December 01, 2016

NEED TO KNOW

Wobbly Dominoes

Austrians will take to the polls for the third time on Sunday to elect their next head of state.

The largely figurehead presidency of a Central European nation of 8.7 million people may seem inconsequential.

But in a politically cacophonous year defined by Brexit and Donald Trump, the Austrian presidential election is yet another example of the populist rifts now roiling the West.

The first round of Austria’s presidential election in April closed the casket on seven decades of governance by one of Austria’s two main parties: the left-leaning Social Democrats and the conservative People’s Party.

Norbert Hofer, 45, of the Eurosceptic, anti-immigrant Freedom Party ran away with the vote, garnering 35 percent in the first round by appealing to blue-collar Austrians displeased with immigration, the economy, EU bureaucracy and other issues.

Hofer’s opponent Alexander Van der Bellen took second place. A stalwart of Austria’s political left, the 72-year-old economist and former head of Austria’s Green Party is now an independent. He finds his base in the well-educated salaried class, which identifies with his pro-globalization, pro-EU agenda.

Van der Bellen won the runoff in May by a razor thin margin, but the country’s top court annulled the results due to mishaps involving the glue on ballot envelopes.

The voters’ choice between candidates on the political extremes is novel. But this election is important mostly because it sets a precedent for what’s to come.

According to Austrian Chancellor Christian Kern, the European Union is teetering on the brink of collapse, or at least irrelevancy.

“After Brexit, after Trump, we’re staring into the abyss and we have to decide now,” Kern said. “Do we want to modernize the European project, make it more just and rescue it, or do we risk its existence?”

Kern is right for analyzing his country’s election in the context of the bigger European picture.

While disenfranchised Austrians could on Sunday elect Europe’s first right-wing head of state since the end of World War II, other populist parties like Marine Le Pen’s National Front in France and Geert Wilders’ Party for Freedom in the Netherlands are gaining steam.

Like Hofer, who has threatened to push for Austria to leave the EU, Le Pen and Wilders have campaigned for Brexit-like referendums in their respective countries.

Meanwhile, Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi’s government faces constitutional upheaval at the hands of a controversial public referendum slated for Sunday that could reform the country’s Senate and trigger early elections in 2018, Bloomberg reports.

The anti-EU Five Star Movement is widely expected to pick up seats if those elections are held. The movement would then call for yet another referendum on Italy remaining in the Eurozone, the Independent reported.

These developments could be a domino effect from Brexit and Trump. Or they could all be part of a reactionary trend that’s just gaining momentum. Either way, there’s a good chance that soon more dominoes will fall.

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WANT TO KNOW

A Giant Graveyard

Tens of thousands of people have fled rebel-held areas of Aleppo over the past four days, with some dying before they could escape a massive assault by government forces.

Though the Red Cross has estimated the number at 20,000 people, the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said more than 50,000 people have fled the city and government shelling has killed at least 26 civilians, NPR reported.

Activist footage from Aleppo shows bodies scattered in a street of rubble. The body of one woman is inches from her packed duffel bag. A man wails over another person covered with a blanket. Opposition activists say these people were killed in the shelling as they tried to reach government-held districts, the news agency said.

About a quarter of eastern Aleppo’s residents still remain in the area. But President Bashar al-Assad has refused to let anyone leave as he seeks to root out rebels that he has declared to be terrorists. Top United Nations officials warned that if nothing is done to protect the remaining civilians, Aleppo could soon become “one giant graveyard.”

Coal, Copper…and Statues

The United Nations is still fumbling for some way to make North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un listen to reason.

The UN Security Council imposed new sanctions on North Korea on Wednesday, hitting coal, copper, nickel, silver and zinc exports – as well as the sale of statues, Reuters reported. The goal is to cut Pyongyang’s annual export revenue by a quarter.

“No resolution in New York will likely, tomorrow, persuade Pyongyang to cease its relentless pursuit of nuclear weapons,” US Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power told the council after the vote.  “But this resolution imposes unprecedented costs on the DPRK regime for defying this Council’s demands.”

In total, the new sanctions should cost North Korea at least $800 million a year in the hard currency it uses to fund its nuclear program, Power said.

Under the new sanctions, China, which imported 18.6 million tonnes of coal from North Korea over the first 10 months of 2016, would slash its imports by some $700 million compared with 2015 sales, the agency said.

Give Them The Wheel!

Banning women from driving is not only unfair, says an outspoken Saudi prince, it also costs money and is bad for the economy.

Billionaire investor Alwaleed bin Talal, an outspoken member of the Saudi royal family, this week called on Saudi Arabia to lift prohibitions against women driving cars, the BBC reported.

Because the country’s public transport system is poor, more than a million drivers are employed to ferry women from place to place. Many such chauffeurs are foreigners employed at considerable expense.

In an article published on the prince’s website that’s going viral in the kingdom, he estimates that the average family spends 3,800 riyals ($1,000 or £800) per month on a driver. In other instances, Saudi men take time off from work to drive their wives and children to the doctor and other essential appointments.

“There are more than one million Saudi women in need of a safe means of transportation to take them to work every morning,” writes the prince – who has criticized Saudi Arabia for its restriction of women’s rights before.

DISCOVERIES

Going To Bed Angry? Think Again

Some common sayings lack basis in reality. Not this one: Don’t go to bed angry.

According to a new study, the brain reorganizes how negative memories are stored while sleeping, making them more difficult to suppress. That’s not good for relationships.

Scientists were able to pinpoint the process through what’s called a “think/no-think” task.

First, participants were told to associate a neutral face with a gruesome or disturbing image, like a corpse.

Next, they were shown the neutral face again and instructed either to think actively about the associated picture, or not to think about it at all.

When the recall session was conducted just 30 minutes after the initial test, participants were more likely to have suppressed the unsettling images than when they had a good night’s sleep in between.

MRI scans backed up the test’s findings: Sleeping on a bad memory allowed the brain to more easily distribute it away from normal memory centers, giving it staying power.

“There is certain merit in this age-old advice,” Yunzhe Liu, the lead researcher on the study, told the Guardian. “First resolve an argument before going to bed; don’t sleep on your anger.”