Dawn Editorial 6 October 2020

Polarised America

ELECTION night in America was eerily reminiscent of election night in Pakistan. The too-close-to-call contest between Republican candidate President Donald Trump and Democratic candidate Joe Biden is still not over, but the run-up to the verdict contains the same chaos, uncertainty and anxiety that rule our elections as well as polls held in countries where democracy is a relatively new concept.
Mr Trump’s realisation that key Republican states were slipping away and turning blue triggered an outburst on social media, where in a flurry of provocative tweets he alleged electoral fraud, saying that deliberate attempts were being made to ‘steal’ the election from him. In one dramatic tweet, he “hereby claim[ed] victory in the battleground state of Michigan where projections from major news networks suggested Mr Biden had won — a post among others by Mr Trump that Twitter repeatedly flagged for violating its ‘civic integrity policy’ which maintains that the platform cannot be manipulated for interfering in elections.
As if it were not surreal enough that the social media platform was checking the incumbent president of the United States mid-election, Mr Trump’s posts encouraged his supporters in some states to gather at polling centres to try and stop the vote-count process. In some places, stores boarded up their windows to brace for a wave of post-verdict violence.
Read: Did social media actually counter US election misinformation?
That these scenes are unfolding in America as it makes a crucial decision regarding its — and the world’s — future speaks volumes for the state of American democracy. Mr Trump’s presidency and re-election bid have exposed the fault lines in the American electoral system and shown how one individual can fan the flames of division and take an already polarised society to the edge.
Read: Trump erupts as Biden closes in on US presidency
The race — regardless of who wins — has held up a mirror to how divided the American people are. The two candidates are still neck and neck in some key states, with Team Biden dependent on the exhilaratingly close contest in Nevada where, at the time of writing, six electoral college votes could decide the future of the presidency. Regardless of whichever one scrapes through, it is evident that this election has split the country, with 72m voting one way and 68m the other.
If there is a silver lining to all this, it is that American citizens have turned out in record numbers to cast their vote. While a winner is still undetermined and the weeks ahead could see legal battles and an escalation of tensions over vote count, it is heartening that millions have exercised their right to vote because of an inherent belief in democracy. Still, the pall of uncertainty that hangs over the election begs a reflection of how America — a centuries-old democracy that has lectured many a developing nation on democratic processes — came to be in such a fragile position.



Reforming ‘kafala’

COUNTLESS Pakistanis who have worked in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states are familiar with the kafala system. This system of ‘sponsorship’ severely restricts the freedoms foreign workers have in the kingdom, basically with the kafeel or sponsor having the final say in when and if the worker can leave or travel outside the country, or change jobs. Due to its very nature it is open to abuse, with sponsors/employers keeping workers’ travel documents, and everyone — from executives to blue-collar workers — in one form or the other beholden to the kafeel. However, as announced recently by Saudi officials, the kingdom is set to revamp the system to make it more transparent and worker-friendly. According to Saudi officials, the changes, due to take effect from next year, will allow foreign workers to change jobs and travel from Saudi Arabia without their employer’s permission.
No doubt many foreign workers in Saudi Arabia, and those hoping to tap the kingdom’s labour market, will welcome these proposals. Over a million Pakistanis work in the kingdom, and these changes to Saudi labour laws will be keenly followed in this country. As it is currently being practised, the kafala system is outdated and not in line with modern labour laws. In worst-case scenarios, the kafeel can act like a slave driver, and there are few forums for foreign workers to complain to in the kingdom. Usually, the odds are stacked against foreigners, with Saudi authorities rarely giving workers from outside the kingdom a sympathetic ear. Hopefully, the proposed reforms will change this. The Saudis have initiated these changes “to improve Saudi Arabia’s labour market attractiveness”, as one official in the kingdom put it. Those who rule Riyadh are looking to diversify the kingdom’s economy away from petrochemicals, and for this they need both a qualified Saudi workforce, as well as foreign labour. However, to attract the best and most able foreign workers there must be visible changes to the Saudi labour market, and reforming kafala is the ideal place to start. Human rights organisations have said the proposed changes are welcome, but not enough, and that Riyadh must do away with the sponsorship system totally. This may be too much to ask, but ideally Saudi planners must aim to create a labour market that conforms with international regimes where workers, foreign and local, have all the rights the ILO and international conventions guarantee.



Farmers’ protest

THE story of the protesting farmers of Punjab takes on an even more depressing tone as news of the possible consequences of police action in Lahore makes the rounds. One demonstrator, who was rushed to hospital after the police used water cannons and batons to disperse the farmers, was reported dead on Thursday. This threatens to change the tone and tenor of an already tense campaign. Punjab’s farmers are demonstrating mainly for what they call a fair price for their wheat. They are being offered Rs1,600 per 40 kg for their produce but they have before them the example of Sindh which has fixed the price at Rs2,000 per 40 kg. How an apparently less resourceful unit of the federation is going to sustain the high costs of wheat is in itself a big question. But as far as sympathies and political constituencies go, these growers have attracted support from some big names in Punjab as well — among them Chaudhry Pervaiz Elahi. As speaker of the provincial assembly, he happens to be the custodian of the house in front of which the government of Sardar Usman Buzdar unleashed violence on a group that was hardly expecting such an urban reception.
The search for those who ordered the use of brute force against the demonstrators was on 24 hours later amid allegations that the water dispersed had some chemical content. Just as the news of the death of a protester, said to be an office-bearer of a farmers’ organisation, came in, there were hasty official vows to find a quick solution to demands for increasing the wheat price. But it’s one of the toughest problems to solve. Given the amount of panic on display and a guilty conscience, even a sincere desire to resolve the issue can at best provide only the start of a process that may be long and taxing. There has to be a dialogue across provinces to ensure that there is not too much discrepancy in prices of an essential item such as wheat in the country.


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