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2020 has been an unusual year for everyone, but it has been business as usual in the realm of politics: the pandemic has helped to reaffirm the power of the state; political protests have persisted; and stories of political reforms were not any less momentous than last year’s.
Despite a fall in general activity with everyone being locked in for the better part of the year, political turbulence never once subsided. If anything, politics may have played a significant role in sustaining a certain level of social activity while the economy stagnated.
Here is an interpretative recap of politics in 2020 which features stories covered by King’s Business Review writers.
Governments under scrutiny
This year has put many things to the test. There has been immense pressure on the capacity of hospitals everywhere around the world, and governments have also been under intense scrutiny for their management of the pandemic.
Those that were quick to take early preventive measures are lauded. Whereas others that sat by unsuspectingly as China was grappling with ever-increasing Covid-19 infections, they have had to suffer terrible losses.
Spain was one of the optimists. Despite the shocking sight of Italy’s healthcare system on the brink of collapsing, the Spanish government took no early action to prevent the outbreak from entering the country. When they finally decided to respond, mixed messages reached the recalcitrant public, throwing government policies into disarray.
With the pandemic alone, this year has offered governments several chances to convince people of their competence. What measures they push for, how well they do compared with their foreign counterparts, whether their policies have translated into a decline in daily cases – people have been bombarded with such information all year long. That makes it so much easier to attribute Covid-19 successes as well as failures to government efforts.
However, Africa has shown that other factors besides the robustness of healthcare systems and the management prowess of national governments also play a decisive role in determining who has the upper hand. It could come down to the region’s climate, the proportion of the elderly population, and past experience with epidemic diseases.
Indeed, in this era, people have become increasingly dependent on the state, and during critical times, all eyes are on the administration. But in these circumstances, putting people’s health first has come to mean putting the economy for sacrifice, and striking a balance between these two is near impossible.
We shall not forget that what can get us out of this protracted predicament does not rest solely on any one government but ultimately requires a collective effort extending beyond borders.
Democratic backsliding and popular unrest
Aside from the Covid-19 health crisis, 2020 has also had to face crises carried over from the previous year – a time popularly labelled as the year of street protest.
In 2019, mass demonstrations broke out in every continent, from Hong Kong and Moscow to Sudan and Chile. Hardly any two protests transpired for a cause shared by the global community, so what could have been the common trigger of such widespread, yet seemingly unrelated mass unrest?
As abstract as it was, the worldwide outbursts signified a real progression of democratic rollback or authoritarian resurgence. And the trend has not been reversed either this year.
“The pandemic became a political game for politicians to point fingers” at the expense of innocent people, subjecting the Asian community to hate crimes. President Trump was also one to unabashedly advance such divisive political rhetoric with his ‘Chinese virus’ comments.
Moving to Europe, the Polish government came out with a ruling in October that further restricts abortion rights and effectively outlaws abortions due to foetal abnormalities. With a leader that indulges in nepotism and political patronage, the passing of the ruling was hassle-free. But it instantly sparked one of the biggest mass demonstrations in Poland, second only to the Solidarity movement, which continues to this day.
Over to South Asia, Indian farmers, who are aggrieved at the new pro-free market farm bills, have also taken it to the streets. Not only has the government excluded them from the policymaking process, but they are also now left to fend for themselves as they are forced to deal with large extractive corporates without a middleman.
It seems that people’s voice of resentment towards corrupt, undemocratic, and polarising governments has only grown louder every year no matter the risks of organising a protest, even in a pandemic.
Despite all signs of democratic recession, mass demonstrations will remain as an active and resilient counteracting force. So long as people continue to seek changes and improvements in the Establishment, such as reform of the monarchy or the policing system, the protests will not settle down.
Past loss and reforms to come
Undeniably, much of this year has had to do with loss, including the passing of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a former Supreme Court justice who lived her life fighting gender discrimination in US courts.
Her death has shown us that every loss leaves behind a great legacy and, by extension, whatever that is not yet lost is here to make a change – for better or worse.
In the US, for instance, the announcement of Biden as president-elect marked the beginning of change in US politics. The challenge of reversing the consequences of Trump’s populist rhetoric, which has deeply divided the country, will rest heavy on Biden’s shoulder.
On top of populism, we can anticipate a techno-populist wave in the future as this year has ushered in a more glorious era for technocracy. Although both ideals are equally legitimate, their union poses a threat to democratic principles in politics.
In France, significant changes are also taking place. The death of a schoolteacher has led President Macron to seek ways of preventing radicalisation, but the effectiveness of his policies is disputable. Furthermore, the incident has precipitated a contentious debate surrounding the scope of free speech in the international community. And the question of how free should free speech be will continue to haunt us in the coming years.
With Hong Kong, the country taught us that effective reforms do not always have to begin from the top. Individual citizens and independent advocacy groups are perfectly capable of searching for and exploiting the right platform to transmit their ideas and mobilise counter-movement. The people have the power to undermine and change the existing system without having to topple the entire regime.
“In the end, history will praise the innovators, not the complacent.” Matilde Diez, a KBR writer, wrote.
In many ways, that is a fitting quote to describe 2020. The pandemic has given the world a bitter lesson on how much of a vice complacency can be. As a result, many activities have either been put to a halt or deferred throughout the year, but certainly not people’s battle for reforms. In fact, many of this year’s highlights were record-breaking mass protests thanks to the participants, or rather innovators, who have thus made history.
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