South Korea’s Park offers to fall on her sword; China eyes change; James Curran forecasts less united states. By Hamish McDonald.

Europe elections may follow Brexit–Trump trend

Protesters carry an effigy of South Korean president Park Geun-hye during an anti-government rally this week.
Protesters carry an effigy of South Korean president Park Geun-hye during an anti-government rally this week.

Votes in Italy and Austria on Sunday will show how the Brexit–Trump backlash against elites and internationalism is spreading, ahead of Europe’s two big elections next year: the May presidential election in France and the Bundestag election in Germany in the northern autumn.

Matteo Renzi, Italy’s prime minister, is seeking referendum approval to subordinate the senate to the lower house, take back some powers from the regions, and rejig the electoral system to give the biggest party a lower-house majority. This is supposed to make reform easier, but could centralise authority a bit too much for many post-Mussolini Italians.

The plebs may well stand up for the senators, chiefly because Renzi has promised to resign if the changes are rejected. The Five Star Movement, an anti-Europe and populist party led by former comedian Beppe Grillo, is riding high in the polls and would welcome an early election. So too would the Northern League, which wants to abandon the European common currency. And the old crooner Silvio Berlusconi and his Forza Italia are looking for a comeback. Expect another Euro-crisis if they prevail.

In Austria, it’s a rerun of the presidential election held in May, deemed invalid because of irregularities in counting postal votes. That first vote was won by a Green party figure running as an independent, Alexander Van der Bellen. He’s now strongly challenged by Norbert Hofer, from the far-right nationalist party Freedom, who is appealing to anti-immigration sentiments and resentment of Vienna “elites”. As head of state, he would be a beacon and inspiration for like-minded politicos across Europe.

In France, that’s Marine Le Pen, of the National Front, who is odds-on to emerge as one of two candidates for president in the runoff vote after the candidate of the incumbent Socialist Party, currently President François Hollande, is eliminated. The heirs of Charles de Gaulle in the centre-right Republican Party have chosen former prime minister François Fillon to contest her.

It’s a curious gamble. On one hand, Fillon, who is a practising Catholic, has talked tough on immigration and “Islamic totalitarianism” and voted against same-sex marriage when France legalised it. That will appeal to social conservatives and the provincial bourgeoisie who might be attracted by Le Pen. But he is an economic neoliberal who promises to cut 500,000 civil service jobs, abolish the 35-hour week, and cut back laws protecting job security and conditions. 

That may put off Socialists transferring their votes after the first round, especially when Le Pen is vowing to preserve the welfare system. Later in the year, Angela Merkel’s coalition will take much the same mix to Germany’s elections.

1 . Park offers to fall on her sword

Two weeks ago, your world editor edged through a crowd of several hundred thousand people in the centre of Seoul who were chanting for the resignation of President Park Geun-hye. Despite the presence of thousands of riot police, it was an orderly affair in contrast with the old days when authorities routinely used pepper fog and water cannons well before opposition got this bold.

At the time, Park seemed unlikely to budge. The daughter of the late military dictator Park Chung-hee, who ruled with an iron fist from 1961 until his assassination in 1979, she is made of tough steel, said her father’s former intelligence chief Kim Jong-pil, later an occupant of South Korea’s revolving-door prime ministership. 

The scandal around her was damaging enough: her friend Choi Soon-sil had shaken down big corporations such as Samsung and Hyundai for some $88 million in donations to private foundations. In addition, Choi had got her daughter into the prestigious Ewha Womans University on the strength of her equestrianism – a favoured pursuit of Seoul’s very rich industrialists – while most kids had to sit gruelling exams. Then there was the added hint of shamanism, an animistic practice Koreans think makes them look backward, and the discovery Park’s office had bought large numbers of Viagra pills for an Africa visit (to counter altitude sickness, it was hastily explained).

But while the leftist opposition parties in the National Assembly had a simple majority, they don’t have the two-thirds needed to start an impeachment. That has changed, with a section of Park’s conservative Saenuri Party breaking away from the president. On Tuesday, Park announced she would step down according to a time and process decided by the assembly. An election would be due within 60 days of her quitting.

It would be the first time a president has been forced out of office since a democratic constitution was adopted in 1987, but it is unlikely to change the kind of cronyism and favouritism centred on the office. The system allows only a single presidential term of five years, but hasn’t diluted the powers much. Which is why such big corporations so easily parted with their money, no doubt expecting presidential favours in return. Every presidency has ended amid money scandals.

2 . China eyes change

Earlier, I walked past the towering new Chinese embassy in Seoul, built on the site where the Chinese general Yuan Shikai camped his Qing dynasty army in an ultimately unsuccessful effort to ward off Japanese influence in the late 19th century.

Park’s presidency has been marked by sharp disillusionment with Beijing. She spent much effort cultivating Xi Jinping in the hope of getting China to block North Korea’s drive to obtain nuclear weapons and the means of delivery by missile. She was naive, she has admitted, and this year agreed to the United States stationing a Terminal High Altitude Area Defence anti-missile system in South Korea, which China says will also counter its own nuclear missiles. 

Under American prodding, she and Japan’s Shinzō Abe also agreed on settlement of the long-running dispute about “comfort women” from Korea and elsewhere conscripted into Japan’s wartime military brothels. Despite the political crisis, a bill allowing intelligence-sharing with Japan is also being passed, combining Tokyo’s technical espionage on North Korea with Seoul’s strength in human intelligence.

It remains to be seen whether China or Japan emerges with advantage from Park’s ouster. Meanwhile, the ousting of a president by people power is not a spectacle Xi Jinping would enjoy. Veteran journalist Shim Jae Hoon came on the walk around the Chinese embassy. Visiting Chinese scholars always ask him about the “tipping point” between autocracy and democracy. “In our case it was when per capita income reached $US10,000,” Shim said. China is up near $US8000, getting close.

3 . Curran forecasts less united states

Despite the efforts of Defence Department head Dennis Richardson and former armed forces chief Angus Houston to halt the tide of heresy against the US alliance post-Donald Trump’s election win, a heavyweight attack on its sanctity comes this weekend from an embedded scholar, University of Sydney historian and US Studies Centre fellow James Curran.

His ambiguously titled study “Fighting with America”, from the Lowy Institute, predicts less “willing agreement” with the US, less support for the alliance, and more difficulty in managing it. “With Trump as president it will be more difficult for Australian leaders to appeal to the common values that unite the United States and Australia,” Curran says.

Curran attacks the near-religious elevation of the ANZUS Treaty: “This orthodoxy not only attempts to muffle alternative voices, but it creates a climate of intolerance in which those arguing for a greater sense of self-reliance within, or at times outside, the alliance are pushed to the margins of the debate, dismissed almost reflexively as ‘anti-American’, ‘un-Australian’ or, in some cases, downright delusional.”

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 3, 2016 as "Will Europe follow Brexit–Trump trend?".

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Hamish McDonald is a Walkley Award-winning foreign correspondent.

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