World

Joe Biden takes the lead in Democratic race. Indonesia confirms first coronavirus cases. Mahatir Mohamad forced out. Benjamin Netanyahu again falls short in third Israeli elections. By Jonathan Pearlman.

Biden surges to lead on Super Tuesday

United States presidential candidate Joe Biden watches as his wife, Jill, blocks a protester from getting on stage during a rally on Tuesday.
Credit: Patrick T. Fallon / Bloomberg via Getty Images

GREAT POWER RIVALRY

United States: The most surprising result from the Super Tuesday election this week was that – after years of upheaval in American politics – Democratic voters delivered a stunning victory to the longstanding favourite.

In the lead-up to the vote, Joe Biden, the gaffe-prone former vice-president and presumed establishment choice, appeared to have done little to help his cause. He has been peripheral in recent debates and uninspiring on the campaign trail. He performed terribly in the early state votes before finally recording a strong win in South Carolina, which was ideally timed. Shortly after, two other moderates, Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar, dropped out of the race, endorsing Biden on the eve of this week’s vote. Suddenly, the leading progressive, Bernie Sanders, no longer faced a split moderate field.

With counting almost complete after Tuesday’s voting, Biden was expected to win 10 of 14 states and was on track to take the lead over Sanders in the delegate count. Significantly, Sanders won in California, the country’s most populous state. But he lost in states such as Minnesota and Oklahoma, which he won in 2016.

Biden’s success, particularly in the south, was fuelled by decisive support from black voters. Meanwhile, exit polls suggested a poor turnout among younger voters, who tend to favour Sanders.

The race has now been reduced to Biden versus Sanders. Mike Bloomberg, despite spending about $US500 million on advertisements, won only in American Samoa, whose population does not actually vote in the presidential election. Elizabeth Warren, a progressive, came third behind Biden and Sanders in Massachusetts, her home state, and trails well behind both in the delegate count.

But the race is far from over. The spotlight will now swing back to Biden, which will draw further attention to his seemingly inevitable missteps. And the next round of voting on Tuesday includes states such as Idaho and Washington, which Sanders is favoured to win.

Celebrating his win on Tuesday night, Biden declared: “They don’t call it Super Tuesday for nothing.” And then he confused his wife for his sister.

THE NEIGHBOURHOOD

Indonesia: Indonesia is the world’s fourth-most populous nation and the sixth-most popular destination for Chinese tourists from Wuhan. Yet Indonesia had – until this week – reported a strange lack of cases of COVID-19, prompting public health experts to question the country’s detection capabilities. Indonesia’s Health minister, Terawan Agus Putranto, said such criticisms were “insulting” and suggested the lack of cases was a “blessing from the Almighty”.

At a press conference on Monday, Indonesian President Joko Widodo confirmed that the country had recorded its first two cases of COVID-19 – a 64-year-old woman and her 31-year-old daughter, who were being treated in Jakarta. On the same day, Singapore confirmed that three people had tested positive after returning from Batam, an Indonesian city near Singapore. At least four other people – in China, Japan, New Zealand and Malaysia – have tested positive after visiting Indonesia.

Widodo said Indonesia was well prepared to respond to an outbreak, an assessment supported by the World Health Organization. But there are growing questions about whether Indonesia’s health system is adequately monitoring and preparing for the virus. A commentator, Ary Hermawan, suggested in The Jakarta Post that the country’s political leaders had downplayed the threat to try to contain the economic fallout.

“The government is worried more about the social and economic impact of a mass hysteria created by the virus outbreak than the outbreak itself,” he wrote.

DEMOCRACY IN RETREAT

Malaysia: Two years ago, Mahathir Mohamad made a spectacular political comeback as Malaysia’s prime minister after forming a coalition with his former rival Anwar Ibrahim. The pair united to oust the scandal-plagued United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), which had been in power for 61 years.

Mahathir, who is 94 and was prime minister from 1981 to 2003, was due to hand power to Anwar in May. Last week, however, Mahathir abruptly resigned following internal fighting within the coalition. The divisions were heightened by a recent series of byelection losses.

Mahathir, backed by Anwar, had been hoping to resign and then cobble together a new parliamentary coalition. Instead, Malaysia’s king last weekend appointed Mahathir’s party deputy, Muhyiddin Yassin, to be the new prime minister. Muhyiddin, a Malay nationalist, once described himself as “a Malay first”. As prime minister, he is expected to end the push since 2018 to appoint members of the Chinese and Indian minorities to key positions. Muhyiddin’s new coalition is dominated by UMNO, which has been highly critical of Mahathir’s recent attempts to lead a more inclusive, multiracial government.

And so UMNO is back in power, leading to speculation that its former leader, Najib Razak, who is facing corruption charges involving the alleged theft of billions of dollars of state funds, could return to parliament. Mahathir has refused to lead a coalition that involves UMNO. But, even after his first period as prime minister, he remained an influential and wily presence in Malaysian politics. This week, he signalled that he does not intend to stand aside quietly for Muhyiddin. Mahathir said he believes he has the support of a majority of MPs and may call a vote of no confidence as soon as Monday, when parliament resumes.

SPOTLIGHT: Israel votes again

For the third time in less than a year, Israelis went to the polls and – again – failed to deliver an outright majority to either Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing bloc or the opposition, led by Benny Gantz. But Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, improved his position. With 99 per cent of the vote counted, his Likud party was on track to win 36 seats, up from 32 in September, compared with 33 for Gantz’s Blue and White party, which achieved the same result as last time. The other big winner was the Joint List, an alliance of Arab parties that was expected to win 15 seats, up from 13.

The election, held on Monday, has increased Netanyahu’s chances of remaining prime minister and of somehow finding a way to avoid jail on corruption charges. His trial starts on March 17.

Netanyahu’s bloc is likely to receive 58 seats out of 120. To form a majority, he could try to peel away a handful of MPs from other parties or form a coalition with Blue and White. Gantz, a former military chief, previously insisted he would not serve alongside a prime minister facing criminal charges. But Gantz may be more willing to unite with Netanyahu if he has little prospect of forming his own government.

The voter turnout at this election was 71 per cent, higher than in either of the two previous polls. This appears to be due to increased participation by Likud voters, many of whom regard the prosecution of Netanyahu as an illegitimate assault by a privileged elite, and Arab voters, who wanted to oust Netanyahu.

If he can form a government, Netanyahu is likely to press ahead with plans to annex settlement blocs in the West Bank. Donald Trump has endorsed such a move, but most countries – and the leading Democratic presidential contenders – oppose it. Netanyahu’s ability to carry out his plans for his fifth term will depend on the outcome of the US election in November, and on his lawyers.

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 7, 2020 as "Biden surges to lead on Super Tuesday".

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Jonathan Pearlman
is The Saturday Paper’s world editor and the editor of Australian Foreign Affairs.

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