U.S. Election 2020 - Views From Abroad

U.S. Election: It Was Supposed To Be A COVID Referendum

Pollsters told us that Donald Trump would pay a heavy price for his mismanagement of the pandemic. What will happen with other world leaders?

Voters casting their ballots in Los Angeles
Voters casting their ballots in Los Angeles
Hannah Steinkopf-Frank

November 3 was not only the culmination of an unprecedented presidential campaign, but the day also set a record for the second highest number of new COVID-19 cases in the United States. The day after, yesterday, the U.S. topped 100,000 cases for the first time. Indeed, many pundits and pollsters were convinced that President Donald Trump's failure in managing the global pandemic would be decisive with voters, particularly in crucial older demographics. So why didn't we see the scenario of a coronavirus-fueled Joe Biden landslide?

Bad numbers: The U.S. has the highest number of coronavirus cases in the world and the highest number of recorded deaths, at more than 234,000. In a national opinion poll from early October, 57% of respondents disapproved of the president's response to coronavirus.

• Many pointed to a direct correlation between soaring case numbers and Trump's downturn in polls through the summer and fall: "Where COVID-19 infections are going is by far the biggest factor in determining Trump's chances of winning," Michael Arone, a managing director at State Street Global Advisors, told Fortune.

• Although the warning signs were already present, only 24% of Trump supporters said the pandemic was an important voting issue, with the economy, Supreme Court appointments and even health care taking precedent, according to the Pew Research Center.

Why Trump is holding strong: Now, between the nail-biting as the neck-and-neck results of mail-in ballots continue to roll in, some are starting to question whether so-called COVID voters really materialized. Though Biden is cruising to a comfortable margin in the overall popular vote, the fact that the race is coming down to a few thousand voters in a set of swing states shows the power of the president's rhetoric and the strength of his base to sweep aside the pandemic narrative.

• The election may mark a growing divide between those who follow the scientific data not only around coronavirus but also other pressing global issues like climate change. But as Vox reports, many Trump supporters see the crisis as a choice between public health priorities and the urgency of opening the economy back up.

• In a poll of its science-loving readers, the journal Nature found that a full 87% percent of respondents supported Biden. In contrast, the GOP has seen increased registration in states across the country, with a former Obama White House staffer describing Trump's base as one of the most inelastic and engaged in American history.

• "It is depressing to see that the American electorate have not heeded the evidence of the last four years to give a strong message about the damage being caused by Trump's actions and behavior, for their own country as well as the wider world," Athene Donald, a physicist at the University of Cambridge, UK, told Nature.

Some wonder what happened to all the so-called COVID voters — Photo: Deccio Serrano/NurPhoto/ZUMA

Will science over populism prevail? Of course, the race is only so close because of the specific nature of the American electoral system. Still Biden's gaining the most votes of any presidential candidate in American history, cannot erase the fact that the country is deeply divided. And COVID-19 appears to have only deepened those divisions.

How it looks to the world: A would-be COVID effect on the political fortunes of other national leaders is still hard to gauge. Allies of Italy's populist firebrand Matteo Salvini scored poorly in regional elections in September, which many blamed on Salvini's poor response to the pandemic. Likewise in the UK, support for Prime Minister Boris Johnson has plummeted for mismanaging and underestimating the severity of the virus.

Yes, but: Brazil's Jair Bolsanaro has been as outlandish as Trump in defying scientific recommendations, and yet hasn't suffered in popularity.

• Such globally-minded heads of state including President Emmanuel Macron and Chancellor Angela Merkel have experienced increased popularity as they largely let scientific evidence lead their pandemic responses, with far-right populists slipping or stalling in France and Germany as well as Italy.

• "Populists have become masters in the art of stirring up imaginary fears, that of insecurity or migrants," Catherine Chatignoux writes in Les Echos, "(but have) no magic recipe for dealing with the very real fear represented by COVID."

Takeaway: One thing is certain, with record turnout (also thanks to mail-in ballots), COVID didn't stand in the way of voters making their choice. But election results not only have causes, they have consequences: Whatever factors bring the winner past the finish line in the U.S. election, we will wind up with one of two very different approaches in how to confront the pandemic.

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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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