October 11, 2019

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NEED TO KNOW

POLAND

Fertilizing with Fear

Police clashed with anti-LGBTQ protesters last month in Lublin, Poland, before a gay pride march.

“We’ve had death threats,” march organizer Bartosz Staszewski told Reuters. “[This violence] was about forcing us not to have this march.”

The unrest reflects the “increased social tensions” in the largely Catholic East European country in the run-up to parliamentary elections on Oct. 13.

Poland’s conservative and populist ruling Law and Justice party has used LGBTQ rights and other social issues to drum up support.

“Picking a vulnerable group of people, demonizing them and convincing your voters that you will protect them from the threat the group allegedly poses has long been a proven strategy for electoral success,” for Law and Justice, argued Lukasz Szulc, a University of Sheffield lecturer, on the London School of Economics’ Europp blog.

The Polish elections are important because they represent yet another battle between so-called “illiberal” and “liberal” forces in Europe, wrote the think tank Stratfor, particularly given how the country was at the vanguard of resisting Soviet hegemony in the region during the Cold War.

Illiberal policies might emerge in democratic countries where leaders enjoy the support of a majority of voters, but they often reflect preconceptions about minorities, curbs on immigrants that some would argue are xenophobic, suppression of political dissent or pluralism, and skepticism about international institutions like the European Union.

Liberals, on the other hand, argue that democracies must square the will of majorities with the rights of minorities, cultivate political diversity and embrace globalism. Vox has a nice explainer of the differences between the two ideologies.

The Law and Justice party has ruled Poland since 2015, when it won the first absolute majority in parliament since communism fell in 1989. The party has advocated for socially conservative views while enacting laws that increase the government’s power over the judiciary and the press.

Such controversial illiberal positions have split families, Politico reported. It has also roused the ire of the European Union.

Meanwhile, party leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski has also pushed for arguably left-wing economic policies like infrastructure spending – often ironically with the help of EU aid – and a generous social welfare safety net that have helped spark a boom, wrote World Politics Review.

President Andrzej Duda, a former Law and Justice member, and Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki are stalwart critics of Russia and are allies of the US, too, which has enhanced its troop presence in Poland, noted the National Interest.

The opposition might enjoy a slight advantage in public support, but it is fragmented among many parties, and electoral laws favor the ruling party, opined Polish legal scholar Wojciech Sadurski in the Washington Post.

Incumbency has its benefits. As does fear-mongering.

WANT TO KNOW

RWANDA

Made In Africa!

Rwanda released the first smartphones entirely made in Africa this week, an important milestone for the African country – and the continent – which has been struggling to overcome its economic dependence on commodities and instead develop more lucrative sectors such as tech, CNN reported.

While smartphones are already assembled in other African nations like Algeria, Egypt and South Africa, the components are always imported. Rwanda’s Mara Group, however, is making all parts of its smartphones at their Kigali factory, opened by Rwandan President Paul Kagame earlier this week.

“(It’s) another milestone on our journey to a high tech ‘Made in Rwanda’ industry,” he said, according to CNN.

The Mara X ($130) and Mara Z ($190), which both run on the Android operating system, are slightly more expensive than Chinese alternatives, but the company hopes customers will be lured by African pride to eventually displace the Chinese-owned Transsion, which has more than a 50 percent share of the continent’s cell-phone market.

The development is part of an accelerating trend: African tech is booming with more than 618 active tech hubs across the continent, an increase of almost one-third over 2018, said Quartz Africa.

The achievement is all the more impressive considering that consistent and reliable access to electricity much less fast internet is not a given across the continent.

ROMANIA

Do Not Pass Go

Romania’s government collapsed Thursday after Prime Minister Viorica Dancila lost a no-confidence vote, delaying presidential elections and ushering in a period of instability just as it was hoped that the country would turn a corner on its recent politically tumultuous past, Reuters reported.

Dancila, Romania’s third prime minister in seven months, lost her parliamentary majority in August after substantial losses for her center-left Social Democrats (PSD) in the European elections in May, reported Bloomberg.

President Klaus Iohannis will now hold talks with all parliamentary parties to try to form a new government, with parliamentary elections slated for late next year, according to the BBC.

Many Romanians hoped that following the imprisonment of Liviu Dragnea, the head of the Social Democrats and the most powerful figure in Romanian politics, for corruption after years of street protests and political battles, Romania would get a fresh start.

That’s needed given the growing budget deficit, a lagging economy and pressure from the European Union over judicial independence and pulling back from an anti-corruption drive that saw more than 100 government officials put on trial.

TAIWAN

Two Countries, Two Systems

Taiwan’s president Tsai Ing-wen dismissed the “one country, two systems” formula that China wants to implement between the island and the mainland, vowing to defend Taiwan’s sovereignty at all costs, Reuters reported.

“China is still threatening to impose its ‘one country, two systems’ model for Taiwan,” said the president in a National Day speech Thursday.

Look how well that’s working in Hong Kong, Tsai added, noting the turmoil engulfing Hong Kong since spring, and blaming the protests on the failure of the “one country, two systems” scheme ushered in 22 years ago in the former British colony.

Hong Kong’s protests were triggered by a failed bill that would have eased extradition to China, a measure seen by protesters as an attempt by Beijing to exert more control over the island despite promises of autonomy.

Meanwhile, China continues to increase pressure on Taiwan to seek ‘reunification,’ the president said. Beijing has been flying regular bomber patrols around the island, while continuing to try to isolate the island diplomatically. Seven countries have severed ties with Taiwan in the past three years. Only 15 nations still have formal diplomatic relations with the island.

In response, Taiwan unveiled its largest defense spending increase in more than a decade in August.

“(China’s) diplomatic offensives and military coercion pose a serious challenge to regional stability and peace,” the president said.

DISCOVERIES

A Bite Worse Than A Bark

In the 1993 blockbuster “Jurassic Park,” there’s a scene where a Tyrannosaurus rex bites into a Jeep’s undercarriage, hoping to eat the two kids trapped inside.

The car crunching looked like movie magic, but scientists recently discovered that T. rex had the jaw strength for it, with the most powerful bite of any land animal – living or extinct.

In a recent study, paleontologists found that the huge dinosaur had a rigid skull, which allowed it to bite its prey with a force of over seven tons, Business Insider reported.

Lead author Ian Cost explained that the dinosaur could bite through solid bone and was “capable of producing enough force to crush some cars, but maybe not every car.”

Rigid skulls are features of some modern creatures, such as crocodiles and hyenas, but their bites can’t compare with the T. rex’s – the strongest bite today is seen in saltwater crocodiles, but this is only 25 percent as strong.

Aside from revealing a deadly ability, the study also sheds some light on the debate about whether the extinct predator was a hunter or a scavenger or both.

Cost said that T. rex’s skull handled prey similarly to the way a hyena’s does, and hyenas are both hunters and scavengers.

“I think, if anything, that T. rex was both a hunter and an opportunistic scavenger,” he said.