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Mainstream, VOL LV No 22 New Delhi May 20, 2017

Three Cheers for Democracy — in France, Rok and Iran

Saturday 20 May 2017, by M K Bhadrakumar

This article was written before the presidental elections in France and South Korea. Yet its contents are not yet outdated Here it is being published for the benefit of our readers.

The month of May is going to be momentous for international politics. Three countries—France, South Korea and Iran—are heading for presidential elections and politics in Europe, Far East and the Middle East will be in transition. Sharp ideological clashes characterise all three elections. All three are ‘pivotal’ states and their trajectory can affect the global balance.

The ‘run-off’ in France tomorrow (May 7) is unprecedented insofar as the two discredited traditional parties of government, the Socialist Party and the Republicans, have been elimi-nated. The contestation is between Marine Le Pen of the neo-fascist National Front, the descendant of France’s Nazi-collaborationist regime in World War II, and Emmanuel Macron, an independent Centrist. Both candidates represent the interests of finance capital and there is a striking parallel with the US election last November, with Le Pen being an admirer of Donald Trump’s nationalist ‘America First’ and Macron an ally of the Democratic Party in the US. (Actually, former US President Barack Obama publicly endorsed Macron’s candidacy last week.)

Macron is the likely winner. If that happens, France will more or else pursue the same foreign-policy course as under the incumbent President Francois Hollande—a proactive member of the Western alliance and close ally of Germany. In the event of Angela Merkel securing a renewed mandate in the elections to the German Bundestag in October, with Macron in the saddle at the Elysee Palace, we may expect an assertive European Union as the flag-carrier of Western liberalism.

However, Le Pen’s victory will almost certainly lead to a breakdown in the French-German axis that has been central to the post-World War II Europe’s stability as well as deal a mortal blow to the European Union. Moscow pins hopes on her to jettison Europe’s policies aimed at isolating Russia. Her victory will strengthen Trump’s hands to improve the US’ relations with Russia. In fact, under Le Pen, the ‘West’ will witness a historic realignment. (New Republic)

When it comes to the presidential election in South Korea on Tuesday (May 9), the general expectation is that the conservative forces, who have ruled the country most of the time, may be facing a rout. Ironically, both the main contenders are politicians from the progressive Left. The likely winner could be Moon Jae In of the Democratic Party. It is a historic moment for the progressives in South Korean politics.

The progressives are not particularly enamoured of the ROK’s alliance with the United States and they root for constructive engagement with North Korea. They are lukewarm about the deployment of the US’ ABM system in South Korea and they would foster friendly ties with China. Moon’s victory will almost certainly slam the door shut on any military option against North Korea for the Trump Administration. Curiously, Trump’s dependence on China may only increase. (Atlantic)

As things stand, the field appears to be wide open in Iran’s election on May 19 and if there is no clear winner, a run-off will be held on May 26. The elections in Iran have a history of producing surprise results. But like in France and South Korea, the forthcoming election echoes an ideological struggle. All attention will be on the candidacy of incumbent President Hassan Rouhani, who is often described as a moderate-reformist.

Iran’s politics reminds one of the Indian fable of the elephant and the blind man. Depending on which organ of the beast he touches, he’d form a different opinion. A scholar at Chatham House, Dr Sanam Vakil, has come up with a refreshingly new perspective of a complex panorama that defies neat analysis. She sees the struggle in Iranian politics as quintessentially an ancient theme playing out ever since the 1979 Islamic revolution—the politics of Resis-tance. To quote Vakil,

“Resistance is not a new concept in the Islamic Republic. Indeed, since the 1979 revolution, conservative politicians have continued to invoke the concept of ‘resistance’ to exploit popular fears of Western meddling in Iranian affairs. The narrative of resistance has also stoked the spirit of Iranian nationalism and independence inspired by the words of revolutionary leader Ayatollah Khomeini’s call for Iran to be dependent on ‘neither East nor West’. The Supreme Leader and conservative politicians have long used the narrative of economic and political resistance as a means to preserve Iranian autonomy.

“Enmity with the United States and by extension Israel is also tied to a national concept of resistance... Resistance takes the form of political, revolutionary, social, cultural, economic and foreign resistance to change and interference from abroad all of which would result in the erosion of power. Ultimately, resistance is about protecting and preserving the Islamic Republic and its revolutionary ideals that have been gradually losing sway and giving way to notions of reform from within.”

Some have also called it a struggle involving ‘black Shi’ism’ and ‘red Shi’ism’, especially in its implications for Iran’s political economy. Succinctly put, Vakil analyses the struggle as Rouhani versus the politics of resistance. This of course is a simplification because the Iranian system has checks and balances that severely delimit the President’s capacity to steer policies of his choice, and, secondly, Iranian politics presents a fragmented picture.

We in India also have had our tryst with Resistance. We preferred to call it ‘strategic autonomy’, which manifested as resistance to seamless globalisation in economic policies or as pursuit of independent foreign policies. Suffice it to say, the outcome of the election in Iran will profoundly impact Iran’s foreign policies, the Middle East crisis and the US-Iranian engagement.

Ambassador M.K. Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings including India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001).

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