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Elections & Crises — political twists abound in a year of destiny for many nations

Elections & Crises — political twists abound in a year of destiny for many nations
Illustrative image: Former President and Republican Presidential candidate Donald Trump. (Photo: David Dee Delgado / Getty Images) | US President Joe Biden. (Photo: Andrew Harnik / Getty Images) | SA Presdent Cyril Ramaphosa. (Photographer: Leon Sadiki/Bloomberg via Getty Images) | Former SA president Jacob Zuma. (Photo: Waldo Swiegers / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

The US political free-for-all includes court trials and political battles; South Africa wrestles with a new political reality; and in several other nations, citizens judge the future of their national leadership.

In South Africa and the US, the past few days have been filled with all manner of “miracles and wonders” as their political processes have kept many on the edges of their seats. In both, much remains to play out before there is anything approaching political clarity. And that political clarity is just the tip of the iceberg. What effect the elections will have on all manner of domestic and foreign questions also remains unclear.

In the US, the unending soap opera of the life of Donald Trump has had yet another script rewrite. This time it has been the outcome of his trial for concocting fraudulent business records to hide payments to a porn star — Stormy Daniels — just before the 2016 presidential election. This hush money was meant to obscure Trump’s behaviour to positively affect his chances in the 2016 election. 

The seven-week trial in New York City on state (not federal government) charges brought by District Attorney Alvin Bragg relied on testimony from Trump’s former bagman and attorney Michael Cohen, who made the payments and was then reimbursed from Trump business accounts fraudulently showing the payments were for legal work. 

But beyond Cohen’s testimony, there was also corroborating detail from David Pecker, the former publisher of the scandal sheet the National Enquirer. Pecker testified he agreed to bury the story even though his paper had all the sordid details. These witnesses’ statements, along with others, were buttressed by a slew of documents, cheques, emails and other materials, all helping document the illicit payment scheme and pointing to the defendant’s knowledge of the plan. 

Trump, himself, declined to testify in his defence despite thundering he would do so to prove his “perfect innocence”. In the end, his lawyers were effectively unable to break through the mountain of evidence. This became clear when the jury of seven men and five women (the US continues to rely upon jury trials for criminal felony trials wherein a judge instructs the jury in the law and the jury determines if the evidence proves guilt “beyond reasonable doubt”) took just two days to decide that Trump was guilty on all 34 counts of the indictment.

This came after Trump had been fined multiple times for contempt of court over his in-court behaviour, as well as baseless accusations and comments about court personnel and the judge’s family members, despite warnings by the judge not to do so. 

Crucially, with the verdict now delivered, his actual sentencing will take place on 11 July, a little more than two weeks after the scheduled debate between presidential candidates Trump and President Joe Biden. This debate will be televised on CNN — and politics nerds can get up with me to watch it live at 2am South African time on 28 June.

That debate will, in turn, come only days before the Republican Party’s nominating convention in Milwaukee, Wisconsin to formally certify Trump as his party’s nominee for the presidency. Among Republicans, in polling in the immediate aftermath of the verdict, so far at least, voters seem ambivalent about the effect of this verdict on their support for Trump. However, this polling was done before the sentencing, let alone the almost certain appeals the Trump team will be filing.

In that survey data, some 10% of Republicans said the verdict may give them second thoughts about supporting Trump, but it may well have hardened support among the majority of Republican voters (including most Republican elected office-holders, hardening their narrative that the trial and conviction has been a heinous plot by Democrats, the “deep state,” the media, bicoastal elites, and the Yeti, Kraken and Big Foot coalition — okay, not that last one).

The Trump campaign has claimed that since the verdict was announced, the various Trump-related websites have been flooded with cash pledges, even as major Republican backers have also begun to open their wallets to the super PACs (political action committees) aligned with Trump. There is no independent verification of such claims, however.

The other three trials featuring Trump as the defendant — the one related to the 6 January 2021 attack on the Capitol Building to derail certification of Joe Biden as president-elect; the second as a result of Trump’s hoarding of a large trove of highly classified documents illicitly stored in a shower room, a toilet, and an events hall at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago club; and a third on his efforts to browbeat the Republican governor and his administration in Georgia to make illegal changes to the voting results in that state — all now appear mired in pre-trial complexities and delays by a foot-dragging judge, as well as a Supreme Court challenge over claims of absolute presidential immunity from prosecution. 

The smart money says these trials are unlikely to begin before the election in November. (If Trump wins the election, despite his status now of being a convicted felon, these three trials may well magically disappear as a result of pressure from the new president.)

Biden shifts tone

Meanwhile, the incumbent president has been edging towards public criticism of Trump’s behaviour in the court cases, reminding people of the obvious value that there should not be one law for an average citizen and another for a billionaire who can hire as many lawyers as it takes to make an indictment go away.

 On the face of it, while it still seems unlikely the judge in the now-concluded “hush money” trial will send a former president — and a current contender for a new term — to jail in the middle of his presidential campaign, the lead attorney in the Trump legal team has publicly hedged that bet just a bit.

As Politico reported over the weekend, “In the last 48 hours we’ve noticed a shift in conventional wisdom over whether Donald Trump might be incarcerated, with more legal analysts now saying it’s possible. 

“…In an interview with the AP, Trump lawyer Todd Blanche is admitting it could happen: ‘On the one hand, it would be extraordinary to send a 77-year-old’ — 78 on June 14 — ‘to prison for a case like this. A first-time offender who was also president of the United States, I mean, I think almost unheard of,’ Blanche told Michael Sisak and Jill Colvin. [Yes, that would indeed be unprecedented, but then there has never been a former president convicted of a felony, either.]

“On the other hand, Blanche said, ‘this is a very highly publicized case’ in which some might argue Trump deserves a harsher punishment because he faces charges elsewhere. ‘So it’s going to be a very, I think, contentious sentencing where we’re going to obviously argue strenuously for a non-incarceratory sentence.’

“Watch the prosecution’s filings in the run-up to the July 11 sentencing to see if they raise the 54 other charges pending against Trump [in those three other cases] as a reason Trump should face jail time — in addition to his lack of remorse, attacks on the justice system and ten contempt citations.”

Biden, meanwhile, remains saddled with trying to rev up enthusiasm for his campaign by pointing to the challenge to democratic values and institutions that comes with Trump’s efforts, even as he and his team point to much good economic news but remain handicapped by citizens’ fears over inflation and immigration. 

As Dan Balz of The Washington Post put it, “Two big questions could define the debate between Trump and Biden from here forward. The first is which candidate poses the bigger threat to the future of the country. The second is which candidate will make the lives of Americans better than they are today. Though related, the first focuses on character and temperament, the second on substance and policy.” 

Ukraine and Gaza

Simultaneously, Biden is wrestling with two defining foreign crises bedevilling his presidency: the Russian invasion of Ukraine and Israeli military actions in Gaza. Both of these are now entangled with domestic criticism in Congress and elsewhere.

With Ukraine, even as the congressional Republican hold on military support for Ukraine finally ended, the hiatus in the supply chain of US ammunition and weaponry appears to have given the Russians a distinct upper hand in their attacks in the northeastern sector near Kharkiv, especially as Ukraine has had to sharply ration use of artillery and as its cities and military facilities continue to be pummelled by Russian missile and drone strikes. In this reality, several Nato nations, including France and Germany, have been arguing for allowing the Ukrainians to use their foreign-supplied weapons to attack Russian bases that fire missiles into Ukraine.

By the end of last week, without making a formal pronouncement of it, the US is reported to have relented in allowing such attacks with US-supplied weapons on nearby Russian military bases. Not too surprisingly, this has led to some scarcely veiled threats from Russian officials that such actions could well trigger Russian attacks on bases and facilities inside Nato member states, especially those in the eastern reaches of the alliance. So far, though, such threats have not generated any back-down by Nato members, given those increasingly heavy attacks on Ukraine. But this new policy clearly has elements of a gamble in it.

Meanwhile, in the Gaza conflict, even as Israeli military operations continue in the southern part of the territory and protests go on in US cities and on some college campuses despite the summer recess, Biden has now attempted to set, or perhaps reset, the possibilities of an end to the fighting, death and destruction via a new peace plan, although it is not at all clear whether the Israelis, Hamas or neighbouring states have signed on to this initiative. 

Stirring the pot in all this, the leaders of the US Congress extended an invitation to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to address the body. If it happens and if it follows Netanyahu’s past form, it will include admonitions — and a vigorous challenge — to the president to stand firm behind Israel pretty much no matter what course Israel takes and no matter whatever else happens. 

A speech like that would clearly not go down well with Biden and his administration and could be yet one more goad to a growing diplomatic isolation of Israel, in addition to contributing to an already frosty relationship between the two national leaders. (They have known each other for years, so little of such talk by Netanyahu would be a surprise.) 

Moreover, such a speech could provide Trump with an opportunity to flay the incumbent president for failing “to have Israel’s back”, as the phrase goes, and for his failure to deal strenuously with terrorism. Such an approach taken by Trump would certainly be a rich response, given his self-pronounced friendliness to Vladimir Putin, Kim Jong-un and the rest of the authoritarian pack, but, of course, Trump has never been known to evoke a principled consistency in his rhetoric.

South Africa

Of course, there are other important elections occurring around the globe. The one here in South Africa has yet to generate a clear picture of how a governing coalition will come into being as a result of the collapse of ANC support nationally down to about 40% and the rise of the uMkhonto Wesizwe (MK) party — or an ethnic, identitarian-style movement — that has made things more embarrassing for the ANC with its losses in KwaZulu-Natal.

Read more in Daily Maverick: It’s a wrap — ANC down, but not out, as deal-making kicks off

At this point, the ANC and others are beginning quiet, backroom discussions — those ubiquitous “talks about talks” — with potential partners in a coalition government: the Democratic Alliance, MK, the Economic Freedom Fighters, the Inkatha Freedom Party and several still smaller parties. This is in an effort to achieve a majority for the parliamentary selection of Speaker and national president within two weeks from now, despite the apparently deep ideological and personal differences dividing those parties.

At least at present, there is no clear roadmap as to how the ANC can lurch across the 50%+1 threshold to form a government. This, of course, is dependent on the national elections organiser, the IEC, surmounting any challenges to its numbers from smaller parties, edging towards accusations the IEC permitted vote-counting frauds or errors.  [Follow the peregrinations of these complex negotiations in Daily Maverick’s in-depth reporting on the ongoing saga.]

Read more in Daily Maverick: Elections dashboard

Elections around the world

Beyond the US and South African elections, in the world’s largest democracy by population, India is wrapping up its extended voting process as Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party seems poised for a major, even overwhelming parliamentary win.

Such an outcome could well heighten inter-ethnic tensions in India as Modi’s critics will undoubtedly accuse him of riding a wave of ethnic/religious divisions in which the country’s major religious minorities, Muslims and Sikhs, feel increasingly marginalised in favour of the dominant Hindu adherents and Hindi-speaking peoples. 

With the sudden death of the Iranian president and foreign minister in a helicopter crash, Iranians will go to the polls on 28 June to elect a new president. One of the candidates in the upcoming election will be former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, although whoever wins, it is unlikely the country will see any fundamental changes in its domestic and foreign policies. 

Meanwhile, in Great Britain, the incumbent prime minister, Rishi Sunak, has announced a surprise parliamentary election for 4 July — with the smart betting Sunak’s Tory Party is headed for a shellacking at the hands of Labour under Sir Keir Starmer. This could come about despite the lack of the latter’s inspirational and charismatic qualities, which may yet militate against a massive Tory loss. 

And Mexico, the nation bordering the US to the south, is also heading into a presidential and legislative election. This race is historically unique as it pits two female candidates in a race for the presidency. As The Washington Post reported, “Mexicans go to the polls Sunday in a historic election: For the first time, they’re expected to choose a female president. But that’s just one sign of the remarkable diversity in the vote.

“While the U.S. presidential race is centered on two older White men — Joe Biden and Donald Trump — Mexico’s pits a female Jewish engineer against an Indigenous female tech entrepreneur and a millennial congressman.

“The front-runner is Claudia Sheinbaum, 61, a former mayor of Mexico City, who holds a double-digit lead in polls over rival Xóchitl Gálvez. Sheinbaum is promising to continue the programs of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, founder of the Morena party and a longtime icon of the left. (He’s constitutionally barred from reelection).” Polling tabulations indicate Sheinbaum has won decisively. 

Either way, once the Mexican vote is concluded, many people around the world will inevitably ask when — or if ever — Mexico’s northern neighbour will succeed in electing a woman as the head of its national government. That is a question that just as well could be asked of China, Russia, France, South Africa and nearly all other African states, along with many other major nations — even as the UK, India, Israel, Italy, Germany, several Nordic nations and the European Union have already taken just such a step. DM

Gallery

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