South Korea’s return to normalcy, the US-Turkey rollercoaster, Comey and executive power
This week, South Korea takes its turn in the global round of elections, Washington braces for the Turkish president’s state visit, and Trump administration gives the world another crash course in executive power.
[Join us to discuss Signal and the week’s news live on Facebook at 9 am ET today (May 12). See you at facebook.com/eurasiagroup. If you miss it, you’ll be able to watch the recap video there afterward.]
Here we go.
The Noise This Week
The most immediate consequence of South Korea’s presidential election this week was the country’s return to political normalcy. After months of upheaval that produced massive, recurring street protests and the impeachment and detention of President Park Geun-hye, the victory of Moon Jae-in with a reasonably healthy mandate — 41 percent of voters picked him out of a pool of 13 candidates — means regular policymaking can resume. The narrative since Moon’s victory has focused on the potential for increased friction between Seoul and Washington, given his softer stance on North Korea. But an immediate crisis will only arise if one side or the other decides to force the issue. The much reported statement that Moon would be willing to visit Pyongyang, for instance, came after he made a sequence of offers to visit other key capitals, starting with Washington, where he will likely go for his first summit. In other words, Moon represents a break from his conservative predecessor, but he is not a bomb-thrower. Of course, the same can’t be said for the American president. The prudent course is to watch and see how the two choose to proceed on issues like the deployment of the THAAD missile defense system and the potential revision of the Korea U.S.-Free Trade Agreement.
The other critical relationship to watch is that between the U.S. and Turkey, as President Recep Tayyip Erdogan heads to Washington next week in the wake of his referendum victory. The U.S.-Turkey relationship under Trump and Erdogan is starting to look like the first stage of a roller-coaster, with the two slowly climbing up to the top of a hill… and then headed for a steep drop. The Trump team publicized its widely anticipated decision to arm the Syrian Kurds this week, even as the Turks have attacked Kurdish forces in Syria. At some point, Erdogan’s expectations from Trump will need to materialize into concrete gains (The other sore spot: Fetullah Gulen, the man Erdogan has accused of orchestrating a coup attempt, remains notably un-extradited in Pennsylvania.) Without a broader strategy to accommodate Turkish interests, the U.S. faces the prospect of a crisis with an ally that has a major say over U.S. counterterrorism plans in both Syria and Iraq.
U.S.? Crisis? The words are never far apart these days. The latest is over James Comey, the now-former FBI director. That firing shows most clearly Trump’s willingness to abandon the norms of the presidency, like the political independence of the Justice Department, when doing so is legally possible even if politically challenging. Trump is certainly not the first president to use executive authority — Barack Obama’s use of executive orders produced an intense conservative backlash — but that he’s doing it so early and aggressively is telling about his ability to get things done without relying on the formal powers of office. An isolated, unpopular president can always turn to hard power to overcome his lack of soft appeal, but overreliance may only further diminish his political capital, driving a vicious circle of executive action and popular backlash. What happens if Trump comes in conflict with the Federal Reserve, whose independence is as much a product of practice as it is of statute? Or if he stands next to Erdogan and order the Justice Department to extradite Gulen? However particular issues play out, we’re all in for a crash course in the limits of American executive authority.
Smart Take: Dmitri Trenin tells the Eurasia Group Foundation why it’s time for a rethink on Russia.
Who’s In Charge?
While we tend to focus on elections’ winners and losers, the institutions of governance may be as important as who ends up governing. In three countries with closely watched elections, the distribution of political power will play a key role in dictating policy. Here’s a quick guide to how political power actually works in practice.
France: Macron runs the show, for now
Like in the U.S., the French president is the only office elected by the entire nation, which gives him a substantial political mandate. Emmanuel Macron has the power to appoint a prime minister, which he will do immediately after being inaugurated this weekend. (He hasn’t said who it will be.) Yet he will quickly run into the structure of France’s political institutions. Next month, the French vote on deputies for the National Assembly. If Macron’s party, En Marche!, wins a majority of the seats, he’s all set. But if he garners less than an absolute majority, he will inevitably have to work with other parties and could form a minority government. His biggest threat is from the center-right Republicans, who could receive more votes than En Marche!, forcing them into a situation of “co-habitation” in which the president and parliament are from different parties. In that case, Macron would be significantly weakened, with the opposition running domestic and economic policy, though he would retain control over foreign policy (and nukes!).
Iran: It’s not Rouhani
When Iran votes on May 19, the leader of the country will not be on the ballot. Iran’s constitution grants ultimate policy authority to the supreme leader, a position held by only two men since the 1979 revolution that produced the modern Iranian state. The supreme leader, not the president, is also the country’s commander-in-chief, meaning foreign and security policy are managed with a great deal of input from the supreme leader. (The nuclear deal would not have gone through without the supreme leader’s say-so.) The president has more say over economic policy, but in that he must also contend with parliament. There is nuance, to be sure: President Hassan Rouhani has recently made waves in his re-election campaign by criticizing the powerful Revolutionary Guard, for instance. But regardless of who wins, the larger political contest will be for who eventually replaces the aging Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as supreme leader.
South Korea: Moon in control
On paper, South Korea, like France, has a hybrid political system that splits power between the president and legislature. In practice, the president has significantly more political control, with the prime minister playing a supporting role to the president. The impeachment of former President Park Geun-hye produced an unusual case in which the prime minister ending up serving as acting president. (The occupant found that role notably stressful, telling reporters, “I wished, a dozen times a day, that I would have quit.” Duty, he said, prevented him.) Moon’s party won the largest number of seats, but not a majority, in last year’s elections, meaning that like France he will need cross-party support to move legislation.
Your Weekly Bremmer
Watch the World in 60 Seconds from Central Park.
Bonus Bremmer: “The Battle for France is Over, but the War Between Nationalism and Globalism Is Just Getting Started”
When the storm turns out to be less severe than the warnings, there’s always a sigh of relief — and maybe a bit of over-confidence after the fact. If fans of the European Union felt better after populist Geert Wilders came up short in the Dutch elections in March, they also took heart from the absence of anti-E.U. firebrands among the leading contenders for this fall’s German elections. Then came May 7. The victory of Emmanuel Macron over Marine Le Pen in France’s presidential elections signaled that “the season of growth of populism has ended,” Antonio Tajani, president of the European Parliament, said on May 8.
Not so fast. Europeans will soon remember that elections are never the end of anything — they’re a beginning. And whether the issue is unelected Eurocrats’ forcing voters to abide by rules they don’t like or fears that borders are insecure, there are good reasons to doubt that the anti-E.U. fever has broken. France’s Macron now faces powerful opposition on both the far right and the far left. Hungary and Poland are becoming increasingly illiberal. Brexit negotiations are getting ugly. And resentment toward the E.U. is still rising throughout Europe.
Read the rest of Ian’s international cover story for TIME
22 months of data blackout ended this week when Venezuelan authorities published new health data after a long unexplained silence. The news isn’t good — infant mortality rose 30 percent — but the larger context is the ongoing war on statistics.
440 or more local ordinances incorporating elements of Shariah law have been adopted in Indonesia since democracy was introduced in 1998. The sentencing of a former governor this week points to Islam’s growing role in the country’s politics.
$2 billion in Chinese investment has gone toward buying 100 European football clubs and other trophy assets in recent years. More fun that Central Asian infrastructure, to be sure.
38 percent of French people can name their MP, according to an Opinionway survey. We’ll see if Macron can change that.
88 years of rule by the PRI party and its precursors in the State of Mexico could come to an end on June 4, when local elections are held.
Words of Wisdom
“History will show that never before in the history of Brazil was someone so persecuted, so massacred, as I’ve been these past years.”
– Former Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula Da Silva, defending himself against corruption allegations. In claiming historic persecution, it seems to have slipped Lula’s mind that his protegee, former President Dilma Rousseff, was not only impeached by Brazilian legislators recently but also physically tortured by the military regime earlier in her life.