The World Today for March 12, 2018

NEED TO KNOW

SIERRA LEONE

After the Plague

A few years ago, Sierra Leone was in the headlines as a terrifying outbreak of the Ebola virus struck the tiny West African country.

Today, as Sierra Leoneans await the results of their March 7 presidential election, it’s worth taking stock of how the country has fared since defeating the virus, which claimed almost 4,000 lives.

Voters choosing between the two candidates from the mainstream parties that have dominated local politics since independence from Britain in 1961 – Samura Kamara of the All People’s Congress party and Julius Maada Bio of the Sierra Leone People’s Party – were largely disappointed with their choices.

“There are certain things that aren’t going right,” Adama Deen, 38, told Bloomberg while standing in line to vote in the capital of Freetown. “We need change.”

One statistic exemplified why Deen is unsatisfied.

Two years after the end of an epidemic that exposed the fragility of the country’s public health system, Sierra Leone has only 200 doctors serving seven million people, the BBC reported.

The country doesn’t have the funds to train or import more.

A global downturn in commodity prices, particularly of iron ore, has been a major drag on Sierra Leone’s economic growth. In the past two years, the economy grew by around 6 percent, according to the African Development Bank. But it contracted by more than 20 percent in 2015. Before Ebola, it was growing by double digits in the wake of the end of an 11-year civil war in 2002, the East African, a Kenyan newspaper, wrote.

Election results are expected this week.

With 75 percent of the results declared, on Sunday the National Electoral Commission (NEC) said Bio of the main opposition SLPP had taken the lead for the first time with 43.3 percent of the vote. But Kamara, the ruling APC candidate, was still close behind at 42.6 percent, reported Africanews.com.

A total of 16 candidates were running. Normally, either Kamara’s or Bio’s party would win a majority. But this year, things were different.

A third party called the National Grand Coalition is expected to draw significant support, meaning a runoff might be necessary if nobody receives 55 percent of the votes. With 75 percent of the results in, the NGC had won 6.9 percent of the votes, and the Coalition for Change had won 3.4 percent.

Because the two main parties each might need to court the NGC to defeat the other, they may have to bend their platforms to appeal to more people than their narrow bands of supporters, wrote Luisa Enria, a lecturer at the University of Bath, and Jamie Hitchen, a London-based Africa expert, in African Arguments.

It’s heartening to see that even after so much death and despite so many challenges, Sierra Leoneans can evolve and reimagine their future.

WANT TO KNOW

FRANCE

By Any Other Name

France’s Marine Le Pen this weekend proposed a new name for her far-right National Front in a bid to sanitize its reputation. But a familiar face from the US presented a contrasting message at the party’s annual congress in Lille.

“Let them call you racist, let them call you xenophobes, let them call you nativists,” Euronews quoted Steve Bannon, a former top adviser to President Donald Trump, as saying. “Wear it as a badge of honor because every day we get stronger and they get weaker.”

Le Pen was among audience members applauding Bannon’s address. But separately she said the name National Front was a “psychological barrier” for voters, and convinced party members to agree to change it to “National Rally” by a slim majority, the BBC reported. However, members will get a second chance to vote on the change by postal ballot.

Like Bannon, party founder Jean-Marie Le Pen thinks rebranding is a mistake – “political suicide,” he called it. But his daughter believes distancing the party from racism and anti-Semitism will make it easier to form alliances with other parties.

COLOMBIA

Unpopular Peace

Lauded by the international press, Colombia’s peace deal with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, proved damaging to President Juan Manuel Santos’ ruling coalition in congressional elections this weekend – raising questions about the pact’s future and also presidential polls slated for May.

The opposition Democratic Center party led by former President Alvaro Uribe will become the largest bloc in the Senate, the Associated Press reported. Meanwhile, Santos’ Party of National Unity – which previously held that honor – finished fifth in this go-around.

Fighting at the ballot box for the first time, FARC won less than 0.5 percent of the overall vote, so the erstwhile revolutionaries will get only the 10 seats guaranteed them by the peace accord.

The results will put pressure on candidates who supported the peace deal to join forces in the upcoming presidential polls, with the race still “wide open,” the paper said.

The current front-runner is Uribe’s handpicked candidate, Sen. Ivan Duque. But an analyst from the political consultancy Control Risks said it’s too early to predict the victor.

JAPAN

Fessing Up

Japan’s Finance Ministry admitted to deleting Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s wife’s name from records of a state-owned land sale that is the center of allegations of cronyism – dealing a heavy blow to the embattled leader.

A senior Liberal Democratic Party member said Monday that 14 of the original documents were rewritten by the ministry to remove the name of Abe’s wife, Akie, after the revelation of the scandal in February last year, the Japan Times reported.

The admission, which confirms claims reported by a major daily newspaper earlier this month, is certain to hurt Abe’s chances of becoming Japan’s longest-serving prime minister in the lead-up to his Liberal Democratic Party’s leadership vote in September. It may also lead to the resignation of Finance Minister Taro Aso, the paper said.

Abe’s reputation has already taken a hit from the land sale, which saw Moritomo Gakuen, a school operator with ties to Abe’s wife, purchase property in Osaka Prefecture at a deep discount.

DISCOVERIES

Silent Consonant

China’s Communist Party is well-known for its heavy-handed censorship of critical phrases passed around between users on its notoriously constrained internet platforms.

But in a recent move to silence criticism against President Xi Jinping’s bid to amend China’s constitution to allow him to stand for unlimited terms in office, even the 14th letter of the English alphabet was temporarily declared taboo, the Guardian reported.

In addition to the letter “N,” words like “immortality,” “disagree” and “shameless,” among others, have been banned on China’s Twitter alternative, Weibo.

According to Victor Mair with the University of Pennsylvania, the innocuous letter could be associated with critics’ stance against unlimited term limits.

Mair, a professor of Chinese language and literature, speculated that the move is “probably out of fear on the part of the government that ‘N’ = ‘n terms in office,’ where possibly n > 2,” he wrote in a blog post.

While the ban on the consonant was later lifted, censors had also banned any mention of books whose content could be harnessed to criticize the regime, such as the George Orwell titles Animal Farm and 1984.

It’s not the first time seemingly innocuous words, books or characters have come under assault from the censors. The image of the honey-loving bear, Winnie the Pooh, has been periodically banned because of netizens’ association of the character with President Xi.

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