World

New US sanctions on Iran. PNG leader wants local company for Manus security. Erdoğan loses Istanbul, again. Boris Johnson’s bid. By Jonathan Pearlman.

Fractures show in Johnson campaign

Conservative Party leadership candidate Boris Johnson visiting a Surrey tea shop this week.
Credit: Reuters / Peter Nicholls

GREAT POWER RIVALRY

Iran: On Monday, Donald Trump sat in the Oval Office, with Vice-President Mike Pence gravely looking on, to announce new sanctions on Iran as part of his “maximum pressure” approach. Trump’s aim is to force Tehran to renegotiate a 2015 nuclear deal, from which he withdrew last year after claiming it was too weak.

The new sanctions followed Trump’s last-minute decision to call off a strike on Iran in response to the shooting down of an American drone. Trump said the strike would have caused 150 deaths and that this was disproportionate, adding – somewhat implausibly – that a general only informed him of this when he asked about it 10 minutes before the attack. But Trump clearly went close to launching a potential new war in the Middle East. In the past 10 days, the Federal Aviation Administration has banned United States airlines from flying over Iranian airspace and the Israeli military has reportedly lifted its alert status.

The new US sanctions targeted Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and were widely seen as symbolic. Iran’s president, Hassan Rouhani, rejected the calls for nuclear talks, saying the sanctions demonstrated “mental retardation”, and closed the opportunities for diplomacy. Trump responded angrily by tweet, as the impasse showed little hope of resolution. Tehran is unlikely to make new concessions and the White House is committed to maximising the pressure.

In Iran, where the inflation rate has risen above 37 per cent, residents apparently greeted the latest sanctions with a mix of anger and resignation. In a widely circulated tweet, an Iranian named K. Jafari said: “The only people left to sanction are me, my dad and our neighbour’s kid.”

THE NEIGHBOURHOOD

Papua New Guinea: Australia’s decision to hire a little-known firm, Paladin, to provide refugee services on Manus Island has encountered many controversies, including the original awarding of a $423 million contract without an open tender to a company whose Australian headquarters was a beach shack on Kangaroo Island.

Despite growing concerns and a pending review by the auditor-general, the Home Affairs minister, Peter Dutton, had insisted he wanted to renew the contract when it expires on Sunday. But Papua New Guinea’s new prime minister, James Marape, had a different view.

On Tuesday, during his first sitting day as leader, Marape told PNG’s parliament he would ask Australia to terminate the contract and hire a local company. This followed concerns expressed by local Lorengau landowners who, as The Saturday Paper revealed last week, have agreed to work with a PNG-based company to provide security and other services. Following Marape’s comments, the Home Affairs Department and the PNG government said a local company would now be sought but Paladin would be retained for a “limited” time.

Marape replaced Peter O’Neill as prime minister last month and has signalled that he wants greater landowner involvement in foreign-operated projects such as mining developments.

“No one must be left out of a wealthy PNG,” he told a business summit last week.

According to The Australian Financial Review, Paladin is making an estimated profit of $17 million a month from its monthly fee of $20.9 million. In February, Paladin’s local staff on Manus Island walked off the job, claiming they were being underpaid and overworked.

DEMOCRACY IN RETREAT

Turkey: Earlier this year, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan suffered a humiliating setback when his ruling party lost a mayoral election in Istanbul. This was a personal loss for Erdoğan, who had played a prominent role in the campaign and launched his own national political career during his time as mayor in the 1990s.

But Erdoğan refused to accept the result, claiming there had been fraud and that a new election would strengthen democracy. Strangely, this perverse excuse proved to be prescient.

On Monday, initial results showed that his Justice and Development Party (AKP) candidate suffered a heavy loss to the main opposition candidate, Ekrem İmamoğlu, who extended his lead from 13,000 votes in the first ballot to almost 800,000. This was the AKP’s first loss of power in Istanbul in 25 years. The result was widely seen as a show of democratic resistance against Erdoğan’s hoarding of power and slide towards authoritarianism.

İmamoğlu, 49, a little-known district mayor, tried to appeal to voters of the AKP, a conservative Islamic party. His Republican People’s Party has tended to be staunchly nationalist and secularist, which has alienated many voters. But İmamoğlu fasted during Ramadan and quoted from the Koran. His victory immediately led to speculation that he could seek the presidency.

Erdoğan has long claimed that “whoever wins Istanbul wins Turkey”. Yet his party no longer controls the major cities of Istanbul, İzmir and Ankara, the capital. Analysts suggested the loss may mark the beginning of his political decline, or it could prompt him to further target his political opponents and extend his control over state institutions.

SPOTLIGHT: Boris Johnson

Britain: Boris Johnson has built his career on his reputation as a bumbling, shameless, self-deprecating toff. It is a crafted image – his first name is actually Alexander, and he apparently ruffles his hair to make it look shambolic – that has helped to deflect criticism by making his detractors seem pitifully dull.

Still, Johnson’s opponents, including many colleagues, have long insisted he is untrustworthy and chaotic, pays no attention to detail and is completely unsuited to fulfil his presumed destiny as prime minister. Now, just weeks before he hopes to replace Theresa May, who is retiring as leader, these critics are claiming vindication.

The cracks in Johnson’s campaign began to show when he avoided several public appearances, including the first debate between the Conservative candidates.

Then, last weekend, it emerged that police had been called to the London apartment he shares with his partner, after neighbours heard shouting and a woman saying “get off me”. Johnson refused to discuss the incident, citing the need for privacy. But a strange photograph then appeared – presumably leaked by Johnson or his camp – showing the couple holding hands in an overgrown garden in Sussex. “Boris’s show of unity,” splashed the Evening Standard. However, close observers noticed that Johnson’s hair is now much shorter, suggesting the photograph was taken weeks ago.

The saga has added to longstanding questions about Johnson’s private life – nobody seems to know how many children he has – and was seen as a test of his honesty.

When he finally appeared in public earlier this week, he dodged questions about the incident but spoke about enjoying making toy buses out of old wine crates. He then tried to turn attention back to Brexit, the issue that landed the Conservatives in this mess. But this was a reminder that he has no clear plan for departing from the European Union. He promised that Britain will leave by October 31 even without a deal, which most economists say would be disastrous. But he also insisted he would try to reach an agreement, without explaining how he would improve on May’s three failed attempts.

The leadership will be decided by a vote of the Conservative Party’s 160,000 members and announced on July 23. Johnson’s opponent is Jeremy Hunt, the foreign secretary, a self-made millionaire who backed remaining in the EU in the 2016 referendum. He has ferociously seized on Johnson’s stumbles, calling him a “coward” for avoiding scrutiny. Hunt is often described as wholesome and bland, but these increasingly seem like virtues.

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 29, 2019 as "Fractures show in Johnson campaign". Subscribe here.

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