World

Joe Biden continues his march towards a likely Democratic presidential nomination. Pacific Islands adopt strict measures to stave off COVID-19. Saudi princes arrested as Mohammed bin Salman slashes oil prices. Historic women’s protest in Mexico. By Jonathan Pearlman.

Michigan defeat a big blow to Sanders

Democratic presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders addresses supporters at a campaign rally in Michigan this week.
Credit: Jeff Kowalsky / AFP

GREAT POWER RIVALRY

United States: Joe Biden cemented his advance towards the Democratic presidential nomination this week with strong primary victories, capped by his win in the state of Michigan.

In 2016, Bernie Sanders defeated Hillary Clinton in Michigan in a surprising result that demonstrated his support among the industrial working class. It was, in hindsight, an ominous result. Eight months later, Donald Trump defeated Clinton in the state, marking the first time a Republican had won there since 1988. Trump also won in Wisconsin, Ohio and Pennsylvania, capturing many white working-class voters who traditionally support the Democrats. These states won him the presidency.

But Biden’s victory on Tuesday demonstrated his strong support among both the white working class and black voters. Along with Michigan, the largest state to vote, Biden, a moderate, also won in Idaho, Missouri and Minnesota. Sanders, a progressive, won in North Dakota and was on track to win in Washington.

Biden is now on track to win the nomination but several hurdles remain. The coronavirus is starting to disrupt the race. Washington, which has had a large outbreak, already conducts its vote by mail, but future polls may be affected. Biden and Sanders both began cancelling campaign events this week. This may assist Biden, who is a fairly wooden public speaker, whereas Sanders has benefited from enthusiastic rallies attended by mostly younger supporters. But Biden’s sudden ascent will increase scrutiny of him. He makes regular blunders and is likely to be heavily attacked by the Trump campaign team, which has spent years preparing to target him.

The next significant vote is on Tuesday, when Arizona, Florida, Illinois and Ohio hold primaries. Polls currently show Biden has a strong lead in each.

THE NEIGHBOURHOOD

Marshall Islands: This week, the Marshall Islands closed its borders to all international travellers, marking one of the world’s most drastic responses to the coronavirus outbreak.

Other Pacific Islands nations have also adopted strict measures. The Federated States of Micronesia has barred visitors who have been to any countries with a confirmed case of the virus within the previous 14 days. Vanuatu and the Cook Islands have turned away cruise ships carrying thousands of passengers. Several Pacific states have barred entry to people who have visited countries with outbreaks and – unlike Australia and most other countries – are applying the bans to their own citizens.

The virus could take a heavy toll in Pacific nations, which have limited health resources and populations spread across vast distances. This week, the first case was recorded in the Pacific – a politician in French Polynesia who had travelled to Paris. The World Health Organization is urging Pacific states to do all they can to prevent an outbreak.

“Many Pacific countries don’t have critical-care capability, hospitals are relatively small, there’s a limited number of health workers,” Sean Casey, a WHO official, told the ABC. “The consequences of an imported case may be higher [than elsewhere].”

But the quarantine measures are proving costly, particularly to tourism sectors. This week, Samoa’s Hotel Association called for government assistance, saying the maximum occupancy at its hotels was 15 per cent. According to the Cook Islands News, the cancellation of a single cruise visit last week – by the MSC Magnifica – cost the island of Aitutaki about $A200,000. The Cook Islands, which has about 17,000 residents, has cancelled 11 cruise visits over the next two months.

DEMOCRACY IN RETREAT

Saudi Arabia: Last weekend, masked security officers arrested two Saudi princes at their homes in Riyadh, apparently charging them with plotting a coup against the country’s de facto ruler, 34-year-old Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. It is believed to be the highest-level purge in Saudi history, though no official statement about the arrests has been issued.

Prince Ahmed bin Abdulaziz, aged 78, is the last surviving brother of King Salman. He opposed bin Salman’s elevation to crown prince and later criticised the assassination of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi, whose brutal murder in Istanbul in 2018 was almost certainly ordered by bin Salman. Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, 60, is a nephew of the king and was considered heir to the throne until he was effectively pushed aside by bin Salman.

Days after the arrests of the princes, Saudi Arabia slashed oil prices as part of a standoff with Russia. The Saudis had proposed cutting oil supplies after the coronavirus outbreak caused a collapse in demand. But Russia refused, apparently hoping to damage the United States’ shale industry. In response, the Saudis launched a price war, sending oil prices down by more than 20 per cent – a shock that led to this week’s global stockmarket declines.

Plunging oil prices will severely damage Saudi Arabia’s economy. But bin Salman, a brazen risk-taker, appears to believe the cost is necessary to confront Russia and maintain its share of the global supply. The Saudi government will now have to cut public spending and delay building projects as its budget faces a severe deficit. Bin Salman may have sensed this trouble brewing. His purge has silenced two of his most prominent potential critics, just as the country faces a severe downturn.

SPOTLIGHT: Mexico’s femicides

On February 9, Ingrid Escamilla, a 25-year-old living in Mexico City, was brutally murdered by her partner. A photograph of her mutilated body – taken by police or forensics experts – was published by tabloid newspapers, including one with what seemed to be a Valentine’s Day reference in its headline: “It was Cupid’s fault”.

The murder, the leak of the photograph and the flippant coverage by the media prompted demonstrations across the country. Protesters targeted one of the offending newspapers and painted the words “femicide state” on the wooden doors of the presidential palace. The murder, and several other high-profile cases, added to growing concerns about the country’s soaring numbers of femicides, or gender-based murders. In 2019, 1006 femicides were committed – a figure that had more than doubled in four years, according to official data. The actual numbers are believed to be much higher.

On Monday, thousands of women across Mexico went on strike to protest the killings as part of a “day without women”. Buses and trains were noticeably unoccupied, schools went without teachers and university classes were half-empty. The strike followed an 80,000-person march on Sunday. Protesters said that Mexico has become less safe for women, that crimes go unreported and prompt little or no response from authorities, and that women are frequently blamed – by police and the judicial system – for violence against them by men.

The protests marked the first mass women’s demonstrations in Mexico’s history. Much of the anger has been directed at the president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who was elected in 2018 and has failed to seriously address the increase in gender-based violence. He said the protesters’ cause was legitimate but insisted the campaign has been instigated by his opponents. However, the demonstrations have attracted people of all ages and classes. López Obrador is under growing pressure to address the problem.

María de la Luz Estrada, from the National Citizens’ Observatory of Femicide, said the mass murders and disappearances of women were a “humanitarian crisis”. “It’s like we’re in a state of war,” she told the Associated Press.

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 14, 2020 as "Michigan defeat a big blow to Sanders".

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

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