September 21, 2020

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NEED TO KNOW

ITALY

Shrink the Swamp

Americans have an extremely low opinion of Congress. Italians share their disdain. Now they appear poised to do something about it.

Shrink it.

On Monday, voters go to the polls in the last day of a two-day referendum that could alter the Italian constitution, reducing the number of lawmakers in the lower house, the Camera dei Deputati, from 630 to 400 and the number of seats in the upper house, the Senate, from 315 to 200, explained Italics Magazine, a Rome-based, English-language outlet. The change would also reduce the number of so-called Senators for Life to five. Currently, each Italian president appoints five.

The referendum already has been a major success for the Five Star Movement, a populist political party now in the ruling coalition government.

“Born on a wave of anti-establishment sentiment, the Movement’s rhetoric has historically been characterized by an emphasis on cutting the costs of politics, reducing the number of elected representatives and opposing the country’s various elites,” wrote Matteo Garavoglia, who leads the European Public Sphere Project at the University of Oxford, in a London School of Economics blog. “The party views itself as the soul of the ‘Yes’ vote in this referendum.”

But even as the Five Star Movement’s power rose to its heights, party insiders were attempting to change rules that compelled them to serve no more than two terms in office, Reuters reported. The rule change allowed Virginia Raggi, the mayor of Rome, to run for reelection, the Economist noted.

Meanwhile, the machinations of Italian politicians stand in stark contrast to the awesome problems facing the country.

Covid-19 is on the rise in Italy, wrote Newsweek. Doctors are seeing signs of the second wave that many predicted months ago. Check out this remarkable video documenting the pandemic in Venice. It includes paramedics picking up a victim by boat.

Italy has also been on the frontline of Europe’s ongoing migrant crisis, though the Local noted that the European Union was changing rules to help ease some of the burden on Italy of handling the migrants.

Despite EU-aid related to the pandemic, Italy’s economy is also among the weakest in Europe, Reuters wrote. At the same time, the country has seen a precipitous drop-off in revenues from tourism due to the pandemic, added CNN. The country would presumably be among the worst affected if Europe’s economy in general tanked, according to the Financial Times.

At least now there will be fewer politicians to blame.

WANT TO KNOW

ETHIOPIA

The Animal’s Farm

The Ethiopian government filed terrorism charges against more than a dozen opposition leaders and government critics over the weekend, a move that risks exacerbating tensions in the country’s restive Oromo region, Al Jazeera reported.

The charges relate to deadly violence in July following the murder of Hachalu Hundessa, a renowned Oromo singer and the voice behind the anti-government protests which brought Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed to power in 2018.

More than 180 people are believed to have been killed during the unrest.

Among the suspects are high profile Abiy critics including prominent Oromo opposition leader Jawar Mohammed, who was arrested after the July protests. Mohammed has criticized Abiy – an Oromo himself – of failing to protect Oromo interests and for postponing last month’s general elections as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.

The Oromo make up Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group but had never held any top position in government until Abiy came to power.

The prime minister has pushed for reforms and has won a Nobel Peace Prize for restarting peace talks with neighboring Eritrea. However, his reforms have been challenged by growing ethnic tensions and intercommunal violence.

THAILAND

Sacred Cows, Broken Vows

Tens of thousands of Thais demonstrated in Bangkok over the weekend to push for reform of the country’s monarchy in a growing movement against the establishment, the BBC reported.

Protesters are demanding the resignation of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, a former military leader who took power in a 2014 coup and won elections last year that have been disputed. Protesters also want Thailand’s military-backed constitution amended but last month their demands took an unprecedented turn when they presented a 10-point manifesto for reform to the monarchy.

On Sunday, thousands of demonstrators installed a plaque near Bangkok’s Grand Palace, which declared that Thailand “belongs to the people, and not the king.”

The move sent shockwaves in the country, where the king is highly revered and any criticism could result in prison sentences – known as lese majeste laws.

Thailand has been gripped by unrest since February following the court-ordered dissolution of a fledgling pro-democracy opposition party and the mysterious disappearance of an exiled, prominent pro-democracy activist. First led by students, the protests now include Thais of all ages.

Thai King Maha Vajiralongkorn has ordered authorities not to prosecute the protesters but analysts say the government has used other legal routes, including the sedition law, to target dissent.

PERU

Dodging a Bullet

Peruvian President Martin Vizcarra survived an impeachment vote over the weekend, ending a congressional battle that could have plunged the struggling Latin American nation into a constitutional crisis amid the coronavirus pandemic, the New York Times reported.

Opposition lawmakers failed to secure the two-thirds majority of votes necessary to impeach Vizcarra for obstruction of justice over an influence-peddling scandal.

The scandal began in May when local media reported that Vizcarra supporter Richard Cisneros secured about $50,000 in government contracts to provide motivational classes for civil servants and other services.

The opposition then released a series of leaked audio recordings with the president instructing his subordinates to lie to prosecutors. Vizcarra admitted that it was his voice but said the recordings were edited.

While the vote will allow Vizcarra to serve out the rest of his term, the case has further discredited Peru’s political class ahead of the upcoming general election.

Peru is one of the worst-hit countries in Latin America regarding the pandemic and currently has the highest number of deaths per capita from the virus in the world.

DISCOVERIES

Mighty Mice

As scientists continue to push the boundaries of space’s frontiers, they are getting a little help from beefed-up mice.

In December, researcher Se-Jin Lee and his team launched 40 female black mice into space, the Associated Press reported. Eight mice were genetically engineered to be bulky, while another eight were given the “mighty mouse” treatment during their sojourn in space. The treatment blocks a pair of proteins that limit muscle mass.

Then they observed how mice handled life in zero gravity thanks to the help of NASA astronauts on the International Space Station, according to a new study.

When the mice returned to Earth in January, 24 of the “normal” mice lost up to 18 percent of their muscle and bone mass due to the lack of gravity. The already-mutated mice maintained their physique. And, it was the treated mice that displayed novel results: The injected rodents returned with bigger muscles and quickly built more muscles than the untreated mice did.

The authors hope that the treatment could prevent muscle and bone loss in astronauts on prolonged space journeys as well as help people on Earth who are confined to bed or use wheelchairs.

Meanwhile, more mighty mice are likely to hit space for even longer periods of time.

COVID-19 Global Update

More than 180 nations worldwide have confirmed cases of the coronavirus. The following have the highest numbers worldwide as of 4 a.m. ET*:

  1. US: 6,805,630 (+0.59%)
  2. India: 5,487,580 (+1.61%)
  3. Brazil: 4,544,629 (+0.36%)
  4. Russia: 1,098,958 (+0.55%)
  5. Peru: 768,895 (+1.65%)
  6. Colombia: 765,076 (+0.88%)
  7. Mexico: 697,663 (+0.51%)
  8. South Africa: 661,211 (+0.24%)
  9. Spain: 640,040 (0.00%)**
  10. Argentina: 631,365 (+1.35%)

Source: Johns Hopkins University

*Numbers change over 24 hours

**Numbers have been adjusted by affected country