Isolating Japan

The White House announcement last month that the United States would abandon its position in Syria dumbfounded many of the world’s foreign policy practitioners including, it seemed, the entire executive branch of the U.S. Government. The subsequent attempt to react to the sequence of events it unleashed will undoubtedly have a chilling effect on U.S. allies around the world, especially those that are more or less dependent upon American security guarantees. In light of what appears to be a unilateral abandonment of a longstanding U.S. policy without warning or any appreciable coordination with allies, leaders around the world are almost certainly reviewing options for their defense. For them, reassessing the reliability of America’s commitment to their security will surely become a national security priority.

Vicious Cycle

Japan is arguably the most important of America’s nervous allies. With a post-war constitution that prohibits the maintenance of armed forces, Japan is particularly vulnerable to isolation due to a dramatic U.S. policy shift affecting security in Asia. This fact is presumably not lost on Prime Minister Shinzo Abe whose party has for years played at the margins of the Japanese Constitution’s Article 9 prohibition of military forces. The foundation of his party’s efforts sits at the heart of 70 years of Japanese politics but after the American pullout of Syria last month, Abe’s argument, that Japan must be less reliant on the United States for security, must seem strikingly tangible.

Japan exists in a difficult and dangerous part of the world. Apart from the immense and growing power of China, Tokyo faces renewed Russian challenges to disputed islands, festering animosity with the Republic of Korea, and a nuclear-armed North Korea that is suddenly receiving a great deal of coddling from Washington. The alarming apathy of the Trump Administration to America’s traditional role of keeping all this in balance is surely making Abe’s case. President Trump’s oft-stated desire to “get U.S. troops out of Asia” simply highlights that much of the shifting situation is due to his disinterest in the status quo ante. Though a few within the Administration have tried to make the case that America’s alliances are investments in its prosperity and security, all seem to have failed to convince him. While Japan’s moves to spend more on its own defense predate Trump, they will surely serve to confirm the President’s point of view…at least to some.


Apathy toward the traditional American role as marriage counselor between Seoul and Tokyo will likely have an unfortunate effect on cooperation between them.


The Cost of Peace

At the precise moment Japan is taking small steps toward a more independent defense policy, Korea is undergoing a political sea change. Though South Korean President Moon Jae In doesn’t speak about it publicly, there is evidence Seoul is greatly concerned about the trajectory of U.S. diplomacy with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). Though he is largely responsible for the rapid warming of inter-Korean relations that enabled the Singapore Summit between Kim Jong Un and President Trump in June 2018, Moon likely made these moves in hopes of steering the process. Instead he found himself locked out of the room in Singapore. From that moment it was clear the cost of the breakthrough was the abandonment of 70 years of U.S. support of Seoul as the only legitimate government of the Korean people.

Sharing legitimacy with Kim Jong Un is a terrible position for the South Korean leader to be in; particularly since it comes as the result of a decision made in Washington rather than in Seoul. The decision also solidifies the Japanese urge to re-arm which in turn, heightens South Korean insecurity. The lethal combination of Japanese and South Korean hedging with Trumpian apathy toward the traditional American role as marriage counselor between Seoul and Tokyo, will likely have an unfortunate effect on cooperation between them.

Isolating Japan

The sins of Imperial Japan in the 19th and early 20th centuries serve as an inhibitor to cooperation with Korea. For this reason, the United States played a critical stabilizing role in the region as the broker of alliance politics between them. If, for example, Korea could not or would not work with the Japanese directly, they could at least collaborate multilaterally. At times when even this was not possible, each could work bilaterally with the U.S. towards common objectives determined by Washington. This approach, sometimes called “multilateral bilateralism” is not ideal but the United States uses it successfully in Southeast Asia.

In Northeast Asia where the stakes are higher, this approach requires a firm and flexible American hand. That consistency and the concentration it demands seem a distant memory now. Just yesterday, 14 November, Secretary of Defense Esper landed in Seoul with a demand the South Koreans pay an additional USD $5 billion to cover the cost of U.S. troops stationed there. The surprise 500% increase is a seemingly arbitrary number proposed by President Trump himself. and one sure to exacerbate Seoul’s insecurity. With the costs of alliance skyrocketing and its benefits decreasing, the unilateral abandonment of a Syrian ally in combat half a world away will surely echo in the ears of Moon Jae In and Shinzo Abe as they consider options for the future of their national defense.

We can already see the beginnings of Japan’s isolation in the form of worsening trade relations between Seoul and Tokyo, the abandonment of an intelligence sharing agreement between them, and Sino-Russian moves this summer to exacerbate a dispute over Takeshima/Dok Do. Though these examples predate the dramatic American retreat in Syria, we can safely assume Beijing and Moscow will view Washington’s lack of reliability as a golden opportunity to isolate Japan and use South Korean fears to break apart the mechanisms of U.S. influence in the region. Once a bulwark of stability, the self-inflicted decline of American leadership in Northeast Asia will present isolating Japan as a feasible and acceptable course of action for China and Russia to pursue.


Lino Miani, CEO Navisio Global LLC

Lino Miani is a retired US Army Special Forces officer, author of The Sulu Arms Market, and CEO of Navisio Global LLC.

Water Wars

On October 11th, the Nobel Prize Committee announced its decision to award the 2019 Peace Prize to Ethiopia’s charismatic Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed Ali for his efforts to “resolve the border conflict with neighboring Eritrea.” After 30 years of insurgency and 21 years of war, Ethiopia may finally have peace with its breakaway neighbor, a conflict that cost tens of thousands of lives. With the Nobel Prize announcement, the young and energetic former Army Lieutenant Colonel joined 99 of history’s most treasured peacemakers. Eleven days later, he promised he would mobilize millions of soldiers to fight Egypt if that country sought to prevent completion of the Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam.

The spectacle of a Nobel Laureate threatening war, even a defensive one, over water rights may seem like an anachronism but it is not. Water wars are the future of conflict in many parts of the world and the distribution and intensity of that conflict is intertwined with history, climate change, population growth, and of course geography. In East Africa perhaps most of all. The Nile River is the longest in the world. Its waters flow through 11 countries and provide water to 250 million Africans on its way to Alexandria, Egypt where it flows into the Mediterranean Sea. That geographic fact has determined the rise and fall of empires from the time of the Pharaohs, through the rule of Alexander the Great and later the Ottomans. Its course shaped European colonialism on the continent and is the source of a great deal of tension between source and consumer countries today. Despite this, riparian states like Ethiopia say Nile waters are not distributed fairly.

Africa’s Water Tower

Ethiopia is a vast country that sits on a mountainous plateau. It is the source for 84% of the water in the greater Nile river system upon which so many millions depend. The country’s mountainous geography and unique political history are the reason Ethiopia is the only country in Africa that was never fully colonized by Europeans. Despite this, Ethiopia remains poorly developed and water-stressed. Successive regimes in Addis Ababa viewed dam-building as a birthright solution to Ethiopia’s water and power needs but were blocked by vigorous opposition from more powerful governments down stream. No longer it seems. Increasing pressure to dam the Blue Nile led to the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam project. Announced in 2011, it will be the largest dam in Africa when it is finally complete next year.

Egypt sees the Renaissance Dam as a threat to its security. So does Sudan. Both have promised to defend their rights to Nile waters. This is not hyperbole. Ninety-five percent of Egypt’s 99 million citizens live within 20 kilometers of the river and receive 90% their water from it. Any reduction of Nile waters is quite literally a limitation on the viability of Egyptian society and industry. Thus far, both Egypt and Sudan base their claims to Nile water on the 1929 Nile Waters Agreement and the 1959 Egypt-Sudan Agreement which guarantee 66% of Nile waters to Egypt and 22% to Sudan. Designed to allocate Nile waters between British colonies in East Africa and the Anglo-Egyptian Condominium, those treaties included no provisions for Ethiopia or the other riparian states that subsequently achieved independence. More importantly, the 1929 agreement gave Egypt veto power over construction of dams upstream.

Unsurprisingly, Ethiopians reject this arrangement on the basis that they were never a party to the agreement. More recently, they have been working with other upstream countries — Uganda, Rwanda, and Kenya — as a bloc to pursue a more inclusive agreement that is nonetheless sensitive to Egyptian concerns. As part of that effort, Addis Ababa offered to release 30 billion cubic meters from the dam annually, a total they claim is the maximum they can release while filling the reservoir. Egypt however, is not satisfied with this number and wants 40 billion cubic meters instead, a discharge rate that would increase the time required to grow the reservoir from 5-6 years to 7-9 years. For the time being, Sudan is comfortable with 30 billion and was brokering a mutually acceptable quantity until those talks broke down last week over drought provisions.

Diplomatic Timeline of Nile Water Utilization

Water Talks

Where the talks go from here is a matter of growing concern in the region and beyond. The dam will be complete sometime in 2022, a decision point in Egyptian calculations and the reason the Egyptian Foreign Minister said the dam “will have negative consequences for stability in the region” if Egypt’s concerns are not addressed. Recognizing the danger of a conflict that could engulf all of East Africa, the United States and Russia have both offered to mediate but even the question of their respective roles remains a matter of some disagreement between the parties.

The controversy of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam demonstrates that water wars are no longer a topic limited only to science fiction. They are indeed a real and growing concern that erodes existing mechanisms of diplomacy and international security at the exact moment global warming, population growth, environmental degradation, and great power competition are changing the dynamics of supply and demand between source and consumer countries. Though resource wars are not new, the explosive results of water wars, like the one that could happen on the Nile, will carry these conflicts far beyond their parched origins to areas less vulnerable to water conflict. Responding preventatively must be an international diplomatic priority today so it does not become an international military one tomorrow.


Lino Miani, CEO Navisio Global LLC

Lino Miani is a retired US Army Special Forces officer, author of The Sulu Arms Market, and CEO of Navisio Global LLC.

Overcoming Democracy: Italy’s Online Experiment

A political earthquake struck Italy this summer as alliances shifted between bitter rivals in the country’s complicated multiparty system. Power plays, miscalculations and surprise deals made for juicy media headlines, but the most important lesson for the world may lie in the way one particular populist party allows technocrats to substitute technological farce for representative democracy. Though the crisis for government control made global headlines, the internal dynamics are somewhat difficult for outsiders to understand. In his 2015 book The Italians, author John Hopper observed that the turbulent surface of Italian politics may be by design. “[in Italian politics] issues remain arguable, and thus negotiable.” he wrote. “Imprecision is, on the whole, highly prized. Definition and categorization are, by contrast, suspect. For things to remain flexible, they need to be complicated or vague, and preferably both.”

In August, Matteo Salvini of the right-wing League Party created the most recent “turbulent surface” by making moves to bring down the coalition government in hopes he would then win a snap election. Despite his soaring popularity, an unlikely coalition led by the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement thwarted his attempt to gain control. 5-Star and its center-left former rival, the Democratic Party (PD), looked past their differences to freeze Salvini out completely. However temporary, sidelining Salvini and the League was a surprising outcome considering the rise of right-wing parties and leaders in Europe over the past few years. Many of these parties, including Salvini’s, have both overt or revealed links to Russia and its strongman president Vladimir Putin.

The “Non-Party” 5-Star Movement

Far from being a typical political party, the 5-Star Movement is a self-styled “anti-party” group that European journalist Darren Loucaides said “tapped deeply into one of the most powerful forces in Italian politics: disgust with Italian politics. Rather than offer an ideology or platform, Five Star offered a wholesale rebuke of the country’s entrenched, highly paid, careerist political class—left, right, and center.” A grassroots, populist movement, 5-Star emulated the profane style of its famous comedian co-founder, Bepe Grillo, calling some of its early events V-Days, a play on both the 2005 dystopian film “V for Vendetta” and a popular Italian vulgarity. Initially, the five stars in the group’s name referred to its policy priorities: sustainable transportation and development, public water, universal internet access, and environmentalism. Over the past 15 years however, that platform has expanded to include term limits, preventing those with criminal convictions from running for office, and now also a Universal Basic Income concept similar to the one making headlines in the 2020 US Presidential Race thanks to candidate Andrew Yang. Not so flatteringly, 5-Star has also been connected to anti-vaccination laws, the Brexit campaign, and American political operative Steve Bannon.


“When Grillo and Casaleggio founded the 5 Star Movement, few imagined they would reduce democratic freedom by doing so.”


Though Grillo was the public face of the movement for years, the man that truly orchestrated its rise to power was an unknown Italian entrepreneur and political activist named Gianroberto Casaleggio. Casaleggio used Grillo’s fame, straightforward internet blogs, and the Meetup.com platform to create a “grand techno-utopian project…an online voting and debate portal.” Casaleggio hoped to make the elected Italian Parliament obsolete, putting the power to legislate in the hands of the Italian people through their computers and smart devices. As Louciades wrote in Wired, as early as 2001 Casaleggio surmised technology would fundamentally change governments and politics, creating greater transparency and political accountability to the will of the people. He envisioned “interactive leaders” that deal directly with the masses, bypassing the media and its role as an interpreter. In Casaleggio’s view, a natural consequence of cutting out the media middleman would be the “imminent demise of journalism.” Society would be able to see politics as it truly is, not the “virtual reality” the media creates. He did not mince words: “Overcoming representative democracy” he said, “is therefore inevitable.”

Philosophers and Technocrats

Casaleggio named his direct democracy platform after the eighteenth century Enlightenment author and philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau and set its launch date for April 13th, 2016. Unfortunately for Casaleggio, he died two days before its debut and would never know how Rousseau became central to the rise of the 5-Star Movement in Italian politics. Rousseau creates democracy without the use of intermediaries or the centuries-old political caste by allowing members to vote for candidates, create referendums on party decisions, propose and debate laws, and participate in fund-raising. As the internet and smart devices make the world ever more interconnected, the potential for these tools to facilitate direct democracy could mean drastic change for governance and politics. An idealist may believe that these systems, when integrated with blockchain or online-banking style security, could empower more voters and bring participation levels to new highs. A skeptic would counter that replacing representative democracy with internet-enabled direct democracy actually creates opportunities for coercion, cybercrime, and consolidation of political power in the hands of a few powerful technocrats.

Ironically, the 5-Star Movement has been roundly criticized for pioneering this technique though it directly contradicts their populist aims. When Grillo and Casaleggio founded the Movement, in part to cut the middlemen out of Italian politics, few imagined they would reduce democratic freedom by doing so. However, with power and information strictly controlled by a small group of technocrats at Milan-based Casaleggio Associates, 5-Star stands accused of silencing dissent. Italian author Silvia Mazzini compared Beppe Grillo to a populist dictator, ushering in new party members then threatening to ostracize or punish them if they do not support his ideas. Despite espousing a desire to empower the common citizen, Casaleggio Associates hand-picks candidates for the Rousseau elections without any transparency whatsoever. There are however, more obvious problems using Rousseau as a mechanism for direct democracy. In July 2019 there were only 100,000 active members on the platform, a tiny fraction of the 10.7 million Italians that voted for the 5-Star Movement in the 2018 general election. These are underwhelming numbers, even in a country where one out of four people still lack access to the internet.

The Future of Online Voting and Direct Democracy

Though access and participation are problematic, security is perhaps a bigger concern. Rousseau suffered several high profile cyber attacks in the run up to elections in 2017 and 2018. Hackers stole members’ information and even published phone numbers and passwords of party leaders in what was probably an attempt to intimidate voters and candidates. In response, the Italian data protection authority fined Casaleggio Associates for failing to fix several security flaws in their system. Italy is hardly the only nation experimenting with risky technology in the democratic process. The Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center released a report that, among other things, concluded “mobile and internet voting technologies are not presently secure enough for large-scale applications. Nevertheless, nations like Ukraine are “moving forward with integrating blockchain-based online voting into their national election systems in efforts to increase security and prevent voter fraud.”

Italy is the first large western republic to utilize an internet-based technological platform that purports to expand democracy on a national scale. As other republics around the world grapple with new wave populism featuring interactive leaders that use social media to bypass traditional filters, the integrity of democratic voting processes becomes a paramount concern. Italy’s ongoing experiment with Rousseau demonstrates that the security vulnerabilities of online platforms and limitations on participation, access, and transparency inherent in these technologies can make some voters more equal than others. The world will do well to look deeper and decide if this is truly an expansion of democracy or actually, as Gianroberto Casaleggio predicted, “democracy overcome.”


Wilhelm JaredJared Wilhelm is a Foreign Area Officer and former Naval Aviator who lives in Italy. He is a member of the Military Writer’s Guild, was named a 2014 Olmsted Scholar, and is a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, U.S. Naval Postgraduate School, and the U.S. Naval War College. His views are his own and do not represent the views or position of any other entity. He has previously published numerous articles on democracy around the world, including Some More Equal than Others.

Turkey Races the Clock as Its Ground Forces Enter Syria

This article has been republished with permission from our partner, Stratfor. The original version was first published in Stratfor’s WORLDVIEW and can be found here.

Featured Image: (DELIL SOULEIMAN/AFP/Getty Images) A Turkish military vehicle participates in a joint patrol with the United States in northeastern Syria on Sept. 24 that had been aimed at easing tensions between Turkey and U.S.-backed Kurdish forces. U.S. President Donald Trump withdrew U.S. troops from the area this week, clearing the way for a Turkish incursion.


The Big Picture

Turkey’s incursion into northeastern Syria is adding to tensions between Washington and Ankara. How the important U.S.-Turkey relationship evolves will depend heavily on how Ankara manages concerns over its operations in Syria.

See The Syrian Civil War

See The Gate: Standoff Against Daesh


Turkish ground forces, part of its military incursion dubbed Operation Peace Spring, rolled across the border into northeastern Syria on Oct. 9 in an offensive for which the first few days will be key. The Turks may have almost all the military advantages in this fight, but they can’t afford for their push to get bogged down, so they will attempt to seize their objectives quickly.

So far, it appears that Turkey’s initial aim is to split the territory held by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) near the Turkish-Syrian border by driving down the middle to seize key roads linking the western and eastern parts of northeastern Syria. If successful, Turkey could further isolate the SDF holdings in the north and pave the way for additional assaults.

Situation in Syria 11 OctoberThe operation is focused on the territory between the border towns of Tal Abyad in the west and Ras al-Ayn in the east. The Turkish spearheads are attempting to advance around the two towns, which are about 110 kilometers (68 miles) apart, and then drive down to the M4 highway about 30-35 kilometers away that runs on a parallel course to the border. Aside from Tal Abyad and Ras al-Ayn, both of which have a population of about 200,000, this territory is relatively sparsely populated and flat. The terrain and the dearth of major urban centers will significantly facilitate the Turkish advance, unlike the situation its military faced during its operations in Afrin and northern Aleppo.

The Turkish offensive relies heavily on Syrian rebel proxies of the so-called Syrian National Army, which consists of units of disparate combat effectiveness and discipline. Components from the Turkish army consisting of mechanized infantry, armor, engineers and special operations forces stiffen these Syrian units. Large numbers of artillery and significant air support abet these ground forces. Against this powerful force, the SDF’s roughly 40,000 fighters consist predominantly of light infantry forces with little in the way of heavy equipment, artillery or armored vehicles. Their lack of heavy weaponry will make it difficult for the SDF to stand up against the heavily equipped Turkish offensive in the flat terrain, driving them to focus their defense on the villages and small towns within this zone. This strategy puts SDF troops at risk of being surrounded and cut off by the mobile Turkish units, something that is already apparent in the way the Turks have attempted to surround Tal Abyad and Ras al-Ayn.

The Syrian Democratic Forces’ military disadvantages increase the likelihood it could seek an accommodation with Russia or the Syrian government in return for additional support.

Disadvantaged by the local geography and inadequately equipped, the SDF will be hard-pressed to hold back the Turkish offensive. This disadvantage adds to the likelihood the SDF could seek an accommodation with Russia and even the Syrian government in return for additional support. Even an influx of anti-tank guided missiles from the Syrian government could do much to inflict considerable casualties on the Turks and their Syrian rebel allies. The Syrian government, however, recognizing that the SDF is in trouble, will press hard for significant concessions in return for any support, likely including the demand that the SDF hand over key energy fields in the eastern province of Deir el-Zour.

As the SDF attempts to buy time and shore up external assistance, the Turks will be attempting to move their offensive as quickly as possible to minimize the international backlash that is already evident against it. In these early days of its move into Syria, Turkey’s most effective ally will be speed.


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South Africa Faces a Downward Spiral

This article has been republished with permission from our partner, Stratfor. The original version was first published in Stratfor’s WORLDVIEW and can be found here.


Highlights

  • Beset by infighting, the ruling African National Congress is incapable of effectively tackling the country’s worsening economic and social situation.
  • Those problems will drive more highly skilled individuals to emigrate, robbing the country of productive workers and tax revenue in the years ahead.
  • Deepening economic malaise and internal fissures will accelerate the erosion of the ANC’s once-dominant electoral position, possibly opening the door to more extreme parties, with serious policy implications.
  • As South Africa struggles to get its house in order, its influence over the rest of southern Africa will wane.

“We are sorry for what happened,” South African President Cyril Ramaphosa told a group of workers earlier this month in Durban. “Our image, our standing and our integrity [were] negatively affected.” Ramaphosa offered the heartfelt mea culpa following yet another wave of xenophobic riots across South Africa, yet presidential apologies are unlikely to stanch more violence directed against foreigners there — or cure the deeper malaise that drives the unrest. That’s because successive governments in Pretoria have failed to foster essential economic growth in South Africa, which posted an eye-popping unemployment rate of 29 percent earlier this year. Every week, thousands of its citizens are forced into unemployment or underemployment in the extensive black market.


The Big Picture

Years of economic and social woes have taken a toll on South Africa. As the country grapples with yet more indications of weak or negative growth, sky-high unemployment, massive crime rates and coming political change, its ability to remain a continental economic powerhouse will be under threat.

See 2019 Fourth-Quarter Forecast

See Sub-Saharan Africa section of the 2019 Fourth-Quarter Forecast

See Old Leaders in a New Africa


And it’s not just joblessness that is eating away at the rainbow nation; a host of other factors are driving home the severity of the country’s crisis: rising government debt, crumbling infrastructure, collapsing education standards, rampant crime and violence, currency volatility, investment outflows, and more. Together, it’s given rise to the sentiment that South Africa is increasingly a country of “haves” and “have nots,” tearing at the country’s social fabric, resulting in mass alienation and disenchantment with the political system. And with the ruling African National Congress (ANC) seemingly unable to get its own house — let alone South Africa’s — in order, the continent’s powerhouse will go through plenty more trials and tribulations before it sees any glimmer of hope.

A Battle Over Spoils

In spite of ever-worsening economic and social problems, the ANC government is incapable of implementing drastic and fundamental reforms to jump-start growth, offering instead “pie in the sky” policy rhetoric that has failed to translate into reality. At the heart of the problem is the ANC itself: The party is riven by massive internal factionalism. In the years immediately after apartheid, ideological differences may have driven the party’s divisions. But since then, the ANC has become mired in corruption and mismanagement, with the effects becoming evermore pronounced in recent years. In effect, the main battle brewing inside the ANC today centers on access to money and resources; policy differences, ultimately, are largely irrelevant. South Africa’s economic boost during the global commodity supercycle driven largely by Chinese demand in the late 2000s obscured this internal conflict and its negative impacts until the good economic times ended in 2014. Since then, bleaker prospects have challenged Ramaphosa and his allies’ efforts to turn around the party and government through anti-corruption efforts, in part because he must contend with other powerful factions — most notably those aligned with his predecessor, Jacob Zuma — that benefit from his administration’s failure to root out graft at all levels of government.

This has serious policy implications. Given Ramaphosa’s flimsy coalition against other ANC factions, the president cannot robustly push “controversial” economic reforms which, in the South African context, entails market-based reforms that demand increased efficiency. For starters, these limitations have hindered Ramaphosa’s goals of overhauling the country’s embattled public utility company, Eskom. After nearly scuttling the South African economy last summer amid blackouts that it instituted to protect the unstable electrical grid, Eskom has already sucked up billions of dollars (necessitating ever-mounting debt) in 2019 to keep the lights on. Unsurprisingly, there is little sign of an improvement in store.

Economic SnapshotDespite the gravity of the situation, several of the country’s powerful unions have vowed to turn on Ramaphosa if he seeks to turn around Eskom by either privatizing the utility or laying redundant workers off. (According to the International Monetary Fund, Eskom’s workforce is bloated by a whopping 66 percent.) Should Ramaphosa opt not to alienate the powerful labor leaders who paved his path to the top of the ANC in 2017, he will have few policy options with which to deal with Eskom. In the end, one thing is certain: Failing to fix the company risks plunging South Africa’s economy into more crisis. As one Eskom board member recently warned, the current electrical grid cannot handle even a relatively minor uptick in economic activity without experiencing a system meltdown.

Over the Cliff

The long-term implications of years of ANC-led mismanagement loom large. For one, recent data proffered by an emigration services company, Sable International, strongly suggests that an exodus of South African individuals with a high net worth, as well as highly skilled workers, is underway. This, naturally, will have consequences as South Africa continues to rely more heavily on its shrinking tax base for government revenue. In addition, the flight of highly skilled workers will affect key sectors in global demand, like healthcare and high-tech, robbing the country of the more productive segments of its society. Most troubling for the government, data shows that the vast majority of these individuals do not return to the country once they emigrate.

Pretoria’s inability to make the tough policy choices to alter course will ultimately result in the country’s economy continuing to take on water. With weak or negative growth projected for the next several years, unemployment will remain high, resulting in yet more misery, high crime and violence. And in addition to Eskom’s woes, the country’s water systems, public transportation, waste management and other critical infrastructure will further deteriorate, pushing the costs and consequences onto its citizens. This, in turn, will encourage more highly skilled workers to leave the country for greener — and safer — pastures. South Africa’s political elites will find this downward spiral difficult to break, paving the way for the country to lose its ability to influence its much smaller neighbors. And as the author R.W. Johnson has pointed out, unlike the case of Zimbabwe — which sent millions of economic migrants over the border to South Africa when its economy collapsed — South Africans trying to escape economic misery have nowhere else in the region to go.

By the time the country’s leaders receive a stronger popular mandate to remedy its dire situation, South Africa will be in a far deeper hole with far fewer human resources to help dig it out.

This constraint on mass emigration will create an increasing number of disaffected voters who will erode the ANC’s once-dominant electoral position. Amid the economic stagnation and political infighting, younger voters who have few memories of the ANC’s struggle against apartheid — and, thus, little loyalty to the party — will look for other options come election day. Quite when the ANC will lose its political predominance is an open question, but South Africa’s poor economic trajectory and the ANC’s internal squabbling mean that a sea change will come sooner than later.

Ultimately, the impact of the ANC’s eventual reckoning will depend greatly on which political parties step in to fill the political void. For example, a weakened ANC that loses its majority will likely have to join an alliance with another major political party — an act that in itself that will likely accelerate the ANC’s breakup as dormant ideological debates erupt and battles over resources lead to a final splintering. Accordingly, does the future ANC opt to align itself with the far-left Economic Freedom Fighters? If so, the impact would be huge. To begin with, such a partnership would cause a sharp left turn in the country’s policies, resulting in the accelerated transfers of wealth to the impoverished black majority (at a huge cost to market efficiency). Policies like these would spook foreign investors, increase the brain drain, cause capital flight and send South Africa-based corporations scattering to other major African hubs. Relatedly, it would turn Pretoria’s focus away from the rest of the continent, thereby speeding up South Africa’s decline as a regional economic and political power (with no country in the region likely to assume its place).

An uneasy future alliance with the center-right Democratic Alliance could push the ANC into adopting more market-based policies. However, this scenario would be no panacea, as it could only occur if it receives serious political backing from voters who have otherwise favored populism over market efficiency. (What’s more, it would also likely usher in the ANC’s fragmentation into splinter parties, greatly upending the political system.) Popular support for tougher market reforms is only likely to come after more years of economic and social woes. By the time the country’s leaders receive a stronger popular mandate to remedy its dire situation, South Africa will be in a far deeper hole with far fewer human resources to help dig it out.

Amid its political leaders’ inability to pursue the tough policy choices needed to address the country’s growing socio-economic crisis, South Africa is sinking. The result, for the time being, will be the increase of internal strife and policy uncertainty, the erosion of the country’s economic base, and the loss of its regional hegemony. The only question, then, is just how stern South Africa’s reckoning will be.


Stephen RakowskiStephen Rakowski is a Sub-Saharan Africa Analyst at Stratfor, where he monitors political, security and economic trends unfolding across the continent. Mr. Rakowski holds a master’s in government with a focus on diplomacy and conflict studies from the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya in Israel. He also holds a bachelor’s in international relations from Franklin University Switzerland in Lugano, Switzerland. In addition to his studies, Mr. Rakowski has traveled and lived throughout Madagascar, Morocco and Kyrgyzstan.

Measure Up Costa Rica: Old Techniques, New Tools (Part 2 of a series)

This is the second part of a two part series by Dino Mora on influence operations in Costa Rica. You can read part one, “Around the Caribbean, Costa Rica Under Pressure” here.


Featured photo: Costa Rican Ambassador to the Russian Federation, Arturo Fournier Facio waits obediently while Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov signs a visa-free travel agreement with Costa Rica.


Russia, and the Soviet Union before it, has maintained a deep interest in Latin America since before the Second World War and in Costa Rica in particular since at least the 1970s. Their goal was – and remains – to develop a base for espionage and “active measures” as a non-nuclear deterrent against U.S. policies globally. In a 1992 report to Congress, the United States Information Agency defined Soviet active measures as “the manipulative use of slogans, arguments, disinformation, and carefully selected true information, which the Soviets used to try to influence the attitudes and actions of foreign publics and governments.” Or, as KGB defector Vasili Mitrokin put it: “political warfare conducted by the Soviet and Russian intelligence services.” Today those active measures are on full display around the world and Costa Rica is no exception. Understanding them requires an examination of the interesting history of active measures in Central America and how they shape Russia’s perception of their importance and effectiveness there.

Old Techniques

In his masterpiece, “The Mitrokin Archive”, the former KGB Major claimed Russia used active measures to manipulate events in Central America as early as 1940. At that time, a Soviet operative named Iosif Romualdovic Grigulevic took a leading role in assassinating Bolsheviks and Communists that were not loyal to Joseph Stalin. Grigulevic counted among his accomplishments the attempted assassination of Leon Trotsky at his villa in Mexico City and the sabotage of Nazi supply chains from the region during the Second World War. More striking perhaps is that he eventually assumed cover as a Costa Rican diplomat with the false identity Teodoro B. Castro. Posing as the illegitimate son of a prominent but very dead Costa Rican (his “father” was in reality, childless), Grigulevic served as the ambassador of the Republic of Costa Rica to both Italy and Yugoslavia between 1952 and 1954. His mission in Belgrade was to assassinate Yugoslav leader Josip Broz Tito, a task interrupted by Stalin’s death in 1953.

In order to “penetrate Costa Rica’s diplomatic corps”, Grigulevic posed as a wealthy Costa Rican businessman; a coffee expert with links to international coffee magnates. He used his money and connections to cultivate a relationship with Jose Figueres Ferrer (three-time President of Costa Rica) based on a joint venture to sell coffee in Europe. Figueres was an unlikely target. During his first term as President of Costa Rica (1948-49), Figueres banned the Communist Party from politics. It was not until he sought a third term in 1970 that he considered accepting funding from Communist sources. According to Mitrokin, Figueres held secret meetings with the KGB Resident in Costa Rica, A. I. Mosolov who eventually funneled more than $300,000 to Figueres from the KGB in exchange for a promise to establish diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union. Shortly after his re-election, Figueres did exactly that, oiling the government machinery that reopened the Soviet Embassy.

New Tools

Russian active measures did not end with the Cold War. If anything, Russia’s intelligence services dramatically expanded their use in the aftermath of Russia’s 2014 invasion of Ukraine. At any given time, observers can find evidence of ongoing Russian meddling in the United States, Syria, Turkey, Germany, Austria, Sweden, Poland, and of course, Latin America. Modern active measures use hostile social manipulation through media and radical-right groups as agents to accomplish Moscow’s twin goals of destabilizing Western societies and co-opting Western business and political elites. The tools are new but the techniques are not.

According to Russia’s 2015 Military Strategy, Moscow has two goals in Latin America. The first is to develop a functional alliance with a Central American country. Nicaragua is the natural first choice with its strategic geography, leftist government, and importance to a coalition of states closely aligned with Moscow; China, North Korea, Cuba, Iran, and Venezuela. Russia’s second goal is to develop collective security arrangements that can serve as non-nuclear deterrents against US policies elsewhere. A plan proposed in a May 2015 article by two well-known military thinkers: Aleksandr Perendzhiyev from the Association of Independent Military Political Experts, and Colonel General Leonid Ivashov, a member of the Academy of Geopolitical Problems, advocated the creation of combined Russian-Chinese units in Nicaragua and the stationing of Russian troops in Venezuela and Brazil. More ominous was their suggestion of placing a task force off the coasts of the US – an oblique reference to Cuba – that would have American territory in its sights. Such a “grand coalition” could include Iran as well and would be supported by a “major diplomatic and information offensive”; a euphemism for active measures.

The plan to build non-nuclear deterrents may already be in operation. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu started in 2015 with an official visit to Nicaragua that likely put the finishing touches on a deal to install a Global Satellite Navigation System (GLONASS) tracking station on the outskirts of Managua. In 2017, Russia opened a counter-narcotics training center there that gives them access to security officers from all over the Central American region. This represented an expansion of an already robust military and diplomatic presence in Nicaragua — estimated to be 400 to 500 people at any given time — that reflects increased Russian military engagement around the region. Venezuela is also experiencing a well-documented increase of Russian military advisors and exercises, as well as private military contractors working for the Russian government. In 2019, the Russian Navy sent its first-in-class frigate, Admiral Gorshkov (FFG 454) to Havana. The Admiral Gorshkov was allegedly transporting unspecified intelligence assets and was joined by at least two Russian support vessels.

Measuring Up Costa Rica

Well on its way to achieving its strategic basing and non-nuclear deterrence goals, Russia can use its position in Nicaragua, Cuba, and Venezuela to influence all the other countries in Central and South America with Costa Rica as the natural next target for active measures. Accordingly, a series of political and economic phenomena have affected Costa Rica in ways detrimental to its stability since late 2018, leading one high level Costa Rican politician to claim it was occurring “under the direction of the Russian Federation.”

From September to November 2018, Costa Rica suffered a massive strike that paralyzed the economy. Ostensibly a response to a tax reform proposal, the strike served instead to focus public opinion against the government’s decision to accept an influx of refugees from Nicaragua. The strike, and subsequent manifestations of xenophobia in the capital were suspected to be the work of Nicaraguan and Cuban intelligence operatives, some of who are believed to have infiltrated amongst the refugees. Their work included a series of violent incidents disguised as crime including: acts of sabotage to the media company, Teletica, an oil pipeline, and the national electric and telecommunications company. The attempted assassination in July 2019 of Zoila Rosa Voilo, a member of the Legislative Assembly, and a wave of violent crimes unfairly attributed to Nicaraguan refugees is also likely to be the result of an ongoing intelligence operation to weaken Costa Rican resistance to foreign influence.

The destabilization of Costa Rica’s democratic system is the endgame of Cuban and Nicaraguan intelligence operations in the service of a broader Russian ambition to establish an economic, political, and geo-strategic sphere of interest in Latin America. The extent to which this is the outcome of a well-laid strategic plan that encompasses Russian activity across the region or just the Kremlin’s uncoordinated vision for influence is something that cannot be determined. However, the tradecraft used, especially for the massive disinformation campaign, coupled with the temporal coincidence of some Russia-friendly decisions by San Jose, suggests the suspected Cuban and Nicaraguan intelligence operations affecting Costa Rica are in fact coordinated with and supported by Moscow. Measuring up to the threat will require Costa Rica to master new techniques as well as the new tools available for influence.


Dino MoraDino Mora is an experienced Intelligence and Security Operations Specialist with a demonstrated history of working in the international affairs industry. His expertise includes Intelligence Analysis/Reporting, Counterintelligence, TESSOC threats, Tactical, operational and strategic Assessment/Planning, Counterinsurgency, Security Training & Team Leadership. He has extensive experience in NATO multinational operations and intelligence operations. Multilingual in Italian, English, and Spanish. He graduated from the Italian Military Academy.

A Major Attack on Saudi Aramco Leaves the U.S. in a Difficult Spot

This article has been republished with permission from our partner, Stratfor. The original version was first published in Stratfor’s WORLDVIEW and can be found here.


The Big Picture

As the United States intensifies its campaign of maximum economic pressure against Iran, Tehran is seeking ways to escape the straitjacket that oil sanctions have put it in. The U.S. blames Iran for a serious Sept. 14 attack against Saudi oil infrastructure, and the aftermath is likely to reveal Iran’s boldness, Saudi Arabia’s risk aversion and the difficult decision Washington must weigh as it chooses how to respond.

See the U.S. and the Balance of Power

See Iran’s Arc of Influence


Attacks on Sept. 14 apparently conducted with cruise missiles and drones targeted the Abqaiq and Khurais crude-processing and stabilization facilities belonging to Saudi Arabian Oil Co., knocking 5.7 million barrels per day of crude oil production offline — 5 percent of the global daily total. Although Yemen’s Houthi rebels quickly claimed responsibility, the United States asserted that the attacks did not originate from Yemen and were conducted with Iranian help. Details released in the aftermath of the attacks seem to corroborate at least the U.S. claim that they were launched from outside Yemen.

The Iranian Calculation

If this was indeed Iran directly attacking targets in Saudi Arabia, it marks a brazen escalation in its efforts to maintain and strengthen its political and military standing in the Middle East and Persian Gulf. It would also track with Iranian efforts to seek relief from increasing U.S. pressure. Iran has demonstrated with a number of recent attacks that it is willing to aggressively push back against the United States and its allies as it tries to break the current cycle of heavy oil sanctions and economic pressure.

With the United States blaming Iran, the odds that the United States or its allies would retaliate militarily against Iranian-linked targets, if not Iran itself, have risen significantly. In the hours after the attack, U.S. President Donald Trump stated that the United States was “locked and loaded” and waiting for final verification of Iranian involvement before deciding how to respond. The Iranians undoubtedly understand that attacks such as these could provoke a U.S. military response, but they are clearly willing to accept that risk and may even calculate that Trump would not be willing to chance a serious and highly damaging military conflict in the lead-up to the 2020 U.S. presidential election. Alongside these attacks, the Iranians are also seeking to drive a parallel negotiation, mostly through the Europeans, to offer an alternative path toward de-escalation that the Americans could take.

The Case Against a Houthi Attack

Given the facilities’ geographic location, the Saudi air defense focus on Yemen, the angles of impact, the overflight reports over Kuwait and debris recovered from a failed cruise missile, it is quite likely that the attacks came from Iraqi or Iranian territory — or both. It is also possible that some of the drones could have been sea-launched. Regardless, the attack vector these details indicate more directly implicates Iran and/or its direct proxies in Iraq, increasing the danger of escalation. U.S. officials concluded in May that an attack on Saudi pumping stations originated from Iraq. Although that incident left only a fraction of the damage as the destruction of Sept. 14, it drove home how Iraq could be used as a staging ground for attacks on Saudi oil infrastructure.

Saudi Abqaiq and Khurais Infrastructure Attacks

An attack of that magnitude, however, will decrease the likelihood that the United States would be able to hold meaningful talks with Iran in the short term. The White House has already taken a generally hard-line stance on Iran, and the United States will be loath to back off in the aftermath of this major assault. It will not want to project weakness by allowing Iran to dictate events and will be concerned that too soft a response would send a message that could encourage other states it has disputes with, such as North Korea, to act provocatively. In addition, as the global hegemon, the United States has a vital stake in preserving the free flow of commerce and energy resources.

The Decisions Ahead

The United States now faces a difficult decision. Washington may calculate that an attack of this magnitude on critical Saudi oil infrastructure requires a military response to establish deterrence. But thus far, Trump has been unwilling to take actions that could escalate U.S. military commitments in the Middle East as Washington seeks to shift its focus and resources to the Western Pacific and Europe. Therefore, the United States will likely seek to commit to a response in conjunction with local allies, placing an added emphasis on the reactions by Riyadh and Abu Dhabi.

Saudi hesitance to embroil itself in a major conflict is clear already. Saudi and U.S. intelligence so far agree that cruise missiles were used in the attack, but Saudi Arabia has stopped short of concurring with the U.S. assessment that Iran provided the staging ground for the attack. Riyadh’s cautious response reflects Saudi Arabia’s general course of risk avoidance and its desire to avoid the disruption of a major Gulf conflict. If the attack came from Yemen, Riyadh would face an easier, albeit still costly, choice of further pummeling the Houthis there. This course would not require a strategic readjustment since the Saudis are already heavily engaged there. But with the evidence pointing toward the attack originating from Iraq or from Iran, the Saudis now face the decision of supporting a U.S. military response at the risk of escalation in its struggle to contain Iran. And despite a clear hesitance to stoke a broader conflict, the attack confronts Saudi Arabia with the clear, glaring vulnerability of its oil and gas infrastructure in a way that could drive Riyadh to support a U.S. military response.


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Around the Caribbean: Costa Rica Under Pressure (Part 1 of a series)

This is the first part of a two part series by Dino Mora on influence operations in Costa Rica. Read Part 2 “Measure Up Costa Rica: Old Techniques, New Tools” here. 


Featured Photo: Costa Ricans and Nicaraguans march against xenophobia and San Jose, Costa Rica, on August 25, 2018. / AFP PHOTO / EZEQUIEL BECERRA


On the night of 27 July 2019, three men crept carefully across the street to the headquarters of Teletica Media in the Sabana Oeste neighborhood of San José, Costa Rica. According to witnesses, they placed an object on the steps that exploded the moment they left the scene, causing minor damage to the front windows of the office. Though the incident caused no injuries, it was the kind of demonstration associated with the incipient phases of insurgency. How the Costa Rican government handles this case, and a growing number of similar acts of violence, is under increasing scrutiny by a citizenry with memories of insurgent violence.

Though violent crime rates in Costa Rica are among the lowest in the region, the increase is notable and varied and is causing a great deal of unease among ordinary Costa Ricans. The ability of the government to handle the situation is increasingly in question as mass media draws connections between what is happening on the streets and the growing population of refugees fleeing instability in neighboring Nicaragua. Distrust grows in Costa Rican society with every act of violence and while the majority of cases are attributed to common delinquency and young criminal gangs, there are indications the trend is the result of a directed effort by a state actor. Costa Rica is under attack. Understanding why requires us to look south of the border.

Instability

According to the Nicaraguan Tourism Institute, more than 5,000 Cubans arrived in Nicaragua during the first five months of 2019, an increase of almost 900 percent compared to 566 that arrived in all of 2018. Far from being attracted to tourist spots, many Cubans come for undercover activities to help the Ortega-Murillo regime remain in power. Aníbal Toruño, director of Nicaraguan Radio Darío, told the Panamanian newspaper Panam that Cuban service members enter Nicaragua covertly, hidden among migrants seeking to escape the island and head to the United States. These advisors began arriving in 2007, but that number increased exponentially after a deadly April 2018 uprising and crackdown that triggered instability in Nicaragua. Since then, the Nicaraguan newspaper La Prensa reported that 200 advisers from the Cuban Intelligence Directorate regularly operate with the Nicaraguan Armed Forces and provide training to the police and officials of the Directorate of Customs and the Prisons System. In relative terms, this is a very large effort by Havana to stabilize their ally in Managua.

Despite their numbers, the Cubans are eager to remain mostly in the shadows. According to Nicaraguan nationals interviewed by the author, Cuban officers are not part of operational units that “arrest people in the street.” Instead, the Cubans deal exclusively with “interrogations of arrested people in the most brutal way.” According to a statement by Nicaraguan exiles at the Cuban Justice Commission held in San José, Costa Rica in May, Cuban officers are known to “…torture and kill farmers” as part of a strategy of radical, violent, systematic, and selective repression in Nicaragua. Meanwhile, opposition press in Managua claim this strategy is so important to Cuban foreign policy that none other than Cuba’s leader Raúl Castro and his Interior Minister Julio César Gandarilla themselves direct and operate it in Nicaragua.

Costa Rica Expansion

The ongoing Cuban operation in Nicaragua is only a troubling first step in a wider effort to realign Central America in ways more favorable to Havana. The willingness of the Ortega Administration to allow his country to serve as a platform for Cuban influence is bad news for neighboring Costa Rica. Since the beginning of the crisis in Nicaragua, pro-Cuban media in Costa Rica employed a propaganda strategy of amplifying a genuine, preexisting uncertainty and fear over the entry of Nicaraguan refugees. This campaign includes the creation of nationalist and anti-immigrant social media platforms and closed/private chat groups designed to maximize its impact on public opinion.

The disinformation campaign targets people of all social statuses, employing specific themes related to their varied lifestyles, education levels, and social and political status in order to provoke a quick and widespread reaction. Calls for armed revolution against the current government have a pronounced effect among the less educated that are prone to believe the massive wave of widely disseminated fake news. This type of messaging incited massive strikes that paralyzed the economy, specifically the tourism sector, and provoked violent reactions in San José and the urban area around the capital.

The ongoing Cuban operation in Nicaragua is only a troubling first step in a wider effort to realign Central America in ways more favorable to Havana.

Cuban penetration however is not just covert. In April, Costa Rica surprised the world by signing an agreement with Cuba for cultural exchanges in the field of education. As part of the agreement, Cuba was to send “professors” to collaborate with the Costa Rican Ministry of Education. The inclusion of a Cuban voice in school curricula was certainly controversial. In the face of ongoing violence presented as popular discontent with the government, supporters can portray Cuban-style Communism as a viable solution and expect a receptive audience among school-aged youth. Recognizing this, a number of politicians expressed concern about the possibility of external interference in Costa Rican politics. Immediately thereafter, public concerns appeared about Cuban attempts to use education and culture to instill Communist ideology in the social and cultural development of Costa Rica. Though Nicaragua has made a decision to follow the Cubans down this path, Costa Rica is still resisting.

Hidden Hand

The Costa Rican response has not been entirely successful. San José underestimated the threat for too long, allowing it to grow with very little attention from law enforcement and security services. With relative freedom, elements recruited by Cuban intelligence planned and conducted the campaign of criminal acts now destabilizing the country. In other words, the Cuban effort is working and they know it. The formula being applied in Central America closely resembles the Cuban playbook elsewhere. Jorge Serrano, an academic at the Peruvian Center for Higher National Studies says the deployment of Cuban “political and military advisors to military bases and in key situations for political and economic power in Nicaragua…is the same maneuver used by Cuban political leaders to support Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela.” There is some evidence to back this up. Close political ties between Ortega and Maduro, and the timing of the crisis in Nicaragua, coincide with credible information that Cuban close protection assets guard both leaders and their families.

If this were simply a matter of preventing the Cubans from projecting influence from Nicaragua, the Costa Ricans are well equipped to protect themselves but there are indications of an even more powerful hand at work. If Serrano is right, and the Cubans are exporting their playbook from Venezuela, one cannot ignore the fact that Cuban efforts in Venezuela are supported by, and closely coordinated with Russia. The same could be true in Central America. This puts the Costa Rican struggle into a larger context with global implications, one in which the United States takes a direct interest. How Washington responds to the wave of criminal and propaganda activity in Costa Rica could indeed echo around the Caribbean and beyond.


Dino MoraDino Mora is an experienced Intelligence and Security Operations Specialist with a demonstrated history of working in the international affairs industry. His expertise includes Intelligence Analysis/Reporting, Counterintelligence, TESSOC threats, Tactical, operational and strategic Assessment/Planning, Counterinsurgency, Security Training & Team Leadership. He has extensive experience in NATO multinational operations and intelligence operations. Multilingual in Italian, English, and Spanish. He graduated from the Italian Military Academy.

Battle for the Throne: Indonesia Votes

As the ballots trickle in from the most complicated single-day election in history, Indonesia catches its breath and prepares for a tumultuous start to the second term of President Joko Widodo, known popularly as Jokowi. Though the election was held on April 17th, the Indonesian Election Committee (KPU) is still counting ballots from remote areas of the archipelago and will not announce the official result until May 22nd. In the meantime, the Indonesian Association for Public Opinion, a group of eight reputable pollsters, conducted a “quick count” that predicts Jokowi and his running mate, Ma’ruf Amin, will be victorious over ex-General Prabowo Subianto with a margin of 55.71% to 44.29% respectively. Though Jokowi encouraged the population to remain calm and await the official results, Prabowo dismissed the quick count and claimed victory. He eventually accepted defeat but blamed election fraud for his loss in an indication the battle may be just beginning.

Indonesia holds elections every five years, but this one was especially large and complicated. The KPU claimed the largest voter turnout in Indonesian history with 192,828,520 voters, approximately 80% of the electorate. Female voters were a majority, and 40% overall were millennials. This was also the first election in Indonesian history to combine the presidential election with the election for the People’s Consultative Assembly (MPR). The MPR consists of two houses, the People’s Representative Council (DPR), and the Regional Representative Council (DPD) with a colossal 711 seats up for grabs between them (575 and 136 respectively). According to the KPU, the complexity and intensity of the electoral process and the long travel distances between polling sites contributed to the deaths of 456 of its members. Indonesians take their democracy very seriously indeed.

Party vs. Interest

In a reversal from the 2014 election, Jokowi’s 2019 success is due largely to the Islamic “Green Factor”, i.e. the support of the National Awakening Party (PKB), the United Development Party (PPP), Golkar, and his own Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDIP). Jokowi’s controversial nomination of influential Islamic politician Ma’ruf Amin as his running mate attracted the support of Islamist parties, but the move came with great risks. Ma’ruf’s age (he’s 76) and history of political flip-flopping are concerns. In addition, while Ma’ruf was a renowned part of the 212 Movement to bring down then-candidate Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (Ahok) in his bid for Jakarta Governor, the movement was cited for intolerance. The risks of nominating Ma’ruf were borne out by the negative response of pollsters after his selection, even in Ma’ruf’s own province of West Java.

Green Factor in Indonesia's Election
The Green Factor: In the 2019 election, Islamic parties came out in support of Jokowi. Many also supported the religiously charged “212 Movement” to oust popular Jakarta Governor Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama. Photo Credit: https://jakartaglobe.id/context/peaceful-election-suggests-exaggerated-fears-of-a-country-split-in-two

Ma’ruf’s issues aside, there is real concern about the appeal of Islamic parties in Indonesian politics. Though Islamic parties play an influential role in Indonesian politics, none has ever won the presidency, perhaps because their political interests tend to be more pronounced than their political ideology. There is a perception they sway with the political winds and as a result, they have difficulties developing a firm political base. In most cases, prominent Islamic leaders lead the Islamic parties. Changes in leadership cause friction and leave internal divisions that can result in abandonment of their main political goals. PPP for example, fully supported Prabowo’s coalition on an ideological basis in 2014. In January 2019, after a long internal battle, the party pledged its support to Jokowi instead. This decision had less to do with PPP’s philosophy and more to do with its evaluation of Jokowi’s likelihood of winning the election.

Jokowi’s Future Challenges

During the campaign Jokowi ran on his record as President, claiming to have lowered the percentage of Indonesians living in poverty to 9.84% – and the unemployment rate to 5.3%. Though these are complex issues, it is obvious Indonesia became economically stable during that time. The country enjoys a 5% economic growth rate and became a G-20 member state. Despite the excellent results, Jokowi knows his task is not complete and will face three primary challenges in his second term.

In the previous five years, Indonesia’s economy grew at a respectable rate between 4.88% and 5.00% but fell short of Jokowi’s stated 7% goal. Furthermore, Chinese investment and Jokowi’s ambitious effort to physically connect Indonesia’s 17,000 islands fueled most of the growth the country did achieve. Not only is this type of investment unsustainable, it benefits a tiny percentage – less than 1% – of new middle-class Indonesians. The gap between the “haves” and the “have nots” in Indonesia is still large. Jokowi needs to continue to boost economic growth and invest more in young Indonesians, especially in the area of education. This will help Indonesia’s future development and prevent a reliance on Chinese or other foreign workers at the expense of young Indonesians.

Despite a strong commitment to building infrastructure, Jokowi needs to invest more in security. This includes not only fighting terrorism, but quelling unrest after official announcement of the election results. The potential for violence is serious. In 2018, Indonesia arrested 396 people linked to ISIS, Jemaah Ansharut Daulah (JAD), and Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia (HTI) on terrorism charges and Prabowo received massive support from many fundamentalist groups. They have proven capable of mobilizing popular unrest in the past, bringing down Ahok, the popular Jakarta mayor, over allegations of anti-Islamic sentiment. Jokowi must preserve the harmony and image of Indonesia’s secular Muslims amidst threats of intolerance and attacks in the name of religion. Though there are no longer strong terrorist organizations in Indonesia, the country remains a place for massive recruitment by various radical organizations and their capacity for violent persists.

Apart from the Islamic “Green Factor” votes, Jokowi’s second term success will depend heavily on women and the poor. He must keep his campaign promises to issue welfare cards for education, basic needs, and vocational training programs. He needs to provide more opportunities for women, especially for the many mothers whose children disappeared during the Semanggi battle in 1998, a shameful event that is becoming a public cause. Finally, Jokowi needs to fulfill his promise of greater governmental transparency and a better system of checks and balances by bringing justice to those that have been wrongly imprisoned by corrupt officials.  

All these challenges and more will occupy Jokowi as he takes charge of a new and unfamiliar coalition next month. His ability to leverage the “Green Factor” in order to win the 2019 presidential election will not make it easy to appease his new supporter base and maintain his coalition. He must keep the promises he made while campaigning even when they run counter to the impulses of his new allies. The relationship between Jokowi and the Islamists adds a new dynamic to Indonesian politics, and in the world’s most populous Muslim nation, the Battle for the Throne is just the beginning of the war.


Viana GearyMefi Ruthviana Geary, PhD, has a scholarly interest in Countering Violent Extremism and deradicalization of terrorists. Her expertise is in Southeast Asian foreign policy analysis and open source intelligence (OSINT).

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