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Hillary has to cross the Trans-Pacific hurdle

opinionHillary has to cross the Trans-Pacific hurdle

MONTREAL: This past week, at its convention in Philadelphia, the Democratic Party officially chose Hillary Clinton as its candidate for President of the United States of America. Unlike the Republican Party and its candidate Donald Trump, the Democratic Party has consistently been supportive  of Hillary Clinton’s candidacy. Perhaps, opponents say, even too supportive. The start of the convention witnessed the very unusual resignation of the Chair of the Democratic National Committee (DNC), Florida Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz. Wikileaks had just published thousands of Democratic Party internal emails showing, among others things, a clear bias against Clinton’s main challenger, Bernie Sanders.

Reinforcing the perception that the Democratic Party is tightly aligned to the Clintons, Wasserman Schultz was replaced by Donna Brazile, who had previously worked for Bill Clinton. Brazile was also a regular CNN contributor, adding fuel to the arguments put forth by Bernie Sanders’ supporters that not only was the Party backing Clinton, so was the mainstream media.

At the convention, Bernie Sanders, who didn’t have enough delegates to win the nomination, officially endorsed Hillary Clinton. After spending months explaining to his supporters what he thought was wrong with Clinton, he essentially ended up asking his backers to support her if only to block Trump. There was loud booing from the convention floor. Almost immediately, the hashtag #DemExit went viral. Evoking the idea of an “exit” from the Democratic Party, it captured the feeling among some Sanders supporters that the Party is rigged, and doesn’t listen to them, and represent them.

The question is how will that frustration evolve? The Party seems to be assuming that, in the end, it won’t matter. If the anger stays a diffuse discontent, it might be right. However, already it seems to be coalescing around one issue in particular, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) free trade agreement. The twelve countries involved in the TPP are the US, Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore and Vietnam. Combined, they cover around 800 million people, and around 40% of global trade.  The idea is to create a sort of single market that would pull the Pacific economic centre of gravity away from China. High profile US supporters include President Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, and Vice Presidential nominee Tim Kaine. Clinton said she is against it, but some are not sure if that position is just one of political expedience given concern over the TPP within the Party rank and file.

The twelve countries signed the agreement in February 2016. For it to go into effect, it needs to be ratified by at least six of the countries, comprising 85% of the economic activity of the group by February 2018. That means both Japan and the US would have to ratify. Japan supports it. So it will likely be up to the next President of the US to see it through. Or to kill it.

Sanders was vocal against the TPP. Negotiated in secret, the voluminous agreement seems to have evolved into an old fashioned corporate agreement, covering over 18,000 tariffs and entire sectors such as intellectual property and pharma.  Sanders said the TPP could be hugely damaging to the US. Of particular concern was the Investor-State Dispute Settlement mechanism that seems to allow for foreign corporations to challenge the laws of sovereign states in third countries. This might mean, for example, a private corporation could sue a country in a court outside that country, if it thought the country’s healthcare or education systems were detrimental to the company’s rights under the TPP.  The TPP may have started as a 21st century geopolitical construct, but as a result of the influences in the negotiations, some say it has become just 20th century old school geoeconomics. That risks undermining the whole geopolitical point as the hard edged US corporate interests could potentially alienate those who are supposed to be US political allies. For example, some groups in the Pacific are concerned that access to affordable medicine, for example from India, might be affected. That could cause domestic political discontent, potentially leading to instability. Similarly, some regional agricultural groups are concerned about long-term domestic food security if their sectors cannot be protected, again potentially contributing to instability during an already tense time in the region.

All this spilled over on the convention floor. The speeches by Biden, Kaine and even Obama were faced by demonstrators holding up anti-TPP signs. Anti-TPP demonstrators stormed the media enclave. And the TPP became the issue that coalesced Sanders’ supports and spurred the #DemExit movement.

There is support for their position among some major Democrats. Hawaii Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard, a friend of India, supported Sanders and is anti-TPP. She has also said: “I have raised and continue to see concerns with Hillary Clinton’s foreign policy.” She is very popular among the grassroots.

The Party is behind Clinton. What is less clear is how many members are still behind their own party. In particular, if Clinton flips on the TPP, it could fundamentally rip the party apart.

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