By Prabasi Nepali
UK Parliamentary Elections: May Unleashes Mayhem
With 649 of 650 seats declared, the ruling Conservative Party had won 318 and the main opposition party Labour 261, followed by the pro-independence Scottish National Party (SNP) on 35. The Liberal Democrats had heavy losses and stands at 12 seats and the main motor of Brexit, the UK Independence Party was wiped out, losing voters to both the two main parties. The Greens have only a single member in parliament. The Scottish Nationalists lost to all the parties and their stark reduced numbers means that their agenda of a second independence vote will have to be postponed, in spite of remaining the strongest party in Scotland. Other regional parties in Wales and Northern Ireland won together 12 seats, but these will be of little consequence.
When PM Theresa May had unexpectedly called snap parliamentary elections, she had hoped to win a landslide majority and go into the Brexit negotiations starkly strengthened. But her self-inflicted wounds during the campaign led to a gradual eroding of her lead from nearly 24 points to zero. On polling day, the BBC exit-poll correctly predicted that she would lose her majority.
Supremely confident of securing a sweeping victory, May had called the snap election (consulting only a small coterie) to strengthen her hand in the European Union divorce talks. But in one of the most sensational nights in British electoral history, a resurgent Labour Party denied her the expected outright win, throwing the country into political turmoil.
PM Theresa May’s left-wing rival Jeremy Corbyn, who had been written off by his opponents as a hopeless leader, made a good showing and said ruthlessly that May should step down as she had failed on all counts. He was ready to form a minority government. However, May facing scorn for running a lackluster campaign, was attempting to hang on – for the time being at least. She has already received permission from Queen Elizabeth to form a government with support from the main party of Northern Ireland – a mere formality under the British political system.
The centre-right’s Democratic Unionist Party’s 10 seats are enough to give the Conservatives a fragile but workable majority (2 seats more than the required 326). This was likely to involve an arrangement in which the DUP supported by Protestants in Northern Ireland would support a conservative minority government on key votes in the House of Commons but not form a formal government. The DUP leader Arlene Foster told reporters: “The prime minister has spoken with me this morning and we will enter discussions with the Conservatives to explore how it may be possible to bring stability to our nation at this time of great challenge.” The DUP above all wants to preserve the soft border between Northern Ireland (Ulster) and its southern neighbour the Republic of Ireland. This very small political party with its own political agenda is now playing the kingmaker and holds the balance of power in a hung parliament, but for how long?
With her authority vastly diminished, May risks facing more opposition to her ‘strong’ Brexit plans from both inside and outside her Conservative Party, and some colleagues may be lining up to replace her. EU leaders have already expressed fears that May’s shock loss of her majority could delay the Brexit talks, due to begin on June 19, and so raise the risk of negotiations failing.
The immediate fallout has been that May was forced to relinquish her two closest aides (her joint chiefs of staff) on Saturday as she struggles to reassert her authority following a crushing electoral setback. Her two joint chiefs of staff have been made the scapegoats for the electoral debacle and their departure will be personal blow. In any case her days seem to be numbered for various reasons. The Conservative Party has allowed her to stay on only to avoid an immediate leadership crisis/struggle. Behind the scenes the party is debating its options.
Qatar: Small Nation in Regional Crisis
Last week, in a sudden concerted action, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain (all Muslim Sunni states severed diplomatic relations with Qatar and closed their airspace to commercial flights, charging it with financing Islamist militant groups (The Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, Hezbollah and the Islamic State). Qatar vehemently denies the accusations. This is the worst estrangement among powerful Arab states in decades. The moves isolating Qatar in the Persian Gulf are disrupting trade in commodities from crude oil to metals and food, and deepening fears of a possible shock to the global gas market (Qatar has the world’s biggest reserve of natural gas).
Qatar has immediately talked to Iran (a Shia Muslim state with which it has normal relations in contrast to the other Gulf Arab states), Turkey and other countries outside the region about securing food and water supplies to stave off possible shortages after its biggest suppliers, the UAE and Saudi Arabia, cut trade and diplomatic relations. According to Qatari officials, there were enough grain supplies in the market in the country to last four weeks and that the government also had large strategic food reserves in the Capital Doha.
This period of tense relations was taking place at the same time as suicide bombers and gunmen attacked Iran’s parliament and the Mausoleum of Ayatollah Khomeini in Tehran, killing at least 12 people in a twin assault at the heart of the Islamic Republic. The Islamic State claimed responsibility. The rare attacks were the first claimed by the hardline Sunni Muslim militant group inside in the tightly controlled Shi’te Muslim country, The Islamic State has regularly threatened Iran, one of the powers leading the fight against militant forces in neighbouring Iraq and, beyond that, Syria. Jihadist groups have clashed frequently with security forces along Iran’s borders with Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, but the country has escaped attacks within its urban centres. The timing of the attack in the broader context of the entire region raises serious questions.
The UAE state minister for foreign affairs, Anwar Gargash accused Qatar of being “the main champion of extremism and terrorism in the region”. At the same time, the measures taken against Qatar were not aimed at seeking new leadership in Doha: “This is not about regime change – this is about change of policy, change of approach.” Kuwait is leading efforts to find a mediated solution. US President Trump waded into the dispute, but seemed to only muddy the waters. His initial reference to Qatar as a financer of extremism was especially surprising given Qatar’s role as the host of the largest US airbase Al-Udeid in the Middle East – a crucial hub in the fight against the Islamic State group in Syria and Iraq. No word from Trump of Qatar’s neighbours impinging on its sovereignty and massive human rights violations of Qatari citizens with orders for them to immediately leave Gulf countries. German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel accused Trump of fanning conflict in the Middle East and risking a “new spiral of arms sale,” and that “such a ‘Trumpification’ of relations in a region susceptible to crises is particularly dangerous.”
After Elections, Hung Parliament in UK
By Prabasi Nepali