World Review | September 2019

Developments in North America

Impeachment Prelude to US Elections

The Speaker of the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, on September 25 announced her intention to initiate impeachment proceedings against the United States President, Donald Trump. The process is guaranteed to consume the Trump administration for at least the next two to three months. Trump will be investigated over a CIA whistleblower’s claim that he asked the Ukrainian president to find out if Joe Biden, the leading Democratic presidential candidate, and his son had done anything questionable in their country. Trump has since asked the Chinese government for similar information. He argues this is not illegal.
Going by his public statements and tweets, the issue has already become an obsession with the US president. Trump has lashed out the Democrats for “treason,” accused Biden and his son of corruption. Pelosi believes she will have a tactical advantage thanks to her 25 years of experience on the House Intelligence Committee given the charge against Trump is being treated as a National Security issue.
Pelosi has resisted earlier calls by the leftwing of her Democratic Party to seek Trump’s impeachment. Trump’s popularity and the Republican Party leadership's inability to take him on were partly responsible. More important was her belief such a drastic move against the president would go down poorly with the electorate and hurt the electoral prospects of moderate Democrats. However, when moderate Democrats recently began urging her to consider impeachment she decided the time had come. 

Impeachment by the lower house will be easy. It is controlled by the Democrats and requires only a majority vote. At present, impeachment by the Senate looks all but impossible. It is firmly in the Republican fold and requires a two-thirds majority. Persuading dozens of Republicans to move against Trump would require a large number of conservative supporters to turn against him as well as a cast-iron legal case against him. It is possible Pelosi sees this more as a means to undermine Trump’s standing with independent voters, the swing group in the coming US presidential elections. Reports say Democratic Party strategists see the Ukraine scandal as a much better foil against the president than the more convoluted and hazier charges of Russian involvement in the 2016 elections covered by the Mueller investigation.
Pelosi seems to see the defeat of Trump, electorally or legally, as the capstone to her many years in politics. “She senses that this is a moment of history,” Democratic and Indian-American legislator Ro Khanna was quoted as saying. It is not without risk. Only four US presidents have faced impeachment in the country’s history and none of the efforts were successful – though Richard Nixon resigned the presidency rather than face almost certain defeat. US voters tend to be supportive of the office of the president and wary of attempts to undermine the incumbent, irrespective of party affiliation. The failed Republican attempt to impeach Bill Clinton in 1998 cost one of Pelosi’s predecessors, the Republican Newt Gingrich, his speakership.
A poll showed that when Pelosi began the proceedings, even among democrats only 61 per cent of Democrats supported impeachment. It also showed a similar number of independents were opposed to the idea – double Trump’s positive approval rating among these voters. But 55 per cent of voters felt an investigation of the charges was necessary and other polls indicate this number is rising. 

The first stage of the impeachment will be investigations by six House committees. At some point in the next several weeks the Democrats will have to decide if they have enough evidence to pass articles of impeachment and plan for a trial by the lower house.
Among the Democratic candidates, Elizabeth Warren has begun to show signs of momentum with at least one poll showing her to be ahead of Biden. Warren has started to make inroads among black American voters, a group that has remained loyal to Biden. Bernie Sanders, the socialist candidate, remains in third place but recent heart-related surgery puts a question over his staying power.

Canada Ignores Trudeau Blunders

Despite his popularity in the Western media and Canada's health economy, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is facing a more difficult battle to win national elections on October 21 than expected. In February, two of his ministers accused Trudeau’s team of pressuring them to drop a criminal investigation into a Quebec engineering firm. More recently, three images of Trudeau wearing blackface have dented his liberal reputation. Analysts say Trudeau is struggling with the gap between his words and deeds. This has allowed the two parties on his left and the conservatives on his right to eat into his vote base.

Trudeau’s Liberal Party lags one percentage point behind the Conservative Andrew Scheer but its spread of votes could allow it to win more parliamentary seats. Fortunately for Trudeau, Scheer has his own social media baggage and minor controversies have afflicted even the candidates for the other two smaller parties, the New Democratic Party and the Greens.

Developments in Europe

Brexit Enters Homestretch, Maybe

Prime Minister Boris Johnson put forward a detailed 44-page Brexit plan, even as an October 31 deadline that would evict the United Kingdom out of the European Union without any agreement approaches. The plan envisages an extreme, almost complete break with the EU and would, in a year’s time, end even the soft border between Ireland and Northern Ireland. Brussels has already rejected its initial form. The EU, Ireland and a large chunk of the UK Parliament seem to be manoeuvring to trigger a British law that would automatically extend the Brexit deadline if no final agreement is reached by October 17.

Johnson’s plan does not envisage a customs union with the European Union. And it offers a strange two-border solution to the issue of the backstop for Northern Ireland, with a half-boundary between the two Irelands and another between the islands of Ireland and Great Britain that would last until December 2020. After that, Northern Ireland would join the rest of the UK in leaving even the customs union with the EU. The economic costs of such a plan would be extreme. Johnson’s first Brexit plan does not even attempt to soften the consequences, whether for Britain, Ireland or the EU. 

The British prime minister primary goal is political survival. He seems to be calculating that this agreement would keep the ultra-right Brexit Party from eating into his Conservative vote. With Labour Party’s leader, Jeremy Corbyn, ambivalent about Brexit, the only Pro-EU party of consequence are the Liberal Democrats. Johnson is likely to call for early elections as soon as Brexit occurs.
What can hold him back? The EU is contemplating unilaterally announcing it will extend the Brexit deadline beyond October 31. This, would trigger the British law that extends the deadline.Johnson, who has little regard for constitutional niceties, may override this, setting the stage for a round of battles with his own cabinet, sections of his party and the courts. All eyes are now on October 17th, when the EU will hold a summit and, by most accounts, call for more time and Johnson will fight off attempts by his own Parliament to invoke the extension law. 

The UK economy has begun to slip into recession with growth in the service sector slowing down and investment dropping.

Ukraine Caught in US Political Web

One fallout of the US impeachment decision is that Ukrainian president, political neophyte Volodymyr Zelensky, is suddenly caught in a major international crisis. A former comedian who has been in office for only four months he is seen as poorly prepared to be in the crossfires of a US political civil war. 

Zelensky has otherwise been seen as a positive force, securing economic and diplomatic support from both the major European governments and the US, as well as making some progress with Moscow. But Ukraine’s broad strategy of countering Russian attempts at subverting its government with Western support is now in the balance. Trump will presumably hold further financial assistance to Ukraine hostage to Zelensky declining to help the US congressional investigation against the US president. Zelensky’s private criticisms of the leaders of France and Germany, evident in the transcript of his conversation with Donald Trump, has not helped matters. The so-called Normandy Four – Germany, France, the US and Ukraine – aimed at resolving the conflict between Ukraine and Russia will meet in a few weeks.



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About the Author

Pramit Pal Chaudhury

Pramit Pal Chaudhuri, Foreign Editor, Hindustan Times, and Distinguished Fellow & Head, Strategic Affairs, Ananta Aspen Centre

Pramit Pal Chaudhuri writes on political, security, and economic issues. He previously wrote for the Statesman and the Telegraph in Calcutta. He served on the National Security Advisory Board of the Indian government from 2011-2015. Among other affiliations, he is a member of the Asia Society Global Council, the Aspen Institute Italia, the International Institute of Strategic Studies, and the Mont Pelerin Society. Pramit is also a senior associate of Rhodium Group, New York City, advisor to the Bower Group Asia in India, a member of the Council on Emerging Markets, Washington, DC, and a delegate for the Confederation of Indian Industry-Aspen Strategy Group Indo-U.S. Strategic Dialogue and the Ananta Aspen Strategic Dialogues with Japan, China and Israel. Born in 1964, he has visited over fifty countries on five continents. Mr. Pal Chaudhuri is a history graduate from Cornell University.