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Sensemaker: Democracy update

Wednesday 6 January 2021

What just happened


Long stories short

  • Saudi Arabia restored diplomatic relations with Qatar after a three-year stand-off over terrorism and Iran. 
  • China withheld final permission for a World Health Organisation mission trying to get to Wuhan to study the origins of Covid. 
  • Prosecutors in Wisconsin said they would not charge the white police officer who shot and paralysed Jacob Blake, a Black man, in Kenosha last year, even though state investigators found no evidence that Blake was armed.

Democracy update

Western hemisphere. The Rev Raphael Warnock has beaten Kelly Loeffler in one of Georgia’s two Senate runoffs, becoming the first Black Democrat elected to the Senate from the South. As of this writing Jon Ossoff is on course to defeat David Perdue in the other runoff. Assuming a 2-0 result for the Democrats, the state that Trump could not abide losing in the presidential race has delivered a second stunning win for his successor. Biden is now poised not just to preside, but govern. Given a 50:50 split in the Senate with a deciding vote for Vice President(-elect) Kamala Harris… 

  • Democrats will control the White House, both chambers of Congress, its agenda, and its committees.
  • They won’t have a license for sweeping social or electoral reforms requiring a filibuster-proof 60-seat majority, but anything that can be attached to the annual budget bill stands a good chance of passing into law for at least 10 years under the so-called reconciliation process, which requires only a one-seat majority.
  • That means a version of Biden’s $2 trillion clean energy and infrastructure package is likely to be approved, making this a big day for climate activists and maybe even a good time to invest in solar panels.
  • But it is already an even bigger day for American democracy. The November election showed Black voters that “winning is possible, and voters showed back up,” said Nikema Williams, congresswoman-elect for Georgia’s 5th district and successor to the civil rights leader John Lewis, who died last year. 

The question: will Williams now be able to steer into law the Voting Rights Advancement Act that bears Lewis’s name and aims to end the voter suppression of which Republicans stand accused in Georgia and elsewhere? It has been blocked in the Senate since 2013 by Republicans who reject the charge.

Quote of the morning: “The other day, because this is America, the 82 year-old hands that used to pick somebody else’s cotton went to the polls and picked her youngest son to be a United States senator.” Raphael Warnock, on his mother.

Eastern hemisphere. Hong Kong police arrested more than 50 pro-democracy activists in a city-wide sweep this morning that ended any remaining pretence of political pluralism in the age of Beijing’s new National Security Law (NSL).

The activists are lawyers, academics, journalists and others who took part in unofficial primary elections last year as part of an effort to win a majority in Hong Kong’s Legislative Council. They’re now accused of subverting state power. Hong Kong’s courts might look kindly on them but the NSL allows them to be tried on the mainland too, where they would face up to life in prison. 

Carrie Lam, the city’s chief executive, warned against the primaries last summer but also said the NSL would only be used against criminals. The reality is a straight fight between Beijing and an opposition now being systematically locked up. For now there’s only one possible winner. In the meantime Hong Kong is among the incoming Biden administration’s first big foreign policy tests. Tony Blinken, the next US secretary of state, says American will “stand with the people of Hong Kong”.

Where? How? With sanctions? We shall see.



Wealth investment, fairness, prosperity

Zero interest mortgages
How does a 20-year fixed rate zero interest mortgage sound? Yup, me too. It’s on offer from not just one Danish bank but three and possibly four. As Bloomberg reports, Danes have lived with negative base rates since 2012 and this is one of the more tangible results. Qualified home buyers can borrow for nothing (£). Lenders are that keen to park their money in bricks and mortar. The context: ultra-low rates are here to stay as central banks bail out the global economy (again) with quantitative easing in one form or another. Also, Denmark is fond of mortgage-backed covered bonds that use lenders as brokers and pay them in fees rather than interest. Any readers unaffected by Brexit who’d like to use their EU passports to move to Denmark and borrow for nothing, do let us know how it goes.


New things technology, science, engineering

Swappable batteries
In China, Tesla has a rival. It’s called NIO and it makes electric cars whose batteries can be swapped in five minutes ($) if you don’t have time to plug in. Battery swapping isn’t new – Tesla has toyed with it and an Israeli firm, Better Place, teamed up with Renault in an unsuccessful bid to make it work a decade ago. But NIO now has 160 swapping stations across eastern China, and a purchasing option that gives you the car without the battery for a $10,000 discount. You then pay $150 a month for six fully-charged batteries, which you can swap out or recharge yourself as they run down. Or you can use your phone to summon a charging truck. If only China could be as cool about democracy.


Our planet environment, natural resources, geopolitics

OPEC plus
Oil prices have risen to about $50 a barrel after an agreement between OPEC, Russia and Kazakhstan by which Saudi Arabia will cut production by a million barrels a day – but Russia and Kazakhstan won’t. This is the shape of things to come in the world of dirty energy, which, let’s face it, is the world most of us still live in. Russia breaks even at $40 a barrel; Saudi at $80. For all its efforts to diversify into weaponry and malware, Russia is still heavily dependent on oil revenues, but not quite as dependent as Saudi. As a result it is more incentivised than Saudi to keep on pumping even if this exerts downward pressure on world prices. Saudi meanwhile is not being as altruistic as it sounds when it says it is cutting output “with the purpose of supporting our economy, and the economies of our colleagues”. Riyadh absolutely has to get prices rising again. Hence the cut, while Russia actually increases output. A win for Putin, if not the planet.


The 100-year life health, education, living, public poliCY

Between doses
On Tuesday the UK recorded more than 60,000 new Covid cases for the first time as infections from what we are now calling the Kentish variant race through London and up the M6. The government’s concrete responses have been the new national lockdown, in force from this morning, and the decision to widen the gap between vaccine doses from three weeks to 12. The latter has not gone down well with Pfizer, maker of the first vaccine approved in the UK, or the Food and Drug Administration in the US, which said relying on one shot was “concerning”. But facts on the ground and in hospital wards are sweeping away such scruples, and it’s not just the UK that feels it has no choice but to give as many people as possible a first dose. Germany and the US are considering it too. A reason to be cheerful: AstraZeneca says a longer gap could actually improve its vaccine’s efficacy. 

Related: police have arrested Margaret Ferrier MP for breaching coronavirus rules back in October. The Met had dropped the investigation, but Police Scotland have confirmed that Ferrier is charged with culpable and reckless conduct having knowingly travelled across the country with coronavirus symptoms. She issued a sincere, if blunt, apology on Twitter before her arrest. “Culpable” and “reckless” are words we heard plenty of in the trial of public opinion after Dominic Cummings’ trip to Durham and Barnard Castle. No chance of Ferrier being granted the same sort of immunity by chums in government.


Belonging identity, society, beliefs, countries

Track, trace, prosecute
Singapore admitted on Monday that data from its contact-tracing app can be accessed by police for use in criminal investigations. The system, called TraceTogether, is one of the world’s most widely-used, adopted by nearly 80 per cent of the 5.7 million population. Plagued by privacy fears at its launch in March, authorities previously reassured citizens that the data would only be used for contact tracing purposes, that it was stored locally, encrypted, and would “never be accessed” unless the user tested positive for Covid-19. Dissent is rare in Singapore – as is serious crime – and the public mood is one of frustration and quiet resignation. As one user put it, “Every time I have lunch or shop outside, I am forced to recognize the gaze of the state”.

Thanks for reading, and do share this around.

Giles Whittell
@GWhittell

Patricia Clarke
@paticlarke

Luke Gbedemah
@LukeGbedemah

Photographs Getty Images