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Interpol Presidency Election

Volume 649: debated on Tuesday 20 November 2018

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs if he will make a statement on the Interpol presidency election tomorrow.

Interpol is currently holding its general assembly in Dubai, and a UK delegation, led by Lynne Owens, the director general of the National Crime Agency, is there at the moment. Interpol is electing a new president at the general assembly after former Interpol president and Chinese Vice-Minister of Public Security, Meng Hongwei, resigned from the position on Sunday 7 October after Chinese authorities confirmed that he had been detained and is being investigated on anti-corruption charges.

Two candidates have formally declared for the post and remain in the running as candidates. They are current acting president South Korean Kim Jong Yang and Russian vice-president—one of four vice-presidents—Alexander Prokopchuk. Members of Interpol at the general assembly will vote on the next president on Wednesday. We do not speculate on the outcome of the election, but the UK supports the candidacy of acting president Kim Jong Yang.

Can the Minister confirm that the British Government are doing all they can to campaign against the candidacy of Mr Prokopchuk? Will she confirm that, until recently, he was head of the central bureau in Russia and was directly responsible for the issuing of red notices, which have been abused and used against opponents of the Putin regime—such as Mr Bill Browder, the proponent of the Magnitsky sanctions? Does she not agree that if this Russian gentleman were to become head of Interpol, it would be an absolute insult to the victims of the Salisbury incident?

Will the Minister explain how the Government intend to pursue their own pursuit of red notices in Russia with that gentleman in this post? Does she not accept that, if this gentleman were to succeed in his election, this would be a massive propaganda victory for the Putin regime, just ahead of a vote in the European Union on fresh sanctions? Would it, in effect, not amount to accepting that Interpol has become a branch of the Russian mafia? I use my words carefully when I say that. Finally, does this not underline the absolute folly of undermining in any way Europol at a time when Interpol is becoming totally dysfunctional and potentially corrupted?

The right hon. Gentleman raises a number of points. The central point is to clarify for the House the role of the secretary general of Interpol, who, of course, is the German Jürgen Stock. He has the executive role of day-to-day responsibility for the conduct of Interpol, and the UK confirms that it has a very good working relationship with him.

The right hon. Gentleman also raises the question about the candidacy of the current vice-president of the organisation. The UK, as I said in my opening remarks, will be supporting the candidacy of the acting vice-president, Kim Yong Yang. We always seek to endorse candidates who have a history of observing standards of international behaviour.

With regard to the point that the right hon. Gentleman makes about the potential for misuse of Interpol, red notices are a very important point. He will be aware of the systems that are in place to protect individuals’ rights and, indeed, of article 3 of the Interpol constitution, which forbids any organisation to undertake any intervention or activities of a political, military, religious or racial character. Of course, there need to be safeguards, and this Government take any misuse of Interpol notices very, very seriously.

I very much welcome the statement that my hon. Friend the Minister has made today. This is really quite an extraordinary situation: to find ourselves with the possibility of not just a fox in charge of a hen coop, but the assassin in charge of the murder investigation. This is a man who has corrupted the rule of law through the use of red notices and undermined the international order by trying to subvert Interpol as an arm of his own state’s propaganda network, and now he is trying to run to lead it. This is truly extraordinary. Will she join me in saying that, should this outcome happen, we will have to look very, very seriously at our co-operation with an organisation so discredited and so corrupted?

My hon. Friend the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee has very extensive experience of scrutinising these matters, and I very much welcome the scrutiny that his Committee has been giving to them. The UK has, as I have said, a very strong working relationship with the secretary general, who, of course, holds the executive role. I reassure the House that the National Crime Agency’s experience to date is that the processes adopted by Interpol are robust enough to deal with any concerns of misuse. Of course, this is something that needs to remain under scrutiny. I am sure that the Foreign Affairs Committee, as well as the Government, will continue to make sure that that scrutiny continues to take place.

Mr Speaker, thank you for granting this urgent question; I congratulate the right hon. Member for Twickenham (Sir Vince Cable) on securing it. On this day a fortnight ago, the right hon. Gentleman and I found ourselves on opposite sides of the table at the Cambridge Union in a debate about whether the special relationship with America was dead. I am glad to say that the students sided with me in saying that it was not, but today, on the subject of Interpol, the right hon. Gentleman and I are very much on the same side.

As a matter of principle, I am sure that we would all want to make clear that when an individual is put forward for a leadership role in an international body, the judgment of their fitness for office should always be based on their integrity, their expertise and their record, not on their nationality. Therefore, by itself the fact that Major General Prokopchuk is Russian should not disqualify him from this role any more than the fact that Martin Griffiths and Mark Lowcock are British should disqualify them from their role regarding Yemen. However, the fact that, as the head of Russia’s national central bureau for the last seven years, the major general has directly orchestrated Russia’s abuse of Interpol’s international arrest warrant system to target Putin’s Government’s enemies in both business and politics is in itself enough to disqualify him. It would be extremely concerning for the future functioning of Interpol as a credible international organisation if he were to be elected to the presidency.

The Minister says that Britain will be supporting an alternative candidate, but the question is what diplomatic efforts will she be making in the next 24 hours, particularly in respect of our European and Commonwealth counter- parts, to build a majority against the election of the Russian candidate. In the unfortunate scenario that the major general is elected, will she say what that will mean for the future of Interpol, for the continued abuse of the arrest warrant system and for Britain’s continued participation in Interpol?

I thank the shadow Foreign Secretary for a very measured set of questions. She is right that one should look at the qualification of candidates to these different organisations and make one’s judgment accordingly, rather than making a knee-jerk reaction on the basis of nationality. Let me also underline that the special relationship that the right hon. Lady mentioned in the preamble to her questions is obviously extremely strong and is not in any way affected by the matters we are discussing in the House today.

I should clarify for the House again that, as with any international organisation, other factors often need to be taken into account—for example, geographical balance among roles in the organisation. For example, one factor taken into account was the geographical breakdown of the current vice-presidents. As the right hon. Lady will know, Mr Prokopchuk has been in the role of vice-president for some time, and there is a vacancy in terms of representatives from Asia because the previous president has departed. That needs to be taken into account.

The executive responsibility of the day-to-day operation of Interpol falls to Secretary General Jürgen Stock, who is of course a German national. The presidency of Interpol has a range of important roles in terms of presiding at meetings. The previous president had wanted to make some changes to the way in which the organisation runs but was unsuccessful. The right hon. Lady is right that there are a range of different factors to take into account. I have made the UK’s position clear. Of course, between the time that the previous president went back to China and the election tomorrow, the UK has been fully engaged in consulting with our allies on this role through our diplomatic network.

After the Salisbury nerve agent attack and the abuse of red notices by the Kremlin, including in relation to Bill Browder, may I urge the Government to recognise that the election of a Putin-appointed police general would not only weaken the operational effectiveness of Interpol, but undermine our ability to rely on it and shred its credibility as a pillar upholding the international rule of law?

As my right hon. Friend is aware, the Russian candidate is currently a vice-president of Interpol, and the general assembly will make its decision tomorrow. I have made the UK’s position clear. My right hon. Friend should also be aware that the National Crime Agency hosts the UK international crime bureau, which is responsible for handling any Interpol requests into the UK, and the NCA is very supportive of the overall processes of Interpol. In terms of any concerns it might have about requests received, it feels that it has the ability to refer requests to the Commission for the Control of Files, which provides independent oversight and some checks and balances of Interpol’s processes.

Mr Prokopchuk may be the candidate on the ballot paper, but let us be under no illusion that it will be President Putin who calls the shots should Mr Prokopchuk be successful at the general assembly. If Mr Prokopchuk is successful and does become the president of Interpol, does the Minister agree that it will be a slap in the face not just to this country and in particular to the people of Salisbury, but to the people of Georgia, the people of Ukraine—including eastern Ukraine and Crimea—as well as to the civil society activists, opposition politicians and journalists in Russia who have been hunted down by the Putin regime? Will she tell the House what she expects to happen, if the Russian candidate is successful, to the red notices against Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov, who were responsible for the nerve assault in Salisbury?

Although the Scottish National party holds no candle for this man and no candle for the Russian Government, may I urge the Minister to resist calls to withdraw from Interpol at this stage? Of course we have to monitor what happens if the Russian candidate is successful, but to pull out from Interpol so soon and so quickly would undermine further the rule of law that we all wish to see upheld.

The hon. Gentleman makes a range of very sensible points, but I do not think that he would want me to conflate a range of different issues from the Dispatch Box. As he knows, this particular candidate is currently a vice-president of Interpol. I have mentioned the important role of the secretary general when it comes to executive responsibility within the organisation. I have also mentioned some of the roles of the presidency and the checks and balances that exist regarding this important international organisation.

I am glad that the hon. Gentleman welcomes the importance of Interpol and its work. We do not believe that any possible outcome of this election will have an impact on the issues to which he rightly draws the attention of the House, but since he has raised these issues I reiterate that we continue to want the Russian Government to come clean about their role in Salisbury, to account for their use of Novichok on British soil and to declare their chemical weapons programme to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. I hope that he and the House will be reassured that there are a range of different ways in which we will continue to pursue those ends, while recognising the important role that Interpol can play for our police force here in the UK.

Is my hon. Friend aware of the concerns expressed by a number of organisations campaigning for media freedom, such as Reporters Sans Frontières, that the Interpol wanted person alert system is being abused by countries that are opposed to a free press, to target and silence journalists? Does she agree with these organisations that there needs to be a review of the thousands of alerts currently sitting on that system and that countries that abuse the system should be held to account? Does she also share my concern that this is hardly likely to happen under the Russian candidate for the presidency?

I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend’s extensive work in this area and thank him very much for putting those important points before the House today. As he knows, article 3 of Interpol’s constitution forbids the organisation to undertake any intervention or activity of a political nature. Any such misuse of Interpol notices is taken very, very seriously by this Government. The UK continues to take a strongly supportive stance in relation to Interpol’s efforts to ensure that systems are in place to protect human rights—indeed, the Home Office has been highly proactive in its engagement with Interpol on this matter. I appreciate the important work that my right hon. Friend mentioned. I assure him that the UK will continue to be a staunch friend of those who are on the side of human rights and media freedom around the world.

It is clearly absurd to put into this position the representative of what has become, under Putin, a criminal enterprise that has looted Russia, impoverished its people, and locks up and murders its opponents at home and abroad. What assurances can the Minister give us about what would happen to the sharing of information, access to databases and all the other arrangements that exist between Britain and Interpol if this man were to be put in charge of the current assembly meeting?

As I tried to explain earlier, two of the current vice-presidents are the declared candidates for the presidency; one of them is acting president and the other is currently a vice-president. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that while the presidency of Interpol is an important role, it is none the less one that has more of a ceremonial aspect with regard to meetings of the general assembly and the executive committee. The executive work of Interpol is led by the secretary-general and his executive committee. Obviously, in an international organisation like this, it is very important to have checks and balances as well as regionally balanced representation. I am reassured by the fact that the National Crime Agency, from its experience so far with the organisation, believes that the right checks and balances are in place, but of course that will continue to be scrutinised by this House.

My hon. Friend knows a lot about Russia—she is, if I am not mistaken, one of the few Members of this House who has a degree in the Russian language, so we know that her approach is not, per se, anti-Russian. Does she agree with the assessment of Fair Trials, the UK-based rights campaign, which says:

“It would not be appropriate for a country with a record of violations of Interpol’s rules to be given a leadership role in a key oversight institution”?

I thank my right hon. Friend for his question. As he rightly points out, there is a distinction to be made here. I have set out the UK Government’s position with regard to tomorrow’s election and our judgment regarding the candidate that we support. He is absolutely right that, in the Prime Minister’s words, we have absolutely no quarrel with the people of Russia. I take this opportunity at the Dispatch Box to reiterate the UK Government’s desire to see Russia behave as a responsible member of the international community and to end its illegal annexation of Crimea, to end the destabilisation of eastern Ukraine, and, indeed, to account for the reckless actions of the GRU on British soil and to rein in GRU activities. That, as my right hon. Friend rightly points out, does not mean that the British people cannot, through cultural relations and ongoing diplomatic relations, engage with the Russian Government.

What contingency plan do the Government have, in the event that this Putin stooge is elected, to work with our western democracy allies—who, after all, mainly fund Interpol—to set up an alternative democratic, transparent and non-corrupt organisation?

I hope that I have already set out for the House both the character of the role of the presidency and the checks and balances that exist within this international organisation, Interpol, in terms of geographical balance, the ability to query domestically any particular request that might come through Interpol processes, and the protections of article 3. I expect the matter to remain under scrutiny in this House in the foreseeable future, but I reiterate that the UK Government’s and the National Crime Agency’s view is that the safeguards I outlined earlier, and the ability to question some of the procedures, are checks and processes that we believe are working well. Of course that will be kept continuously under review.

Without my right hon. Friend being more specific about the examples to which he alludes, I can only say that I think he will be aware that we are talking about two different processes. There is the one relating to Interpol, where I have outlined the way in which the National Crime Agency is able to invoke checks and balances and to ensure that article 3 is not violated. Separately, as he will also be aware, the UK has very much been leading the international efforts at the OPCW to challenge the egregious use of chemical weapons and violations of the chemical weapons convention, including the use of chemical weapons on UK soil that has been attributed to Russia. We have, as he knows, worked very closely with the OPCW to ensure that a special conference of the state parties has been held and that the state parties can now attribute responsibility for chemical weapons attacks in Syria and, if needed, elsewhere in the future.

Interpol’s reputation for the enforcement of international law is already being undermined by its silence over the disappearance in China of its former president, and it will be undermined further if its new president is someone who in Russia has been involved in also trying to undermine international law and abuse Interpol processes. Given that the police have given evidence to the Home Affairs Committee that the Brexit process may make us more dependent on Interpol processes, databases and institutions, what is the Foreign Office doing to strengthen the Europol relationship and to look at reforms, through Interpol and through new additional processes, to strengthen the rule of international law?

I am sure that the right hon. Lady would support the UK view, which is that the issue of the arrest of the former Chinese president is very much a matter for the Chinese state. She rightly draws attention to the importance of international law and of our rules-based international order. I assure her that in all instances the UK Government will take the opportunity in international forums to support the observance of international law and due process, and, indeed, human rights. That is very much part of what the UK stands for in these international forums. We recognise the importance of upholding the precious rules-based international order on which the safety and security of the UK has been based since the second world war.

The difficulty for many Members is that Russia keeps getting away with it at international level. It got away with it by being able to host a successful World cup, and there is frustration that it may get away with it again. Will our delegate have the opportunity to say to other countries that if this election goes the way we hope it does not, we will form a new body automatically?

I am glad that my hon. Friend raised the World cup, because it is a good example of where UK police and Russian police were able to work closely together to ensure that all fans from the UK who travelled to Russia were able to enjoy World cup matches, and those processes worked well. He refers to the importance of international police co-operation, for which Interpol is an important mechanism. The National Crime Agency believes that it is an effective forum for it to work with, so that the delegation at Interpol and the current conference in Dubai can reassure themselves that there is a range of checks and balances, including article 3, that means they are confident that Interpol will continue to be an important part of the UK’s relation with international policing matters.

Everyone knows that with a rising threat from organised crime internationally, we have to co-operate internationally, but evidence and the weaknesses that have been described today show that Interpol is really not up to the job. Can the Minister reassure the House that Britain’s relationship with Europol and European co-operation against international crime will be kept and strengthened? People are really worried, given the threat that Brexit poses to that co-operation.

I can reassure the right hon. Gentleman that the UK continues to believe that it is very important to co-operate internationally. Where I perhaps differ from him is that I am reassured that Interpol will continue to be an important part of the UK’s ability to co-operate internationally on police matters.

Given what happened to the previous president of Interpol, can the Minister update us on conversations she has had with China on the importance of multilateral organisations?

As my hon. Friend heard me say earlier, we believe that the situation surrounding the arrest of the former Interpol president is very much a matter for the Chinese state. In terms of the latter part of her question, we have the opportunity to interact with the Chinese Government on an ongoing and constant basis in a range of multilateral forums. That is an important part of the UK’s diplomatic work and includes the UK delegation to the United Nations, where we work on a range of issues as permanent members of the Security Council. It would be hard for me at the Dispatch Box to list the range of different international forums in which we are co-operating with the Chinese Government, but I assure her that it is extensive.

Can the Minister help me? I might be becoming a bit paranoid after watching too much John le Carré on television recently, but what we see unfolding seems extraordinary. First, the president disappears in China—even his wife does not know where he is, and she says he never resigned—and almost no action is taken by the secretary-general of Interpol to find out what happened to him. Secondly, a Russian vice-president now looks likely to become president, at a time when we all know that Russia is hellbent on undermining international institutions all over the world, including democratic Governments, the European Union and everything else. Is that not the reality of the backdrop, and would it not be a disastrous development to have this man as president?

Without digressing into the wider universe—some of it fictional—in which the hon. Gentleman prefaced his question, I draw his attention to the UK Government’s position on both tomorrow’s election for this presidency and the checks and balances in terms of Interpol’s work, with a continuing assurance from our National Crime Agency that it regards those checks and balances and article 3 as important underpinnings that continue to have its full support in its ongoing work with Interpol.

The more I am learning about the governance of Interpol, the more worried I am becoming. Why on earth are member states that use their police for internal political repression allowed into this organisation in the first place?

It is a UN organisation with a very wide membership—193 states, if I remember the figure correctly—but it is also possible to be a member of Interpol without necessarily being accepted internationally as a state, through observer status. The point I will make to my hon. Friend is that organised crime does not have boundaries, so it is really important that Interpol’s coverage is wide. We would not want parts of the world to be safe havens or exempt from the ability of police forces to co-operate with each other. It is an important aspiration that Interpol’s coverage be as wide as possible

Given the concerns that already exist about the way in which Interpol red notices work, will the Government undertake to secure confirmation in advance from countries that people like Mr Browder will visit that they will not seek to apply any spurious or bogus red notices that might be issued through Interpol at the instigation of, for instance, the Russians?

I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman will appreciate that I cannot possibly make a sweeping statement of that nature from the Dispatch Box about all possible future examples. That would be too wide, but I think that, in terms of the use of the red notices, one can refer to the framework with which one is dealing, the reassurance given by article 3 of the constitution of Interpol and the checks and balances that I referred to.

Does the Minister agree that the election of this Russian will undermine the work we are doing at the Council of Europe and will undermine the European Court of Human Rights, which the Council looks after and where the cases against Russia mount daily?

I pay tribute to the fantastic work that my hon. Friend does as part of the UK delegation to the Council of Europe. We value that strongly. This question is tightly constrained around the topic of the Interpol presidency election. A wide number of international organisations form an important part of the rules-based international order, and it will be the UK’s position to support the working of that rules-based international order in all those organisations.

Russia has tried to abuse Interpol no fewer than seven times to arrest Bill Browder. What assurance can the Minister give and what protection can her Government offer Mr Browder and all others currently facing pursuit from the Russian state, should the Russian candidate get elected?

I hope that I have been able to draw the House’s attention to several safeguards. First, the presidency, while an important role, is not an executive role; that role is held by the secretary-general and the executive committee. Secondly, I have drawn attention to the protections that article 3 of Interpol’s constitution gives, and thirdly, to the checks and balances that exist when, for example, a red notice is given to the UK National Crime Agency. There is a range of different checks and balances. Of course, every country that is a member of Interpol will perhaps approach things differently, but that is the position of the UK Government.

Does my hon. Friend agree that it is totally wrong for a state actor such as Russia to use Interpol in a politicised way to fulfil its own political ambitions, and we should condemn in the strongest terms any attempt by Russia to do so?

I have strongly condemned a range of different activities, on which the UK has been holding Russia to account, particularly with regard to chemical weapons. Specifically on the situation of Interpol, I reiterate the important protections brought about by the existence of article 3. I would also point to, within the UK, the checks and balances that exist in terms of the red notices. As I have said in response to earlier questions from Members, that is obviously something that the UK Government will continue to keep under review.

The future credibility of Interpol is absolutely essential, never more so than when it comes to investigating violations of human rights, particularly lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights, so may I ask the Minister: what kind of message would it send to the LGBT community if Mr Prokopchuk were elected as president of this organisation?

On what the UK Government have tried to do, I have outlined the UK Government’s position as far as this election is concerned. The hon. Gentleman opens up this question to wider issues. I highlight the importance that the UK Government place, in their discussions with countries around the world, on LGBT rights and human rights. That will form part of our diplomatic engagement.

The hon. Gentleman should pass on his appreciation to the teams and the supporters who travelled to Russia during the World cup over the summer. Work was done by a range of volunteers, but also, importantly, by the police to ensure that they all had the opportunity to enjoy a safe World cup.

In her question, the shadow Foreign Secretary, the right hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry), drew a comparison between diplomatic work by British diplomats in Yemen and the involvement of Russia in Interpol. Will my hon. Friend make it absolutely clear that there is no moral equivalence between the UK Government and Putin’s Russia? Furthermore, will she make it clear that the election of Alexander Prokopchuk could permanently undermine the credibility of Interpol? If he is elected, will we immediately take steps to build alternative international policing responses?

I find myself in the slightly unusual position of perhaps slightly defending the right hon. Lady because I did not see quite the angle that my hon. Friend saw in the question she posed. However, it is important that the UK, where appropriate, seeks to have the right representation in these international organisations. It is also very important—I assure my hon. Friend of this—that the UK will always seek and campaign to have the right representatives in these international organisations. He is absolutely right that the role the UK plays will often have the support of the rules-based international order through our membership of the United Nations, Interpol or other organisations. It is important that the UK Government reiterate at this Dispatch Box that we will always seek to work with the international rules-based order and uphold the values that have kept the country safe since the second world war.

There are shades here of what happened at FIFA, with voters being picked off one by one—this is actually scary. Given Russia’s recent violations of international law and the allegations regarding its influence via Facebook on elections around the world via fake news—we highlight that in our Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee inquiry—does not the Minister agree that it is completely and utterly inappropriate to have a Russian at the helm of Interpol?

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend and to the Committee of which she is a member for the important work and scrutiny that it is undertaking at the moment. I encourage colleagues on other Committees with some locus in relation to this urgent question to continue the important work of scrutinising what the UK Government do.

I point out to my hon. Friend what I pointed out earlier: the gentleman in question is currently a vice-president of Interpol; the presidency is not an executive role; and we have huge confidence in the ongoing work of Secretary-General Jürgen Stock—a German national—and his executive committee in terms of the daily conduct of Interpol and the execution of the organisation’s strategic objectives.

Russia’s attempts to discredit international organisations through its behaviour with Interpol and its consistent use of its veto to neuter the use of the International Criminal Court set a very worrying trend for the future. Will the Minister reassure me that, if this appointment is made—we hope it is not—she will work with our traditional allies to look at what we can do to strengthen the international rules-based order and ensure that it does not become so discredited that we head towards some of the disastrous situations we saw in the past when it did not exist?

Despite the narrowness of the defined subject of the urgent question, perhaps you will allow me, Mr Speaker, to make the wider point that the UK will commit, along with our international partners and allies, to send clear messages, where appropriate, about the consequences of Russia’s malign activity. I can give the recent example of our shining a light on the reckless and irresponsible cyber activities of the Russian military intelligence unit, the GRU.

Is not it of critical importance that Interpol is able to act transparently and that it is not manipulated by the Russian Government?

Of course, it is very important that the National Crime Agency continues to feel confidence in terms of its co-operation with Interpol. I can report to my hon. Friend and to the House that the National Crime Agency continues to have a very good working relationship with Interpol, to value that international co-operation and to feel that the checks and balances in terms of Interpol activity, including the existence of article 3, provide important protections.

In my youth, Interpol was a byword: it put the fear of God into criminals who wanted to operate across borders and it meant that there was no hiding place. It was known for its openness and transparency in the old days. Does my hon. Friend agree that that reputation would be thrown out of the window if this appointment went ahead and that we might lose a police force of inestimable value?

I point out to my hon. Friend that there are two candidates and I have made it clear at the Dispatch Box which candidate the UK prefers. It is important to continue to have the same kind of geographical balance and to make sure that an organisation that has a wide international membership continues to have a good geographical balance across the roles of the president, the vice-presidents, the secretary-general and the executive. I hope I have made clear the value that the National Crime Agency puts on this international co-operation, as well as the checks and balances that exist. We must continue to maintain scrutiny of all these things, but that international co-operation is valuable and we will continue to be a member of Interpol, despite what may be the outcome of tomorrow’s election.