Ones to Watch, 25 March 2019

Americas: US pressure on Havana intensifies as lawsuits against Cuban entities allowed

Sectors: all
Key Risks: business disruption; diplomatic fallout; confiscation

Recent US measures are set to increase bilateral tension with Cuba. On 19 March a so far never used Cuban embargo measure – Title III rule of the Helms-Burton Act – took effect. Certain US nationals can now sue Cuban entities and sub-entities listed on the State Department’s Cuba Restricted List in US courts over confiscated property in Cuba after the 1959 revolution. Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel stated any claims made will be considered invalid. The measure could be further expanded to target foreign investment should the US allow lawsuits against non-Cuban companies from 17 April onwards. Meanwhile, the recent replacement of a 5-year multiple-entry tourist visa with a single-entry visa valid for just three months delivered a heavy blow to tens of thousands of Cubans frequently travelling to the US. Further US pressure on Diaz-Canel’s government should be expected.

Asia-Pacific: Both sides claim victory in Thailand’s general elections; Prayuth to remain PM

Sectors: all
Key Risks: political instability; civil unrest

The Palang Pracharat Party (PPRP), a military proxy party backing incumbent Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha, and the Shinawatra-backed Pheu Thai party are both claiming victory in Thailand’s general elections, the first to take place since the military coup in 2014. According to unofficial results published by the Election Commission, the 24 March vote saw Pheu Thai gain 137 of 350 constituency MPs while PPRP has 97, although PPRP may be ahead in the popular vote. There is confusion over results following reports of voting irregularities across the country. Prayuth is likely to remain Prime Minister as the electoral system favours pro-military candidates. With parliament likely to split between Shinawatra- and military-aligned parties, Thailand will remain deeply divided. Elections took place in peaceful conditions but the risk of protests remains high. Election results will not be confirmed until 9 May, after the King’s coronation.

Eurasia: Kazakh president’s unexpected resignation is attempt to institutionalise system

Sectors: oil and gas; mining; infrastructure
Key Risks: political stability; intra-elite infighting; civil unrest

Nursultan Nazarbayev unexpectedly announced on 19 March that he would resign as Kazakhstan’s president the following day, after more than 30 years in power and as the sole leader more than half of the country’s population has known. Senate Speaker Kassym-Jomart Tokayev was named acting president, with elections due by April 2020. Nazarbayev will remain the country’s dominant political figure while the fact his daughter, Dariga, was named Senate speaker, replacing Tokayev, raises the prospect she could ultimately be elevated to president. There is a risk elite jockeying for influence could cause tensions and business disputes, particularly if the country’s richest couple – Dariga’s sister Dinara and her husband Timur Kulibayev – attempt to improve their position. Some limited civil unrest was reported on 22 March in Almaty, the country’s largest city, over the moves but major protests are unlikely.

Europe: Brexit tumult continues, Italy signs MoU with Beijing but there are doubts

Sectors: all
Key Risks: trade frustration; political stability; trade and investment cooperation

Continued tumult over the United Kingdom’s plans to leave the European Union is likely to escalate over the coming week, with a significant risk that Prime Minister Theresa May will be ousted or forced to resign in an effort to get her EU Withdrawal Agreement through Parliament in a vote expected on 27 March. Parliament is also likely to consider a vote on alternative Brexit options, though the government has wavered on its willingness to allow this. Speaker of Parliament John Bercow could, however, take action to allow such votes regardless. There is also a chance that the UK will have to request yet another delay to Brexit, now due on 14 April. Meanwhile Italy signed a MoU on co-operating on China’s Belt and Road Initiative despite resistance from Brussels and Washington but internal coalition tensions in the Italian government could hinder significant deals from proceeding.

MENA: Moroccan police use water cannons to disperse demonstrators as protests intensify

Sectors: all
Key Risks: political stability; civil unrest

Police in Morocco used water cannons to disperse thousands of young teachers protesting for better work conditions on 24 March in Rabat. Authorities were trying to suppress a rally of an estimated 15,000 teachers in front of parliament where they were planning to spend the night before an even bigger demonstration. Morocco has come under pressure from international lenders to trim the civil service wage bill and strengthen the efficiency of the public sector. Strikes are likely to continue as teachers across the country have already been striking for three consecutive weeks. Following aggressive police action, this may be a sign of escalating tensions as Moroccan protesters may also be inspired and bolstered by the success that protestors have seen in Algeria so far.

Sub-Saharan Africa: Result of 24 March Comoros election expected; sectarian conflict in Mali

Sectors: all
Key Risks: civil unrest; sectarian conflict

The Comoros’ incumbent head of state, Azali Assoumani, is widely expected to have won the 24 March presidential election without the need for a second round. The results are due to be released in the coming days. The principal opposition group has denounced alleged irregularities at several polling stations as a “coup” and has called for public “resistance”, raising fears of violent clashes between rival supporters in the coming days. However, opposition demonstrations are likely to be small-scale and predominantly peaceful. In Mali, at least 134 people, members of the Fulani ethnic group, were killed in an attack by an ethnic Dogon militia in the Mopti region, ostensibly in retaliation for a 17 March attack on the Malian military in the same region. The incident raises the risk of increased sectarian conflict in the already conflict-stricken country.