Europe shaky as elections loom; Washington's Kremlingate grows; North Korean missile message. By Hamish McDonald.

Dutch election likely to deliver instability

A picture released by North Korea the day after four ballistic missiles were fired into the Sea of Japan during US–South Korea naval exercises.
A picture released by North Korea the day after four ballistic missiles were fired into the Sea of Japan during US–South Korea naval exercises.

The ides of March opens the spring and summer of tests for the survival of the European Union, first in the Netherlands, then France, then Germany.

The critical question in the Netherlands vote on Wednesday is the level of support for far-right nationalist Geert Wilders and his Party of Freedom. He’s promised to close the borders, shut down mosques deemed extremist hotbeds, and withdraw from the EU and the euro single currency. He has, however, quietly abandoned his idea of annexing Flanders from Belgium.

Opinion polls say the Party of Freedom’s support waned as election campaigning got into its final days, dropping back from a predicted 29 seats in the 150-member parliament to 25 seats. But this could still make the party the biggest block, and analysts think about 40 per cent of voters are still to make up their minds.

Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy is not gaining from the drift, as its indicated tally stays at 24 to 25 seats, down from the current 41 seats. His partner in the centre-left coalition, the Labour Party, looks likely to be reduced from its current 38 seats to a handful, as the working class drifts to Wilders and middle-class progressives to centrist parties. Though economic growth is picking up and unemployment is down, it’s a familiar mix of resentment of migrants, budget measures such as raising the pension age, and the cost of shifting to renewable energy.

Three other parties – the Christian Democrats, the Democrats and the Greens – are forecast to get between 17 and 21 seats each. With none of these main groupings willing to work with Wilders, the Netherlands seems set for a lengthy period of government formation, followed by unstable coalition politics and perhaps fresh elections in which Wilders could clean up.

1 . Le Pen poised

None are looking more anxiously at the Netherlands than the French, who face their own two-stage presidential election on April 23 and May 7 with the far-right nationalist Marine Le Pen of the National Front looking set to make it through to the run-off with the largest vote.

The candidate who earlier looked the one to beat her in the final round, former prime minister François Fillon of the conservative Republicans, is resisting pressure to quit after the media showed he’d put his wife and children into staff jobs funded by the state. Prosecutors start a formal investigation on Wednesday. Another former prime minister, Alain Juppé, declined to take his place. With Fillon and the left-winger Benoît Hamon of the Socialists expected to trail in the first round, the centrist independent Emmanuel Macron would be the focus of opposition to Le Pen in the second.

Unemployment at 10 per cent, and 25 per cent for young people, and a sense among the “little people” of being left behind and derided, prime the electorate for a backlash against elites. Macron’s breezy embrace of economic openness, European unity, and migration as the antidote to France’s entropy falls flat in the struggling regions.

Having expelled her father and party founder Jean-Marie from the National Front, along with his anti-Semitism and holocaust denial, Le Pen is an attractive face for isolationism. While Fillon is pilloried for his family gravy-train, Le Pen gets off lightly for having used perks and salaries in the European Parliament to fund about 20 of her campaign staff, raising money via a communications company and a splinter party in questionable ways, and borrowing €9 million from a Moscow bank in 2014 while Europe was putting sanctions on Russia for annexing Crimea.

If she wins, against the current odds for the second round, Le Pen promises a referendum on EU membership within six months. She would need the National Front to do extraordinarily well in midyear national assembly elections to get this and other autarkic policies passed. It could be deadlock and chaos in the Netherlands and France, as Germany, the anchor of the European Union, votes on September 24.

2 . Kremlingate grows

Donald Trump woke at dawn last Saturday at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida and started tweeting, as is his wont. This time he’d “just found out” Barack Obama had ordered his phone tapped during last year’s election campaign. “How low has President Obama gone to tapp [sic] my phones during the very sacred election process. This is Nixon/Watergate. Bad (or sick) guy!”

Following up by deriding his replacement on The Celebrity Apprentice reality TV show − “Arnold Schwarzenegger isn’t voluntarily leaving the Apprentice, he was fired by his bad (pathetic) ratings, not by me. Sad end to great show” − the Donald then went off to play golf and enjoy the rest of his weekend.

It had been a bad week, and maybe he thought Washington needed a distraction. Major newspapers reported that British and Dutch intelligence agencies had provided evidence of meetings in Europe between Trump associates and Russian officials; United States agencies had followed communications between the Kremlin and the Trump campaign and; Trump’s son, Donald, had got a $US50,000 speaking fee from a pro-Russia foundation in France.

Then his new attorney-general, Jeff Sessions, was revealed to have misled the senate under oath during his confirmation hearings about contact with Russian officials last year. He did actually meet the Russian ambassador privately. This forced Sessions to “recuse” himself from oversight of investigations into “Kremlingate” – the apparent Russian interference in the elections – making it more likely a neutral official will be in charge and maybe appoint a special independent counsel.

If US agencies had wanted to tap Trump’s phone − and their chiefs along with former Obama staffers insisted they hadn’t – then WikiLeaks came out with a new trove of CIA documents on Tuesday that appeared to show the agency can hack into a wide range of smartphones and devices and bypass many commonly used encryption systems.

3 . North Korean missile message

North Korea fired off a volley of medium-range missiles into the Sea of Japan to make a point as US and South Korean forces started their annual exercises codenamed “Foal Eagle”, which involve about 300,000 troops practising how to foil an invasion from the North.

The US military said four missiles landed in the sea and that other launches might  have failed. The New York Times reported that US electronic warfare agencies have been trying to interfere with the control and guidance systems of such missiles, to slow North Korea’s development of reliable weapons.

Whether they were having success on this score, the Americans announced that installation of the anti-missile system Terminal High-Altitude Area Defence, or THAAD, was under way. China, which has been asserting that the system would enable the US to detect and intercept its nuclear missiles as well as those of North Korea, stepped up sanctions against South Korea.

The South Korean conglomerate Lotte, which had supplied a golf course south of Seoul to be used by the THAAD radars and missile battery, was hit by official investigations and “spontaneous” demonstrations at its businesses in China. Chinese travel agencies said they had been instructed by the government not to organise more tours to South Korea.

Malaysia and North Korea meanwhile escalated their diplomatic battle over the assassination of Kim Jong-nam, half brother of dictator Kim Jong-un, at Kuala Lumpur airport last month, expelling their ambassadors and each barring the other’s citizens from leaving.


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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on March 11, 2017 as "Dutch election likely to deliver instability".

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Hamish McDonald is a Walkley Award-winning foreign correspondent.

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