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Analysis

2020: A year in protests

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“The people want the fall of the regime” was the slogan made famous by the Arab Spring. In 2011, what the people wanted, they often got, as authoritarian governments were toppled in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. 

The lesson of that year looked similar to that learnt in Europe in 1989: if enough demonstrators come out on to the streets, they can become an irresistible force for change — though the political order that eventually emerges may not always reflect the protesters’ aspirations. 

In 2020, however, people power looked less of an unstoppable force. There were plenty of popular demonstrations across the world this year, but few have led to clear political victories for the protesters. 

A demonstrator holds a red lightning bolt, symbol of Poland’s women strikers, as he joins a pro-choice protest in Warsaw © Wojtek Radwanski/AFP/Getty

Why might street protests be losing their power? Two trends seem to be emerging. One is that authoritarian governments are getting better at repression. And in the case of broad-based social justice movements such as Black Lives Matter, diffuse aims make it harder to define success.

In Hong Kong the pro-democracy movement that, at its height, brought millions of people on to the streets has been crushed by the passage of a new national security law drawn up in Beijing. Two young leaders of that movement — Joshua Wong and Agnes Chow — were jailed this month. In Belarus, months of mass protests following a flawed election have failed to dislodge Alexander Lukashenko as president. In Thailand, the military-backed government continues to resist demands for constitutional reform. 

There have been deaths and disappearances inflicted on protesters in Belarus — but, elsewhere, official repression has avoided mass street violence. Troops were not deployed on the streets in Hong Kong. Instead protesters have been arrested and jailed, with ringleaders tracked using social media and surveillance technology.

Women dressed in white protest against police violence during a rally in Minsk accusing Alexander Lukashenko of falsifying this year’s election © Sergei Gapon/AFP/Getty

The international political environment also matters. In Egypt in 2011 or the Philippines in 1986, US-sponsored autocrats found that support from Washington was withdrawn in response to popular pressure. But in Belarus, the key outside power is Vladimir Putin’s Russia, which has every interest in seeing street protest movements fail.

China is the sovereign power in Hong Kong, and the Thai military increasingly looks to Beijing rather than to Washington. Ironically, Russia and China — two countries that were once seen as the sponsors of world revolution — have now become deeply reactionary in their response to popular movements that threaten established power.

By contrast, the Black Lives Matter movement against racial injustice and police brutality was perhaps the biggest social protest movement seen in the US for decades. It brought millions of people on to the streets: impressive, given that BLM took place in the middle of a pandemic.

Thai students, with white ribbons in their hair and on their wrists, protest outside the education ministry in Bangkok © Mladen Antonov/AFP/Getty

But widespread support for the BLM did not necessarily translate into an easily actionable agenda. The Democrats would not endorse a demand to “defund the police” during the 2020 election. However, the movement sparked a broader demand for racial justice whose effects are likely to play out in business and society over the course of many years.

Here are some of the movements that defined the year:

US: Black Lives Matter seeks racial justice

A policeman take the knee while hundreds protest near the White House over the death of George Floyd © Roberto Schmidt/AFP/Getty

The police killing of George Floyd in May sparked protests across the US and around the globe. Video of Floyd, a 46-year-old black man, being pinned down for more than eight minutes by a white police officer in Minneapolis, Minnesota, went viral.

It sparked outrage in big US cities, as well as smaller towns and suburbs where people had not previously protested against police violence en masse

Floyd’s death reignited long-simmering tensions over racial injustice in the US and breathed new life into the Black Lives Matter movement, which started after George Zimmerman was acquitted for the 2012 killing of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teenager.

Thailand: Students march for reform

A demonstrator pushes back against a cordon of police during an anti-government protest in Bangkok © Jorge Silva/Reuters

Thailand’s youth protests began after a court banned Future Forward, a popular opposition party, in February. The dissent went online during lockdown from March, then resurfaced outdoors from July.

A “Free Youth” movement, drawing on the legacy of past democratic uprisings and pop culture iconography, demanded the resignation of ex-junta leaders, a new constitution and an end to the harassment of dissidents. Radical students then made formerly unutterable demands for reform of the monarchy.

Older supporters have joined in, as have schoolchildren. But the protesters have not yet been successful in securing any of their core demands. Police have opened lèse majesté (royal insult) cases against more than two dozen protest figures. The students are digging in, too, and promising more action in 2021.

Belarus: Lukashenko’s stolen election

Belarus opposition activists resist police attempts to detain them in Minsk © Stringer/EPA-EFE

Enraged by authoritarian leader Mr Lukashenko’s claim to have won re-election in a deeply flawed vote in August, tens of thousands Belarusians flooded on to the streets in protest. The biggest demonstrations in the capital, Minsk, drew as many as 200,000 people — and for a brief moment Mr Lukashenko’s opponents hoped his autocratic 26-year rule was coming to an end.

But Mr Lukashenko’s security forces responded savagely. Tens of thousands of Belarusians have been detained, many have been injured and several have died. At the height of the protests, Mr Putin, the Russian president, pledged to support Mr Lukashenko. Combined with the crackdown and freezing winter conditions, Mr Lukashenko has been able to cling to power.

Protests are still taking place, albeit in decentralised form, in recent weeks to make it harder for security services to stamp them out. Opposition leaders hope that when the weather improves in the spring, the temperature of the protests will rise again too.

Poland: Anti-abortion opposition

Demonstrators light flares as they take part in a pro-choice protest in the centre of Warsaw © Wojtek Radwanski/AFP/Getty

The women’s rights protests that rocked Poland this autumn were triggered when a Constitutional Tribunal ruling paved the way for the country’s abortion laws — already among the strictest in Europe — to be tightened further.

The announcement sparked a furious backlash. Hundreds of thousands of Poles came on to the streets in towns and cities across the country. Following a huge protest in Warsaw at the end of October that drew about 100,000 people, the government backed down, preventing the ruling from coming into force by simply refusing to publish it.

That decision leaves Polish women in limbo. The abortion rules have not officially been tightened but some doctors are now reluctant to perform the procedure because of the legal uncertainty surrounding it. There is also the risk that the government could try again.

Hong Kong: China’s security law crackdown

Police officers arrests a demonstrator during a pro-democracy protest in Hong Kong © Willie Siawillie Siau/SOPA/ZUMA/dpa

Beijing’s imposition of a national security law on Hong Kong was aimed at extinguishing the 2019 pro-democracy movement in the city. While it has partially achieved its aim — street protests have been all but crushed — it has sparked international retaliation against China from the US, the UK and others, and raised questions over the future of the rule of law on which the Asian financial centre depends.

Under the new law, crimes ranging from secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign elements are punishable with up to life imprisonment.

Critics say the legislation’s wording is vague and that it violates the political, civil and legal freedoms guaranteed to the territory on its handover from the UK to China in 1997. The government has backed up the law with the arrest of high-profile activists while forcing others into exile.

Germany: Anti-mask protests

A coronavirus sceptic wearing a protective face mask reading ‘dictatorship’ protests against government restrictions in Bremen © Fabian Bimmer/Reuters

What started last spring as quirky, scattered protests against Germany’s coronavirus regulations has become a more radicalised movement. Some protesters insist they remain non-violent, and have legitimate concerns over the legal basis for pandemic measures. But they are rallying alongside a wide spectrum of hippies, neo-Nazis and conspiracy theorists.

The main organising force is a network that call themselves “Querdenker”, or lateral thinkers. They shocked the country in August, when protesters at a large rally in Berlin tried to storm the Reichstag. Many carried flags of the far-right Reichsbürger movement, which rejects the legitimacy of the postwar German state.

Since then, the protests have become more violent. Several policemen were injured at rallies in Leipzig and Berlin. One group among the protesters unnerved Germans by comparing themselves to Holocaust victims or Nazi resistance fighters. Federal and state intelligence agencies have issued warnings and put some of Querdenker chapters under surveillance.

US: Anti-lockdown protests

Protesters rally outside the Governor’s Mansion in St Paul, Minnesota, to oppose coronavirus lockdown measures © Stephen Maturen/Getty

Starting in April, thousands of Americans in more than a dozen states participated in protests against the coronavirus stay-at-home orders that had shut down large parts of the US economy. 

Many of the protesters were “ruby red” conservatives who bristled at what they saw as government over-reach. But in some places they were joined by moderates from the business community who fretted that the measures were resulting in tens of millions of people losing their jobs. Far-right extremist groups, such as the Proud Boys, were highly visible participants.

Some of the biggest protests took place in the industrial Midwestern state of Michigan, where Democratic governor Gretchen Whitmer faced fierce criticism from not only her Republican constituents but also the president. In October, federal and local prosecutors in the state charged 14 men with conspiring to kidnap Ms Whitmer as part of a militia plot ahead of November’s US election.

Lebanon: Anger at state corruption

Protesters remove concrete barriers blocking a parliament entrance during an anti-government rally in Beirut © Hasan Shaaban/Bloomberg

Lebanon’s nationwide protest movement, which erupted in October 2019, toppled prime minister Sa’ad Hariri’s government within weeks. The overthrow of the entire political class — deemed corrupt by protesters — seemed imminent.

The leaderless demonstrators were largely driven off the streets in 2020 by coronavirus and economic hardship. But the catastrophic port explosion in August, which killed around 200 people and injured thousands, brought protesters roaring back.

Thousands thronged the capital, blaming state incompetence and negligence for allowing some 2,750 tonnes of explosive chemicals to languish in central Beirut for six years. Security forces cracked down violently, eventually deterring demonstrators. So did a sense of futility. After the government resigned, parliament eventually returned the previous premier, Mr Hariri.

Additional reporting by Lauren Fedor in Washington, James Shotter in Warsaw, Nicolle Liu in Hong Kong, John Reed in Bangkok, Erika Solomon in Berlin and Chloe Cornish in Beirut



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Analysis

DUP’s new leader strives to stabilise N Ireland’s biggest party

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Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, new leader of Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist party, is striving to heal DUP wounds that pose a very potent threat to its status as the region’s most powerful political force.

The 58-year-old is expected to ease internal divisions by sharing the DUP’s prized ministerial positions in Northern Ireland’s government between his supporters and those of Edwin Poots, his predecessor as party leader, who was ousted last week after just 21 days in the job.

Donaldson, named DUP leader on Tuesday, is also aiming to unite the party around the cause of aggressively pressing the UK government to overhaul contentious post-Brexit trading rules between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

These arrangements were strongly criticised but ultimately tolerated by Poots and by Arlene Foster, Northern Ireland’s former first minister. Her removal as DUP leader in April heralded what has been the most tumultuous period in the party’s 50-year history. 

The urgency of forging consensus within the DUP stems from a big decision facing Donaldson: whether to endorse a first minister appointed by Poots against the party’s will, propose a replacement, or collapse Northern Ireland’s government in protest at post-Brexit trading rules.

A collapse would have far-reaching consequences beyond the DUP: the power-sharing government at Stormont established under the 1998 Good Friday Agreement drew a line under the sectarian violence in Northern Ireland that claimed more than 3,600 lives.

Shuttering the Stormont assembly could destabilise the region in the early stages of the summer marching season, which often inflames tensions between Northern Ireland’s Catholic nationalist community and Protestant unionists.

“We need Stormont established for people to see that politics is working and it’s not always in a perpetual crisis,” said Peter Sheridan, chief executive of Co-operation Ireland, a peace-building organisation. “Wherever you have a political vacuum there is always the danger of violence.”

Whatever happens in the next few weeks, Donaldson, a senior DUP MP at Westminster, knows that at the very least he is counting down to Stormont assembly elections scheduled for May. He intends to stand in them, and then become first minister, he told the Financial Times.

But the elections will be a public test that the DUP is ill-equipped to face in its current state of disarray. One recent opinion poll put its support among voters as low as 16 per cent, compared to more than 35 per cent in the early days of Foster’s leadership.

“The DUP machine . . . is completely unfit for an election compared to how primed they usually are,” said Sophie Whiting, co-author of an award-winning book about the DUP. 

DUP founder Ian Paisley addresses a meeting in Belfast in 1972 © Bride Lane Library/Popperfoto/Getty Images

Established as a hardline breakaway from the Ulster Unionist party, the DUP was for decades synonymous with its founder, the late Rev Ian Paisley. He set up his own Free Presbyterian church and was famed for quotes like “save Ulster from sodomy” in his effort to prevent the decriminalisation of homosexuality in the late 1970s.

Diarmaid Ferriter, an Irish historian, said some of what has played out in the DUP since Paisley stepped down as leader in 2008 was typical of the “infighting after a very dominant authoritarian figure departs the stage”.

Neither of the DUP’s subsequent two leaders — Peter Robinson or Foster — had the charisma of Paisley, and internal party divisions became more pronounced.

But the fallout from the UK’s departure from the EU has also played a central role in the DUP ructions. The pro-Brexit party briefly enjoyed major influence at Westminster when it propped up Theresa May’s minority UK government, and the DUP rejected her withdrawal agreement with the EU.

But when Boris Johnson replaced May as UK prime minister, the DUP accused him of betrayal after he finalised a Brexit deal that created a customs and regulatory border between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Treating their region differently to the rest of the UK was anathema to Northern Ireland’s unionists.

“It’s very hard for [the DUP] to explain what happened,” said Alex Kane, a longtime Northern Ireland commentator.

Unionist protesters demonstrate against the Northern Ireland protocol of the Brexit agreement in Portadown © Clodagh Kilcoyne/Reuters

The DUP has also been coming under threat from the winds of change in the region. Young people, and their parents and grandparents, have begun to embrace gay rights, abortion and other issues that clashed with the DUP’s deep conservatism.

Dissatisfaction with Foster inside the DUP included a perceived softening of her stance on social issues after she failed to vote against legislation banning gay conversion therapy.

But the biggest issue for Foster was the DUP’s handling of the Northern Ireland protocol — the part of Johnson’s Brexit deal that introduced the border in the Irish Sea.

Tim Cairns, a former DUP adviser, said the criticism of Foster “wasn’t that she was too soft on the protocol, it was that she was too soft in the action she was taking to get rid of the protocol”.

Poots succeeded Foster with promises to do better on the DUP’s most important issues, and to embrace a more inclusive leadership style.

He failed at both, notably by agreeing to continue the power-sharing government involving the DUP and the nationalist Sinn Féin party on terms overwhelmingly opposed by his colleagues at Stormont and Westminster.

Poots infuriated DUP politicians by striking an agreement under which Westminster will pass legislation to protect and promote the status of the Irish language — a top priority for Sinn Féin.

Abortion rights protest at Stormont © Charles McQuillan/Getty Images

Donaldson on Monday launched his bid to lead the DUP with a warning that the government at Stormont could collapse if the UK did not take “decisive action” on the Northern Ireland protocol.

A UK government official said Donaldson was seen as a “more pragmatic” figure than Poots, adding that the new DUP leader’s experience at Westminster meant he had “relationships with people” that could ease negotiations on the protocol.

Still, securing changes to the protocol will be difficult, not least because any revisions must be agreed with the EU. The British official rejected the suggestion that the UK government would have to give the DUP a sweetener on the protocol to ensure Northern Ireland’s stability.

Kane said he believed Donaldson would do everything possible to avoid a collapse of the region’s government. “He isn’t giving up Westminster and coming back to Northern Ireland just to allow the assembly to come down,” added Kane. “He wants to be first minister.”

As for the future of the DUP, while the party has been scarred by recent events, Donaldson arguably inherits a better situation than his predecessor.

In particular, Poots resolved the contentious Irish language legislation, relieving Donaldson of an issue that was always going to be problematic for some inside the DUP.

Furthermore, Donaldson is privately more progressive on social issues than he is in public, and a strategic long-term thinker, according to people who know him.

Cairns said: “There are certainly problems within the party, [but] if anybody is going to sort that out I think Jeffrey is probably best placed to do that.”



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Conservatives’ ideological splits exposed by big spending rail projects

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Boris Johnson has been urged by Conservative MPs representing the ‘red wall’ of former Labour heartland seats not to cut back major rail infrastructure projects as the UK prime minister comes under pressure from chancellor Rishi Sunak to rein in ambitious plans for public spending.

The National Infrastructure Commission, which advises the government, recently said plans to extend the High Speed 2 rail project to Leeds should be scrapped to save £32bn from its expected budget of over £100bn. Earlier this week the FT revealed that costs on HS2 have risen by £1.7bn in the past year — partly because of the pandemic — although this was covered by the project’s contingency budget.

Meanwhile the Treasury has not yet given the sign-off to the Northern Powerhouse rail project, which is supposed to link the north’s big cities from Liverpool, Hull and Newcastle via Manchester, Sheffield and Leeds, and which could cost a further £39bn.

The uncertainty over the multibillion pound transport schemes underline the tensions between Johnson and Sunak in recent weeks over a number of spending projects, with the Treasury eager to dampen Downing Street’s appetite for spending. Number 10 has clashed with other Whitehall ministries over social care reform and a new “royal yacht”.

Johnson is seen by his party as the most pro-spending Conservative leader since Harold Macmillan’s time in Downing Street from 1957 to 1963. Since Margaret Thatcher took over the party in 1975, it has shunned stimulating demand through spending, opting instead for tax cuts.

One senior Treasury insider said that Sunak’s view was “there are choices that have to be made” and it was important to stabilise the public finances as the UK emerged from the worst of the coronavirus pandemic. The chancellor announced two tax changes in his March budget — freezes in the personal income tax threshold and a rise in corporation tax.

“What he did at the Budget was to put us back on to a more stable trajectory, get debt falling and get our public finances on to a stable footing. He made it very clear that the two tax changes are things he wanted to do to achieve that. But he’s not necessarily keen on raising any more taxes on people, particularly personal taxation,” the official said.

HS2 is designed to run from London to Manchester via Birmingham and Crewe. But the “eastern leg of HS2 2b” — extending from the West Midlands to Leeds — has been criticised by many Tory MPs in its traditional southern strongholds, who believe it should be scrapped.

Tories elected for the first time in the 2019 election have privately warned that it would be a mistake to cancel it. “Our first time voters are watching and waiting for the government to prove they’re delivering on the promises we made them in 2019,” one newly elected MP said.

Other Tories insist the Northern Powerhouse Rail, sometimes referred to as HS3, is even more important. “It’s absolutely crucial that ‘Northern Powerhouse Rail’ is built. I wasn’t a big fan of HS2 but this is exactly what we have to build to deliver on the trust that was put on us,” another MP said.

Following a report carried by the Huffington Post on Tuesday that said the Treasury and Downing Street were at odds over when to publish the long-awaited integrated rail plan (IRP), which will set out the details of Britain’s future rail system including the new Leeds-Manchester route, a Downing Street spokesman said the government was “still committed” to the new rail line.

“We are getting on top of our priorities and investing in northern transport,” he said. “The integrated rail plan will set out how major rail projects including HS2 phase 2b and Northern Powerhouse Rail will work together to deliver reliable rail services that passengers deserve.”

One Treasury figure said that Downing Street, the Treasury and the Department for Transport all broadly accepted the need to push ahead with the project — but the details were still up in the air.

“There needs to be a package of investment and needs to be agreement on what that looks like. Work is ongoing,” the person said. “But this is more an issue of bandwidth than any serious differences, it has been a while since the relevant cabinet ministers all met.”

Any disagreements on funding the new railway line are not about scale but are instead likely to be about the timeline and how soon spades can go in the ground. 

Many newly elected Tory MPs favour more spending, to make up for decades of under investment in their areas. One MP representing a northern constituency said that most of the newly elected Tories backed “sensible measures that allow us to deliver on our manifesto commitments”.

“Very few people are going around saying we have to do everything, colleagues know that we need to have clear blue water with Labour. We’re in a dangerous position if it looks like we’re going to outspend them,” they said.

Paul Goodman, editor of the ConservativeHome website and a former Tory MP, said the current parliamentary party has a similar tension to the one at the top of government. “Their hearts are with Johnson but their heads are with Sunak,” he said.

“Most Tories are in parliament because they are Conservatives and that’s true of the red wall intake too. They believe in a smaller state and lower taxes. But these beliefs run up against their constituencies demanding more and more spending.”



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First unleveraged single-stock ETPs aim to woo retail investors

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Visit our ETF Hub for investor news and education, market updates and analysis and easy-to-use tools to help you select the right ETFs.

Leverage Shares is attempting to tap the boom in retail investing with the launch of the world’s first unleveraged physically backed single-stock exchange traded products. The ETPs provide investors in UK and elsewhere in Europe the rare opportunity to buy fractional shares.

Investors might be forgiven for thinking they are another version of the company’s leveraged or inverse ETPs that amplify gains and losses, reset every day and are generally viewed as unsuitable for retail investors.

However, the products promise no geared returns. Instead, they invest directly in the underlying company and, with their launch at $5 per share, their additional sterling and euro share classes, and their offer of big-name companies such as Tesla, they are being aimed straight at the European retail market.

Oktay Kavrak, product strategist at Leverage Shares, said it was unsurprising that the new products were not well understood at present. “Since we’ve only been making leveraged ETPs until now, I’d say this is expected,” he said.

But they have caught the attention of some industry participants.

Matt Brennan, head of passive portfolios at AJ Bell, one of the UK’s largest investment platforms, said that while no decision had yet been taken to add the products to the platform, AJ Bell was “actively monitoring them”.

“In general I am not usually a fan of ETPs, as they do add extra complexity, but to be fair to these products, they do seem to solve a few different problems,” Brennan said.

The products, which it started to roll out in May, effectively made it possible for UK and some other European investors to buy fractional shares in large overseas companies such as Tesla, Google and Amazon for about $5. That compares to about $600 for a single share in Tesla, $2,500 for Alphabet and nearly $3,500 for Amazon.

Leverage Shares’ latest launches last week added large Chinese companies such as Nio and JD.com to the family of unlevered single stock ETPs, which are listed on the London Stock Exchange, Euronext Amsterdam and Euronext Paris.

Kavrak said the ETPs were already available on the Interactive Brokers and Swissquote platforms and that Leverage Shares was in negotiation with other platforms including AJ Bell and Hargreaves Lansdown.

“I can understand the rationale for an unlevered approach to accessing single stocks that acts as a proxy fractional share — though clearly investors will need to pay an ongoing charge for the privilege — something they don’t need to do when owning the standard equity share,” said James McManus, chief investment officer at Nutmeg, a UK investment platform that offers low-cost investment portfolios.

“Clearly this is also an imperfect solution to an existing problem and points to the fact that many platforms have not solved the issue of fractional shares — unlike their US counterparts,” McManus added.

So-called fractional shares allow retail investors to own a part of a share, which can be useful if the share is expensive or if large share price movements result in the need for portfolio rebalancing. Nutmeg has developed a fractional share facility that it uses for its portfolio offerings.

Brennan pointed out that as well as enabling fractional shares the currency share classes eradicated the need for currency conversion charges, which could be high on some platforms.

Investing in the US companies via the Dublin-listed ETPs would also relieve investors of the need to fill in documentation to avoid penal tax rates, Brennan said, although he warned that potential investors should also remember that the European-listed ETPs often trade when the markets on which their underlying stocks are listed are closed.

He also pointed to the potential burden of costs that the ETPs would bring. These included the annual management fee of 0.15 per cent, but also the likelihood of wider bid-ask spreads than a more diversified ETF. He added that the ETPs might not track the underlying stock very efficiently if cash was not fully invested and dividends were not reinvested.

However, Todd Rosenbluth, head of ETF and mutual fund research at CFRA said the products looked interesting and were relatively inexpensive for what they offered.

“I think a 0.15 per cent fee for the stock trackers is modest, given the access these provide, and we would expect trading costs will likely improve as more investors discover them. Most new exchange traded products incur limited volume initially,” he said.

He said they should not be confused with Leverage Shares’ other offerings. “There are leveraged versions, but the ones we’re talking about are as risky as owning Tesla or Amazon outright.”

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