China snares deal for Russian gas; Thai coup won’t inspire Myanmar’s democracy; candidates in Indonesia get dirty; Guinea-Bissau shows how democracy is done. By Hamish McDonald.

European austerity breeds far-right support

United Kingdom Independence Party leader Nigel Farage.
United Kingdom Independence Party leader Nigel Farage.
Credit: EPA
Europe has been the story of the week after last Sunday’s elections for the European parliament in Strasbourg: the result being, in the French prime minister’s words, truly “an earthquake”. 

Sure, the European legislature is far removed from voters’ lives and traditionally an avenue where support for wacky and impractical candidates can be vented as a protest, without great consequences. Yet the strong showing of far-right parties in France, Britain and Denmark is particularly ominous. 

In France, Marine Le Pen’s National Front won 25 per cent of the vote, ahead of President François Hollande’s Socialists and the conservative mainstream party. In Britain, the UK Independence Party (UKIP) led by Nigel Farage gained 28 per cent, ahead of the Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat parties. In Denmark, the Danish People’s Party won 27 per cent. In Hungary and Greece, the right-wing upsurge is neo-fascist; but in most cases the common theme is xenophobia, playing on the sentiment that Europe has opened its doors too generously, both between the 28 member countries and to outsiders. With 10.5 per cent of the European workforce unemployed (and much higher for  younger people), discontent with post-global financial crisis austerity is running high. 

Some good news was the strong showing of Prime Minister Matteo Renzi’s Democratic Party, whose 40 per cent support was more than any other Italian party since 1958, suggesting support for his economic policies. A group opposed to the European Union did badly in Holland. 

A long way from Australia? Our conservatives so blithely pursuing the 1980s package of austerity and removal of “entitlement” might consider how rising inequality and choked-off work and housing opportunity for our young could sow some flowers of political dissent on their own far right.

1 . China snares deal for Russian gas

Russia’s Vladimir Putin had earlier seemed to flaunt his independence from Europe’s gas market by clinching a $US400 billion, 30-year natural gas export contract with China, during his cosy reaffirmation of a Eurasian axis with Xi Jinping. 

Actually, the Chinese have put the squeeze on the Russians with the help of the Ukraine crisis. Russia’s Gazprom had been negotiating for 10 years with the China National Petroleum Corp, unwilling to accept the offered prices and terms. Judging by the secrecy of the deal announced on May 21, Putin ordered Gazprom to take the Chinese offer, which may include cut prices and participation in production and gas transport.

 As Mikhail Krutikhin of the RusEnergy consultancy points out, Gazprom will have to spend $US60 billion to open new gas deposits in Siberia and Sakhalin, and a Russian government fund will spend $55 billion on pipelines to China. The first gas will not flow for five years, by which time gas prices may have fallen when US shale gas and new supplies from Asia hit the global markets. 

2 . Thai coup won’t inspire Myanmar’s democracy

Thailand’s military men, who decided it was a coup d’état after all, may find themselves in much deeper and much longer than in previous putsches, and Thai society much less willing to take it.

 A new dimension is the regional setting, where military regimes have recently become the exception not the rule. The coup got a cool response in Jakarta, notably, where politicians are going through their fourth free elections since the Suharto order collapsed. Foreign Affairs Minister Julie Bishop’s cautious words on the coup are understandable, given the protracted political stalemate, the simmering street violence in Bangkok beforehand and the coup’s alleged endorsement by the unseen King Bhumibol. 

But she also has to look at the impact on neighbouring Myanmar, which she will be visiting soon. President Thein Sein, a former prime minister in the military regime that transformed itself into a Suharto-model managed democracy in 2010, is yet to give the nod to the constitutional changes that would create a real democracy ahead of the elections due at the end of next year. 

Currently the presidency is barred to anyone who has been married to a foreigner, a tailor-made ban for Aung San Suu Kyi, whose late husband was the British scholar Michael Aris. Another is the denial of citizenship to those Burmese who fled abroad and took up foreign citizenship after the 1988 bloodbath in Rangoon or later crackdowns. Only those without “criminal” convictions can get their Burmese status back: a catch-22 since most political offences are deemed criminal. Even if these barriers are lifted, the Thai example of democracy being rescinded when the wrong people keep winning is not one to wave around.   

3 . Candidates in Indonesia get dirty

Indonesian democracy is meanwhile getting down and dirty in a way we can relate to. Opponents of Prabowo Subianto, the former Special Forces general noted for his hot temper, have posted a social media video that appears to show him punching a man in a melee as he left the election commission after registering his candidacy for president. 

Other press reports have had him throwing a mobile phone at another politician during coalition-building. Prabowo has denied both incidents, and thankfully a panel of 80 specialists at a military hospital have declared him mentally and physically fit to run. Prabowo himself is fully aware of the risks of losing it, and is said to employ an American “anger manager” full-time on his personal staff. 

And frontrunner Joko Widodo (“Jokowi”) has had to confront a smear reminiscent of the “birthing” issue that dogged Barack Obama. Documents purporting to be copies of Jokowi’s marriage certificate and identification card have circulated indicating the former mayor of the Central Java city of Solo was of Chinese descent and Christian upbringing, as shown in the full name Herbertus Handoko Joko Widodo, son of one Oey Hong Liong. All false, Jokowi says, as he emphasises his Javanese background and several pilgrimages to Mecca. 

Indeed, Jokowi has been a model of multiculturalism after enlisting a Chinese-Indonesian, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (“Ahok”), as his running mate for the governorship of Jakarta in 2012, and Ahok will move up to governor of the capital if Jokowi wins the presidency. If the disinformation is traced back to Prabowo’s supporters, it will rebound badly, as Prabowo has had to work hard to try to shed the anti-Chinese aura he gathered during the last defence of his then father-in-law Suharto’s rule in 1998. 

4 . Guinea-Bissau shows how democracy is done

Timor-Leste has scored a small victory for democracy. Since stepping down from its presidency, José Ramos-Horta has been working on UN assignment to restore government in another former Portuguese colony, Guinea-Bissau in West Africa, which has been racked by military coups and made a staging post in the cocaine trade to Europe for the Medellin cartels. 

With $US6 million from Dili and assignment of Timorese election officials, Guinea-Bissau has just held elections, and Ramos-Horta finishes his task next month. Almost as amazing, Timor-Leste’s prime minister, Xanana Gusmão, and opposition Fretilin party leader, Mari Alkatiri, have dropped their bitter rivalry and are travelling together to attend Guinea-Bissau’s celebrations.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 31, 2014 as "European austerity breeds far-right support".

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Hamish McDonald is a Walkley Award-winning foreign correspondent.

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