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THE WRAP-UP: 29 June 2021

Joshua and Hugh’s fortnightly wrap-up of news from around the world is here! Join us as we chat about:

  • Iran’s controversial new president.

  • The CCP's 100th birthday celebrations.

  • Protests in Spain as separatists are freed from jail.

  • The threat posed by far-right militants to the EU.

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Topic #1 - Iranian elections

Audio * Iran announces conservative cleric Ebrahim Raisi President-elect*

Josh: What you just heard there was the announcement that Sayyed Ebrahim Raisi, an ultra-conservative judge, had overwhelmingly won Iran’s Presidential election. When the news broke, his supporters took the streets to celebrate -- with many chanting his name and shouting anti-Western slogans.

For those who are unfamiliar with Iranian politics, the Presidency is the second most powerful job in the land, subordinate only to Iran’s Supreme Leader. And although the Supreme Leader calls most of the shots, the Presidency is still a powerful role -- and the election of Raisi could change Iranian politics and its relationship with the rest of the world.

Hugh: So who is Raisi, and why is his election so significant?

Josh: Okay, well the first thing you need to know about him is that he is a hardline conservative and is a harsh critic of the West.  He belongs to the Combatant Clergy Association -- and some commentators say he’s the most hardline Iranian president in recent history. For the last 18 months, he’s been the Chief Justice of Iran’s judicial system and responsible for implementing Islamic religious law.

He’s also a close ally of Iran’s Supreme Leader, who belongs to the same conservative faction as Raisi. In fact, it’s believed that the Supreme Leader has handpicked Raisi to be his successor, and that Raisi’s election as president is a training ground for that role.

Importantly, when Raisi assumes power next month, he’ll be the first President of Iran to be under direct Western sanctions. You see, during Iran’s political revolution in the 1980’s, Raisi sat on a 4-man committee that oversaw the execution of about 5,000 political prisoners. It’s also believed that he helped organise lethal crackdowns on anti-government protests in 2019.

During those protests, at least 7,000 people were arrested, tortured and sentenced to prison under Raisi’s watch. That led the EU and US to impose sanctions on him for human rights abuses.

Hugh:  But despite his brutal history, it seems he’s pretty popular in Iran.  Last I saw, he won 62% of all votes cast!

Josh: Yeah, you’re right -- he won nearly two thirds of the vote. But, that doesn’t mean he’s popular -- in fact there’s some evidence to suggest otherwise.

First of all, voter turnout was the lowest on record.  Only 49% of Iranians voted -- compared to 73% at the last election. Rising poverty, inflation and the government’s poor response to Covid are partly to blame for the low turnout -- many Iranians say they feel disenchanted with politics.

But there’s another reason. There were signs the election was rigged. In the weeks before the vote, most of Raisi’s opponents were disqualified.

That meant, there was no serious challenger to Raisi. And in a sign of how upset some Iranians were at that move, 4 million of them cast blank ballots.  That meant 15% of all votes were for no candidate -- a higher percentage than the runner up received -- he got only 11% of all votes.

Hugh:  So what does this mean for Iranian politics?

Josh: Well, for the moderates in Iran who support reform, it’s a huge loss. With the election of Raisi, the conservative faction controls every level of government. That gives Iran’s Supreme Leader power to do whatever he wants, as Raisi is unlikely to challenge him. But it also leaves the urban middle class, which is largely in favour of social reform, without a voice in government.

Raisi’s opponents also worry that he’ll increase crackdowns on journalists and activists. But Raisi himself has rejected those claims and says he’ll focus on fighting corruption, reducing poverty and combatting Covid-19.

Hugh:  This comes at a time when the US is trying to renegotiate a nuclear deal with Iran.  How might this affect negotiations?

Josh: Interestingly, Raisi has said he supports a new deal.  But his victory puts the US and EU in a difficult position. Under the terms of their own sanctions, they’re not allowed to enter an agreement with him. So they might need to tweak those sanctions before Raisi assumes office!

But, even if a nuclear deal is passed, it doesn’t mean tensions between Iran and the West will disappear. Iran is also under fire for its ballistic missile program and attempts to meddle in neighbouring countries. Raisi has suggested he’s not interested in negotiating about any of these issues -- and that’s likely to only complicate Iran’s relationship with the rest of the world.  So keep an eye on the region, because Iran is likely to continue flexing its political muscles.

Topic #2 - 100 years of the CCP

Hugh: Well Joshua, you may have heard some commentators talking about this in the news lately… and if not, that chauvinistic chorus might have been a hint. In just a few days, on the 1st of July, the ruling Chinese Communist Party, or CCP, is set to celebrate its 100th year anniversary. 

Now, while the celebrations themselves are largely ceremonial, they nonetheless mark a very significant milestone in both Chinese and global history. The CCP has maintained relatively firm administration over mainland China since  1949, and so it’s safe to say that for better or worse, the Party has had a major impact on the course of Chinese history.

Josh: Yeah for sure. What have been some of the defining features of CCP rule in China?

Hugh: Look, one of the earliest defining moments in CCP history was when the Party overcame its nationalist adversaries during the Chinese Civil War, taking control of the entire mainland and exiling the nationalist Kuomintang Party to the island of Taiwan, where it remains to this day.

After taking power, the CCP was defined by its well-known leader Mao Tse Tung and a number of controversial initiatives such as the Great Leap Forward, the invasion of Tibet and the Cultural Revolution.

The Mao era was followed by a period of reform, which opened up the country and saw an historic violent crackdown on pro-democracy activists during the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989.

But China continued its economic rise, combining somewhat liberal economic policies with an authoritarian model of social governance. In the early 2000s, the CCP confronted the SARS virus outbreak in the country’s south, before hosting the Beijing Olympics in 2008.

And more recently, as our listeners would know, China has been defined by its geopolitical ambition, continued economic growth, controversial crackdowns on dissent in Hong Kong and Xinjiang and of course the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic. So given the CCP has been in control of China throughout all of those events, it would be fair to say that the Party has a very complicated history and legacy.

Josh: How much of that are we likely to see in the celebration ceremony?

Hugh: Unsurprisingly, it’s extremely likely that only the positive elements of that history are going to be on display on the 1st of July. As we’ll no doubt see during the historic ceremony, in which Xi Jinping is set to deliver a major speech, the CCP will be presented as the natural protector of China’s national interests and identity. Party historians will be eager to credit the CCP with China’s unprecedented economic growth and it’s very likely that we’ll see the Party also attempt to make a fresh case for Chinese leadership on the global stage.

And it’s true that while there are many things the CCP will want to avoid discussing, there are several recent news events it can point to for inspiration. Only recently, the Shenzhou-12, or "Divine Vessel" spacecraft delivered the first three members of a team of astronauts who will complete the construction of China's first space station by the end of next year.

Such events highlight China’s new role as a global leader, which the CCP will obviously want to credit to itself.

Josh: Of course. But what will the Party want to avoid focussing on?

Hugh: Well, the Party will be quick to shut down any discussion of its potential role in the outbreak of Covid-19 which many in the international community have blamed on a CCP coverup.

Beyond that, with the last independent pro-democracy news publication in Hong Kong, Apple Daily, having just published its final edition after a CCP crackdown, the Party will want to shut out any dissenting voices. And that’s because a key pillar of CCP rule is ensuring that the Party’s claim to sole national leadership remains unchallenged.

That of course also means that the controversial crackdown against Uighurs and Kazaks in Xinjiang will also be a topic of little to no discussion, with accusations of genocide and forced labour by Party officials going unaddressed.

Josh: There’s really so much going on… what do you think the ceremony symbolises then?

Hugh: Look, I think the 100th anniversary is a perfect example of how complex China and the CCP can be. There are undoubtedly a number of huge issues pertaining to the CCP’s record on democracy, global health, human rights, ethnic minorities and military aggression.

But at the same time, we also know that China is a huge country and economy, whose advancements in technology and things such as space exploration make it impossible to ignore or pigeon-hole. Looking in the long-term, the big thing to look out for will be the 100th anniversary of the proclamation of the People’s Republic of China in 2049. 

Many analysts say that the Party is aiming to cement Chinese global leadership by that deadline - so the next 28 years are going to be absolutely crucial as the CCP finds its place in the world. There will certainly be many more world-defining events to come.

Topic #3 - Pardoned Catalan leaders

Josh: Hugh, our next story takes place in Spain, where a political decision has re-ignited calls for the country to be split in two. On Wednesday last week, Spain’s Prime Minister, Pedro Sanchez, said he would use his prime ministerial powers to pardon 9 individuals.

The 9 people he pardoned were jailed for up to 13 years after they helped Spain’s Catalonia region try to declare independen  ce from the rest of the country. Before I go into why those pardons are so controversial, let me give you a bit of background on Catalonia and its fight for independence:

Catalonia is one of 17 regions in Spain. Chances are, some of you will have been there -- the region’s capital is Barcelona. Importantly, Catalonia has long seen itself as different from the rest of Spain - it has its own language and unique culture. Because of these differences, the Spanish federal government has given Catalonia extra autonomy -- for example, it’s got its own anthem and parliament. Historically, this arrangement has worked pretty well. In exchange for extra freedom, Catalonia has been willing to remain part of Spain.

However, since the GFC, economic hardship has led to growing resentment among Catalans, who see the Spanish federal government as partly to blame. In 2015, a pro-independence party won the majority in Catalan’s regional elections. That sparked some pretty serious conflict with the Spanish government.

The Catalan government called an independence referendum in 2017.  Only problem was: the vote was declared illegal.

AUDIO: News reports of Supreme Court decision

Nevertheless, the Catalan government persisted and held the referendum. Turnout was really low, but 90% voted in favour of leaving Spain. And so, in October 2017, the Catalan government declared independence from the rest of the country.

The response from the Spanish federal government was swift. It invoked emergency powers, sent in police and sacked the Catalan government. There were allegations of police brutality and it all became quite violent.

Amid the chaos, Catalonia’s newly-appointed President fled to Belgium to avoid arrest. Other members of the Catalonian government weren’t so lucky 9 of them, including the Vice President, were arrested, convicted of sedition and jailed. And it’s those 9 leaders that the Spanish PM, just a few years later, has pardoned.

Hugh:  Wow, so after all that chaos, why would Sanchez want to pardon them?

Josh: The short answer is: politics. Sanchez’s government doesn’t have a majority in parliament.  To stay in power, he needs the support of -- guess who -- a handful of Catalonian MP’s.  Without their support, he can’t pass budgets or laws.  So it seems the pardons are an attempt to win these MP’s over.

Hugh:  So what’s the reaction been to the decision?

Josh: Not good.  It looks like nearly everyone is against the pardons. Spain’s other political parties have denounced the move as a “betrayal” and pledged to challenge the decision in the courts. Surveys show that their anger is shared by the population.  Around 60% of Spaniards oppose the pardons. After the decision was announced, hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets to protest.

However, believe it or not, even the Catalonian separatists themselves were angry at the pardons. The pardons are only conditional:  the Catalan leaders are banned from holding public office for life, and can be re-imprisoned if they commit crimes -- like advocating for independence -- in the future. 

So those who support the separatist movement also took the streets in protest. So Sanchez really hasn’t pleased anyone -- if anything, it looks like the pardons have inflamed the situation.

Hugh: Now that they’ve got their leaders back, could this give new life to the Catalonian independence movement?

Josh: Yes, it seems it could.  After the decision was announced, leaders in Catalonia pledged they would hold a new independence referendum. They also demanded the federal government withdraw an international arrest warrant for the Catalonian President, and allow him to return from Belgium. The Spanish government has said both of those demands are out of the question. So, despite the pardons being intended to act as an olive branch, it looks like the stage is set for a showdown sooner or later.

Topic #4 - Far-right military threats

Audio from Euronews “Fugitive far-right soldier apparently found dead, says Belgian police”

Hugh: As you would have just heard Joshua, the body of a fugitive Belgian soldier was recently discovered in forests in the nation’s north. And while a story such as this would normally struggle to make international headlines, the complex political situation behind the soldier’s disappearance has become a source of much discussion across Europe and the world. 

You see, as that audio intro highlighted, the fugitive soldier Jürgen Conings was actually a member of the far-right and was being monitored by Belgian authorities after being placed on an extremist watchlist. His disappearance sparked a region-wide manhunt involving Belgian, Dutch, Luxembourgish and German authorities which lasted 35 days and is estimated to have cost around 650,000 euros.

Josh: Wow… could you tell us a little bit more about why European authorities were so desperate to find him?

Hugh: That’s a good question. There are two main reasons why Conings was considered so dangerous. The first was his professional background as a combat expert. Conings had significant military experience, having served several overseas tours where he specialised as an elite sniper.

This high-level military experience was made apparent from day one of the manhunt, when authorities found his abandoned car, which had been extensively booby-trapped and contained a total of four rocket launchers. 

Indeed, Conings was believed to have possessed a small arsenal of weaponry while on the run. But the second reason he was considered so dangerous was his extremist political beliefs. As is the case across much of the far-right in the West, Conings had a deep distrust of Covid-19 restrictions. This actually led him to threaten the life of Belgian virologist Marc Van Ranst on several occasions in the leadup to his escape.

The first two hours of Conings’ escape even saw him search for Van Ranst in an apparent attempt to take his life. And this meant that the virologist and his family had to be moved to an undisclosed location for the duration of the manhunt. 

Yet perhaps most concerningly, even after threatening government officials, military personnel and virologists, Conings enjoyed surprisingly strong support from European extremists, with tens of thousands issuing their support online and some even gathering at the location of the manhunt, before it had even been determined that Conings had indeed taken his life and no longer posed a threat. That support is still coming in even after Conings’ death, suggesting that his views might be more deeply held than some may have first thought.

Josh: That’s terrifying... Is this the first time something like this has happened?

Hugh: Unfortunately, not at all. Over the last few years, we’ve seen a growing trend of extremists and hardcore conspiracy theorists being discovered within the ranks of European security forces, including police, military and intelligence organisations. In April of this year, hundreds of former and active French military personnel issued letters to the French Government warning of quote “Islamist hordes” and a potential civil war.

In Germany, meanwhile, several soldiers have been found with far-right Nazi paraphenelia as well as personal stockpiles of weapons in their houses. In one particularly bizarre case, a German soldier based in the French city of Strasbourg was arrested after posing as a Syrian refugee and allegedly preparing to attack sensitive targets in Germany in order to incite an anti-migrant backlash. And this of course just goes to show how strange but dangerous this new threat really is.

Josh: Yeah, terrifying stuff. Do we know if there are secret organisations behind these extremist individuals?

Hugh: That’s been a massive point of debate across Europe. There are certainly informal groups of extremists that exist within European security forces. Some German commandos, for example, are reported to have given Nazi salutes at a private far-right gathering. 

But the jury’s out as to whether organised groups of conspiracists exist within the European security apparatus. In Germany’s case, authorities looked into whether there is a Shadow Army in place but determined that military extremism is currently unorganised.

That said, there are even allegations that some of the military intelligence officers responsible for monitoring extremism within the ranks are themselves politically compromised, and that’s why I’m hesitant to rule anything out. But this dilemma raises a serious problem for European authorities and the question is, how do you enable security personnel to protect your population when the personnel you’re training with deadly weapons may not be trustworthy or safe themselves?

Josh: Yeah, there’s certainly a lot for the Europeans to think about there…

Josh: And with that, that brings this episode of The Wrap Up to an end!  Stay tuned for next week’s In-Depth episode -- I’ll be chatting with Anna Gero, a researcher at UTS, about how climate change is influencing inequality and the developing world.

Hugh: In the meantime, follow us, Global Questions, on Instagram or check us out on the Young Diplomats Society’s website. You can leave us feedback or suggest an episode topic. Links are in the episode description.

Josh: We will see you in a fortnight! Bye!

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