US National Security Adviser HR McMaster’s revelations last week of alleged Russian interference in Mexican elections is a timely reminder to reflect on the events of last year when foreign interference was a dominant theme in international politics. Beginning from allegations of Russian meddling in the 2016 US Presidential Elections to the much-debated fears of Chinese influence in Australia and across the region, countries around the world expressed concerns on foreign manoeuvring in their domestic politics. Moreover, such interference was not limited to elections alone; certain countries were accused of taking sides in political contests in order to push their own agenda.
Foreign interference in a country’s domestic politics is not a new phenomenon; however, the scale, magnitude and impact of such behaviour has been amplified because of the digital revolution. With the advent of social media platforms, it is much easier for countries to covertly influence foreign audiences, often with non-benign objectives. Such attempts at creating influence are carried out in several ways: through disinformation campaigns on social media, phishing and even hacking of computer systems and email accounts belonging to political parties.
Considering this, it is worthwhile to take stock of the instances (and claims) of such behaviour as they took place last year:
- Russian interference in US Presidential Elections: Days before Donald Trump’s inauguration ceremony in January 2017, intelligence agencies in the country began looking into alleged Russian involvement in helping the incumbent’s bid for presidency. They found that the Russians had been involved in overt activities that included influencing public opinion through biased state-funded coverage of the political contest, in favour of Trump and feeding negative propaganda on Hillary Clinton. Covertly, paid Russian ‘trolls’ were responsible for spreading false stories on social media and other illicit activities. Russian agents were accused of hacking into the computer systems of the two political parties and even attempting to hack voting machines. The leaking of Hillary Clinton’s emails, allegedly by Russian hackers, is widely regarded as the main factor which tipped the balance in Trump’s favour. Investigations are still underway and many of President Trump’s aides, including his inner most coterie, are under scrutiny for their alleged collusion with Russia in their campaign to win the elections.
- Russian interference in Dutch parliamentary elections: Dutch intelligence agencies discovered that Russia tried to interfere in their general elections in March 2017 by spreading false news and propaganda. To counter threats of hacking by the Russians, the Dutch government resorted to counting votes the old way, rather than electronically. Taking heed from this and having similar fears vis-à-vis Russian hacking, Norway too eschewed technology in favour of manual counting of votes for its parliamentary elections in September 2017.
- Russian interference in French presidential elections: Russia was accused of hacking and spreading sensitive emails and documents to damage Emmanuel Macron’s election campaign in the French presidential elections held in April-May 2017. Kremlin even provided support, including funding, to the far-right French leader Marine le Pen.
- Russian interference in UK elections: In addition to evidence suggesting Russia influenced the Brexit vote in 2016 through fake social media accounts and propaganda, British authorities blame Kremlin-backed agencies for similar manipulation and tactics to influence the outcome of the snap general elections in June 2017.
- Russian interference in German federal elections: Russian support for the extremist Alternative for Germany (AfD) party was said to be the factor that propelled it to be the first far-right party to gain prominence and a 13% share of the German vote since the fall of Nazism in Germany. The party’s main support base comprised mostly Russian-origin emigrants who were influenced by Russian disinformation campaign against Chancellor Merkel all through 2015-16. Interestingly, the Kremlin also lent support to AfD’s anti-immigrant propaganda by raising protest against the alleged rape of a Russian-origin woman by Muslim immigrants publicly and at a diplomatic level (even though such reports were proved wrong by the German authorities). Reportedly, Merkel objected (and threatened dire consequences) to such Russian meddling and attempts to influence German elections, during a meeting with Putin in May 2017 which resulted in Russia drawing back on its outward support to AfD. Thus, by the eve of the elections held in September 2017, there wasn’t much evidence of covert Russian interference, which surprised analysts.
- Russian/Venezuelan interference in the Catalonian vote in Spain: The Spanish government blamed Russian based groups for supporting the pro-independence movement through targeted social media campaigns led by false accounts in the lead up to the October 1 Catalonian referendum in a bid to destabilise the country. Venezuela also accounted for 30% of the fake accounts creating divisive content with regard to the referendum.
- Chinese interference in Australian politics: It was reported that the Chinese government, through propaganda on social media platforms like Weibo, was trying to influence Chinese-origin Australians to vote against the Coalition in a local by-election in Bennelong in December 2017. This came in the wake of a scandal involving now-disgraced former Labor Senator Sam Dastyari’s links to influential CCP-backed Chinese businessmen when it was revealed that the former, on China’s bidding, tried to support its claims on the South China Sea in the parliament earlier that year.
- Claims of Pakistani interference in Gujarat state elections in India: Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi blamed Pakistan for trying to influence the outcome of the Gujarat assembly elections in December 2017, after reports emerged of a tweet by a former Pakistan army chief expressing support for the rival Congress party’s candidate. There were also talks of a secret meeting between top Congress leaders and a Pakistani official, days before the polls, which added fuel to the fire. However, these claims were eventually rubbished, even by members of Modi’s own party and were seen as an attempt at politicking by the prime minister.
- Cambodian government’s complaints of US support for the opposition: While not the same as ‘interference’, the Cambodian government expressed its protest against what it perceives as the US trying to influence its local politics through voicing support for the opposition leaders. The US has been involved in social projects for a long period of time and has US aid has been used to strengthen democratic institutions, which is disliked by the authoritarian Hun Sen regime.
While in many instances such interference on Russia’s part may be seen as an organised attempt at damaging and even sabotaging democratic institutions, there were other underlying motives too. For example, with both the US and German elections, a larger motivation was to conditionally support parties that were willing to stand for the lifting of sanctions against Russia as a quid-pro-quo for Russian support. In the French elections, Russian support for Marine le Pen was also obvious given her support for Russia’s policy on Ukraine and opposition to EU sanctions against the authoritarian regime. Similarly, China’s support for the Australian Labor Party is logical given ALP’s more favourable view and support for China, especially compared to the Liberal Party’s more cautious stance.
Of course, both Russia and China deny these claims vehemently, even branding them as a conspiracy by western democracies to discredit them. However, going by recent trends, there are legitimate fears being voiced with regard to the upcoming elections in major democracies in the next two years (US Congress, UK, Latin America, India and Australia to list a few) and for the overall future of democracy as a form of government.