Monthly Risk Spotlight: June 2022

New President, New Colombia?

On Sunday, June 19, Colombia held its Presidential runoff elections. The election pitted two very different populists against each other, with both considered anti-establishment by traditional Colombia political elites. Gustavo Petro received more than 50% of the vote over challenger Rodolfo Hernandez and will become Colombia’s next President. Petro’s election is expected to be a true departure from historical right-leaning Presidential administrations in Colombia.

Petro ran on a platform of redistributive economics and will be the first former guerilla to be President; he was once a member of the now demobilized Movimiento 19 de Abril (M-19) armed group. A former mayor of Bogotá and three-time Presidential candidate, Petro has proposed ending oil exploration in favor of renewables, increasing taxes on the wealthiest Colombians, and instituting a universal basic income.

While the Presidency in Colombia has significantly more power than heads of states in other governments, some level of cooperation from the Colombian Congress will be necessary to create legislation. Petro has limited party affiliations and may need to develop more support among Congress. To get around this, Petro has to some extent, hinted he could invoke a Conmoción Interior, which under the constitution would allow him to bypass Congress altogether to create policy for 90 days without interference. This potential political lever has led analysts to forecast significant capital flight following the Petro win. Numerous foreign companies allegedly developed “Petro Clauses” in contracts that would automatically retract investments in Colombia in the event Petro won the election.

Colombia has long been considered the most vital regional ally of the United States, specifically in the longtime counter-drug efforts. While Petro’s election won’t necessarily halt that relationship, the form of the relationship is likely to change. Climate change, renewable energy, and protection of the Amazon Rainforest are key points in which Petro has openly stated he would like to cooperate with the United States. Where the two countries may potentially differ are topics like counter-drug efforts and Colombia’s relationship with neighbor Venezuela, specifically the Maduro administration.

Rodolfo Hernandez did concede the election and respected the integrity of the vote, which is not a given in modern global elections. The concession by Hernandez should help ease tensions in the short term. It is clear from the ideological divide between the candidates that there are stark differences in opinions on the future of how the country should be run. One clear element is that both Petro and Hernandez were political outsiders, showing the electorate’s appetite for true change from the status quo. The election comes about a year after significant protests in Colombia related to topics like tax reform, police brutality, and the economy.

In the medium term, Petro will likely face almost unrealistic expectations to change and improve life for everyday Colombians. In a world of disrupted supply chains, historic sanctions, and rapidly stratifying economic orders factors outside the President’s control could make such expectations impossible to meet. In the context of the 2021 protests, such voter disappointment could prove dire for regional stability.

Tunisia’s History of Bread Riots

On 28 December 1983, a protest broke out in the Tunisian city of Douz after the government announced an increase in the price of bread and cereal products. Triggered by a collapsing economy and price hikes on basic necessities, similar protests spread rapidly throughout the country. Newspapers as well as militant publications were quick to label such protests as “riots” and “revolts.”

These riots, named the “bread riots”, constituted a moment of protest in response to the deteriorating economy that turned basic necessities into luxury goods. The riots were comprised of individuals of differing socio-economic classes, including the lower class, middle class, and upper-middle class. The bread riots lasted for 10 days, ultimately concluding on 5 January 1984. The number of fatalities during the riots is believed to be over 150, dozens of whom were shot dead by security forces.

On 3 January 1984, President Bourguiba declared a state of emergency. Tanks and troops were deployed to Tunis, Sfax, and other major cities and order was restored throughout the country two days later. The day after order was restored, President Bourguiba announced that the increase in the price of bread and flour was cancelled ultimately saying the Prime Minister Mohammed Mzali had not been authorized to raise the prices of bread or flour.

Tunisia’s tumultuous history is comprised of several major revolts, protests, and riots. The month of January historically has proven to be the month of revolts in the country. The bread riots of 1984, the Jasmine Revolution of 2011, and the 2018 Tunisian protests all occurred during the month of January. In each of these protests, thousands of people have taken to the streets to protest unsustainable economic, social, and political situations.

Prior to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, Tunisia had already been experiencing a widespread shortage of grain products as the government was unable to pay for wheat imports. Approximately 60% of Tunisia’s wheat is imported from Ukraine. Currently, customers cannot buy more than three kilos of flour in Tunisian supermarkets. Bakeries have started rationing bread, baguettes are becoming smaller, and semolina is now used as a substitute for wheat. According to the Ministry of Agriculture in April 2022, Tunisia’s stocks of durum wheat and barley would only last until May 2022 and its stocks of soft wheat will last until the end of June 2022.

To address its financial crisis and avoid deficit, Tunisia has entered into negotiations with the International Monetary Fund (IMF). The IMF, in return for a new aid program, requires new austerity reforms such as cutting subsidies for basic goods including semolina or bread. For years, bread has been a symbol of social movements in Tunisia, and it’s expected to continue. Given the Tunisian government has no clear strategy to resolve the crisis, some worry a prolonged wheat and grain crisis could result in civil unrest.

North Korea Battles COVID-19

After denying the existence of COVID-19 cases in the country throughout the entirety of the pandemic, on 12 May, North Korea reported its first outbreak of the virus and ordered a national lockdown. Although the country never specified the number of cases, the following day it reported that over 300,000 people had developed fever-like symptoms. It has since diligently released daily updates on the spread of the ‘fever’, and about two weeks after the initial declaration, North Korea reported over 3.2 million ‘fever patients’ and 69 deaths.

At the beginning of June, North Korea’s government asserted that the outbreak was under control, claiming to have seen a rapid fall in new cases, and full recovery of 90% of the fever patients. The country also reported zero new fatalities during the same week. However, international public health officials warn that there is no way to confirm these claims. Since the start of the pandemic in 2020, North Korea reported zero positive COVID-19 cases, a claim that causes skepticism among many experts, due to outside reports of COVID-19 exposure along its border with China. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), not only had no cases of COVID-19 been reported before May, but there was no official record of North Koreans being vaccinated, either.

The sudden change in behavior has many experts wondering why North Korea decided to disclose its cases now, and if cases have really improved as rapidly as it claims. One reason may be to project the regime’s control over the outbreak and manipulate the situation in favor of North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un. After North Korea reported a rapid fall in new case, Kim Jong Un was depicted as a heroic savior of the nation.

Despite the sudden decline in cases, North Korea still has emphasized quarantine measures, indicating that the country does not feel the situation has stabilized enough. Experts believe that Pyongyang is under-stating the extent of the outbreak, and that the situation is likely to get worse, especially without a supply of vaccines.

Before the outbreak, North Korea rejected millions of vaccines offered by the UN initiative, COVAX. Since the outbreak, neighboring countries including South Korea and China, have offered vaccines and aid but have not received a response. State media in North Korea has also been casting doubts on foreign-made vaccines.

Despite being offered international help, North Korea’s state media said that provinces were ‘intensifying’ their anti-epidemic campaigns, including increasing production of drugs and medical supplies. Kim Jong Un continues to put himself front and center of North Korea’s disease response while maintaining complete control of its population.

A Chance for Peace in Somalia?

Somalia is facing a difficult future with government power struggles, clan feuds, ongoing violent Islamist insurgency, and the worst period of drought in four decades among the top concerns to be faced as lawmakers assembled on 15 May to elect a new president via indirect election. The capital of Mogadishu was placed into a 33-hour curfew as lawmakers convened in an aircraft hanger protected by blast walls to conduct the vote from 38 candidates including incumbent President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed. The election was held close to the deadline required for both legislative and presidential elections to be completed to continue a $400 million budget support program from the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

Former President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, having previously served from 2012 to 2017, emerged victorious following a third-round runoff with a final vote of 214 to 110. Following the announcement, many residents broke the curfew to celebrate while others expressed skepticism about the future. Prior to the election, the majority of candidates were considered old and familiar government officials who had never contributed much to improving the landscape of war and corruption if they accomplished anything at all. Some Somalians expressed that while President Mohamud was not ideal and not the best choice, he was still likely the best option of all candidates put forward and hoped he would bring improvement from former President Mohamed and his previous term.

Following the election, United States President Joe Biden authorized the redeployment of roughly 500 troops to Somalia to assist in combating terrorist organization al Shabaab for the first time since withdrawal in December 2020. With former President Mohamed having attempted to delay elections and extend his term in 2021, the redeployment following the election suggested the decision represented a gesture of goodwill and moving forward in good faith with the new government and was well received by military officials. On 20 May, the IMF approved an extension for its budget support until 17 August to allow for a period of consultation with President Mohamud and his administration following his inauguration on 23 May as well and confirming financing guarantees with development partners before the program receives a final review by the IMF executive board.

President Mohamud declared security as his top priority and has since expressed thanks for the return of U.S. troops and has called for reconciliation among Somali leaders to deliver stronger security to the country. President Mohamud has embraced a spirit of welcoming political rivals and building positive relations with regional leaders who were hostile to the previous administration. He has also expressed optimism that corruption will be combated by further modernization and digitization of Somalia’s financial system coupled with financial reforms. The central government has only held limited control beyond Mogadishu since 1991 and has relied heavily upon the African Union for security support. President Mohamud’s positive first steps since his return to office have brought renewed hope among some Somalians that Somalia can achieve peace but acknowledge there is still a very long way to go in reaching that goal.

The Queen’s Platinum Jubilee and Public Opinion of the Monarchy

In honor of Queen Elizabeth’s 70 years on the throne, June began with her Platinum Jubilee celebrations. There were events and public appearances by the Queen and royal family from 2 June to 5 June, though the Queen was unable to attend several events due to health and mobility issues. Only three other monarchs have been documented to have reigned more than 70 years: Louis XIV of France, Johann II of Liechtenstein, and Bhumibol Adulyadej of Thailand.

Public opinion polls in the United Kingdom show that four out of 10 people do not wish to maintain a monarchy. Support for the royal family has drastically declined in the past few decades, especially among young people. The trajectory of opinions and increasing support for the anti-monarchy movement has caused many to believe that it is not a question of if the United Kingdom can abolish the monarchy but when.

An International Anti-Monarchy Conference was held on the Platinum Jubilee weekend. The group running the conference, Republic, has about 5,000 subscribing members and 100,000 registered supporters. They have raised 40,000 pounds to post billboards in cities around the country urging the public to “make Elizabeth the last” monarch.

Queen Elizabeth is 96 years old and the next in line for the throne is her son Prince Charles who is 73 years old. Prince Charles’s public approval rate is incredibly low due, in part, to his failed marriage with the late Princess Diana whose popularity transcended countries and generations. There is expected to be a major decline in support for the monarchy if he becomes King.

One of the largest grievances towards the monarchy is how much they cost the public; every year 70-90 million pounds of taxpayer money goes into the upkeep of the royal family. The government makes an official payment called the Sovereign Grant which goes towards all royal expenses, such as travel expenses, staffing, and the continual remodel of Buckingham Palace that began in 2019 and plans to be finished in 2027.

There have been many periods of unpopularity for the British monarchy, but they have prevailed as its role evolved over the centuries. Queen Elizabeth remains a symbol of national unity and after she and the nation celebrated her 70 years on the throne it is hard to imagine what a change in power would look like. Abolishing the monarchy would not be a quick process, though the growing grievance towards the royal family could provoke a civilian reaction strong enough to begin the process.


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