The World Today for August 04, 2022

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Il Duce’s Smile

ITALY

Europe’s first fascist leader, Benito Mussolini, once said that “Democracy is beautiful in theory; in practice, it is a fallacy.” Democracy might be bringing fascism back to Italy again, however, almost 80 years after Il Duce was executed.

That’s because when Italian voters go to the polls on Sept. 25 to replace Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi, who resigned recently after his coalition government fell apart, they are on track to elect a right-wing coalition, reported Bloomberg. Critics warned that the new government could reflect the “illiberal” persuasion of European politics – anti-Europe, anti-immigrant, anti-political dissidence and diversity, along with pro-business and pro-traditional values.

Forecasts say that far-right leader Giorgia Meloni of the Brothers of Italy political party is now the leading candidate to become Italy’s new prime minister, noted Reuters. Meloni has been described as ‘post-fascist,’ meaning that while her party originated in a group founded by Mussolini’s followers in 1946, she is happy to operate within the law rather than lead a revolution to transform the country’s political system.

Her rhetoric, meanwhile, appeals to conservative populists. “Yes to secure borders! No to mass immigration!” she said at a right-wing event earlier this year, according to the Washington Post. “Yes to our civilization! And no to those who want to destroy it!”

These views could be proliferating because the country faces seemingly intractable problems that fascists, who promise to overcome bureaucratic inertia to accomplish things in office, claim they can remedy. As author David Broder discussed in the New York Times, high debt and low growth have led to youth unemployment, inequality and other problems that proud Italians want resolved.

City Journal editor Lee Siegel argued that Broder’s doom-and-gloom narrative was unpersuasive. But there’s no doubt that drama suffuses Italian politics and Italian governments have been notoriously unstable, as National Public Radio explained, making reforms slow, to say the least. Draghi, a former president of the European Bank, had been making headway on fiscal and economic changes, but nobody knows whether the next government will continue with them.

The left, meanwhile, is in tatters. As Villanova University theologian Massimo Faggioli opined in Commonweal, the Italian political spectrum runs from right-wing populists to pro-establishment. Few voices, in other words, are calling for more diversity, kindness toward migrants and other liberal measures.

“(Progressives) have failed to provide a realistic alternative to either unelected technocracy or the hard-right backlash against it,” wrote Italian philosopher Lorenzo Marsili in a Guardian opinion piece.

The reality might shock some but it is true nonetheless: Italians appear to feel that a post-fascist future is better than the status quo.

THE WORLD, BRIEFLY

Cracks in the Foundation

CHINA

Hundreds of thousands of Chinese homeowners are boycotting mortgage payments and demonstrating over unfinished properties, a very rare form of protest in a country that rarely tolerates dissent and relies on real estate as its economic growth engine, Bloomberg reported Wednesday.

The unprecedented demonstrations come amid a property crisis in China, which began in 2020 when the Chinese government launched a crackdown on overleveraged real estate firms.

The move sparked a liquidity crunch and kept many developers, including real estate giant Evergrande, out of credit markets. Consequently, the construction of many properties and buildings that would normally be completed within 12 to 18 months ended up taking years or were halted completely.

However, buyers had to continue to make mortgage payments, a quirk of the Chinese market in which payments begin with a pre-sale deposit and continue until the work is completed.

Now, many homebuyers have been taking to social media to protest the delays and have vowed to stop paying mortgages unless construction resumes. Currently, more than 320 projects in about 100 cities have been facing similar protests, which have roiled markets, and forced authorities and developers to move to quell the unrest. This has included Chinese censors working intensively to silence the dissent, such as removing posts and preventing protesters from sharing documents.

Even so, the problem has reached the top echelons of the Chinese government, prompting President Xi Jinping to call on local officials to “ensure the completion” of housing projects.

But despite efforts to muzzle it, analysts noted that a coordinated boycott of this scale has never happened before in China. Some of the protesters also said that their efforts have prompted developers to restart construction, although it remains to be seen how soon they will be finished.

The government is also pressuring banks to lend to developers in order to complete projects, and it may seize undeveloped land from distressed corporations to pay for the work. It is also planning to establish a central bank-backed fund to finance construction.

Christian Goebel of the University of Vienna, in Austria, said that the protests show “something is really wrong with China’s real estate sector.”

The Militant Makeover

SOMALIA

A former terrorist who once had a $5 million bounty on his head and trained with al Qaeda in Afghanistan has been appointed Somalia’s new religion minister in an attempt to win over supporters of the extremist group al-Shabab and bring reconciliation and stability to the troubled country, Al Jazeera reported Tuesday.

On Tuesday, Prime Minister Hamza Abdi Barre chose former al-Shabab co-founder, spokesman and deputy leader Mukhtar Robow to join the cabinet. Robow split from the group in 2013, but has been detained by domestic intelligence officials since 2018 because he attempted to win the governorship of Somalia’s Southwest State. It is thought the Somali leadership at the time feared his growing political power. The initial arrest set off deadly protests.

He was released this week.

Robow’s appointment may help newly elected President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud fulfill his vow to step up the fight against al-Shabab, analysts said. Robow still commands support in his native Bakool region, where the insurgents hold a substantial amount of territory, along with other parts of southern and central Somalia.

“The move will advance reconciliation and will serve as a good example for more high-level al-Shabab defections,” political analyst Mohamed Mohamud told Reuters.

Al-Shabab, which means “youth,” has long sought to eject the government and all Westerners, and establish a strict Islamic state. Since the early 2000s, it has targeted civilians and government officials, government buildings and tourist facilities. In February this year it attacked election delegates in the capital, Mogadishu, killing six civilians.

It is also responsible for brutal attacks in Kenya and other neighboring countries. Last week, in an effort to advance its control over the Horn of Africa, 500 al-Shabab fighters engaged in a firefight at the Ethiopian border, a clash that killed 150 al-Shabab fighters and 14 members of an Ethiopian militia.

Stinging Hikes

INDONESIA

Hundreds of Indonesian tourism workers launched a strike this week over the government’s decision to raise ticket prices to visit the country’s famous Komodo dragons, saying the move would impact their livelihood, the Independent reported.

The demonstrations, which began on Tuesday, came a day after officials said they would increase fees to access two of the main islands that are part of the Komodo national park to $250.

The government said the move is aimed at preserving the large lizard species, which is currently listed as vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

But many locals and tourist workers countered that the move could hurt their communities, which are reliant on the sector, and which have already been deeply impacted by the coronavirus pandemic.

Local media said that protesters clashed with police at the Komodo National Park, with dozens of protesters being arrested. Tourism Minister Sandiaga Uno called on protesters to negotiate with the government.

The price hike follows government efforts in recent years to limit visitor numbers to the park.

Indonesia is home to around 3,300 rare Komodo dragons, one of the world’s largest reptiles – it can grow to 10 feet long, and can easily kill enormous prey with a single venomous bite.

UKRAINE, BRIEFLY

  • The US Treasury Department announced new sanctions against Russian companies and individuals associated with Vladimir Putin, including a famous former Olympic gymnast, Alina Kabaeva, whom the US government believes to be the Russian president’s girlfriend, the Wall Street Journal reported.
  • The Russian Army looks to be preparing for an attack along the same southern battlefront where Kyiv’s troops are planning one, according to the New York Times. The warning from Ukraine’ Operational Southern Command highlighted the prospect of a more intense, see-sawing conflict in southern Ukraine than had been anticipated in the Ukrainian counteroffensive, which has been pressing toward the Russian-occupied city of Kherson.
  • Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has paved the way to legalizing same-sex civil partnerships in the country in response to a petition, CNN wrote. However, Zelenskyy cautioned that legalizing same-sex marriage would be difficult while the country was at war because as it stands it would violate the constitution.

DISCOVERIES

The Winding Paths

The surface wasn’t all it was cracked up to be for some of the primordial species that emerged from the Earth’s oceans hundreds of millions of years ago, according to Cosmos Magazine.

In 2004, paleontologists discovered the fossilized remains of Tiktaalik roseae, a 375 million-year-old creature that is generally thought to be the ancestor of terrestrial vertebrates, which also includes humans.

The fishapod – an early fish that developed limbs for walking – was not alone when it began its trek on dry land, however.

Recently, scientists found that the newly-discovered Qikiqtania wakei initially joined the Tiktaalik’s journey but later went back to its watery abode – and took a different evolutionary path.

In their study, the team reported that the Qikiqtania’s remains were initially mistaken for those of the Tiktaalik because they were both found around the same time. But further studies uncovered a number of differences between the two fishapods.

While they share many features, Qikiqtania were smaller in size and more suited for aquatic life: These had a pectoral fin with a humerus bone that lacked the muscle ridges which would otherwise suggest a limb designed for walking on land.

Although somewhat older than its famous relative, Qikiqtania shares a branch of the evolutionary tree with the first vertebrates with finger-like digits.

The findings provide more evidence that species don’t evolve in a linear fashion, the authors noted.

“Tiktaalik is often treated as a transitional animal because it’s easy to see the stepwise pattern of changes from life in the water to life on land,” said lead author Thomas Stewart. “But we know that in evolution things aren’t always so simple.”

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