Is Biden in trouble?

Reading time: 7 minutes

It has been almost 11 months since Joe Biden took the oath of office and replaced Donald Trump as President of the United States. The early success of the coronavirus vaccination process and a rapid economic recovery from the sharp decline in GDP experienced in 2020 due to the government-imposed lockdowns, made most political commentators think the new President was on his away to an easy political year. So why has Biden’s popularity plummeted over the last few months and why did his party loose the gubernatorial election in Virginia, a state governed by the Democrats for the last 12 years and on which Biden beat Trump by more than 10 percentage points?

Figure 1: Decline of Biden’s approval rating and increase of his disapproval ranting over the last few months.
Picture: 538

Anus horribilis?

Contrary to what was initially predicted, Joe Biden’s first year in office has been marked by a number of serious setbacks. Over the rest of the article, I will focus on 3 that are believed to be causing the increase in discontent with the new President and his party.

Vaccination hesitancy

On April 30th, the President’s promise to deliver 100 million vaccines on his first 100 days was met two times over and around 46% of the population had already received at least one dose of the vaccine, a percentage twice as high as that of the EU and six times that of the rest of the world. Daily new Covid cases and deaths were on a decline and a return to normal was on the horizon.

The early success of the vaccination process was, however, hiding the effect of the large vaccination hesitance in the country. According to a poll conducted for The Economist, around 30% of the population does not want to be vaccinated or is unsure, the highest rate in the developed world. Once those willing to get the jab received their doses, the US vaccination rates plummeted, creating the perfect ground for the new Delta Variant to hit the US in a dramatic way. Daily covid cases and deaths increased tenfold and new poorly communicated restrictions had to be imposed to halt the spread of the virus. For someone who had ran on a platform of bringing the coronavirus pandemic “under control”, this return to restrictions and rise in deaths was seen as failure by the President, and has resulted on sharp decline of his approval on handling covid from 63% to 49% in just six months.   

Figure 2: Anti-vacination protest.
Picture: Daily Beast

Evacuation of Afghanistan

When Biden became President the war in Afghanistan was already the longest conflict in US history. After 2448 US servicemen deaths, a cost of $2.3 trillion (around $7000 per American), and 19 years of conflict, the Taliban maintained a significant and growing presence in Afghanistan. The war had become very unpopular among voters, and both 2020 candidates ran on ending the war. In February of 2020, Trump stroke a deal with the Taliban to leave Afghanistan, and on April the 14th, despite a strong push from the Pentagon to remain until the Afghan security forces could assert themselves against the Taliban, Biden delivered on the deal and announced the US would pull all troops out of the country by September 11th.

As the American troops began to be pulled out, the Taliban went on the offensive and made rapid gains on the country. As the world saw the Afghan struggling to push back on the Taliban offensive, Biden defended his decision by saying it was “highly unlikely” the Taliban would ever take control, but a little over a month later the Afghan government fled the country and the Taliban were entering Kabul virtually unopposed.

Once the government fell, the NATO forces organized a massive airlift of nationals, embassy staff, and Afghan citizens who worked with coalition forces. The chaos and panic that ensued at the Hamid Karzai international airport following weeks was broadcasted all around the globe, with heartbreaking pictures of desperate people hanging on to wheels of planes and falling to their deaths as they took off.

Although these awful images were already a stain on Biden’s Afghan policy of redrawing all troops, the worse episode came on August 26th when a suicide bomber and gunmen from ISIS targeted a gate at the airport where thousands of people were crowing trying to find a way out of the country. A total of 182 people lost their lives, 13 of them being US servicemen. Despite the chaos of the evacuation, by August 30th the US last military airplane took off with the last remaining troops, officially ending the 19th year military intervention. Over the 17 days that followed the fall of Kabul, the US and its allies evacuated over 120 thousand people out of the country. This success was not, however, enough to offset the horrifying scenes broadcasted from the airport over the next few days, with a poll by ABC News showing that 60% of Americans disapproved Biden’s handling of Afghanistan.  

Figure 3: Biden receives bodies of us servicemen killed in the airport terrorist attack at Dover Airbase.
Picture: The Times

Gridlock in Biden’s agenda

On the 2020 elections, Biden’s Democratic party not only won the Presidency but also won a majority in the Senate and maintained their majority in the lower house, the House of Representatives. It is although important to note that the majority held in the House of Representatives, also known as just the House, was cut down to just 9 seats, the lowest majority held by any party since 2000. In the Senate, the Democrats are tied with the Republicans with 50 seats each, but Vice President Kamala Harris can also vote in the Senate which gives the party control of this chamber as well. Although a bill needs 60 votes to be passed by the Senate, the Democrats can use a special rule to avoid this called “Reconciliation” and approve certain legislations with just 51 votes.

These two razor thin majorities in congress have made it very hard for the President to move forward with his legislative agenda without having every single senator and all but 4 congressmen on board. The long and complicated negations have severely delayed two important bills, a $1.2 trillion bill that aims at modernizing the country’s infrastructure and a social spending $3.5 trillion social spending bill combines major initiatives on the economy, education, social welfare, climate change and foreign policy. These two bills are highly popular among voters, with a Quinnipiac poll giving them a 60% approval, however, the party infighting between moderate and progressive Democrats has delayed the passage of this bills for months.

This deadlock in congress and failure to deliver on electoral promises has created an image of an incompetent party and President, and according to a Emerson College poll, a plurality of voters now want Republicans to regain control of both the Senate and the House in next year’s midterm elections. If this were to happen, Biden would have little to no chance of moving forward with any of his legislative agenda as Republicans would try to block any Democratic bills.

Troubling times

There are several other reasons for Biden’s fall in popularity among the American public: the slower than expected economic recovery, the fears of inflation or maybe it is just normal for Presidents to see their approval rates decrease as their “honeymoon” period wears off. Whatever the reason is, it seems to be a big problem for Democrats even though the 2024 elections are still three years away. One should note, however, that even despite the fall in support, Biden’s most likely opponent, Trump, is even more unpopular than the current President. This was seen in Virginia, a state Biden won easily in 2020, where the Republican Glenn Youngkin won the state’s gubernatorial election, but he did so by distancing himself from Trump and focusing on local issues. Also, Afghanistan will most likely not be on people’s minds by then, and the current gridlock in congress seems to be coming to an end, as congress has finally passed the infrastructure bill and is moving closer to find a consensus on the 3.5 trillion social spending one. The signs are not good for Democrats coming into next year’s midterm elections, and current projections show they will lose the majority they currently hold in both chambers of congress, but a lot can still happen in one year, and especially in three.

Sources: The Atlantic, Our World in Data, NPR, 538, Daily Beast, New York Times.

João Sande e Castro

Turbulent times in Afghanistan

Reading time: 5 minutes

The retreat of NATO forces from Afghanistan in late August 2021 was no surprise by any means: the Doha Agreement that had been signed in early 2020, between the US and Taliban, had long foresighted this event. Nonetheless, the quickness with which the Taliban managed to seize the territories of the former Islamic Republic of Afghanistan left much of the world in awe. Who was this new political force, one that in days could defeat an entire nation?

History of the Taliban

The Taliban, meaning a group of students in Pashto, one of the many languages of Afghanistan, emerged as a political identity out of the englobing Mujahideen warriors who, with the financial backing of the US, China, Pakistan and others opposed the soviet aligned Democratic Republic of Afghanistan. With the Soviet retreat in the Soviet-Afghan war in 1989, followed by the DRA collapse in 1992, the path was clear for the Mujahideen to take control of the nation.

Unfortunately for them, the different political movements who fought under their banner failed to settle their differences and, without the existence of their common foe, the DRA, a new civil war erupted. It was amidst this chaos, in late 1994, that the Taliban emerged, as a new group mainly encompassed by students from different madrasas, schools focused on the teaching of Islam, of the region. With their conquest of Kabul in 1996, they became the de facto rulers of the country, forming the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.

This dominance lasted until 2001, when the American-led NATO forces invaded the country under the pretext of the Taliban government allowing the creation of terrorist training camps, led by Osama Bin-Laden’s AL-Qaeda, in their nation. After being ousted out of power, it was only now, in August of 2021, that the group has managed to reclaim political power over the region.

Figure 1 – Picture in a British Journal depicting Osama Bin-Laden and the Mujahideen in their fight against the DRA

Political Structure  

As one can imagine, this series of conflicts and civil wars severely impacted the country, with much of it needing reconstruction. As such, it is not surprising that in the first conference after the reconquest of Kabul the Taliban spokesperson, Zabihullah Mujahid, said that there would be no purges of supporters of the old regime, to guarantee stability to the local population. Nonetheless, NATO-aligned intelligence servers have warned about the risk of collaborators of the previous government being persecuted by the Taliban.

Figure 2 – Zabihullah Mujahid, the Taliban spokesperson, in his first conference after retaking Kabul

Furthermore, the Taliban quickly announced the creation and dissolution of new ministries for the nation. Headed by Mohammad Akhund, who had previously worked as the Foreign Minister of the country in the ‘90s, 11 men have been appointed to guide the nation within the framework of Sharia law. One of these men, however, has particularly raised concerns among western nations: Sirajuddin Haqqani.

Having been appointed as the new interior minister, who is responsible for the organization of the police and internal security, Haqqani is the leader of the Haqqani network, an organization that has been accused to have had links with al-Qaeda in the past, according to American sources. He is also on the FBI’s most-wanted list, leading to increased concerns regarding the maintenance of human rights in the country. 

Human Rights Concerns

Having already ruled the nation in the 1990s, many analysts have already drawn attention to the previously alleged violation of human rights by this group: in 1996, the Islamic group had prohibited women from studying or working due to concerns over their security. This ban lasted until the administration was toppled in 2001.

Furthermore, the EU and the US have criticized the lack of representation of women in the new Afghani government, claiming that this new institution ought to preserve the rights of existing minorities. Likewise, the former leader of the Afghan Ministry of Women Affairs, which was dissolved by the Taliban, Hasina Safi, has requested international donors to only provide foreign aid to the country on its commitments to respect women’s rights.

Figure 3  – Afghan women protesting in Herat

As a response, the spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid has asserted that there was still the possibility of having women appointed to the new cabinet and that “women will be afforded all their rights, whether it is at work or other activities, as they’re a key part of society. We are guaranteeing all their rights within the limits of Islam”.

In addition, the new higher-education minister has said women will be allowed to get an education, but women and men had to attend different universities. Likewise, female students would only be taught by female teachers, with the same teachers not being allowed to teach male students. While this would be an improvement over the previous state of affairs, it is unclear whether in the eyes of international entities this would be enough.

External Relations

The opinion of foreign entities might prove to be crucial to the development of the Afghani society, as the Taliban have inherited a country whose economy is overwhelmingly dependent on foreign aid, therefore keeping positive relations with their neighbours will be a must. To the northeast, the winds seem to have been favourable to the Taliban, as the People’s Republic of China has announced a 31 million dollars’ worth foreign aid donation, including 3 million Covid vaccines to the Afghan people.

Figure 4 – Taliban and Chinese representatives in a joined meeting in Tianjin

Likewise, Vladimir Putin proclaimed his willingness to cooperate with the new Afghan administration, as “Russia is not interested in the disintegration of Afghanistan. If this happens, then there will be no one to talk to”. In a joint meeting with his Chinese counterpart, Putin echoed Xi’s call for all regional capitals to increase their cooperation on sharing information on potential terrorist organizations. Finally, the fact that Pakistan was one of the only countries that formally recognized the Taliban government in the ‘90s indicates that both countries will continue their long history of cooperation.

There will be many challenges for the Afghan people in the nearby future, as their country is in dire need of political stability and reconstruction. With a median age of 18, one can only hope that the newer generations can guide the country to a sustainable future. It’s time that the Graveyard of empires stops being the graveyard of its people and becomes a blossoming and prosperous sovereign society.

Sources: Stanford, Human Rights Watch, New Cabinet, Chinese Aid, Putin Cooperation

Afonso Monteiro

André Rodrigues

Hugo Canau

João Sande e Castro

US Prision

Reading time: 6 minutes

The US has the largest prison population in the world, as well as the largest prison population per capita. The incarceration rate in the US is six times higher than the EU average, while the sentence times are on average three times longer than in the EU.

These statistics came as a consequence of decades of policies and has increased the disparities between the United States and other economically developed countries. According to academic and activist Angela Davis, as mass incarceration has increased, the prison system has shifted from being about criminality towards economic factors.

US’s mass incarceration problem

In June 1971, President Nixon declared officially a “War on Drugs”, stating that drug abuse was the US’ “public enemy number one”. This followed a sharp increase in recreational drug use in the 1960s and marked a key moment in the development of the US Prison System.  Nixon increased the funding of drug-control agencies and proposed strict sentances for drug crimes.

The critical moment, however, came during Reagan’s second term, where a bi-partisan Congress approved the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986. This law substantially increased the number of drug offenses with mandatory minimum sentences. It also penalized disproportionately drugs that were typically associated with the black community, such as crack cocaine, as compared to drugs that were typically associated with white communities such as powder cocaine. The act, for example, mandated a minimum sentence of 5 years without parole for the possession of 5 grams of crack, while the same sentence would only be applied for 500 grams of powdered cocaine.

As expected, following the approval of this Act, there was a sharp increase in drug offense imprisonment, as well as an increase in the racial disproportion of said arrestees. The number of incarcerations for nonviolent drug offenses increased from approximately 50.000 in 1980, to 400.000 in 1997.

Comparison between systems

The European Prison rules are a set of legally non-binding standards drawn up by the Council of Europe. The members of the Council include all countries in continental Europe, except Belarus and Kosovo, and countries are expected to comply with its rules.

The main difference between the American Prison System and the largest European Prison Systems is their general goal. Germany’s Prison Act states, for example, that “the sole aim of incarceration is to enable prisoners to lead a life of social responsibility free of crime upon release”, while the American Prison System focuses on punishing inmates. According to a report commissioned by the U.S. Department of Justice, the prison system has responded to escalating crime rates by enacting highly punitive policies and laws. This has led to great disparity in incarceration rates, the European average in 2018 was 103,2 prisoners per 100.000 people, whereas in the US this number reached 655 prisoners per 100.000 in 2019.

In Europe, prisoners keep their right to vote, are allowed to receive welfare benefits and in some instances get the chance to spend some time away from prison (not uncommon in the Netherlands for prisoners to go home for the weekends). Family visits in the US happen in guarded visiting rooms, the prisoners generally forfeit their right to vote and (in some states) are not allowed to serve as juries.

In the US, little consideration is given to minor offenders, with some States trialling teenagers as young as 16 as adults. In some European countries, those under 21 are trialed in youth courts as to consider developing morals and psychologically or if crimes are considered “typically juvenile”.

Figure 1: Aftermath of a prison riot in California in 2009

The Economics of the American Prison System

The total annual expenditure of the US government on prisons and jails amounts to $84.6 billion, and, after adjusting for inflation, has quadrupled since 1982. There are therefore people with significant economic interests in maintaining mass incarceration. CoreCivic, the US’ second largest private corrections company, is traded at the NYSE and is a component of the S&P600. From 1999 to 2010, CoreCivic spent on average $1.4 million per year on lobbying on a federal and state level. An August 2016 report by the U.S. Department of Justice asserts that privately operated federal facilities are less safe and more punitive than other federal prisons.

Recently, these companies have come under fire and are even facing lawsuits as allegations of forced and underpaid labor came to light. These reports allege that these companies are exploiting people who are in vulnerable situations to reap profits. The hourly pay for inmates working in the US can vary anywhere from $0.09 to $4.90, depending on the State, while four States do not pay inmates any form of salary. This only decreases their chances of success once they are released, as they have little to no savings, and oftentimes are ineligible for government benefit programs like welfare and food stamps.

Former inmates also face significant difficulties when trying to reenter the job market, as they face unemployment rates approximately five times higher than the general US population. This employer discrimination also affects disproportionately people of color and women. Formerly incarcerated black women face hardships finding employment, as their unemployment rate is almost seven times higher, at 43,6%, than the unemployment rate of their general population peers. The racial disproportionality regarding the incarcerated population, as well as the disadvantages they face once out of the Prison System will perpetuates racial inequalities, affecting particularly minority communities.

Figure 2: Prisoners at the Louisiana State Penitentiary working at a farm

The consequences of mass incarceration

The consequences of mass incarceration go far beyond the financial impact, they affect individuals and communities all over the US. A prison sentence oftentimes has the opposite effect of what it is intended to achieve. Instead of being rehabilitated and ready to integrate society, many former prisoners fall into a cycle of crime after their release, due to either being pulled into gang activity within the prison walls, or turning to illegal activities due to financial need. Mandatory sentencing has doomed the lives of people charged with low-level offenses, punishing them for the rest of their lives.

According to a research conducted by the Congressional Research Service, on average, over a five-year period, 76,6% of released inmates will return to prison.

The effect on communities is also extensive, affecting primarily minority communities as these are the ones with the highest incarceration rates, even though they have similar drug usage and drug trafficking rates as white communities. Residents of neighborhoods with high incarceration rates face a disproportionate level of stress, due to a combination of disrupted family and social networks, as well as increased rates of crime and infectious diseases such as HIV. Furthermore, studies have shown that this also takes a toll on mental health, as one study concluded that “The effect of neighborhood-level incarceration on mental health is similar for individuals with and without a history of incarceration.”.

Mass incarceration has had a negative impact on individuals and society, the policy choices of the last 50 years have helped perpetuate racial inequalities in minority communities. One possible way to overcome this issue, would be to transform the American Prison System from a punitive one, into a rehabilitative Prison System, as seen throughout the EU. The question that remains is, when will American lawmakers tackle this issue, ensuring the American Prison System becomes an efficient tool for rehabilitating felons, making them ready to integrate society.

Sources: American Civil Liberties Union, History Channel, Reuters, NPR,

Afonso Monteiro

Hugo Canau

Christian Weber

100 days of Biden: Back to the Future?

Reading time: 7 minutes

Joe Biden has completed 100 days in office, a mark historically known to be thoroughly scrutinized by the American society and a key point to illustrate what the Administration has done so far, and what are their main goals and challenges ahead.

The 100 days mark is known to be a predictor of how well the Administration will perform during the 4-year span, and the first moment of analysis of approval ratings of the President compared to some of his predecessors.

A fast mover

Joe Biden has moved fast and steadily, with the Biden Administration issuing more executive orders than his predecessor Donald Trump. Executive orders include not only executive actions, but also reversals of predecessors’ actions.

Biden has issued 52 executive orders against 39 of Donald Trump and 34 of Barack Obama, in the same time period. Of those 52 executive actions, close to half, 24, have been reversals of orders executed by the Trump’s administration, mainly in the health and immigration sector.

The focus has been on tackling the biggest health crisis the United States has faced: The Coronavirus.

Figure 1: Joe Biden’s Executive Orders (First 100 days), Source: The White House; Graphic: Christopher Hickey, CNN

Immigration policies and equity have been two of the other key components where Joe Biden has invested his time, which can be explained by Donald Trump’s strongly opposing views on the matters.

Vaccination and SARS-CoV-2

Regarding vaccination, the President has set bigger goals as his tenure went forward. The initially set goal of 100 million vaccine shots was substituted by 220 million shots by the end of March, which was seen by many as an unrealistic goal. The truth is, according to official data from US Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the goal has even been surpassed: 235 million vaccine shots have been administered during this period.

The increase has mainly been done through the information campaign that has been led by this Administration, which ensures the safety of the vaccines and its long and short-term benefits for the country. The American Rescue Plan (ARP) also included a strong funding component for vaccination, which cannot be understated in helping the country achieve its targeted goals.

The Administration has also pledged close to $4 billion to COVAX, the main program designed to achieve global vaccination.

Schools have been reopened slowly and the healthcare investment, fueled by the ARP, has reached all-time highs to fight the spread of the virus.

As a result, there has been a strong decrease in cases and deaths all around the country, which reduced the pressure on the American health institutions, as well as on the governors of each state, that were coping with challenges hard to overcome regarding Covid-19 measures.

Figure 2: Covid-19 cases from March 2020 to the 25th of May 2021, Source: CNN/CDC

Immigration: the great challenge ahead

Immigration was a strong topic of discussion during Biden’s campaign, as there was a general uncertainty to how the Democratic president was going to manage the strong stances the previous administration had towards border control and immigration in the country.

The strategy regarding immigration has mainly been to reverse what was done by Donald Trump, as there have been 10 reversals regarding the topic, more than in any other area of action of the Biden’s administration.

One of the key reversals was to the law passed by the previous administration that empowered the U.S authorities to rapidly expel migrant children caught at the border without their parents. The measure, which has been seen to have been crucial to improve the efficiency of the reunification process, has led to a raise in the number of children looking for their families at the borders of the country.

Despite the positive early results, the sheltering of children has been under fire by fellow democrats, as well as the increased strain on healthcare services, who reduced the number of beds destined to migrants by 40% due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

The health situation of these children has been one of the main topics of American politics for the past few months and will certainly be an interesting topic to follow as it unfolds.

Economic Relief and Job Creation

The economic recovery in the United States due to the effects of SARS CoV-2 has generated the biggest stimulus plans the country has ever witnessed. 

The massive relief proposal, the American Rescue Plan, was approved last March and includes strong economic stimulus, such as $1,400 stimulus’ checks and a $15 increase in the federal minimum wage.

Some of the other measures include a federal income tax break and more than $350 billion to states and local governments, the latter being seen as a key turning point in the states’ fight against difficult challenges, such as the renters and child tax credit struggles.

A record number of jobs have been created by the Biden Administration in the first 100 days. More than 1.3 million jobs have been added, a record number that will likely keep rising due to the strong stimulus strategy that has been employed by the Administration.

The American Jobs Plan intends to increase that number. The 22.5 trillion dollars plan is not going to be only focused in traditional infrastructure (roads, railroads, bridges, among others) but also in electric vehicles, R&D, green economy and supply chains, just to name a few. It is important to highlight that bipartisan commitment in this matter is hard and tends to lower the original proposed value of the plan.

Figure 3: Job growth evolution, Source: BBC: Bureau of Labor Statistics

It is also important to state that future economic measures may not have Congress’ easy approval, as the expenditure is already achieving high numbers which may trigger a negative response by the conservative members of the Congress and the House.

Foreign Policy

Although many thought the US-China relationship was going to be the main discussion point of the Biden Administration regarding foreign policy, the President has overcome the topic by putting in place a measure that trumps it: the complete withdrawing of troops from Afghanistan until September 11, which marks the anniversary of the 2001 terrorist attacks, in New York.

The withdrawal of troops from the country was initiated by Barack Obama, and slightly reversed by Donald Trump but is now being fulfilled by Biden, as he looks to only keep in the country the crucial troops for American diplomats’ protection.

The strategy has, however, been thoroughly criticized by the conservative wing of American politics, as it is believed that it will undermine the strength of the United States position in the Middle East.

The Administration has also placed efforts on salvaging the US-Iran nuclear deal, with ongoing talks at a very early stage.

The position on Russia, a long-declared enemy, has also been strong and decisive, with the President expelling Russian diplomats in response to the SolarWinds attack and to the interference in the 2020 US elections. The president went even further accusing Vladimir Putin of being an “assassin” in a BBC’s official interview.

The efforts to restore policies regarding the environment have been headlined by the return to the 2015 Paris climate agreement, even though no plan has yet been underlined to meet the goals of reducing carbon emissions.

In sum, President Biden has been active regarding foreign policy, which was seen as crucial to reverse Donald Trump’s stances on the matter.

Approval Ratings

Joe Biden has shown strong approval ratings, higher than Donald Trump’s 40% but still not matching his democratic counterpart, Barack Obama.

Of the 53% of adults that approve Biden’s first 100 days, 90% are democrats, 61% independents and just 9% republicans.

Coronavirus and the economic recovery seem to be the main booster of Biden’s public perception, as they represent the two main reasons for the approval rating of the 46th President of the United States.

What is further restraining the approval rating are two challenges that strongly lie ahead, as mentioned along the article: border patrol and immigration.

Figure 4: Presidential approval rating, Source: NBC News

In sum, Biden’s first 100 days have been eventful and challenging, due to the lack of unity in the Nation after the incidents at the nation’s Capitol. Many challenges lie ahead, such as bipartisan commitment in key issues, such as the America Jobs Plan, and diplomatic crisis such as Israel, Iran, or the EU. It will be interesting to see how the administration will fare in these matters.

Miguel Ferreira

Miguel holds a Bachelors in Communication Sciences and is a NovaSBE Alumni. He previously worked as an external consultant for Câmara Municipal de Cascais and currently has a role of political consultant at Companhia de Consultadoria e Comunicação do Porto.

In September 2021, he will be integrating EY-Parthenon as a Consultant in the area of Public Policy.

He considers himself an avid reader with interests over public policies and political strategies.

Palestinian Election

Reading time: 7 minutes

For the first time since 2006, Palestinian citizens were expected to exercise their right to vote in legislative elections initially scheduled for the 22nd of May 2021. In a complex geopolitical territory located at a crossroads between Africa and Asia and with a past of Western influence, the opportunity to express their voice in the polls is a rare occasion for Palestinians. As it has been seen in current events, these elections are expected to trigger reactions from the international community and neighboring powers, notably Israel.

Modern Palestine’s complex past

Although the region of Palestine has long been controversial, regarded as the Holy Land by Christians, Jews and Muslims, the State of Palestine dates back to the 20th century.

Between 1896 and 1948, due to Zionist movement [1], and later to flee prosecution across Europe during the Second World War. Hundreds of thousands of Jews re-settled on what was initially the Ottoman Empire and following the Empire’s fall, British Palestine, in a majorly Arab and Muslim populated area. The local Arab community, which started developing their identity as Palestinian Arabs, resisted the attempt of a national Jewish homeland, claiming the land was theirs. Arabs thought Britain would endorse them in return for their support against the Ottomans during the First World War [2], but Great Britain and France predicted instead an international division of the territory [3]. In 1947 and marking the fall of British rule, the United Nations (UN) proposed a partition plan to split the territory in two and grant the city of Jerusalem, disputed by both parties as their rightful capital, a special international status. While the Jewish community agreed to the plan, Palestinians feverishly opposed it, the scheme being interpreted by locals as “Europeans trying to steal their land”.

Figure 1: UN proposed division of territory between Israel and Palestine in 1947
Source: Vox

Two major conflicts in the 20th century were especially defining for Palestine. Firstly, the Arab-Israeli war (1948) opposed Israel to five Arab powers: Jordan, Iraq, Syria, Egypt and Lebanon, seeking to establish “a unified Arab Palestine”. Following the conflict, Israel controlled more than two-thirds of former British-ruled territory. Additionally, Jordan took over the West Bank while Egypt took control of the Gaza Strip. In 1964, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) was founded with the objective of forming an Arab state in Palestine, largely comprised of the territories that had previously been British dominated and would now be illegitimately occupied by Israel. The second major event was the Six Day War (1967), which again resulted in significant land losses for Palestine to the benefit of Israel, who took over the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, the Sinai Peninsula and the Golan Heights. Nonetheless, the PLO’s existence was recognized by the Israel through the Oslo Accords (1993), in exchange for Israel’s right to exist to be recognized by the PLO itself. Following these agreements, Yasser Arafat (PLO), Shimon Peres (Israel) and Yitzhak Tabin (Israel) were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, for their efforts to create peace in the Middle East.

Palestinians wish to establish a State in a part or in all territory that is now occupied by Israel. Today, the State of Palestine is officially recognized by more than 135 UN powers (but not by the United States and Israel) and includes parts of modern Israel as well as the Gaza Strip, along the Mediterranean Coast, and the West Bank, which is located west of the Jordan River, although no international consensus regarding the borders has been achieved. Around 20% of the Israeli population identify as Arabs. The West Bank and the Gaza Strip are home to a majorly Arab population, territories which are also disputed by Israel, although many Palestinians also live in neighboring countries like Lebanon.

Fatah, Hamas and the long-lasting division of Palestinians

For decades, Fatah, the major political party in the PLO, dominated Palestinian politics. Fatah leaders negotiated the 1993 Oslo Accords that handed limited control of Palestinian territories from Israel to the new Palestinian Authority (PA). Since then, they have led the government through successive crises and peace deals with Israel and international parties.

In 1987, however, the opposition party Hamas was created on the pretext that Fatah and the PLO were too compromised with Israel. Hamas disagreed with many of the deals, and soon came to be seen by many as a threat to peace in the region, a violent extremist group who did not accept the existence of Israel and actively seeked its destruction. In 2003, Fatah negotiated with Israel under US President Bush’s “roadmap for peace” – a plan to end conflict in the region by creating a stable Palestinian state alongside Israel, which Hamas opposed.

In the 2006 legislative elections, Hamas won a surprising victory. With 74 out of the 132 seats in the Legislative Council, it could take control of most government positions. In response, the US and Israel imposed economic sanctions on the Palestinian Authority. They hoped these would destabilize the government, leading to new elections.

The formation of a Hamas government, in which Fatah refused to participate, led to an increase in hostility between both sides. These tensions quickly turned into incidents of violence between the supporters of the two groups, leading to dozens of deaths.

Figure 2: Hamas demonstrators clash with Palestinian Security Forces in the West Bank
Source: The Eletronic Intifada

In early 2007, Fatah and Hamas signed an agreement to form a coalition government, in order to end violence in the streets and lift international sanctions against Palestine. However, it was just some months until Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Fatah’s leader, declared a state of emergency and dismissed the coalition, including the Hamas Prime Minister. Hamas, regarding the President’s actions as unconstitutional, formed an alternative government. A brief civil war erupted, with each party supported by different factions of the armed forces. These conflicts concluded with Hamas taking control of the Gaza strip, and Fatah having control of the West Bank.

Figure 3: Division of Palestinian State in the Gaza Strip, controlled by Hamas, and the West Bank, controlled by Fatah
Source: ResearchGate

Since 2007, many attempts have been made to mend the conflict. Disagreements over holding elections led legislative and presidential votes to be postponed in both territories. Numerous talks and attempted deals between the two parties were unsuccessful. Most recently, in 2017, Hamas and Fatah agreed to hold new legislative elections in 2018, but these never occurred. On the West Bank, President Abbas announced elections would be held in 2019, but then postponed them.

Palestinian Elections – Dream or Reality?

In 2021, Hamas and Fatah agreed to hold legislative and presidential elections once more, later scheduling them for the 22nd of May. However, it was not long until Abbas postponed both indefinitely, allegedly due to uncertainty regarding Palestinians’ access to polls in East Jerusalem. In fact, just as in the 2006 elections, while Israel has control of the area, it has issued no formal announcement on whether it will allow elections to take place.

This postponement has been widely criticized not only by Hamas, but also by future voters, especially those under the age of 34, who have not yet been able to exercise their rights. Some believe Mr Abbas postponed the elections by fear of not having enough support, as he has seen his popularity shrink in polls. Having led the country for a decade over his initial mandate, new younger faces are now competing against him even within his the party. Both Fatah’s party member Marwan Barghouti, who is currently in jail, and Nasser Al-Qudwa, who is the nephew of Fatah’s founder, will compete against Abba, being a symbol of a younger generation who seeks to reshape the party’s values. However, Fatah still holds some advantage over Hamas in election polls, partly due to the latter’s mismanagement of Gaza, who has seen three destructive wars over the last 10 years.

Figure 4: Mural painting in Gaza City calling on people to vote for the 2021 elections
Source: BBC

15 years later, these elections could symbolize a reunion of Palestinians with democracy.

The delay will cause a great disappointment among Palestinians, most of (whom) hoped it was time to end the dividiond and bring about a change.

Talal Okal, Gaza analyst

In light of the previous events, what will these elections mean? Will they mark a turning point in Palestine’s history, or is history just repeating itself?

[1] According to Britannica, Zionism is a “Jewish nationalist movement supporting the creaton of a Jewish national state in Palestine, the ancient homeland of the Jews. [..]. Though Zionism originated in eastern and central Europe in the latter part of the 19th century, it is in many ways a continuation of the ancient attachment […] of the Jewish religion to the historical region of Palestine, where one of the hills of ancient Jerusalem was called Zion.”

[2] McMahon–Hussein Correspondence.

[3] Sykes–Picot Agreement.

Sources: Britannica, History, BBC, Vox, Albawaba, Aljazeera, Reuters, Washington Post, Financial Times, Oxford Journals, Brandeis University Publication

Ana Terenas

Manuel Barbosa

Antonio Payan

Maria Mendes

Mozambique’s Cabo Delgado Conflict

Reading time: 6 minutes

On October 5th, 2017, 3 police stations in the city of Mocímboa da Praia were raided by 30 armed attackers, killing 17 people, including two police officers and a community leader. This attack marked the beginning of a prolonged conflict in Mozambique which has destabilized the province of Cabo Delgado and has triggered a humanitarian crisis.  

Mozambique is being hit by a devastating wave of terrorist attacks. The unrest has already resulted in over 4.000 deaths and 700.000 internally displaced people within the Cabo Delgado province, where the conflict is centred. These attacks are part of an ideologically driven war, where Islamist militants are attempting to establish an Islamic State. The main insurgent faction is Ansar al-Sunna, locally called Al-Shabaab. It has ties to ISIL, but it is not controlled by them. There is, however, evidence that ISIL has sent trainers to aid the insurgent forces. 

Mozambique as a vulnerable country 

Mozambique, which ranks as one of the lowest countries in terms of GDP per capita, has extreme levels of internal wealth inequality, and the northern provinces have disproportionately high poverty rates. These inequalities are especially worrisome given the large amount of internally displaced people at the moment. One of the UN’s main targets currently is to ensure those people are assisted and taken care of. According to the UN’s World Food Program, over 950.000 people are currently facing severe hunger in northern Mozambique. Moreover, the north’s significant exposure to terrorism and violence is partly due to lower wealth in the region and explains how 100 radicals sufficed to occupy and control Palma, one of the largest cities of the province. Northern Mozambique was targeted due to its insufficient ability to oppose violence and fragile infrastructures. Most radicalized members are Mozambiquan nationals and come from Cabo Delgado. The other members come mostly from neighbouring countries, such as Tanzania, Somalia, and Kenya. The group finances its operations through illegal contraband, religious networks, and human trafficking, which they primarily use to send new recruits to neighbouring countries for military and ideological training. 

There’s no end to terror. What are the impacts? 

The terror in the Cabo Delgado province has lasted for almost four years now. In this period, there have been recurrent cases of group beheadings, violence and the raping of women, burning of houses, attacks on buses, and ambushes on public roads. The last major event was the attack on one of the province’s most important cities, Palma, located close to Total’s multi-billion-euro natural gas project. 

“Valued between 20 and 25 billion euros, the company’s extraction project is the largest private investment underway in Africa”, but after the continuous attacks in Palma, Total withdrew the remaining staff it kept in the project, delaying a billion euro valued initiative that had scheduled the first liquefied gas export for 2024. 

Strongly impacting the country’s exports, the attacks also resulted in important economic consequences for Mozambique. In fact, the sudden interruption of Total’s activities affected other companies with links to their value chain. The “armed attacks in northern Mozambique have caused losses of 174.4 million euros and led to the closure of 1.110 companies”, stated the president of the Confederation of Economic Associations (CTA). Of the total number of companies that have been forced to close due to the armed violence in Cabo Delgado, 410 are from the districts directly affected by the attacks. Due to strong connections within the value chain, many companies suffered indirectly from the attacks through exposure to those chains of trade. It is estimated that 198.000 jobs were lost, of which 56.000 in business units in the districts affected by the violence and 143.000 in the family farming sector, during the almost four years of conflict. 

Moreover, the crisis has officially been declared a humanitarian disaster. According to a report by the International Organization for Migration (IOM), 18.661 people have fled Palma following the attack. Of those displaced, 43 percent are reported to be children and 31 percent women. The organization raises concerns over the possible spread of cholera, “warning that, since March [2021], 15 local authorities in at least five districts of the province have recorded 3.141 cases and 16 deaths”, measles, and, of course, Covid-19. The country has also been experiencing the negative effects of climate change, as various cyclones hit the region. As the strength and frequency of natural disasters increase, existing wealth inequality and the country’s vulnerability continue to escalate. 

The world is watching 

As the conflict persists, the news of the dramatic events quickly spread around the globe, triggering responses by many countries and organizations. The Mozambiquan President, Filipe Nyusi, expressed the need for help from the Commonwealth to cope with Covid-19, as the country is having difficulty controlling the virus with so few resources and amidst a military conflict. “The Commonwealth can make a difference, acting as a whole, in mobilizing more resources to acquire vaccines against Covid-19 [for member countries with fewer means],” Filipe Nyusi declared. 

Portugal, which has close ties to Mozambique, sent 60 members of the military to assist the country following the Palma attacks, in addition to recently offering 250 thousand euros in aid. The Portuguese Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MNE) condemned “vehemently” the terrorist attack, while the president of the Camões Institute said that the next cooperation program with Mozambique, to be signed by the end of the year, should be marked by the crisis in Cabo Delgado, advocating the strengthening of aid: “We are going to start negotiating the strategic program of cooperation with Mozambique for the next five years and we obviously cannot be unaware of what is happening [in Cabo Delgado], both in humanitarian and development aid terms,” said Ribeiro de Almeida. 

Globally, the United Nations (UN) is also watching carefully the recent events in the African region. The president of the UN Security Council ensured that the situation is being followed with maximum attention, due to a possible “rapid expansion” of the violence to other African regions. The UN Under-Secretary-General and Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict, Pramila Patten, also assured that the Office on Sexual Violence is closely monitoring the Mozambique region. However, the UN special representative to the African Union said that the insurgency in Mozambique is not advanced enough to justify international military intervention or peace operations. 

More humanitarian and economic aid is being planned both by the UN, Portugal, and other nations, but the conflict keeps persisting and seriously threatening the country’s economic development, says the IMF director for Africa. The question that remains to be answered is, still, for how long will this atrocious situation drag on? 

Sources: BBC, Expresso, Observador, Publico, RTP, TVI, UN News, Visão 

Christian Weber

Ana Terenas

Pedro Estorninho

Israel’s [uncertain] future

On March 23rd  2021 Israel held its fourth legislative elections in two years. No candidate was able to secure enough parliamentary seats to stay in power, meaning Israel’s political crisis will remain unsolved in the months to come.

Following the 2009 legislative elections, where Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party finished second, Netanyahu was able to create a majority coalition with several other right-wing parties. He formed a new government and was nominated Prime Minister. This was his second term as Israel’s head of government, following his 1996-1999 term that ended with a vote of no confidence by the parliament. Netanyahu managed to win both the 2013 and the 2015 elections, securing his stay in power by forming coalitions with smaller right-wing parties.

In 2016, Israeli prosecutors started investigating Netanyahu on charges of corruption, and on November 21st 2019 the Israeli attorney general formally indicted Netanyahu on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust in three separate cases. If convicted, the sitting Prime Minister could face up to 13 years behind bars.

Netanyahu’s charges

Benjamin Netanyahu is involved in three court cases, known as 1000, 2000 and 4000. Case 1000 concerns the Prime Minister’s relationship with two businessmen. Netanyahu allegedly received from these businessmen a quasi-continuous supply of cigar boxes and cases of champagne. These gifts amounted to almost €170,000, and Netanyahu is accused of fraud and breach of trust.

Likewise, Case 2000 also sees the incumbent Prime Minister charged of fraud and breach of trust, but these charges regard Mr. Netanyahu’s meetings with Israeli media mogul Arnon Mozes. Both are alleged of striking an agreement, where Mozes’s media group would improve their coverage of Mr Netanyahu, in exchange for restrictions on the Israel Hayom newspaper, Mozes’s competitors. The attorney general has also charged Mr. Mozes with bribery.

Case 4000 concerns what attorney general Mandelbilt called a “reciprocal agreement” between Prime Minister Netanyahu, who at the time was also the communications minister, and Shaul Elovitch, the controlling shareholder of Israel’s largest telecommunications company, who also owned the news website Walla. Netanyahu is accused of using his powers and authorities as a public servant to promote matters of substantial financial value pertaining to Mr. Elovitch’s businesses, dealing on several occasions with changes in regulatory frameworks. In exchange, Mr. Elovitch and his wife exerted continuous pressure on the director-general of the news website Walla, to change their coverage to be aligned with Mr. Netanyahu’s demands.

Benjamin Netanyahu in his second court appearance

Israel’s political crisis

With the investigation and indictment of Prime Minister Netanyahu came a clear rise in “anti-Netanyahu parties”, whose main campaign goal centred around deposing the Prime Minister. The largest contender to Netanyahu’s power was Benny Gantz, who had the support of the Blue and White political alliance. Gantz managed to tie Netanyahu in terms of parliamentary seats in the April 2019 elections, preventing Netanyahu’s coalition from obtaining a majority in parliament and forcing renewed elections in September 2019. In the September rerun both main parties lost seats, making considerable efforts to form a new coalition. Netanyahu approached his religious and ultra-orthodox allies, and Gantz the liberal aisle of the parliament. Nonetheless, those efforts fell short, and new elections were yet again scheduled for March 2020.

Benny Gantz managed to secure a parliamentary majority, but his coalition parties failed to agree on a government program and refused to sit together in government. The Covid pandemic led to the need of an emergency coalition, and Gantz felt forced to break his campaign promise and form a coalition government with Netanyahu and other smaller parties. This decision severely affected Gantz’s popularity, both inside his party and among voters. This, together with disagreements between Gantz and other parties in the coalition, led to the collapse of the government, when it did not manage to approve a state budget before the end of 2020. According to Israeli law, this calls for the dissolution of the parliament, and the scheduling of elections within 90 days, resulting in the March 21st elections.

Sara and Benjamin Netanyahu casting their vote

Political deadlock

With all votes now counted, no party can be considered a clear winner. Netanyahu’s opponents hold 57 seats of the parliament, while Netanyahu and his coalition partners solely hold 52. 11 seats are still up for grabs as two parties are yet to commit to either side, the United Arab List and Anthony Bennett’s Yamina. The decisive party may well be the United Arab List, a small Islamist party that won four seats. Their leader, Mansour Abbas, has openly stated his willingness to negotiate with both sides of the aisle. For Netanyahu to secure a majority, he would need his former aide turned critic Naftali Bennett and the United Arab League. However, to balance a coalition with nationalists, ultra-orthodox members and an Islamist party seems like an impossible task.

The anti-Netanyahu camp, however, only needs the United Arab List’s four seats to secure a parliamentary majority and oust Benjamin Netanyahu. Benny Gantz already tried to form a coalition with Islamist parties following the last elections, to no avail, citing disagreements with the Islamist party’s leadership over national and security issues.

President Rivlin is trying to solve this deadlock by holding consultations with each party in the coming weeks, but it is far from clear what the outcome of this stalemate will be. If a coalition fails to be formed, the President will be forced to dissolve the Knesset and call new elections, the fifth legislative elections in two years, leading to further political instability in a country that has been plagued by it throughout the last two years.

Sources: Al-Jazeera, BBC, CNN, Deutsche Welle, Reuters

Hugo Canau

Manuel Barbosa

António Payan Martins

Christian Weber

Myanmar’s Coup d’État

Reading time: 6 minutes

On the morning of February 1st, 2021 several members of Myanmar’s ruling party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), were deposed by the military, which proclaimed a year-long state of emergency, and handed the power to the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces, General Ming Aung Hlang. The military declared the November 2020 General Election invalid, claiming the vote was fraudulent. By February 2nd, 400 members of Parliament had been placed under house arrest, confined to their government housing complex, and guarded by soldiers.  

For some westerners, this coup d’état may have come as a surprise, but Myanmar’s high-ranking military officers have been threatening this for months. 

What led to the coup? 

On November 8th, 2020, Myanmar held General Elections that resulted in a landslide victory for NLD. The military and the Union Solidary and Development Party (USDP), which hold close ties, as many party officials are former military personnel, began making allegations of widespread voter fraud following their defeat. They even threatened to take decisive action if these matters were not properly addressed.  

All allegations were dismissed by the election commission, on January 27th General Min Aung Hlaing publicly announced he would not rule out the possibility of a coup d’état and the abolition of the constitution if the constitution would fail to be upheld.  

Then, on February 1st, one day before the scheduled swearing-in of the new government and members of parliament, the coup d’état was carried out. 

How was the coup carried out? 

The military placed various members of the NLD under house arrest, as well as other civilian officials, such as Ms. Aung Saan Suu Kyi and President U Win Myint. Furthermore, the military quickly gained control of the country’s infrastructure and telecommunication services, suspending television broadcasts, as well as telephone and internet coverage in most major cities. 

As soon as February 2nd, people started flooding the streets in protests against the military. Hospital staff, teachers, and government officials joined civil disobedience movements threatening to strike until the elected government was restored. The protests escalated daily, with information being shared through Twitter and Facebook, leading the military junta to shut down the internet. 

Protestors defying military orders in a mass stike
Source: BBC

By February 9th, the police were using crowd control tactics to disperse the masses, such as water cannons and rubber bullets to clear the streets. This day was also marked by the shooting of Mya Khaing, a 19-year-old protester, shot by police while seeking shelter from water cannons under a bus stop. The shooting was recorded by bystanders. She was declared brain dead on February 12th and was taken off life support on the 19th. Mya’s death sparked national outrage, which further fueled the protests. 

Mya Khaing (20) became the face of the protests after she was shot and killed by the police, while seeking shelter from a water cannon under a bus stop
Source: CNN

The military junta tried to deescalate the situation by promising to hold new elections as soon as the state of emergency is lifted. This promise failed to appease the masses, as they continued to flood the streets by the hundreds of thousands. This defiance of the military’s orders was confronted with an escalation of violence by the police and armed forces, who launched a brutal crackdown.  

As of March 20th, the international press reported that over 2100 people were arrested, including 29 journalists, and over 120 have been confirmed dead. The deadliest day was the 3rd of March when at least 38 people were killed during protests, with witnesses saying the police and the military were using live ammunition against unarmed crowds. On the evening of the 6th of March, NLD party official Khin Maung Latt was pronounced dead while in police custody, following his arrest by the military earlier that day. Official sources state he died of a heart, but family members quickly questioned the various bruises found around his head and neck, arguing their family member was beaten to death. 

The historic role of the military in Myanmar 

Following Myanmar’s (then called Burma) independence from Britain in 1948, a democratic system was instituted until the 1962 coup d’état orchestrated by General Ne Win, who ruled the country for 26 years. General Ne Win tried to implement a new ideology, which became known as “Burmese Socialism”, where Marxist views were influenced by Buddhism. 

General Ne Win was ousted in 1988 following a wave of protests against the dire economic situation Myanmar was facing in the 1980s. These protests resulted in 3000 deaths, and Ne Win was forced to resign, being replaced by another military junta, but maintaining an active presence behind the scenes. 

Myanmar’s military junta was officially dissolved in 2011, following the 2010 General Elections, which were widely dismissed as fraudulent by western nations. For a country that, at the time, was celebrating 63 years of independence, this marked the end of 49 years of military rule. However, the military continued to hold a substantial amount of power, as according to the constitution, it has the right of holding 25% of the seats in the House of Representatives, as well as in the House of Nationalities. Furthermore, the ministries of home, border affairs, and defense must be headed by a serving military officer. 

The role of Aung San Suu Kyi 

Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi, daughter of General Aung San, an instrumental figure in Burma’s independence from Britain and considered the “Father of modern-day Myanmar”, was under house arrest for a total of 15 years between 1989 and 2010, on charges of undermining the community peace and stability. 

Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi
Source: The Guardian

In 1991, as the leader of the NLD and under house arrest, she won the national elections but was restrained from assuming power by the military junta. Ms. Suu Kyi was an international symbol of peaceful resistance in the face of oppression and was therefore awarded the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize, while under house arrest. 

After her 2010 release, she contested and won the 2015 general elections, the first openly contested General Elections of the 21st century, by a large margin. As Ms. Suu Kyi was married to a foreign national and has children who have foreign nationalities, the constitution forbids her from becoming president, and she assumed the role of state counselor to President Win Myint. 

Her international image was tarnished by her defense of the military during the Rohingya Crisis, where Myanmar was accused of genocide by the International Court of Justice, for crimes against the Rohingya Muslim minority. 

This support of the military did not save her during the coup, as she was one of the first politicians detained by the military. She is once again under house arrest and faces obscure charges that could land her in prison for up to 6 years. She is accused of violating import restrictions, as six walkie-talkies were found in her villa compound, as well as contravening a natural disaster management law by interacting with a crowd during the Covid-19 pandemic. Ms. Suu Kyi has been denied legal representation during her trial, and this process is widely seen as a pretext to keep her under detention.

 It is not power that corrupts but fear. Fear of losing power corrupts those who wield it and fear of the scourge of power corrupts those who are subject to it

Aung San Suu Kyi, 1991

The upcoming weeks will be decisive for the prospect of democracy in Myanmar. If the military junta is able to maintain its firm grip on power, we could expect another chapter in the history of military oppression of political and individual freedoms in Myanmar. However, if the masses can resist and depose the increasingly violent military junta, this could be a major step in the development of their freedom, as it could lead to a clear separation of powers within Myanmar’s political system, paving the way towards democracy. 

Sources: Al-Jazeera, BBC, CNN, Nikkei Asia, Reuters, The New York Times

Francisco Pereira

Christian Weber

Afonso Monteiro

QAnon, the far-right conspiracy taking over the mainstream

The Storm is Here

Human Beings love a good story, we crave for narratives that breakdown and explain information in a way we find compelling, sometimes in ways which confirm our own biases. Battles of existential good and evil have long been effective narratives to capture humanity’s attention, from religious myth to sci-fi blockbusters.

QAnon is in a way no different than a typical good versus evil type of story. It has roots in the Pizzagate conspiracy theory, which refers to several stories that circulated around the internet alleging that Hilary Clinton and top Democrats were part of a paedophilia ring, that held satanic rituals from the basement of a pizza restaurant in Washington D.C.. Later in October 2017, a user by the name Q started posting on 4chan, commenting on a cryptic statement by Donald Trump, “The calm before the storm”.

 The storm in question? A supposed culmination of a battle between evil and good in which the good, will finally triumph defeating thousands of members of the “Cabal”, a group of powerful elites involved in paedophilia and focused on destroying the US, by arresting and executing them or, if they are lucky, sending them to Guantanamo Bay. This was the beginning of a growing internet community that spread theories about a cabal of satanic paedophilic politicians, celebrities and media figures that control the world.

The “Q” is a reference to Q-clearance – the maximum level of access to secret documents in the US government. Several posters on Q boards claim to be government insiders, some in the FBI and CIA, and thus having access to relevant information regarding the conspiracy.

Our Lord and Saviour Donald Trump

There is an intimate connection between QAnon and politics. Every good story needs a hero, a protagonist, in this case it is the current President Donald Trump, who acts as a messianic figure in the conspiracy mythology. He is the saviour of the United States, the one who will stop the Cabal and finally usher a time of peace and prosperity, free of paedophilia, illegal migrants, and supposed Islamic invasions. QAnon supporters study the Presidents words carefully hoping to spot coded language possibly related to this secret mission. For example, in a meeting regarding the North Korea nuclear programme, Donald Trump referred to a “Calm before the storm”, which was interpreted as a “stand-by” kind of comment.

QAnon and Trump supporter at a rally

QAnon and Trump supporter at a rally

QAnon has slowly infiltrated the political discourse and slid its way into national politics. Signs of support for the conspiracy became common in Trump rallies and republican events after 2018. In the 2020 elections, 27 candidates for the House of Representatives (25 republican and 2 independent) reportedly believed in QAnon, two of which were elected.

The conspiracy, except for some specific mythology and coded language, seems to share many of the common tropes of the far-right: paedophilia, Islamic invasion, an anti-system sentiment, and a deep distrust of institutions. Consequently, such movements tend to exhibit huge flexibility and adaptability to any new narrative that becomes relevant, for example, COVID scepticism.

QAnon goes international

QAnon Flag being waved at a Anti-Lockdown protest in Berlin

QAnon Flag being waved at a Anti-Lockdown protest in Berlin

As QAnon grows, so does its Geographical outreach, which found fertile ground within European conspiracy theorists and far-right movements. The Coronavirus Crisis has been a catalyst for the spread of QAnon, having the Q signs appeared in protests over Coronavirus’ restrictions in Germany, Britain, France, Spain, and Portugal.

With the international expansion, QAnon lost its attachment to American politics, and it has adapted its language and narratives to better fit the different international realities. Earlier this year, in Germany (largest QAnon community besides the English-speaking countries), a large-scale joint NATO’s exercise was perceived as an attack, by Donald Trump, to free the German people from the control of the “deep state”. When the exercise was re-scaled this spring due to COVID, it was theorized that Merkel had created this “fake pandemic” to end the liberation plan.

Merkel has become an especially nefarious QAnon character, as her support for refugees led Merkel to be branded as a puppet of the global elite. The community attacks to her range from accusations of being a “Zionist Jew”, part of the Rothchild family, or even the granddaughter of Adolf Hitler.

QAnon supporters in Romania

QAnon supporters in Romania

Social media

With Trump rising in 2016, the expression “fake news” became widespread, and it was popularized the idea that Media institutions were partisan and acted on a political agenda to purposefully manipulate the population, observing that the reliance on social media, as the only source of information has been increasing.

However, social media lacks accuracy by exposing many users to conspiracy theories, clickbait, hyper partisan content, pseudo-science, and even fabricated “fake news” reports. This low-credibility content seems to spread quickly and easily and, because social media’s algorithms act in ways which reinforce pe7ople’s biases, it exposes the users to the type of content to which it previously engaged positively. Therefore, in recent years social media giants have been criticized, being forced to walk on a thin line between misinformation prevention and freedom of speech.

With its steady growth, QAnon  changed from forums like 4chan, to social networks like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, increasing its access to millions of people. Between March and June 2020, during the COVID-19 pandemic, QAnon activity nearly tripled on Facebook and doubled on Instagram and Twitter, which also serve as a platform to radicalize milder conspiracy theorists, such as anti-vaxxers, into full QAnon believers later linked with far-right movements.

Some social media companies currently imposed tougher restrictions on their platforms. In 2019, Twitter removed several accounts that were supposedly connected to the Russian Internet Research Agency that had been disseminating a high level of QAnon content. Later, in July 2020, Twitter initiated an all-out ban on QAnon’s affiliated accounts and promised changes in the algorithm in order to mitigate the spread of related conspiracies. Facebook also announced measures that limit the presence of QAnon contentment across its platform.

The calm after the Storm

There is nothing unique about the narratives spread by QAnon, they share many of the typical conspiracy tropes prospered in a time of political and social instability, using COVID as a powerful tool to increase its reach. More worrisome is that unlike at any other historical time, conspiracy theories now enjoy near unlimited access to huge social media platforms, where information can be spread widely with no accountability. In these platforms, there is an increase in the promiscuity of some of these theories with political movements, which use each other and social media, to leverage their popularity. It remains yet to be understood if Social Media companies have the technical capacity to restrict these movements and have the moral authority to assess which movements deserve to be restricted.

Joe Biden, the 46th President of the United States

Joseph Robinette Biden Jr. won the 2020 US Elections, becoming the President-elect, with his inauguration as the 46th President of the United States of America being planned for January 20th, 2021.

After a turbulent election week, delayed by prolonged counting, due to an increased number of mail-in ballots and early votes, as well as allegations of voter fraud. The fog eventually cleared, and Joe Biden has come out victorious, with decisive upsets in Pennsylvania, Arizona, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Georgia. Some results have been highly disputed, and the Trump campaign has already called for a recount in Wisconsin, Georgia, and Arizona. Despite all this, everything points towards Biden beating Trump, 306 to 232 Electoral College votes.


Senate and House of Representatives

Joe Biden is experienced for the office, having already served two terms as US’ Vice-President under the Obama administration, as well as six terms as Senator of Delaware.  His presidential campaign was based on being an experienced, traditional American politician, with an old-fashioned appeal and charismatic honesty.

With Biden at the helm, it feels like Washington’s future will be predictable and optimistic, unlike the last four years of Donald Trump’s erratic presidency.

The first two years of Biden’s mandate, however, will highly depend on the outcome of Georgia’s Senate runoff race. If Democrats can secure both seats, the Senate will be split 50-50 between Republicans and Democrats, with Kamala Harris, the Vice-President, serving as tiebreaker. As the House of Representatives is already held by Democrats, it would be considerably easier for Biden to pass some of his more ambitious policies, that stem from a more progressive wing of the party if both chambers were held by Democrats. Biden managed to gather the support of these progressive members of the Democratic Party, following his nomination for the Presidency. The impact of Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez’s and Bernie Sanders’s policies, if passed, could bring a substantial shift not only to American politics, but also to its socio-economic structure.

On the other hand, if Democrats are unable to secure both Senate seats, Biden must wait until 2022 to try to obtain a Senate majority, when 34 Senate seats will be up for election. Until then, Biden would have to strive for Bipartisan measures, that would be less ambitious than his proposed measures, especially regarding a new tax plan and healthcare bill.


What can we expect of Biden’s Presidency?

Biden has already stated that on his first day in office, he will rejoin both the Paris Climate Deal and the World Health Organization, following Trump’s unexpected withdrawal from both these agreements, in 2017 and April of this year, respectively.

It has been made clear by the elected President, that he will tackle this pandemic with a science-based approach, appointing a task force of scientists led by Dr. Anthony Fauci. The Biden administration will also have to face the current crisis that was brought forth by the Covid-19 pandemic. This will be one of the major hurdles to surpass, as restructuring the economy will be vital to ensure that the American Economy overcomes this crisis. The plan is to primarily help low-income families, as they were the most affected by the current crisis, by encouraging the creation of small businesses and their expansion to economically disadvantaged areas. These areas are predominantly inhabited by minorities, and these measures would allow for greater racial equity throughout all social classes and ethnicities.

In the long-run, Biden plans to take concise action towards fighting Climate Change, seeking to invest $2 trillion to boost clean energy and rebuild deteriorating infrastructure. According to Biden, the US is currently facing “A Child Care Emergency”. To tackle it, he plans to invest $775 billion to lower the cost of and expand the access to healthcare for Americans. To raise funding to apply these measures, the Biden administration plans a tax increase on people earning over $400.000 a year, as well as multi-million dollar companies, who benefited from tax cuts under the Trump Administration. However, as mentioned before, these highly ambitious, but ground-breaking measures, are extremely difficult to be approved in a Republican-controlled Senate.


Biden’s plan on Foreign Affairs

Biden has clearly stated that he intends to revitalize the Iran Nuclear Deal, following Donald Trump’s unilateral withdrawal from it, correcting the subsequent unforgiving economic sanctions that plummeted the Irani economy into a deep recession with soaring inflation and shortages of basic goods.

The election of Biden for President was not the desired outcome for Mohammed bin Salman, the Crown Prince of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, as Biden announced he would reassess the relationship between the US and Saudi Arabia. He further declared he will demand accountability over the killing of Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi journalist murdered inside the Saudi consulate, in Istanbul. The military support provided to Saudi Arabia by the US government in the Yemeni Civil War has also been questioned due to the increased death toll of civilians by Saudi Air and Drone strikes. This contrasts Mohammed bin Salman’s relationship with Donald Trump, who in 2019 referred his Saudi counterpart as “a good friend of mine”, after deciding not to confront the Saudi leader following the murder of Khashoggi.

During his tenure as Vice-President, Joe Biden was highly critical of Putin especially following the annexation of Crimea in 2014. He maintained this rhetoric after Alexei Navalny, a Russian opposition leader, was poisoned. However, Biden commented encouragingly the extension of START, the latest nuclear arms reduction pact between Russia and the US, that is set to expire in February.

Regarding China, Biden plans to take a more measured and multilateral approach to “pressure, punish and isolate China”, than the Trump administration’s barrage of sanctions on Beijing. 

“This is the time to heal America”

In his victory speech, the President-Elect displayed empathy and tried to reach out to those who did not vote for him. Essentially, Joe Biden attempted to convey a positive message that sought to reunite the American people, following a tumultuous election.

“To make progress, we have to stop treating our opponents as our enemies. They are not our enemies. They are Americans. They are Americans.”

— Joe Biden in his victory speech

For now, one must wait until the Electoral College meets to officially declare Joe Biden the President-elect, as Donald Trump has not yet conceded, and is still trying to fight a legal battle to annul what he deemed to be “illegal votes”. Only time will tell if Biden will be able to unify and heal a country deeply split by polarizing issues, that range from police brutality and institutional racism, to gun control and immigration. Without this unity, it will be even more demanding to ensure the US can come out of the current crisis stronger, as they did many times before, as a country.

Sources: Aljazeera, CNBC, EuroNews, Financial Times, Futurism, Reuters, The New York Times.

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