World

Libya after Gaddafi. Indonesians choosing not to vote. Nine guilty over Occupy movement. Israeli election results. By Jonathan Pearlman.

Likely fifth term for Benjamin Netanyahu

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (centre) walks through a market in Jerusalem this week.
Credit: Menahem Kahana / AFP / Getty Images

GREAT POWER RIVALRY

Libya: Before leaving the White House, Barack Obama was asked to name his worst mistake during his eight years as president. Libya, he responded, referring to the chaos that followed the NATO-led intervention that resulted in the overthrow of Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi in 2011. Or, as Obama put it, “failing to plan for the day after”.

A quick glance at a map of Libya reveals that little has changed in the three years since Obama’s admission. The nation, which has a population of about seven million, is currently controlled by at least six different entities, including Daesh, various tribal militias and a United Nations-backed government.

But the largest portion is now held by Khalifa Haftar, who supported Gaddafi’s coup in 1969 and later defected and went into exile in suburban Washington, where he allegedly developed close ties to the CIA. Haftar took over parts of southern Libya earlier this year and is now staging an assault on Tripoli, the capital. At least 49 people have been killed in fighting around the city and thousands have fled.

Haftar is supported by neighbouring Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, which share his anti-Islamist stance, as well as Russia and France. Turkey and Qatar, meanwhile, back opposing factions, mirroring the region’s power rivalries.

Haftar’s advance came just days before a scheduled United Nations conference that was supposed to create a new path towards peaceful democracy. The conference has been postponed. The immediate concern is to avoid a civil war, which could leave Libya further splintered. It could also lead to fresh waves of migrants heading for Europe, as occurred after 2011. The migrant flow has largely stopped, partly due to coastal detention camps in Libya, where conditions are horrific.

In recent days, the United States and others have removed their forces from Libya. The international community has largely lost its will to intervene in the nation’s civil strife, and will be even less likely this time to assist in the aftermath.

AUSTRALIA’S BACKYARD

Indonesia: On Wednesday, Indonesia, the world’s third-largest democracy, will go to the polls. The incumbent president, Joko Widodo, is the favourite, and has been aided by the lacklustre campaign of his opponent, Prabowo Subianto, a former army general who ran and lost at the previous election in 2014.

But the other threat to Widodo is the possibility that large numbers of Indonesia’s 192 million voters will opt for golput, meaning they will not cast a ballot.

Analysts believe this poses a particular risk for Widodo, who won in 2014 with the strong support of reform-minded voters whose enthusiasm has since faded. Last weekend, 32 unions and civil society groups, representing 30 million people, pledged support for golput. There has also been an “I am golput” movement spreading on social media.

But Widodo has not taken the threat idly. He has encouraged arms of the state, such as the police and military, to urge voters to resist golput.

According to Indonesia expert Greg Fealy, of the Australian National University, Widodo’s anti-golput efforts demonstrate that he “has not been an exemplary democrat, by any means”.

“He has used the office to maximise his vote,” Fealy tells The Saturday Paper. “He badly wants to win handsomely enough so that there are no doubts about his victory. The hope after the election is that he will have a greater preparedness to stare down his political foes.”

Widodo’s election has largely focused on his record and his pledge to engage in large-scale spending on infrastructure, welfare, health and education. Neither he nor Prabowo is an inspiring campaigner, which may contribute to the golput risk. About 30 per cent of voters opted for golput in 2014.

Fealy says Widodo has run a shrewder campaign than in 2014, including co-opting Islamists, such as Ma’ruf Amin, the senior Muslim scholar who is his running mate, to bolster his Islamic credentials.

But he says Indonesia’s post-election future hinges on whether Widodo, if he wins, can rule without having to bow to patronage or populism. Widodo’s ability to achieve his ambitious development plans may depend on the make-up of his cabinet, and whether he can include technocrats rather than politicians – but this will require a strong mandate.

“The question will be whether he will be more ruthless and willing to pursue issues that are politically risky but economically advantageous, such as reducing subsidies for food and electricity,” Fealy says. “Will he be willing to wear the political opprobrium and risk unrest in the streets?”

DEMOCRACY IN RETREAT

Hong Kong: In January 2013, a law professor in Hong Kong, Benny Tai, wrote an article in a local Chinese-language newspaper in which he called for an occupation of the city centre to demand democratic reform.

Two months later, along with a sociologist and a Baptist minister, he formed an Occupy movement, which joined with student-led democracy protesters and resulted in a 79-day occupation of the city centre. The “umbrella movement” – named after the technique for shielding against the police’s pepper spray – attracted tens of thousands of people and marked one of the most significant political protests against the Chinese Communist Party since the Tiananmen Square uprising in 1989.

On Tuesday, Tai, his Occupy co-founders and six other pro-democracy leaders were found guilty of charges relating to causing a public nuisance. A judge said they were naive to think their protest would succeed. In a sense, the judge was right. Beijing has repeatedly rejected the call for free elections in Hong Kong, and has increasingly curbed dissent and extended its control over the territory.

But the protests left their mark. They have been credited with demonstrating that Hong Kong’s younger generation, who cannot remember a time before it was handed back by Britain to China in 1997, are committed to seeking democracy and preserving its special status within China.

Outside the court, Tai addressed supporters carrying the trademark yellow umbrella. “I am confident that many of us will continue to strive for democracy,” he said. “We will persist and will not give up.”

SPOTLIGHT: ISRAELI ELECTIONS

Israel: The Israeli president’s role is largely ceremonial, except after elections. No party has ever won a majority of the Knesset’s 120 seats, leaving it for the president to decide which party is most likely to be able to form a ruling coalition.

When Israel went to the polls on Tuesday, it was this presidential prerogative that seemed to swing the most votes. The two major parties – the ruling right-wing Likud party, led by Benjamin Netanyahu, and the centrist Blue and White party, led by Benny Gantz – both fared much better than expected, collecting 35 seats each.

Polls had indicated that the right-wing bloc would win the most seats, so the best hope for Gantz, a former military chief, was that he would receive substantially more votes than Likud, forcing the president, Reuven Rivlin, to give him first pick at forming a coalition.

As the results came in, both candidates were quick to claim victory. But Gantz, despite his phenomenal success as a first-time candidate at the head of a party that was seven weeks old, appeared unlikely to be the president’s choice. And Netanyahu, despite facing likely fraud and bribery charges, appeared set to win a fifth term and become Israel’s longest-serving prime minister.

“It will be a right-wing government,” Netanyahu told a post-election rally. “But I intend to be the prime minister of all Israeli citizens, right or left, Jews and non-Jews alike.”

Netanyahu’s next step will be to try to assemble a working coalition. Its make-up will determine whether he will go ahead with plans, announced on the eve of the election, to annex West Bank territory. It could also determine whether the Knesset will pass laws to shield him from charges, which are expected to be laid by July.

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 13, 2019 as "Likely fifth term for Netanyahu". Subscribe here.

Jonathan Pearlman
is The Saturday Paper’s world editor and the editor of Australian Foreign Affairs.