The latest edition of The World This Week covers: Forthcoming elections in Sri Lanka, a migrant problem turning political in Italy, and the Second wave in Vietnam | Contributors to this edition are: Chrishari de Alwis Gunasekare, Sourina Bej, Aparupa Bhattacherjee, Harini Madhusudan
Sri Lanka: Getting ready for the general elections this week, amidst the COVID-19
The General Election in Sri Lanka to form a new Parliament, which was initially scheduled for April and then postponed to June, will be finally held on 5 August 2020. Despite experiencing a second wave of the coronavirus in mid-July, the voting will take place as planned under strict health guidelines and safety measures on the scheduled date.
What is the background?
First, the uncertainties surrounding the elections. After the Presidential elections in 2019 bought Gotabaya Rajapaksa to power, the opposition-controlled Parliament was dissolved in March 2020. Initially, the 16th Parliamentary election of Sri Lanka was scheduled in April. However, with the spread of the coronavirus pandemic and an island-wide curfew in effect, the Election Commission postponed the elections indefinitely, despite the President’s insistence to hold the election as scheduled. Since the constitution calls for a dissolved Parliament to be replaced within the three months, the Election Commission decided to open the polls on 20 June in order to avert a constitutional crisis. However, the election again had to be rescheduled to 5 August.
Second, a look at the contending political parties. The political party with the highest stake in this election is Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) led by the Rajapaksas. The party looks for the opportunity to consolidate power with a two-thirds majority in order to enable the newly formed government to repeal the 19th Amendment. The Opposition, on the other hand, is fractured; it is divided between the United National Party (UNP) under former Prime Minister Wickremesinghe and the newly formed Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB) under the leadership of Sajith Premadasa, which is a breakaway group of UNP. This significantly weakens both parties as neither will be able to secure the required number of Parliamentary seats to challenge SLPP. Besides these parties, the Leftist party Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), now reformed as an alliance named Jathika Jana Balavegaya (NPP) and the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) are smaller parties, expected to secure a few seats in the upcoming poll.
Third, the election campaign during the pandemic. The campaigning for the general elections took place in a subdued manner as the Covid-19 Pandemic prevented the candidates from conducting mass rallies. Most activities were conducted through social media, advertisements and through a door to door campaigning in strict compliance with health guidelines, as the candidates tried to connect with the voters from their electorates.
What does it mean?
The outcome of the election will significantly reshape the Sri Lankan political stage. While it is not certain that the SLPP will be able to secure the two-thirds majority, it is evident that the party would dominate this election. The pandemic situation favours the Rajapaksa rule where the citizens look for stability which might result in the repeal of the 19th Amendment. If the SJB manages to secure a significant number of seats over the UNP, then the newly formed party will emerge as the leading Opposition Party while the UNP will look for a change in leadership.
As indicated by the number of postal votes already cast, it is expected for the voter turnout to drop as low as 70 per cent this election, because voters seem discouraged by health restrictions, political apathy and wariness of the political system stimulated by the pandemic.
Italy: Former Interior Minister Matteo Salvini to go on trial for blocking ship carrying migrants
The Senate in on 30 July voted to lift the immunity of former interior minister and the leader of the opposition Matteo Salvini, thereby initiating a possible trial against the minister for refusing to let a ship carrying 150 migrants dock in Italy in 2019. The prosecutors initiated the charge against the minister, in Sicily. They have sought to bring accountability to Salvini’s policy to illegally detain the migrants on a ship operated by a Spanish charity. The trial could start later this year in Sicily, the place where the boat eventually docked after almost three weeks at sea in 2019.
What is the background?
First, Italy is in the front line of two overlapping crises- migration and pandemic. The initiation of the trial against Salvini comes at a time when the country is facing a dual crisis of incoming migrants and the pandemic. Italy has been one of the southern European countries in the front line of Europe’s migration crisis from 2014 to 2017, with thousands of migrants and refugees arriving by boat from Libya. In the first quarter of 2020, ever since the pandemic started, about 12,500 migrants have arrived in Italy by sea. As the migrants keep arriving, the country has an added burden of screening a larger number of people. Also, with a dozen of Bangladeshis migrants (who have arrived in Italy legally) testing positive for the virus, Italy is grappling with imposing the quarantine rules. The migrant centres are filled beyond their capacity with a risk of contagion. In order to stop the spread of the virus, the government has continued to impose strictest initial quarantine rules in the migrant centres leading many to break out. The Italian government had to deploy soldiers in one of the migrant centres in Sicily to stop the breakouts.
Second, the trial is politically motivated but first to bring to justice an anti-immigration policy. As an interior minister from 2018 to 2019, Salvini pursued an anti-immigration policy that drew both criticism and applause. While he was globally criticized for his pushback and denying entry to migrants, domestically, he had the public support who continues to view the migrant influx as a reason for an economic burden. In his tenure, Salvini refused docking rights to several ships captained by Spanish charity non-governmental organizations.
The present trial charge follows another trial he was slated to face for one of the other ships he declined entry to. The Senate, however, upheld his immunity, in that case, thereby making this case the first when Salvini will have to justify his policy in court. The Senate’s decision to lift Salvini’s immunity this time is also because his anti-immigration policy had led to a split in the ruling coalition. As he left the government in 2019 to join the Opposition, the ruling coalition has since grappled with falling approval ratings but still remains one of the strongest political alliance in the country.
What does it mean?
First, once Matini faces the trial in court, it is likely to open the debate on the sharing of the refugees and the migrants in the region between the north and the south European countries. Italy is not the only country that has followed a strong anti-immigration policy. Greece also follows a similar policy where the Coast Guard is seen restricting the rafts full of migrants coming to its shores. For the migrants, Italy and Greece are the first stops in their journey. Several looks to move to the Scandinavian or the Northern European countries and frequent breakouts have been reported where the migrants have taken to travel to Stockholm or Berlin but have been sent back to the landing countries of Italy and Greece. Italy has long wanted a dialogue over the migrant sharing, and the reason for Salvini in 2019 to continue stopping the migrants at sea is to pressurize for a deal with the EU countries to take them in.
Second, this will be the first time a populist far-right leader riding on the anti-immigrant sentiment is going to face a trial. But putting the leader on trial will definitely humanize the issue but not solve it. Around 39 per cent of the people have miffed sentiments towards the immigrants. During the pandemic, when the economy is in a recession, the immigration issue will open the social fault lines where the people will fault the migrants for being a burden on their falling economy.
Vietnam: The second wave
After a gap of three months, Vietnam has declared a high-alert due to the rising number of coronavirus cases in the country. Till date, more than 30 cases reported including in its capital Hanoi and business capital Ho Chi Minh City. On 29 July, Nguyen Xuan Phuc, the Prime Minister, warned the country and stated that every city and province are at risk and warned that this “new” wave is stronger than the previous one.
What is the background?
First, Vietnam has been revered globally as a success story. A centralized quarantine programme and an aggressive contact tracking system have been the reasons for success. During the first wave in February, Vietnam managed to keep its tally to total 450 cases, with zero fatality and none reported to be locally transmitted infections. This was commendable due to two reasons; one, Vietnam is a highly populated country with 95 million people. Second, although it shares a border with China, which has been the source country of the virus, it decided to take a risk and did not close the border unlike the rest of China’s neighbours.
Second, the eagerness to revive the economy could have backfired. Vietnam’s enthusiasm and desperation to open were aided by its initial success and the need to sustain its economy. Vietnam, in June, started domestic travel, schools, and offices. Along with the opening of the job sector, the government to boost the slugging tourism industry encouraged discounts on travel and stay and also provided an incentive for people to travel. This explains the large crowd in Da Nang, a popular tourist destination of Vietnam.
Third, Vietnam is not the only country, to start the process to return to normalcy. Several other countries, even with a growing number of cases, are compelled to do so due to the negative impact of the pandemic on the economy. This could be one of the reasons for the second wave in most of the countries around the globe.
What does it mean?
As the source of the new transmission is yet to be discovered, there could be several more cases in the coming days. The current total tally does not include the 18,000 are to return to Ho Chi Minh from Da Nang. Additionally, the Vietnamese scientists have said this strain of the virus is more infectious than the previous one. The government is taking necessary measures such as banning large gatherings; nevertheless, as stated by the Chairman of the city administration, the country needs to “to act now and act fast.”
Although the government’s quick economic recovery plan is one of the primary reason for the second wave, it seems they are in denial. The wrath of the second wave is being faced by the immigrant labours working in the country. Instead of managing the tourist, the police in Da Nang and the rest of the country have been arresting illegal migrants and people suspected to be part of the human trafficking racket. This has a larger good as these rackets are to be curbed; however, this timing is not suitable. The illegal migrants in the country are desperate; additionally, the thriving construction works and packaging industry in Vietnam are also heavily dependent on them. Also, the government seems not to realize that unlike the previous time, when the virus was transmitted in the country through a traveller, this time it is a community transmission. Focusing only on the illegal migrants will not be helpful.
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South Africa: Confirmed cases reach almost half a million
South Africa has become the world’s fifth-highest infection burden. With its death toll at 8,000, South Africa recorded 193 deaths over the weekend. The number of positive cases in South Africa stands at 493,000 with a 66 per cent recovery rate- 326,171 patients recovered so far. However, South Africa reported the production of 10,000 batches of its first self-designed ventilators to cope with the increasing cases.
Hong Kong: Police arrest four and seek warrants for six, pro-democracy activists
In the context of the National Security Law, the Hong Kong police on 29 July, arrested four student protesters for creating a platform to promote the Independence of Hong Kong. On 1 August, the police issued arrest warrants, the first of its kind, against six individuals outside Hong Kong, seeking extraterritorial provision on the grounds of inciting secession and collusion with external and foreign forces.
Hong Kong: Elections postponed by a year
Citing the risks to the health of the citizens and the third-wave of the pandemic as a reason, Carrie Lam invoked emergency powers to postpone Hong Kong Legislative Council polls by a year. This announcement was made one day after the election officials in Hong Kong banned 12 pro-democracy activists from contesting in the elections. Though there was a denial of any pollical motive in the delaying of elections, many believe that the postponement has to do with the recent security law and the arrests.
Afghanistan: More than 1200 civilians killed in Afghanistan during Jan-June 2020
A UN report published on 27 July, states that there were 1,282 civilian deaths in the first half of 2020, and 2,176 wounded. The report says Taliban and Islamic State are behind 58 per cent of these attacks and the pro-government forces were responsible for 23 per cent of them. Though the numbers this year show a thirteen per cent decrease in the deaths compared to 2019, these numbers are despite heightened efforts to achieve peace in Afghanistan.
Pakistan: Government presents an ordinance on the Kulbhushan Jadhav Case
The government passed the ICJ Ordinance 2020 before the National Assembly, to allow consular access in-line with the ICJ verdict. Pakistan court announced the formation of two-member bench to hear the case and review the petition filed by the Pakistan government. The bench comprising Islamabad High Court (IHC) Chief Justice Athar Minallah and his fellow judge Justice Miangul Hassan Aurangzeb would take up the government plea on 3 August.
The United States: Set to withdraw 12,000 troops from Germany
President Trump announced the removal of 12,000 troops from Germany as a response to Germany’s failure to meet NATO defence spending targets. While describing it as “strategic repositioning of its forces in Europe,” 6,400 troops would be sent home, and the rest would be moved to other countries such as Italy and Belgium. This move has raised concern among senior officials in Germany as well as received Opposition in the US Congress.
The United States: American’s views on China sores, according to a survey
According to a new Pew Research Centre survey, unfavourable views of China reach a new high, with the majority supporting a tougher stand on human rights. The survey conducted between 16 June and 14 July among 1,003 adults in the United States, finds that while Republicans and Democrats both have negative views of China and are critical of Beijing’s handling of the coronavirus, and the criticism is more prevalent among Republicans. More Americans also think the US should hold China responsible for the role it played in the outbreak of the coronavirus than think this should be overlooked in order to maintain strong bilateral economic ties.
The United States: NASA launches its Mars rover
On 30 July, NASA launched its 2020 Mars rover named Perseverance. After its successful launch from Cape Canaveral, the cold atmospheric temperatures forced the spacecraft into a safe-mode. The rover is known to carry seven instruments to explore the geology and climate. The rover also carries NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter, a tiny rotorcraft that would attempt to fly in the atmosphere of the red planet.
Europe: The EU restricts exporting surveillance technology to Hong Kong
The member states agreed to a package of measures as a response to the National Security Law in Hong Kong that the bloc believes would extensively erode people’s rights and freedoms. The European Union announced export restrictions to Hong Kong of any equipment that can be used for “internal repression, interception of internal communications or cyber surveillance,” as measures, Germany announced that it would now treat Hong Kong like it treats mainland China.
Chrishari de Alwis Gunasekare is a postgraduate scholar at the UMISARC, Pondicherry University. Sourina Bej is a Project Associate at NIAS. Aparupa Bhattacherjee and Harini Madhusudan are PhD scholars with the School of Conflict and Security Studies, NIAS.