls showed the validity of some of those fears, as voters under age 45 went overwhelmingly for Jones against Moore. Women also backed the Democrat's candidacy, although white women supported Moore.

The president hates to lose and has a record of lashing out when things have not gone his way.

However contentious the campaign proved to be during the final weeks, the aftermath could be similarly destabilizing for the Republicans. Party leaders will attempt to put the election behind them and return to their efforts to pass a tax bill and deal with other pending legislative issues.

But recriminations are likely, especially with a president who hates to lose and has a record of lashing out when things have not gone his way. The president was opposed in this contest by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who had called for Moore to withdraw after the allegations of sexual misconduct. Though the two will try to come together over the tax cut bill, the ill will that has long existed will remain.

Trump faces his own accusations of sexual misconduct, and as the national debate about those issues rises, Democrats are becoming more aggressive in pushing to have Trump held accountable. Moore's defeat will be seen as a sign that the public is becoming far less tolerant of such behavior. Beyond that are questions about how much the addition of one seat to the Democrats' column changes the calculus for control of the Senate in 2018. The map remains difficult for the Democrats, and they are still in need of a genuine renewal. But with control of the House already in play, the Alabama race, coupled with the results in Virginia last month, suggest there is energy among rank-and-file Democrats that could put the Republicans at a big disadvantage next year.

It's always easy to overstate the importance of a single election and no doubt that's the case even for Alabama. But this is one contest that seemed to bring together much of what is in the forefront of the political debates, from the popularity and influence of the president to the fractured Republican Party to the issue of sexual harassment. For Republicans, it was a bad night, no matter how it was measured. The question is where they go now.

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Geopolitics

How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.


But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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