Syria strategy; elections in Vanuatu, Myanmar and Vietnam; Putin anxiety. By Hamish McDonald.

Iowa poll favourite Trump can’t take a trick against Cruz

Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz embraces his wife, Heidi Cruz, after winning the Iowa caucus this week.
Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz embraces his wife, Heidi Cruz, after winning the Iowa caucus this week.

That persistent, orange-tinted, rotten-egg smelling miasma spreading from the United States Midwest is a sign of gas escaping from presidential campaign blowhard Donald Trump after his surprise defeat by Bible-bashing Texas senator Ted Cruz in the Iowa caucuses on Monday.

All eyes now turn to party primaries in New Hampshire on Tuesday, where Cruz and narrow third-placegetter Marco Rubio will be trying for a second putdown for Trump, while trailing “establishment” Republican hopefuls such as Jeb Bush, John Kasich and Chris Christie will be seeking votes substantial enough to keep them in the game.

On the Democrats side, Hillary Clinton will be going all out to hold up against her left-wing challenger Bernie Sanders, who was only narrowly behind her in Iowa in a virtually tied result. New Hampshire is white liberal home territory for Sanders, a senator for neighbouring Vermont, so he is expected to do well.

It signals a long slog for Clinton to clinch the nomination, but she can expect to do well as the primaries move into the southern states next month, where more conservative whites and bigger black and Latino blocs will favour her. Sanders’ strong showing among under-30 voters in Iowa shows the lack of excitement in her campaign, however.

Trump hasn’t bowed out, though it took him 15 hours to come back on air, tweeting he hadn’t tried hard in Iowa because all the analysts expected him to lose. This despite opinion polls showing him well ahead. Neither he nor Cruz are likely to be fazed much whatever happens in New Hampshire. 

A strong showing by Rubio, however, could cause more dropouts by establishment candidates, consolidating him as a possible compromise between the populists and mainstream politicos. It’s still a dismal prospect. As The New York Times put it, Rubio “tried to put a younger and more charming face on the basic Republican message of anger, xenophobia, fear and hate” but “fairly quickly veered into demonising President Obama, misrepresenting vital issues like ObamaCare, and using critical national security issues mostly to stoke Americans’ insecurities.”

But maybe there won’t be early knockouts. As Washington’s Centre for Public Integrity reports, an unprecedented level of cash is keeping campaigns afloat. Candidates and their supporter groups raised a total $US837 million in 2015, and that was before election year. Cash flooded in to the super PACs (political action committees) freed from contribution limits by a Supreme Court ruling. “The result: the presidential campaign is now a super PAC-fuelled arms race where almost everyone has a money bomb,” writes the centre’s Michael Beckel. Cruz, Rubio, Clinton and Sanders were among the leading fundraisers. Trump has plenty of his own.

1 . Frustration grows over Syria strategy

Syrian peace talks got closer to starting in Geneva this week. 

But while United Nations mediator Staffan de Mistura managed to get most of the parties in the conflict, minus Daesh and (at Turkey’s insistence) the Syrian Kurds, into the same city and even the same hotel, he hadn’t yet got them into the same room.

The 17 delegates representing groups fighting Bashar al-Assad’s government were insisting the regime lift its siege of rebel-held towns before they sat at the table. With a major offensive by government forces, helped by Russian air strikes, reclaiming vantage points around Aleppo and other cities this week, Assad felt under no pressure to make concessions, let alone hint at stepping from power as part of a peace plan. The UN itself has judged that even if a truce is agreed, Syria is too dangerous for a UN peacekeeping mission.

Frustration grew among Western promoters of the talks at Russia’s double role. “Everything we are doing is being undermined by the Russians,” said British foreign secretary Philip Hammond during a visit to Jordan. The Russians were “posing as the co-sponsors of the political process, and at the same time bombing the people who we believe are the future of Syria.”

The UN facilitator seems destined for months of shuttling between delegations. Washington is meanwhile starting to think about what to do if the peace talks fail. The scenario includes making yet another attempt to build an effective moderate opposition force, cajoling Arab states to put any of the needed boots on the ground, and giving them air support (which would mean insisting the Russians back off).

2 . Notable votes

Democracy rolled on, more or less, on this side of the world. 

Vanuatu counted the results of its January 22 snap election held in the wake of a parliamentary bribery scandal and found that all but 18 of the 52 incumbents had been thrown out. A coalition government will now be formed that may include the several experienced civil servants who won election. It may be able to speed recovery efforts from cyclone Pam last March and fix the runway of the only international airport, which Qantas and Air New Zealand say is too dangerous for their flights.

In Myanmar, new members took up their seats in the national parliament in Naypyidaw and went about voting for speakers of the two chambers. Next they turn to choosing a president to form an executive government, replacing outgoing former general Thein Sein. Over coming weeks, the upper house, the lower house and the military bloc (holding a quarter of the seats in each chamber) will each put forward one presidential candidate, then the combined houses vote on the three candidates. With the National League for Democracy holding a majority following its sweep in November’s elections, it is positioned to choose the new president. But NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi is ruled out, thanks to a provision in the military constitution. She is keeping her choice of proxy a close secret.

Thailand’s military junta, which ousted the elected government of Yingluck Shinawatra in 2014 and recently put her on trial, published a new constitution, the country’s 20th in modern times. Even its drafters don’t think it can bridge the deep gulf between the populist political forces led by Shinawatra and her exiled tycoon brother Thaksin and the elitist order grouped around the monarchy and the army. “In terms of finding a solution for the current situation, we really could not think it up and have told the prime minister so,” said Meechai Ruchuphan, chairman of the junta-appointed Constitution Drafting Committee. The general who appointed himself prime minister, Prayuth Chan-ocha, said new elections would be held in mid-2017. If a July referendum rejects the new constitution, which critics say is a formula for a weak civilian government dominated by the military, he says the regime will use an old constitution.

Vietnam’s ruling communists seemed happy with their Leninist one-party dictatorship, and voted back general secretary Nguyen Phu Trong while pushing the economist reformist premier Nguyen Tan Dung from the politburo. Dung had been more critical than Trong of China’s island reclamations in the South China Sea, and strongly pushed Vietnam’s membership of the Trans-Pacific Partnership pact with the US, Japan, Australia, Malaysia, Singapore and others that was signed in Auckland this week. However, the new 19-member politburo includes Dung’s son Nguyen Thanh Nghi, transport minister Dinh La Thang, central bank governor Nguyen Van Binh, and US-educated foreign minister Pham Binh Minh who might resist any throwback to Marxist economics and deference to ideological comradeship with Beijing. Four members come from the police, which has crushed party critics.

3 . Warding off Putin

In Eastern Europe, Western-aligned nations feeling threatened by Vladimir Putin’s Russia were relieved somewhat by Barack Obama’s request for $US3.4 billion in funding to station several thousand American troops and heavy weaponry in their midst. 

They even welcomed Germany’s decision to spend more on its military. “It’s a new experience for us in Poland to be encouraging Germans to be more militaristic,” tweeted former Warsaw foreign minister Radek Sikorski. “But may I say: at last.”

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on February 6, 2016 as "Poll favourite Trump can’t take a trick".

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Hamish McDonald is a Walkley Award-winning foreign correspondent.

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