New cabinet reflects New Zealand’s diversity. Daesh linked to Kabul University attack. England goes back into lockdown as Covid-19 toll rises. By Jonathan Pearlman.

Election does nothing to unite riven state of America

Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden arrives onstage during election night at the Chase Center in Wilmington, Delaware.
Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden arrives onstage during election night at the Chase Center in Wilmington, Delaware.
Credit: Roberto Schmidt / AFP

Great power rivalry

United States: In her concession speech after the 2016 election, Hillary Clinton asked Americans to accept Donald Trump as president and to offer him an “open mind and the chance to lead”.

She added: “We have seen that our nation is more deeply divided than we thought. But I still believe in America, and I always will.”

This week, the election night speeches by Joe Biden and Trump occurred in the early hours of Wednesday morning after no clear result had yet emerged. Biden signalled confidence and urged patience; Trump claimed victory and warned of voter fraud. The final results of the 2020 election were unknown, but they indicated that the nation was still “more deeply divided than we thought”.

For the past four years, these divisions have been on open display, as anti-racism protests turned violent and as the Covid-19 pandemic left states and communities split over lockdowns and masks.

Despite the two presidential candidates representing sharply different visions of the US and its place in the world, no consensus appeared to emerge on Tuesday as to whether the country supports Trump’s “America First” approach or Biden’s plan to “restore our moral leadership”. And so the country’s long-term approach to dealing with global challenges such as climate change, migrant flows, tensions in the Middle East and the Korean peninsula and the rise of an increasingly belligerent China remains unclear.

This week’s election results suggested that the country’s voting patterns and demographics are changing, but are not necessarily prodding the nation towards greater unity. Biden was set to win in Arizona, for instance, where the only previous Democrat to win since 1948 was Bill Clinton in 1996. But Trump made gains in Florida, including among Hispanic voters, and cemented his strong support among white working-class voters in midwestern Rust Belt states such as Ohio and Pennsylvania. The results also suggest that bitter, partisan divides will continue in congress after the Republicans seemed likely to hold a narrow majority in the senate, while the Democrats retained control of the house of representatives.

Before the election, Biden laid out a plan in which he would try to improve America’s standing and credibility on the world stage. The first step, he said, was to strengthen the country’s democracy, which he described as “the wellspring of our power”. He would do this, he said, through measures such as ending the travel ban against people from Muslim-majority countries and resuming daily press briefings at the White House. The aim was to present America’s democracy as a model for the world, and then hold an international summit to address the global retreat from liberal democracy. But this week’s election showed that America’s president may struggle to overcome deep-seated domestic divides that are paralysing decision-making and blocking efforts to persuade the citizens of the US, let alone of the world, to “still believe in America”.

The neighbourhood

New Zealand: Four years ago, Nanaia Mahuta made global headlines after becoming the first New Zealand MP to be inked with a moko kauae, a traditional chin tattoo worn by Māori women.

After being tattooed, Mahuta, who has been a New Zealand MP since 1996, told the Stuff website: “It’s a beautiful thing … to wear your traditional markings of your ancestors.”

This week, Mahuta became the first Māori woman to be appointed foreign minister, and the first foreign minister to wear a moko. She was promoted by New Zealand’s prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, following Labour’s recent landslide election win.

Grant Robertson, the finance minister, was appointed to be deputy prime minister, making him the first openly gay person to hold the position.

Unveiling the cabinet, Ardern said: “These are individuals who have been promoted for what they bring to the cabinet; they also reflect the New Zealand that elected them.”

Almost half the country’s 120 MPs are now women, and 13 are from the LGBTQIA+ community, making it – as the Star Observer put it – “the gayest Parliament in the world”.

Despite Labour becoming the first party to win a majority since New Zealand’s electoral laws changed in 1996, Ardern included the Greens as ruling partners.

Initial results from two referendums conducted on election day indicated that New Zealanders had voted to support legalising euthanasia, but not recreational cannabis.

Democracy in retreat

Afghanistan: On Monday, a group of Daesh-linked terrorists entered Kabul University, the oldest university in Afghanistan, and began shooting at students and exploding bombs across the campus. Some students died in classrooms, lying next to their books. Others took shelter under desks as the attackers exchanged fire with security forces in a battle that lasted almost six hours. At least 22 people died and 22 were wounded in the attack, which reportedly began near the law faculty. Afghan authorities said there were three attackers, who were all killed.

Daesh later claimed responsibility for the attack, saying it had targeted a “graduation gathering for judges and investigators of the apostate Afghan government”.

Despite the recent start of long-awaited peace negotiations between the Taliban and the government, the violence has not ended in Afghanistan.

From January to September, 2117 civilians were killed in attacks and ground-fighting, according to the United Nations.

The Afghan branch of Daesh, which is largely a rival of the Taliban, has been trying to destabilise the country’s government and democratic institutions. A report earlier this year by the United States Institute of Peace found that many members of Daesh’s Afghan arm are middle-class university graduates, and that Kabul University was the largest source of recruits.

Spotlight: England lockdown

Boris Johnson imposed a second lockdown in England this week to try to avoid a “medical and moral disaster”, but the British prime minister faces growing opposition over his handling of the Covid-19 pandemic, including from within the ruling Conservative party.

Despite medical experts urging him to introduce a lockdown for weeks, Johnson agreed to do so only last weekend. Pubs, non-essential shops and restaurants will be shut until December 2, though schools and universities will stay open. Wales and Northern Ireland had already imposed lockdowns, and Scotland has restrictions that vary by area.

Johnson’s reluctance to act has been heavily criticised by the Labour leader, Sir Keir Starmer, who began calling for a short lockdown in mid-October. New daily cases of Covid-19 have soared in recent weeks. On Tuesday, 20,078 cases were recorded across Britain, bringing the total to 1,102,290 cases and 47,832 deaths. The outbreak has raised concerns that hospitals in hard-hit areas will soon be unable to cope.

But more than 30 Conservative MPs voted against the lockdown, saying it is unnecessary and will be too economically costly. And Johnson must also now contend with Nigel Farage, the far-right politician who led the push for Britain to leave the European Union. Farage has applied to give the Brexit Party a new name, Reform UK, and plans to campaign against the lockdown, though he strongly supported the first one. “We must learn to live with the virus, not hide in fear of it,” he said. Farage was in the US this week, campaigning for Trump.

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 7, 2020 as "Election does nothing to unite riven state of America".

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

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