World

Donald Trump impeached. Boris Johnson looks to Brexit. Bougainville’s independence referendum. India protests over anti-Muslim bill. By Jonathan Pearlman.

Trump impeachment trial set for January

People protest in Times Square, New York City, on Tuesday in support of United States President Donald Trump’s impeachment.
Credit: Stephanie Keith / Getty Images

GREAT POWER RIVALRY

Britain: Boris Johnson will lead Britain out of the European Union on January 31. Then comes the hard part.

Johnson’s sweeping election victory on December 12 marked the largest Conservative majority since 1987 and Labour’s worst result since 1935. But he is already creating trouble for himself. His insistence this week that Britain must secure a trade deal with the EU by December 2020 has created a “cliff edge”, as one EU official described it. These deals usually take years to negotiate. Australia, for instance, whose annual trade with the EU is worth about $114 billion, has so far been working on a trade deal with the Europeans for 18 months. Britain’s annual trade with the EU is worth about £648 billion ($1.24 trillion).

Meanwhile, Johnson’s rush to get Brexit done is inflaming tensions with Scotland and Northern Ireland. In Scotland, where the public is staunchly pro-EU, there are growing calls for a new independence referendum. On Tuesday, Nicola Sturgeon, leader of the Scottish National Party, told Scotland’s parliament: “The kind of future desired by most people in Scotland is very clearly different to that favoured by much of the rest of the UK.”

In Brussels, Johnson’s strong victory brought relief and raised hopes of finally completing Britain’s withdrawal from the EU. Meanwhile, the Brexit crisis has stifled calls among Eurosceptic leaders in countries such as France, the Netherlands and Italy to quit the EU. Brussels observers say Frexit, Nexit and Italeave – terms that were in common usage several years ago – are unlikely to happen soon, if at all.

THE NEIGHBOURHOOD

Papua New Guinea: On December 11, the official results of Bougainville’s independence referendum were announced: 98 per cent of voters supported independence and 2 per cent supported the alternative choice of greater autonomy.

Two days later, Papua New Guinea’s prime minister, James Marape, visited the province and made it clear that Papua New Guinea’s flags will continue to fly there for the foreseeable future.

According to the peace deal that followed Bougainville’s civil war from 1988 to 1998, the referendum is non-binding and its outcome must be ratified by Papua New Guinea’s parliament. And there have long been fears in Port Moresby that independence for Bougainville could spur separatist movements elsewhere.

In a Facebook message after his visit, Marape called for a calm, honest dialogue and signalled this could lead to independence.

“We must find a win-win solution, a sweet spot where Bougainville’s desire for self rule is not harmed and PNG’s desire for national unity is embraced,” he wrote.

One of the main challenges will be to resolve the future of the lucrative Panguna copper and gold mine, which sparked long-running local tensions over revenue sharing and environmental damage, and led to the outbreak of war. The mine has been shut since 1989.

Sir Julius Chan, who was Papua New Guinea’s prime minister and famously hired mercenaries to fight the Bougainville separatists, told the Papua New Guinea Post-Courier it was time to “let Bougainvilleans get on with the new chapter in their history book”.

But he also said Port Moresby should do more to ensure mining wealth is shared by local communities.

“If nothing is done we will see more provinces asking for independence,” he said.

DEMOCRACY IN RETREAT

India: Narendra Modi this week faced some of the largest protests in India since his election as prime minister in 2014, following the passage of his government’s contentious Citizenship (Amendment) Act.

The law provides a path to citizenship for Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians who arrived in India before 2015. Yet one religious group is curiously absent: Muslims. And the law covers the Muslim-majority countries of Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan, but not countries such as Sri Lanka. This allows Modi and his Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party to claim the law is designed to assist persecuted minorities.

Critics of the law have accused Modi of turning India into a theocracy and actively discriminating against the country’s 200-million-strong Muslim minority. In some border regions, separate fears of an influx of migrants were raised. As mass protests broke out, the government deployed the army and police, shut down the internet and imposed curfews. At least six people have been killed. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights urged Modi to scrap the “discriminatory” law, and a United States government commission said Washington should consider imposing sanctions under the Magnitsky Act on the politicians responsible for it.

Aside from this law, Modi’s government plans to create a register of citizens, which could render stateless any resident who cannot prove their origins. An initial register in the state of Assam excluded two million people, many of whom were Muslim. This register, combined with the citizenship law, could reduce India’s Muslim population while allowing Hindus to more readily gain citizenship.

On Monday, Rahul Gandhi, the former leader of the opposition Congress party, backed the protesters and called for people to practise Satyagraha, or non-violent resistance, as conceived by Mahatma Gandhi. “The [law and register] are weapons of mass polarisation unleashed by fascists on India,” he said in a tweet.

SPOTLIGHT: Impeachment

United States: On the eve of a vote this week that made Donald Trump the third US president to be impeached, he wrote a six-page letter to house speaker Nancy Pelosi to “put my thoughts on a permanent and indelible record”.

This letter recalled the actions of Bill Clinton, who, in 1998, also made a public appeal before the impeachment vote. “I am profoundly sorry,” Clinton said from the Rose Garden at the White House. “… Quite simply, I gave in to my shame.”

Trump’s letter to Pelosi, however, struck a different tone. “This is nothing more than an illegal, partisan attempted coup that will, based on recent sentiment, badly fail at the voting booth,” he wrote. “… You are declaring open war on American Democracy.”

The president stands accused of trying to bribe Ukraine to investigate Joe Biden, a leading Democratic contender in the 2020 presidential election. Trump allegedly threatened to withhold almost $US400 million in military aid to Ukraine and to deny a White House meeting to Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky. Trump is also accused of obstructing the congressional inquiry.

The Democrats, who control the house of representatives, largely united to support the impeachment. But the trial of Trump will be conducted by the senate, where the Republicans hold a 53-47 majority. A conviction, which requires a two-thirds majority, seems unlikely.

The senate trial, due to begin on January 6, is expected to be over within weeks. Much of the wrangling may be about the process. On Tuesday, the Republican senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, rejected a request by the Democrats to call four witnesses, including former national security adviser John Bolton.

A Washington Post–ABC News poll this week found 49 per cent of Americans thought Trump should be impeached and removed from office, while 46 per cent were opposed. These polling numbers have barely moved, even as the impeachment inquiry heard extensive evidence about the White House’s efforts to pressure Ukraine. This included testimony from a Trump ally, Gordon Sondland, the ambassador to the European Union, who said the efforts were at the “express direction of the president”.

After the senate trial, the next opportunity for the Democrats to remove Trump will occur on November 3, 2020. Election day.

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 21, 2019 as "Trump impeachment trial set for January". Subscribe here.

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