The World Today for April 25, 2019

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Third Time’s a Charm

Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez and his Socialist Party are expected to increase their share of seats in the Spanish parliament when voters go to the polls on April 28 to elect a new government for the third time in four years.

The polls suggest Sanchez was smart to call a snap election in February when Catalan independence parties refused to support his budget, CNBC wrote.

But Sanchez will nonetheless need to find coalition partners and then govern with smaller left-wing parties. That’s not an environment conducive to solving the monumental problems that Spain faces.

The Spanish economy is slowing down, reported Agence France-Presse. Growth is slated for 2.2 percent this year, a decrease from 2.6 percent last year and 3 percent in 2017. Human rights groups are crying foul over the country’s crackdown on North African refugees seeking to enter the country, the Los Angeles Times wrote.

Most importantly, Catalonia is seeking to secede from the country. Reuters reported that one independence leader recently held a news conference in prison, where he is awaiting trial on charges of sedition, to argue that Sanchez should consider sponsoring a referendum on the independence question in exchange for Catalan votes. Sanchez has rejected that idea.

The economy, refugees, and Catalonia – those three issues have helped engender a general rightward shift among Spanish voters, wrote the Gulf News.

The epitome of that shift is Vox, a right-wing political party that’s expected to enter parliament for the first time after the election. Vox’s agenda is a Spanish version of the nostalgia and frustration that have sparked political upheavals in Britain, the US and Europe.

Vox leaders would crack down on Catalan separatists and migrants, protect bullfighting, outlaw gender change and abortion, and work to recover Gibraltar from the British. They oppose exhuming and identifying the remains of Spaniards executed by the late dictator Francisco Franco, the Associated Press reported.

Other parties are following their lead.

“We need to decide not only what economic, territorial, educational or social policy we want for our country, but also whether we want to preserve the Spanish nation as we know it,” said Pablo Casado, leader of the conservative Popular Party, in Politico.

European Union officials are concerned. A right-wing victory in Spain could produce more chaos for the bloc as it deals with Brexit and other big issues, reported El Pais, a leading Spanish newspaper.

But Bloomberg Opinion forecast that Sanchez would likely prevail, delivering relatively mainstream policies and stability. If the conservatives won, the news agency wrote, chaos would not result. They would likely cut taxes and spending, hardly a cataclysm.

Spain is at a crossroads. But the Spanish are figuring out where to go like adults.



Reality TV

The TV star who is Ukraine’s newly elected president received a reality check from Russia on Wednesday, as President Vladimir Putin signed a decree expediting citizenship requests from Ukrainians who live in parts of the country held by Russia-backed separatists.

The decree offers to process applications in three months, provided applicants swear allegiance to Russia. It could trigger a major escalation of the fighting in eastern Ukraine, also known as Donbass, and squash hopes of peace engendered by the election of Volodymyr Zelenskiy as Ukraine’s new president, the Associated Press reported.

The move prompted Zelenskiy’s office to call Russia “the aggressor state” in the conflict, while outgoing President Petro Poroshenko accused Moscow of attempting to undermine the peace process. As for Putin, he said he didn’t want to cause trouble, but signed the decree for “humanitarian” reasons because the people in Donetsk and Luhansk are suffering and “have no civil rights left.”

Some fear the move – which analysts thought would only come if Poroshenko were re-elected – is an attempt to create a legal pretext for an overt invasion.


Umbrellas Against the Wind

A Hong Kong court sentenced the leaders of the pro-democracy protests known as the Umbrella Movement to 16 months in prison on Wednesday, in a signal of how seriously the Chinese government still regards the movement five years after demonstrations brought the Asian financial hub’s Central business district to a standstill.

Two professors who founded the movement, Benny Tai and Chan Kin-man, were sentenced to 16 months imprisonment on public nuisance charges, the Washington Post reported. Chu Yiu-ming, a 75-year-old pastor who also helped found what was originally called “Occupy Central with Peace and Love,” was also sentenced to 16 months but will not serve any time due to his age and contributions to society.

If the reaction of the leaders is any indication, neither the protracted case nor the prison sentences will put an end to the pro-democracy movement. While they awaited their sentencing hearing Wednesday, the three men led scores of supporters in chants demanding universal suffrage.

Under the present system, only 1,200 voters out of 3.8 million registered are eligible to cast ballots in elections to select the city’s chief executive.


Defending the Amazon

More than 4,000 indigenous people from hundreds of tribes across Brazil have traveled to the capital of Brasilia to protest against President Jair Bolsonaro’s moves to undermine indigenous rights and eliminate agencies tasked with improving their lives.

On Wednesday, indigenous communities began assembling hundreds of tents a stone’s throw from the National Congress in the lead-up to this year’s Free Land Camp, the country’s largest gathering of indigenous people, Al Jazeera reported.

Specifically, the Articulation of the Indigenous People of Brazil (APIB), the main organization behind the annual event, called attention to Bolsonaro’s move to transfer land demarcation and environmental licensing to the Ministry of Agriculture – seen as empowering agribusiness at the expense of indigenous rights.

A week before the event, Bolsonaro reiterated his frequent call for the opening of the Amazon region for commercial exploitation, while APIB and other indigenous groups say his rhetoric has emboldened farmers and companies to violate the existing rules and contributed to an uptick in violence.

Now, special police have been deployed to maintain order, though organizers say the event has been happening peacefully for 15 years.


Healing Oil

Thanks to its rich natural resources, Azerbaijan’s industry is predominantly focused on oil exports.

For more than a century, however, locals in Naftalan have opted to use the crude for health and beauty  instead, Agence France-Presse reported.

Located 185 miles from the capital Baku, the city’s oil reservoirs aren’t suitable for commercial use, so locals have created spas offering “petroleum baths” – similar to mud baths.

The premise sounds bizarre, but many tourists have been visiting the Sehirli sanatorium, where the baths are located, hoping to cure their ailments by skinny dipping in warm naphthalene oil.

Legend has it that Naftalan’s citizens accidentally discovered the “miraculous oil” when a camel got better after it was left to die near a pool of the stuff.

The mysterious cure turned the city into a health resort for Soviet citizens during the 20th century, and newly built facilities are attracting more people.

Health professionals are divided on the practice. Naphthalene is considered a “human carcinogen,” according to the US National Institutes of Health.

But local physicians and many clients swear by it.

“It is a gift from God,” said Rufat, an Azerbaijani journalist and opposition party member.

Click here to see people taking a dip to heal their woes.

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