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Analysis

As Joe Biden’s margin of victory grows, so does Republican resistance

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As Joe Biden’s margin of victory has increased with vote counting drawing to a close, Republicans have grown more assertive in giving cover to Donald Trump’s false claims that the US presidential election was stolen from him.

Mr Trump has refused to acknowledge his defeat, instead filing lawsuits and alleging, without any real evidence, that there was a widespread conspiracy by the Democrats to falsify ballots and rig the election in their favour, despite underwhelming results for Democrats in Congress.

Though the president’s claims have been largely rejected in the courts, Republicans have continued to stand by Mr Trump and lent credence to his claims even as the Trump campaign has failed to produce proof of significant irregularities.

William Barr, the US attorney-general, on Monday issued a memo that changed Department of Justice policy to allow voter fraud investigations before the election is settled. The move triggered the resignation of the official who oversaw such cases.

Mitch McConnell, the Republican Senate majority leader, has declined to say that Mr Biden has won the election, telling reporters on Tuesday that “anyone who’s running for office can exhaust concerns about counting in any court of appropriate jurisdiction”.

“Not unusual. Should not be alarming. The electoral college will determine the winner. And that person will be sworn in on January 20. No reason for alarm,” he added.

And Mike Pompeo, US secretary of state, on Wednesday said “there will be a smooth transition to a second Trump administration”, even as several world leaders telephoned Mr Biden to congratulate him on winning the election.

“I’m very confident that we will count, and we must count, every legal vote,” he said, adding it was “ridiculous” to suggest Mr Trump’s refusal to concede the election would hamper his department’s efforts to convince losers of elections elsewhere in the world to concede.

Meanwhile, 10 Republican state attorneys-general have thrown their weight behind a Supreme Court challenge to mail ballots in Pennsylvania that arrived after polling day. Such ballots are likely too few to alter the result in a state where Mr Biden leads by about 45,000 votes and counting.

“This tells us quite a bit about the sad state of our politics across the board,” said Jeffrey Engel, director of the Center for Presidential History at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.

“We used to assume that politicians were more concerned with their own careers than the fate of the nation, now we have verifiable proof.”

Mr Barr’s memo, which authorised investigations into “substantial” allegations of voter fraud, raised the prospect of the Department of Justice taking public actions in the coming weeks that Mr Trump could seize on to bolster his claims.

Previously, prosecutors would delay pursuing such investigations until after the results of an election were certified. Mr Barr in his memo criticised that “passive and delayed” approach, suggesting there were cases where electoral fraud would change the outcome of an election.

Richard Pilger, a career prosecutor who had overseen voter fraud cases, resigned from that supervisory role after “having familiarised myself with the new policy and its ramifications”, he told colleagues in an email on Monday.

Mr Trump has already shared Mr Barr’s memo with his tens of millions of Twitter followers.

Mitch McConnell, the Republican Senate majority leader, has declined to say that Mr Biden has won the election © Getty Images

The manoeuvres have caused alarm among Democrats, though they have continued to express confidence that Mr Trump has no route to undo Mr Biden’s victory, largely because he has a significant margin in several states that give him a buffer to any challenge.

“I don’t think it’s adding up to anything serious in terms of preventing Joe Biden from becoming president,” said Matthew Miller, a former justice department spokesman in the Obama administration.

“I do think it adds up to something serious in terms of the public’s confidence in the election,” he added. A recent Politico poll suggested that 70 per cent of Republicans now think the election was not free and fair, a significant rise from around a third before the election.

Mr Trump’s refusal to concede is already having an impact on the possibility of a smooth handover, with the General Services Administration declining to start the formal transition process.

The willingness of Republicans to go along with Mr Trump even after his defeat has reflected the tight grip Mr Trump continues to hold over core Republican voters. Two of his sons, Donald Trump Jr and Eric, have issued warnings on Twitter to Republican officials who did not speak out in support of the president.

“The Trump family has made it extremely clear that they are taking a list of names and they’re going to remember who did not back them,” Mr Engel said.

Only four Republican senators have accepted the result of the election, including Mitt Romney from Utah and Ben Sasse from Nebraska, both of whom have criticised Mr Trump in the past. 

Others need to avoid angering Mr Trump’s base ahead of their 2022 re-election campaigns, such as Roy Blunt of Missouri, who told reporters on Tuesday: “The president wasn’t defeated by large numbers. In fact he may not have been defeated at all.”

Such concerns about the Republican base are amplified for senators who are considering running for president in 2024, such as Texas’s Ted Cruz and Missouri’s Josh Hawley. Mr Pompeo is also thought to harbour hopes of running in four years.

In Georgia, where Mr Biden appears to have won a narrow victory, a run-off election to determine the state’s two senators is set for January. The outcome in that race will determine which party controls the Senate.

The two Republican incumbent senators, Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue, have attacked Georgia’s Republican secretary of state, Brad Raffensberger, claiming he had “failed to deliver honest and transparent elections” and calling for his resignation.

Mr Raffensberger rejected the claims, and noted that it was “unlikely” that there was any voter fraud that would change the reality that Mr Biden carried the state.

Some observers said Republicans were treading a fine line, neither rejecting Mr Trump’s claims nor wholly endorsing them. 

“The thing to remember about Mitch McConnell is that he chooses his language very precisely,” said Doug Heye, a former top Republican national committee spokesperson. “He is not saying Donald Trump is right.” 

Mr Heye said Mr McConnell was trying to keep the Republican conference united. He noted the “torrent of abuse that would come if [Mr McConnell] were to very boldly state the obvious” in saying that Mr Biden had won.

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Analysis

Iranian TV action thriller delivers warning to Zarif

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It is hardly surprising that Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iran’s foreign minister and nuclear negotiator, is not a fan of Gando, a popular television drama that depicts an incompetent minister who scuppers nuclear talks with world powers by hiring dual nationals who turn out to be spies for MI6.

The series — made by an institute believed to be affiliated to the elite and hardline Revolutionary Guards — “is a lie from the beginning to the end” that “damages foreign policy more than me” by fuelling public mistrust, Zarif said.

By focusing on the nuclear talks, the Guards’ motive goes beyond creating compelling drama, reformist analysts say. Iran is in discussion with western powers about reviving the nuclear deal, a key reformist achievement, and hardliners want to deter the popular foreign minister from declaring his interest in the presidency in what is a crucial election year.

“I’ll be grateful to Gando-makers to let us continue our current job,” Zarif said this month, and commented that he would not run for the presidency.

The possibility of nuclear talks with the US and other powers has complicated an already fraught Iranian political scene ahead of the June election. Many reformists are pinning their hopes on Iran’s top diplomat to reinvigorate the nuclear deal and boost support at the ballot box. Hardliners might prefer to negotiate the deal themselves after the election. The polls are also seen as particularly crucial in case supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, 81, dies during the next president’s term.

Pendar Akbari, left, and Ashkan Delavari, right, in a scene from ‘Gando’
Pendar Akbari, left, and Ashkan Delavari, right, in a scene from an episode of ‘Gando’. The series title refers to an Iranian crocodile able to distinguish its friends from its enemies © Bahar Asgari/Shahid Avini Cultural and Artistic Institute via AP

The purpose of Gando, which refers to an Iranian crocodile able to distinguish its friends from its enemies, “is to tell Zarif that should he dare to announce his candidacy, he will be destroyed immediately,” said one reformist analyst. “When the intelligence service of the Guards truly believes in the Gando plot lines, it means even if Zarif decides to defy such warnings, he will not be allowed to run.”

Centrist president Hassan Rouhani is due to step down this year after two terms and it is not yet clear who the presidential candidates will be. Politicians register as late as May and then have to be vetted by the Guardian Council, the hardline constitutional watchdog, which can disqualify nominees. Potential hardline candidates include Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, the parliament speaker and a former guards commander; Ebrahim Raisi, the judiciary chief; and Ali Larijani, a former speaker of parliament. On the reformist side, speculation has centred on Es’haq Jahangiri, first vice-president, Hassan Khomeini, a grandson of the founder of the Islamic republic, and Zarif.

A US-educated career diplomat widely respected in the west for his pragmatism, Zarif was instrumental in the historic deal in 2015, under which Iran curbed its nuclear activity in exchange for the lifting of sanctions. But Donald Trump abandoned the accord in 2018, imposed sanctions, including on Zarif, and said he would pursue a new accord to contain Iran’s regional and military policies. The US move emboldened hardliners, confirming to them the untrustworthiness of the US.

Zarif’s background in the US both as a university student and as Iran’s head of mission at the UN — during which he met US politicians including then senator Joe Biden — has long made him a source of suspicion for hardliners.

This wariness of both Zarif and the west is evident to viewers of Gando, as is the heroism of the Revolutionary Guards. Mohammad, the action hero protagonist, warns that western negotiators may sabotage refineries as part of nuclear talks. Mohammad works out of elaborate facilities akin to those in a James Bond film. The fictional foreign minister is advised by a media adviser, the main culprit, “to enter into direct talks with the US and accept the conditions of the leader of the global village”.

Vahid Rahbani in a scene from an episode of ‘Gando’
Vahid Rahbani in a scene from an episode of ‘Gando’. State TV abruptly stopped broadcasting the series that was less than halfway through its 30-episode run © Hassan Hendi/Shahid Avini Cultural and Artistic Institute via AP

The dramatic scenes reflect, in part, the worldview of some of Zarif’s critics. “Reformists, Mr Zarif and his lobby group in Washington [Iranian dual nationals] should be wiped out from Iran’s politics,” said an aide to a senior hardline politician who is a potential presidential candidate. “We have to get rid of this cancerous tumour once for good.”

Gholamali Jafarzadeh, a former conservative member of parliament, said Zarif “is not a good statesman and should not run for president” while “reformists should know that their choices have no chance to be allowed to run”. 

This month, state TV abruptly stopped broadcasting the series that was less than halfway through its 30-episode run. Local media said broadcasts would resume when the presidential race was over. Iran’s centrist president Hassan Rouhani, whose signature achievement is the nuclear deal — alluded to the show on Wednesday and said “people’s money” should not be spent on “fabrication of the truth” and “distortion of facts”.

After three years of sanctions, many voters are disillusioned by the infighting and the prospect of real change, whatever the outcome of the election. “Whether Zarif or a figure more senior than him runs or not, I’m not going to vote,” said Hamid, a 40-year-old engineer. “Let the Guards win the election as they are the ones who are running the country anyway. Why shall I make a fool of myself?” 



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Rising inflation complicates Brazil’s Covid-19 crisis

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After seven months in lockdown, Michele Marques received some unwelcome news when she returned to work: while she was away the prices of almost all the products she uses as a hairdresser had soared.

“A box of gloves rose 200 per cent. Colouring products increased at least 100 per cent,” said the 37-year-old from São Paulo, underlining how costs were rising while her revenue had collapsed. “I had to raise the price of my services, too.”

It is a dynamic that is playing out across Brazil, adding an extra layer of complexity to the country’s coronavirus crisis, which has already claimed the lives of almost 350,000 individuals and pushed hospital services to the brink.

With much of Latin America’s largest economy being shuttered, inflation is surging to its highest level in years, fuelling a silent scourge of hunger among poorer citizens that has run in parallel to the Covid-19 pandemic.

“The high price of staple foods — rice and beans, for example — has led to the disappearance of these items from the table of millions of Brazilians,” said Ana Maria Segall, a researcher at the Brazilian Research Network on Food and Nutritional Sovereignty and Security. In the 12 months to the end of March, the price of rice increased 64 per cent and black beans 51 per cent.

“In Brazil currently food inflation has penalised the very poorest, preventing them from having adequate access to food and in many situations leading to hunger,” she said, adding that rising unemployment and the curtailment of social programmes were also contributing factors.

Volunteers hand out food in São Paulo © Alexandre Schneider/Getty Images

Less than half of Brazil’s population of 212m now has access to adequate food all the time, with 19m people, or 9 per cent of its inhabitants, facing hunger, according to a recent report by Segall’s group.

“I’m doing some odd jobs, but it’s not enough to keep us going,” said Jonathan, a 28-year-old who lost his job in the kitchen of a Chinese restaurant in São Paulo when the pandemic began. He said he now struggles to provide enough food for his three young children and pregnant wife.

On a 12-month basis, inflation in June is expected to surpass 8 per cent, far above earlier estimates. In the 12 months to March, food prices jumped 18.5 per cent, while the price of agricultural commodities in local currency surged 55 per cent and the cost of fuel increased almost 92 per cent.

Line chart of Percentage increase over past 12 months showing The price of rice in Brazil is soaring

The developments pose a fresh challenge to President Jair Bolsonaro, who is already under fire for his handling of the Covid-19 pandemic. Across Brazil’s biggest cities, graffiti has sprung up labelling the populist leader “Bolsocaro” — a portmanteau of his name and the Portuguese word for expensive.

The rising prices are also likely to provide useful ammunition to leftist former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who returned to the political fray last month and may challenge Bolsonaro in elections next year.

“Bolsonaro is to blame for the increase in food prices, he is to blame for everything. They have to remove this guy,” said Maria Izabel de Jesus, a retiree from São Paulo.

Armando Castelar, a researcher at the Brazilian Institute of Economics, said the government had underestimated inflation both in terms of the numbers and also “how much a concern it should be”.

He attributed the rising prices to the devaluation of the Brazilian currency, triggered in part by the stimulus packages passed by the US government — which helped to bolster the dollar and led to higher Treasury yields — and the brighter economic outlook outside Latin America.

“You have a situation where commodity prices are going up because the global economy is going to grow a lot this year. With the growth in the US, interest rates are going up and the dollar is strengthening. This puts a lot of pressure on the exchange rate in Brazil and emerging markets in general,” he said.

As the spectre of inflation loomed last month, the Brazilian central bank raised its key interest rate by 75 basis points, higher than the half-percentage point many economists had expected. A further rate rise is expected next month.

“The central bank acted correctly, but it cannot stop there. It is important not to be too lenient in dealing with this,” said Castelar.

Silvia Matos, a co-ordinator at the Brazilian Economy Institute, also pointed to Brazil’s weakening currency as a contributing factor to inflation. But she said the slide in the real was triggered by investor concerns over Brazil’s deteriorating public finances.

Following the creation of two separate stimulus packages to mitigate the impact of Covid-19, government debt has risen to about 90 per cent of gross domestic product, a high level for an emerging market economy.

The rollout of the second of these packages began this month, with 45m Brazilians set to receive $50 a month for four months.

Critics said, however, these stipends were not nearly enough to keep people both fed and at home in lockdown.

“It is essential that the emergency aid is of a greater value, so that people do not leave the house but no one also stays at home starving,” said Marcelo Freixo, a federal lawmaker with the leftwing PSOL party.

“We need to reduce the circulation of the disease. Brazil is already experiencing 4,000 deaths per day. We will reach 500,000 total deaths by the middle of the year.”

Matos says that inflation had hit poorer citizens much harder than middle-class and rich Brazilians because a larger portion of their income was dedicated to food, the price of which has increased substantially.

“The only thing that could help right now is to get out of this pandemic,” she said.

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Can CVC pull off a $20bn ‘deal of the century’ at Toshiba?

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Proposed management buyout looks like an improbable win for the Japanese conglomerate’s embattled CEO



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