World

Alexander Lukashenko defies protesters’ calls to resign. Anti-monarchy sentiment grows in Thailand. New Zealand’s election delayed to October 17. By Jonathan Pearlman.

Protesters march against Belarusian and Thai leaders

Protesters raise middle fingers to Thailand’s Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha during an anti-government rally in Nakhon Pathom this week.
Credit: Lillian Suwanrumpha / AFP

Great power rivalry

Belarus: On Monday, the president of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko, who is often described as “Europe’s last dictator”, toured a state-owned tractor factory and appeared stunned by the crowds calling for him to resign.

“We had an election,” he told the protesters. “Until you kill me, there won’t be another one.”

Lukashenko, who is 65 years old, has led the country since winning an election in 1994, the last ballot believed to have been held fairly. Earlier this month, he won 80 per cent of the vote in an election dismissed by critics as a sham. His main rival was Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, a 37-year-old former English teacher, who stood after her husband, an opposition candidate, was jailed in May. She fled to Lithuania after the election but said in a YouTube video this week that she was willing to return to act as leader and hold fair elections.

Lukashenko faces growing public demands for his resignation. Last weekend, an estimated 200,000 people protested in Minsk, marking the country’s largest political rally. The election followed growing resentment at Belarus’s ailing economy and Lukashenko’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic. He initially claimed people could avoid infection by drinking vodka or going to saunas but later claimed he had been infected.

Lukashenko’s victory has been condemned by the White House, but he was congratulated by Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping. Putin has pushed for a Russian merger with Belarus, which has a population of 9.5 million people, but the two countries have been unable to agree on details such as a joint currency.

However, ties between Lukashenko and Putin have been fraying. In recent months, Lukashenko, apparently trying to reduce his reliance on Moscow, has attempted to improve relations with the United States and the European Union. But both Washington and Brussels have condemned the election. Lukashenko has now turned back to Putin and has appealed for Russian help to save his regime.

The neighbourhood

New Zealand: Jacinda Ardern, New Zealand’s prime minister, this week delayed a national election by almost a month to October 17 as the country battled a Covid-19 outbreak that ended a streak of 102 days without community transmission.

Authorities have been investigating the source of the outbreak but have ruled out the possibility it was caused by frozen air freight.

On Wednesday, Ardern deployed a further 500 military personnel to oversee maritime borders and quarantine facilities but said that the reimposition of restrictions in Auckland appeared to be working. Until the recent outbreak, almost all restrictions in New Zealand had been lifted after an initial strict lockdown eliminated the country’s outbreak.

The new National Party leader, Judith Collins, this week attacked Ardern’s handling of the pandemic, saying the government mismanaged testing of security staff at quarantine facilities. She also said Ardern had failed to learn from problems that arose in the first lockdown, such as the need to clearly delineate which businesses could remain open.

“[These problems] should have been fixed; instead the government was too busy putting out press releases congratulating itself,” she told the Stuff news website.

Ardern also came under indirect attack from Donald Trump, who claimed New Zealand had been championed for overcoming the virus but was now facing a “terrible” surge.

In response, Ardern said Trump’s comments were “patently wrong”.

“New Zealand’s nine cases in a day does not compare to the United States’ tens of thousands,” she said.

“We are still one of the best-performing countries in the world when it comes to Covid.”

Democracy in retreat

Thailand: King Maha Vajiralongkorn was anointed in Thailand last year after the death of his father, who spent 70 years on the throne. But Vajiralongkorn has since done little to overcome his reputation as a “playboy king”. In May, as the country was struggling with an outbreak of Covid-19, the 68-year-old took refuge in a luxury hotel in the Bavarian Alps with an entourage that reportedly included more than 100 people.

In recent weeks, pro-democracy protesters have begun to turn their attention to the monarch, despite the country’s notoriously strict lèse-majesté laws, under which critics of the royal family can be imprisoned for up to 15 years. Protests have continued across Thailand for about a month, culminating in a demonstration last weekend in Bangkok attended by more than 10,000 people. It was the largest protest since a military coup in 2014.

The protesters have been calling for the dissolution of the military-backed government led by Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, who came to power after leading the coup, and an end to the harassment and detention of political dissenters. They have now extended their calls for democratic reforms to include demands to reduce the budget and clout of the royal family.

The open display of anti-monarchy sentiment highlights the growing anger and resolve of the protesters, but also increases the prospects of a nationalist backlash. Thailand has had 13 coups since a bloodless revolt in 1932 that led to the overthrow of the king and the end of the country’s absolute monarchy.

Spotlight: Democratic convention

United States: The Democratic National Convention this week resulted in the formal nomination of Joe Biden as presidential candidate, yet much of the focus was not on the virtues of the party’s nominee but on the vices of his opponent.

In one of the most stinging attacks of the four-day convention, former first lady Michelle Obama described Donald Trump as the wrong president for the country, saying he “cannot meet this moment”.

“He is clearly in over his head,” she said. “… He simply cannot be who we need him to be for us.”

She added: “If you think things cannot possibly get worse, trust me, they can.”

John Kasich, a former Republican governor who contested the primaries against Trump in 2016, said he was supporting Biden because the US could not endure four more years of “dysfunction”.

“Continuing to follow that path will have terrible consequences for America’s soul,” he said.

Trump, unsurprisingly, was a keen watcher of the convention. If the Democrats’ attacks on him were intended as bait, he readily took it.

At a White House ceremony to mark the 100th anniversary of the constitutional amendment that allowed women to vote, Trump said Obama was “over her head”.

“She gets these fawning reviews,” he said. “… I thought it was a very divisive speech.”

Other speakers at the convention included Hillary and Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, Bernie Sanders and Kamala Harris, who accepted her nomination as the party’s first Black and Asian–American vice-presidential candidate.

The convention was ostensibly held in Wisconsin but was conducted almost entirely virtually. Several segments and speeches were prerecorded, and much of the usual pageantry was absent. Following the first day of the convention, the major networks reported a 28 per cent decline in viewers compared with 2016.

The Republican convention will be held this week. Trump will be formally nominated on Monday. 

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 22, 2020 as " Protesters march against Thai, Belarusian leaders".

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