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The evolving political dynamics within the US

| Updated: August 13, 2020 20:54:32

--Donald Trump --Donald Trump

President Donald Trump, about three months away from the next US Presidential elections in November, is creating havoc for himself and his Republican Party through controversial comments and decisions. This has included Donald Trump obsessively picking at ties that bind the USA to its allies.

These are drawing attention to facets that might have been avoided at a time when the pandemic has already wrought severe socio-economic downturns throughout the United States. One needs to recall here that almost 5 million people in the USA have been infected by the COVID pandemic and that it has resulted in the death of nearly 160,000. This development has already created severe reaction among the general population about how the Trump Administration has handled the pandemic situation. His divisive approach to the country's recent wave of anti-racism protests has also come under sharp scrutiny.

After the contentious decisions taken by the US with regard to WHO, the Iran nuclear deal, Paris Climate Accord, Israel and Palestine and also China -- with regard to Hong Kong -- the latest divisive step in the arena of foreign relations came with Trump announcing a plan to withdraw nearly 12,000 US troops from Germany. Apparently this decision was taken on the basis that though Germany pays Russia billions of dollars a year for importing energy, the US undertakes extra expenditure to participate in NATO efforts to safeguard Germany from Russia. Attention was also drawn to the fact that despite this US effort, Germany is not willing to pay their 2 per cent fee to NATO.

US Secretary of Defence Mark Esper has echoed the President's words saying, "Germany is the wealthiest country in Europe. Germany can and should pay more to its defense." It has also been indicated by Esper that a "strategic laydown" will be carried out as some troops may move to Poland and others could end up in the diminutive Baltic States.

It may be mentioned here that Jens Stoltenberg, NATO's Secretary General has mentioned that the US consulted with its NATO allies before making the announcement, but, nevertheless, it might make things slightly more difficult for NATO. Ironically however, Trump is moving the US military's Europe command, EUCOM, from Germany to Brussels, home of NATO, to "improve EUCOM's operational flexibility"-- despite Belgium's glaring NATO contribution deficit; at 0.93 per cent -- which is lower even than Germany's.

It needs to be also mentioned here that Germany's Defence Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer has noted that it was a "pity" Trump was pulling troops from Germany and has added that this might lead to faster movement in the future towards a common European security and defence policy.

One can only hope that in these troubled times, Trump's policy makers will realise that a few weeks before the Presidential election, they are creating a strategic paradigm that might affect the chances of the Administration to continue after November. They are pushing him to cast off for a voyage into uncharted waters, ignoring stormy weather warnings.

Trump has generated another political firestorm with his comments suggesting that there was a possibility of delaying the November general election to select the next President, much of Congress and thousands of state-government candidates. Donald Trump has also weighed in against expanded mail-in voting, saying that it is more susceptible to fraud. In addition, it has been suggested that increased turnout from easing balloting restrictions could harm Republican candidates. This has come against the backdrop of poll results suggesting that he is now trailing Biden, the likely Democrat nominee for the Presidency by nearly 10 per cent.

This dynamics has emerged because of the possibility that the current pandemic might persuade a growing number of US States to carry out their polls through mail-in voting due to risks of coronavirus exposure. Analysts have however commented that there is little evidence of widespread illegalities in mail-in balloting, even in the States that hold their elections exclusively by post.

Nevertheless, coronavirus has already had a significant impact on US politics. Primary contests have been delayed or disrupted in some areas, with in-person polling places closed and absentee balloting processes thrown into doubt. Politicians have also engaged in contentious fights over the electoral process in legislatures and the courts.

This situation has raised many questions in several States in general and the Democratic Party in particular. The principal debate is focusing on whether President Trump can postpone the election. Under a law dating back to 1845, the US presidential election is slated for the Tuesday after the first Monday of November every four years -- November 3 in 2020. It would take an act of Congress -- approved by majorities in the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives and the Republican-controlled Senate -- to change that. Political analysts have mentioned that the prospect of a bipartisan legislative consensus signing off on any delay is unlikely to the extreme. It has also been pointed out that even if the voting day is changed, the US Constitution mandates that a Presidential Administration only last four years. In other words, Donald Trump's first term will expire at noon on  January 20, 2021, one way or the other.

The US Constitution also has strict rules in case there is no election before the scheduled inauguration day. There are rules regarding the Vice President or the Speaker of the House of Representatives or the President of the Senate playing designated laid out roles.

Electoral analyst Hasen has also pointed out another extraordinary scenario. Apparently Legislatures, citing concerns about the virus, could take back the power to determine which candidates win their states in the general election. According to Hasen there is no constitutional obligation that a State will have to support the presidential candidate who wins a plurality of its vote - or that the State should hold a vote for President at all. Emphasis is given within this matrix on the Electoral College. Each state has "electors" who cast their ballots for President. In normal times, those electors (almost always) support whoever wins the popular vote in their respective states. This however curiouslydid not take place in the 1800 election.

It would be interesting to note here that five US States in the western US, including Washington, Oregon and Colorado conduct their elections entirely via mail-in ballot. Others, like California, provide a postal ballot to anyone who requests it. On the other hand, 17 States require voters to provide a valid reason why they are unable to vote in-person in order to qualify for an absentee ballot. These States have faced calls to relax their requirements to make absentee ballots easier to obtain - although some political leaders are resisting such a scenario.

Luke McGee of CNN has correctly warned that if Trump trashes democracy, it will have consequences far beyond America. It has been pointed out that the Office of the US President is the most authoritative in the most powerful country in this planet. President Trump needs to remember that his actions in the coming weeks might seriously affect democratic institutions in his country. Former President Obama has already warned him of such a possibility.

Academics associated with political science and global politics- Brian Klaas of University College, London, Jennifer Cassidy of Oxford University and Nic Cheeseman of University of Birmingham have expressed their anxiety that Trump's actions and comments might be sending the wrong message at a time of growing international concerns that some leaders around the world are trying to exploit the pandemic to erode the rule of law and the principles of transparency and accountability. It may be also mentioned here that the Institute for Democracy has recently published an open letter in which more than 500 former world leaders and Nobel Laureates have warned that authoritarian regimes are using the pandemic to erode democracy.

 In this regard attention has also been drawn to the fact that the same day Trump floated the idea of delaying the US election, US Secretary of State Pompeo was demanding that Hong Kong should hold its own legislative elections on time in September. Consequently, it has been suggested that some might interpret the strategies being used by Trump as not only undemocratic but also a measure that might undermine the democratic process.

The confusion within the USA, during this election year has also grown in complexity because of the economic repercussions resulting out of the COVID pandemic.

Some opinion polls show Mr. Biden with an almost double-digit lead over Mr. Trump -- far greater than that of Mr. Trump's 2016 opponent Hillary Clinton at the same point in the campaign. It is Mr. Biden's third bid for the Presidency, after failed runs in 1988 and 2008.

The former Vice-President, who served under Barack Obama, has now struck an optimistic tone through the presentation of an economic programme, which is expected to create at least five million jobs in manufacturing and innovation for the coronavirus-crippled US economy. The key theme of the plan is to "Buy American". He has proposed a US Dollar 400 billion increase in government spending on US-made products, in addition to spending US Dollar 300 billion on research and development of new technologies, including electric vehicles and 5G networks. Such an approach is expected to create greater employment opportunities. Biden, to fund that investment, plans to raise the corporate tax rate reduced earlier by Trump through his controversial Tax Cut and Jobs Act. He has also pledged to make child and elder care more affordable for working families. It is obvious that these proposed measures are aimed at improving Biden's popularity.

Both the Democratic and Republican party conventions are scheduled for August. At those events, delegates will formally choose each party's nominees for president and vice-president in the 2020 election, due to take place on November 3.

The USA, as well as the rest of the world, will, from now, till then, watch the evolving dynamics very carefully.

Muhammad Zamir, a former Ambassador, is an analyst specialised in foreign affairs, right to information and good governance.


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