Tory ranks divided over Brexit strategy; Daesh still a target; RAN submarine bids; Ugandan election arrest; literary notes from the Middle East. By Hamish McDonald.

Donald Trump, Boris Johnson shake pillars of stability

London Mayor Boris Johnson and British Prime Minister David Cameron.
London Mayor Boris Johnson and British Prime Minister David Cameron.

Jokers with floppy fair hair are shaking the pillars of stability in the anglophone world. In the United States, Donald Trump continues to romp ahead in the Republican party presidential nomination race. In Britain, London mayor and Tory MP Boris Johnson is campaigning for a British exit from the European Union.

Trump won by a 20-point margin in his party’s South Carolina primary last Saturday, showing his anti-politician and xenophobic rhetoric carries across the country, despite a last-minute intervention from Pope Francis who was visiting Mexico, a country Trump wants to wall off. “A person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian,” the pontiff said. Trump said this was a “disgraceful” comment. Tuesday’s primary in Nevada was expected to continue the Trump roll.

Jeb Bush pulled out of the race after coming a distant seventh, showing family lineage and $US120 million in campaign funds was not enough. The social conservatives Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz almost tied for second place, with Rubio marginally ahead. Increasingly it looks as though one of them will be the main chance for defeating Trump, as long as the other drops out. 

Hillary Clinton looks like pulling ahead of Bernie Sanders in the Democrats’ primary in South Carolina on Saturday, after beating him in Nevada last week. The self-proclaimed socialist Sanders showed resilience, however, gaining 47.3 per cent of the Nevada votes against Clinton’s 52.6 per cent. He’s getting help from unusual quarters: in Portland, Oregon, where cannabis is legal, Ariel Zimman is selling her ceramic smoking pipes with images of Sanders’ head and campaign logo under the slogan “Burners for Bernie”. 

The smoke will clear after the “Super Tuesday” party votes this coming week in 12 states and one territory. For Republicans, 595 delegates to the July nomination convention are at stake, just under half the number needed to win. For the Democrats, who convene the same month, there are 1004 delegate slots up for grabs, out of the 2383 needed.

1 . Tory ranks divided over Brexit strategy

David Cameron came back from Brussels waving a deal that he says gives Britain a “special status” within the European Union, and announced June 23 for a referendum on whether his country should stay in the 28-member bloc or withdraw.

The agreement allows Britain the right to withhold for four years welfare entitlements for citizens from other EU countries who come to Britain to work, and restrict child benefits. London’s financial markets are promised no discrimination for staying outside the common currency. Britain is also exempt from the largely symbolic duty to pursue “ever closer union” with Europe.

It was not enough to assuage Eurosceptics in Cameron’s own Conservative Party. Six of his cabinet members including justice secretary Michael Gove will campaign for withdrawal. Then Boris Johnson weighed in. “There is only one way to get the change we need, and that is to vote to go, because all EU history shows that they only really listen to a population when it says ‘No’,” he wrote in his column in London’s Telegraph.

If that suggests Johnson just sees the referendum as part of the bargaining process, Cameron sees it as a real decision on exit, which he said would be “a leap in the dark”. Strategic analysts said British withdrawal would have profound effects on the global balance of power. Economists point to strong British trade interests in Europe, and the purported advantages of more economic freedom being somewhat nebulous. But the anti-migrant backlash stirred by UK Independence Party leader Nigel Farage is strong.

With his own ranks divided, Cameron can count on support from his political opposition. Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn came out strongly in favour of staying. The Scottish National Party’s Nicola Sturgeon warned a British vote to leave would lead to another referendum on Scottish independence. These left parties argue a strong Europe is needed to counterbalance the US on issues such as data privacy, corporate taxation and the Middle East.

2 . Daesh still a target

By Saturday, much of the bombing and shooting in Syria will have stopped, assuming the ceasefire agreed by the Assad government and the main rebel grouping took effect at midnight.

The detail of the ceasefire lines was still being worked out, and the rebel umbrella known as the High Negotiations Committee said its agreement was conditional on government forces ending their siege of 18 rebel-held areas and releasing detainees, as well as halting air and artillery bombardment. Some new aid convoys were getting through to rebel areas this week.

But one side of the war goes on. Both the government and its Russian backers said they would continue operations against Daesh, the al-Nusra Front and “other terrorist groups” and reserved the right to retaliate against any violation. The Kurdish front in Syria’s north said it would continue operations against Daesh. Daesh continued suicide-vest and car bombings that killed some 150 people in Homs and Damascus, and took ground from government forces around the northern city of Aleppo. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a British-based NGO, said it had documented 271,138 deaths since the Syrian conflict began in 2011, and unconfirmed deaths could be 100,000 more.

3 . Sub selection

After the Turnbull government’s new Defence white paper this week restored the target of 12 new submarines for the Royal Australian Navy, the competition between the Japanese, French and German bidders can only heat up.

Japan’s consortium is bringing the chairman of Mitsubishi Corporation, Yorihiko Kojima, to Canberra and Adelaide in a week or so to push the case that his group is willing and able to build the subs in Adelaide at a competitive price. With an extra section inserted in the hull and compact lithium-ion batteries, he will say, the Sōryū-class boat can carry the fuel needed by the RAN and give more bunk space for the bigger Aussie sailors. The argument that the Americans will be more ready to entrust their combat systems and other highly secret gear to the Japanese than the French or Germans is also being run.

Despite conciliatory words about China in the white paper, tighter defence links with Japan through the submarine choice would disturb Beijing. As naval analyst Sam Bateman writes in a commentary for Singapore’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies: “Effectively the decision is a choice between Australia locking itself into an alliance with Japan for the next four decades or having some strategic independence within the region.”

4 . Uganda’s arresting developments

Last year we wrote about the efforts of Sydney heart surgeon Aggrey Kiyingi to return to Uganda and stand against incumbent president Yoweri Museveni, only to be refused even nomination papers. 

Now we know what might have been in store had he been able to run in the February 18 election.

Museveni, in power since 1986, won a fifth term with a 61 per cent vote in what EU election observers called “an atmosphere of intimidation” with many polling stations in the capital Kampala receiving ballots either late or not at all. Runner-up Kizza Besigye, another doctor, gained 35 per cent. Police took him away on Monday, his fourth arrest in eight days, as he tried to start a protest march to the electoral commission about “rigging”.

5 . Writing wrongs in the Middle East

Literary notes from the Middle East. 

Iranian media groups say they have raised $US600,000 to add to the bounty on author Salman Rushdie, 27 years after the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini issued a fatwa calling for his death over his novel The Satanic Verses. Young Egyptian author Ahmed Naji got a two-year jail sentence for “public indecency” after his sexually explicit novel Istikhdam al-Hayat (Using Life) was serialised in a state-owned literary newspaper. A reader brought the case saying the excerpts caused him distress and heart palpitations.

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 27, 2016 as "Blond ambition takes hold in US and Britain".

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Hamish McDonald is a Walkley Award-winning foreign correspondent.

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