The World this Week

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The World this Week
Successful elections in South Korea, Soft-opening in Germany, Federal problems in re-opening the US, and Political instability in Israel 

  GP Team

The World This Week # 63, 18 April 2020, Vol 2 No 16

By Harini Madhusudan, Sourina Bej, Vivek Mishra & Liya Phillip

South Korean Elections: High turnout tells a different story of democracy and fighting a pandemic

What happened?
With 300 seats in the national assembly and 35 competing political parties, South Korea held its 21st legislative elections on 15 April amidst the coronavirus pandemic. Elections were conducted in 14,000 polling stations with adequate precautionary measures like temperature checks, sanitizers, instructions to use face masks and plastic gloves. 

The election led to the landslide victory of the left-leaning Democratic Party, led by President Moon Jae-in, for the first time in 16 years.  South Korea has never postponed its elections; even in 1952, the elections were held in the middle of the war.

The voter turnout in this election was 66.2 per cent, the highest since the 1992 Parliamentary elections. The Democratic Party won 163 seats, and its sister party, the Platform Party, got 17 seats giving the government a total of 180 seats in the Parliament. The opposition conservative party, the United Future Party, has won 103 seats.  

What is the background?
During the years and event until January 2020, the prospect of Democratic Party winning was not high. The ongoing trade war and dispute over forced labour issue between South Korea and Japan since 2019, has caused the South Korean economy to a slowdown. Also, externally, Moon Jae-in's attempts to hold talks or mediate between the US and North Korea were not looking good. South Korea also saw a series of domestic political scandals in the past year. The above was the situation on the eve of 2020.

However, the approval ratings of Moon Jae-in changed drastically after his response to the outbreak in South Korea. South Korea's success in aggressive tracing and testing methods was put to effective use by the Democratic Party in its electoral campaigns.  

The popular leaders of the United Future Party like former Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-Ahn and former parliamentary floor leader Na Kyungwon could not be re-elected. A popular elect has been a high-profile North Korean defector, Thae Young-Ho. The opposition's criticisms of the ruling party have failed cut ice with the people. 

The opposition seems to have failed to rebrand itself and position it better post the impeachment of Park Geun-Hye.

What does it mean?
The holding of elections in South Korea is a success to democracy. While others would have postponed, the ruling party, the opposition and the people went ahead to organize the elections as scheduled. And people took part in big numbers. This shows the success of democracy as a process under threat.

It also shows the success of democratic institutions. The preventive measures to ensure that 60,000 people under quarantine and COVID-19 patients could cast their votes in separate voting centres indicate that the government did not take the pandemic lightly. From being the country with the second-highest number of cases, reporting up to 900 cases a day, to reducing the positive cases to less than 30 a day and conducting a planned election with a high turnout is an incredible feat.  

The 2020 elections stand out, mainly because South Korea is one of the first countries to hold elections amid the peak of the pandemic. Strict measures for safety and social distancing were displayed during the voting, highlighting the planning, organizing ability, social responsibility and maturity of the society. 

When there is a debate about whether authoritarian regimes are better placed to fight an emergency such as the pandemic, South Korea's case tells a different story about how democracies can fight and win.

Germany: Another success story, as lockdown measures relax with the curve flattening

What happened? 
The health minister of Germany, Jens Spahn, said on 17 April that the virus was under control in Germany. Along with several European countries - Denmark, Austria, and Sweden, Germany now prepares to take its first tentative steps out of lockdown next week. 

Smaller shops in Germany are due to re-open from 20 April with some students set to return to school by 4 May. Restrictions will continue to remain on large public gatherings and events. The decision for a soft-opening has come after the Robert Koch Institute for Disease Control released the data showing that Germany's person-to-person infection rate had dropped to 0.7, indicating that each person carrying the virus is now infecting less than one person on an average. 

Germany would now increase its production of face masks to over 50 million face masks a week by August and a contact-tracing app would be available for download within three to four weeks that would keep tracing any new positive cases. 

What is the background? 
Three primary factors have contributed to Germany's success in managing both its mortality and contagion rates as against the other European countries like Italy, Spain, and France. 

First, Germany was an early bird in its response to the virus. The German laboratories and hospitals took an early lead in preparing for the onslaught and social-distancing measures were in place comparatively early. This has helped Germany to adopt more aggressive testing of 1,00,000 asymptomatic and symptomatic patients per day. 

Second, Germany had used its decentralized health structure to its fullest in tracing the contagion. Germany may not have done mass testing at the highest rates — as was seen in South Korea, but its testing was meticulous and orderly.  

Third, the leadership of Merkel and the coordination between the 16 federal states/Länder was optimum. Germany benefited from its federal structures as against the centralized structures in France or ill-coordinated federalism in the US. Besides, Germany's pre-existing labour policy (Kurzarbeit) to prevent abrupt layoffs ensured that companies kept paying staff up to 67 per cent of their salaries even when there is nothing to do, and in turn, the government reimbursed the companies. More than 6,50,000 firms have signed up under the policy representing millions of employees, from small scale enterprises making the middle-class financially resilient. 

What does it mean?
First, it is a big success story on how a federal democracy can fight an emergency. The soft re-opening commemorates the success story of the German federalism. With the re-opening, the federal states will again have to work in unison and avoid competing to see who relaxes restrictions first, thereby declaring their state as virus-free too early.

Second, the easing of the lockdown indicates respect towards the country's difficult economic situation. The government has started by picking the small shop owners over larger business houses, thereby easing the likely shocks while kickstarting the economy. 

Third, the gradual relaxation of the lockdown appears to be a balancing act to ensure that the gain in popularity by the Christian Democratic Union throughout the pandemic remains. As the curve flattens and before the citizens become impatient with the strict measures, the gradual re-opening of the small economies will help in strengthening Merkel's popularity. In a matter of weeks until the surge in the coronavirus cases, CDU's popularity index transitioned from being low to high. 

The challenges to Merkel's leadership with the debates about AfD's direct and indirect political influence in Thuringia state elections, the resignation of her chosen successor in the CDU and shootings in Hanau have been systematically overturned with a swift and efficient leadership in containing the pandemic. 

The biggest lesson from Germany is how a federal democracy can fight and win, without politicizing issues.

The US Re-opening: Trump's decision leads to differences with Federal governments 

What happened?
In one of his recent press briefings, President Trump claimed that he has the ultimate authority to open up the economy, ridding over states' powers. 

Specifically, President Donald Trump declared that he has "total" authority to order states to relax social distancing and re-open their economies, and warned that governors who refuse would face political consequences. In his words, "the authority of the president of the United States having to do with the subject we're talking about is total."

After Trump took an unequivocal stand that the ultimate authority to open up the economy lies with him, legal minds have challenged the decision on a constitutional basis. The 10th Amendment to the US Constitution has been invoked to press the point that the clause reserves for states all powers that are not specifically granted to the federal government.

Perhaps owing to this legality and advise from his team, Trump seems to have backed down. In the latest announcement, Trump has laid out a three-pronged strategy for opening up the economy which puts the onus on the state Governors. This not only ends the Federal government's tiff with the States but gives the states the leeway to plan a graded opening up.

What is the background?
Even as an unprecedented epidemic sweeps the United States, glaring differences remain on the ground, between several states and the Federal government. While most state economies are shut, the Trump administration has insisted on an early opening of the national economy. 

From the very beginning, as this is the election year and the toll on the US economy of the epidemic is without precedent. However, states like New York, California, Michigan and a few others, which have been hit hard by the epidemic, are not on the same page with the President of the United States on the opening of the economy. 

Opening of the economy will be one of the most critical decisions of Trump's presidency, as it will shape how the US economy picks up after a debilitating impact due to the ongoing epidemic. As the lockdown continues, it has sent the US economy in a tailspin with stumbling stocks and unprecedented job losses. Across states, workers have been laid off or furloughed. 

What does it mean?
Initially, Trump wanted to open up the economy by the Easter Sunday but he has now extended the lockdown until 30 April, targeting 1 May 2020 as the potential date for opening the economy. However, given the varied nature of the impact of the epidemic on various states, a nation-wide opening would be difficult. 

However, even though it seems that Trump might have backed down, for now, his series of Tweets that followed on 17 April give alternate impressions. Trump took a potshot at three Democratic Governors by tweeting, 'LIBERATE' Michigan, Virginia and Minnesota. With his series of Tweets targeted at the differing Democratic governments in three states, the President has been accused of 'fomenting rebellion'. It remains to be seen, how this difference is resolved.

Israel: Political instability continues, as the President orders Parliament to choose a new Prime Minister

What happened?
On 16 April, the President, Reuven Rivlin have a three weeks ultimatum to the Israeli Parliament to choose a new Prime Minister. Failure in doing so would result in the dissolution of the 23rd Knesset and the fourth election in a year. 

The ultimatum from the President came after Gantz, the Prime Minister-designate, failed to form a governing coalition within the 28-days mandate. This further resulted in a two-day extension, which ended without a decision thereby urging the President to instruct the Parliament to choose a new Prime Minister. 

What is the background?
The Israeli elections held on 2 March ended with neither of the main party leaders with a majority. The parties on account of the President supported Gantz with the task to form a coalition government following which the Blue and White leader was given the mandate by Rivlin. 

In lieu of the global pandemic, Gantz had said that he would work towards the healing of the Israeli society not just of the virus but also from all the hatred and division. Gantz failed in convincing the parties for a coalition government, which resulted in a two-day extension of the deadline. The above ended with Benny Gantz and Benjamin Netanyahu failing to come up with a deal. 

Gantz' efforts were not appreciated by Netanyahu; the latter was against the idea of a unity deal. Although Gantz detests a government led by Netanyahu because of the corruption charges he faces,  he believes that with the present crisis working in the coalition will help the situation. 

What does it mean?
First, the continuation of political instability in Israel. Three elections in a year, still Israel is yet to form the government. The society seems to be polarised and divided, with neither of the two leading parties not able to gain their trust.

Second, both parties have agreed to form an emergency government owing to the situation and have proposed a six-month national emergency government in order to confront the pandemic. This decision has aroused criticism within the Blue and White Party, which is believed, to have caused his alliance to fall apart slowly.

Finally, there is much tension between both the parties with Netanyahu wanting to assume greater power.

Ms Harini Madhusudan is a PhD scholar under the Science Diplomacy Programme at the National Institute of Advanced Studies. Ms Sourina Bej is a Project Associate at the National Institute of Advanced Studies. Dr Vivek Mishra is a Research Fellow at the Indian Council of World Affairs, New Delhi. Ms Liya Sarah Phillip is a postgraduate scholar at the Women's Christian College, Chennai.

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