The World Today for May 12, 2023

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Strongman Down


Turkish politicians have been appealing to voters in the Mediterranean city of Mersin in the run-up to the country’s presidential elections on May 14. Mersin is the capital of a swing province whose residents could decide the seemingly tight race between President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has led the country for 20 years, and opposition leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu.

The race has been labeled the most important election of 2023.

Erdogan faces a challenge because inflation has been running at an annual rate of almost 44 percent in Turkey. Mersin is especially contested, however, because many people in the city have suffered the destruction of the devastating earthquake that hit Turkey in February, reported the Financial Times. Many Turks are outraged at the lack of building safeguards that led to the catastrophe, and the corruption that allowed this situation to happen.

Serdar Tatar, a butcher in Mersin, voted for Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party in the past. Now he’s supporting the president’s rival. “There is no prosperity … the rich get richer, the lower class is crushed,” said Tatar. “I will vote for Kilicdaroglu.”

As the Journal of Democracy explained, Erdogan rose to power as an “anti-establishment everyman” who wanted to revive Islam in a nominally secular Turkey, revive his country’s geopolitical heft, and expand the economy. Today, he’s widely considered to be an authoritarian who has clung to power by undermining human rights and ensuring that he and his allies dominate the civil service, judiciary, economy, and other facets of Turkish society.

A former accountant in the Turkish Finance Ministry who was named “Bureaucrat of the Year,” Kilicdaroglu ran the country’s social security system before joining parliament in 2002, wrote National Public Radio.

He has been pledging to bring liberty back to the country, often in homemade videos from his kitchen that speak directly to voters, for example, with him waving an onion to rail against inflation, which is widely blamed on Erdogan’s unorthodox economic policies. It’s the only way to be heard in a country where the media solely focuses on what the leaders want it to focus on, or else.

That repression in the press also extends to speech: Turks, for example, can be imprisoned simply for insulting the president, a charge that has been leveled more than 200,000 times during Erdogan’s tenure. Kilicdaroglu wants to change that, he says, telling voters that they would be free to criticize him. “The youth want democracy,” he said in an interview with the BBC. “They don’t want the police to come to their doors early in the morning just because they tweeted.”

Some voters are reluctant to drop Erdogan, however, the Washington Post added, noting how his message still appeals to conservative, middle-class voters outside Turkey’s major cities who feel ignored by the secular, metropolitan elite. “Erdogan does have his issues, but I don’t find his opponent to be a real opponent,” one voter told the Post. “All they do is criticize what Erdogan does and they don’t say anything productive.”

Part of the incumbent’s appeal is also how Turkey has become a decisive actor throughout the region, from helping to broker an agreement to allow Ukrainian grain to flow to the international market, supporting forces vying for control of Libya, and negotiating with Europe over housing the millions of Syrians and other migrants who have left their war-torn homes in the past decade – newcomers that many Turks want out now.

And then there are the grand projects – or rather, distractions, say critics. As the Economist noted, Erdogan, over the past month alone, has inaugurated the country’s first nuclear plant, celebrated the tapping of a big gas field in the Black Sea, jumped behind the wheel of Turkey’s first electric car, and unveiled its first aircraft carrier. “If you’re wondering why he still hovers at more than 40 percent (in the polls),” Galip Dalay, an analyst, told the magazine, “one reason is this idea and this language of grandeur.”

Meanwhile, there are fears over what will happen if the leader loses – Erdogan has meddled in elections before. The May 14 poll surely won’t be free and fair, argued Foreign Policy magazine. But Kilicdaroglu can nevertheless still win if he secures a wide enough lead.

If Erdogan loses, it will be another end of an era for the storied nation.


A Spreading Contagion


At least 25 people died this week during days of tribal clashes in southern Sudan, prompting fears that the ongoing fighting between the country’s rival generals will lead to violence spreading to other provinces, the Associated Press reported.

Health officials and local media said clashes began Monday between the Hausa and Nuba tribes in the White Nile province bordering South Sudan.

Although such violence is not uncommon in Sudan’s southern and western provinces, it comes as the African country reels from a civil conflict playing out in other parts of the country since last month. The war is part of a power struggle between Sudan’s military head Gen. Abdel Fattah Burhan and Gen. Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, who commands the powerful paramilitary group, the Rapid Support Forces.

The fighting – mainly centered in the capital Khartoum – has already spread to other regions and claimed more than 600 people. The United Nations estimated this week that around 700,000 people have been displaced by the conflict.

UN officials warned that food insecurity in the nation is expected to rise to record levels and affect more than 19 million people.

Meanwhile, a commitment to protect civilians was signed by the warring factions Thursday amid negotiations being held in Saudi Arabia to establish a temporary truce. Both sides agreed to ensure the safe passage of civilians from areas affected by the conflict, the Guardian reported, but the agreement is not a ceasefire.

The negotiations are part of a Saudi-United States initiative to allow for humanitarian aid to access afflicted areas as a prelude to an agreed permanent ceasefire.

US diplomats described the talks as “difficult” with the military demanding that the RSF withdraws from Khartoum’s areas, while the paramilitary group insists on retaining control of its bases. Previous ceasefires have also failed to take root.

Mamma Mia!


The Italian government called a crisis meeting Thursday to address the spiking price of pasta in the country, where the staple is held as an integral part of the culture, the Washington Post reported.

Adolfo Urso, Italy’s business enterprise minister, convened a meeting of a new commission that will discuss the increase in pasta prices, which in March were noted to have risen by 17.5 percent year-on-year from 2022.

The commission will examine why the price has jumped and also the role that raw materials, energy, and production costs are playing in the price hikes that have prompted many consumer groups to accuse producers of speculation.

The price jump is more than double Italy’s consumer price inflation rate, which was rated at 8.1 percent in March, according to the European Central Bank, and comes as the price of wheat has dropped.

Italian pasta is produced from durum wheat, whose price has fallen by 30 percent since last year, according to Coldiretti, the country’s largest agricultural body.

Even so, consumer rights advocates lamented that the cost of pasta in April was noted as having risen by an average of 25 percent from last year, with some cities witnessing a nearly 50 percent hike.

Producers say a mix of factors such as high energy costs, inflation, and supply chain disruptions have contributed to the price increase.

While a box of pasta can cost around $2, any issues related to the staple cause a furor in Italy, where more than 60 percent of locals eat pasta daily, the newspaper said.

Analysts noted that treating the price hike as a crisis is symbolic and shows the government is “interested in the quality of life of the citizens, even if the impact is probably much lower than the impact of (price hikes on) electricity bills.”

Promises, Promises


Clashes between police and anti-government protesters this week killed at least seven people in Guinea, as demonstrations broke out again against the military junta that seized power nearly two years ago, Reuters reported.

Protests took place in the capital Conakry and other cities across the West African nation.

Opposition parties and civil society groups released a joint statement Wednesday confirming the death toll, adding that 32 others were injured and 56 people were arrested.

Since the 2021 coup, Guinea’s junta has faced protests, some of which have turned deadly after clashes with security forces.

The military government is among several in West Africa that have seized power in recent coups and has been delaying promised elections.

In October, authorities proposed a two-year transition to democracy, down from the previously rejected three-year timeline.

Meanwhile, neighboring Senegal is also bracing for anti-government protests after a court handed a popular opposition leader a suspended sentence in a libel case that could derail the politician’s candidacy in next year’s presidential elections, Al Jazeera noted.

Opposition figure Ousmane Sonko rejected the court’s ruling and called for mass protests against incumbent Macky Sall.

Concerns have been raised that Sall may exploit a recent amendment to the constitution, which could potentially reset his presidential term limit and enable him to run for re-election beyond 2024. The constitution currently restricts presidents to two terms.


This week, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy admitted that Ukraine’s military needs more time to prepare for a counteroffensive against Russian occupying forces, the Associated Press noted. Zelenskyy emphasized that launching an assault now would result in too many lives being lost. Ukraine has been preparing the counteroffensive for weeks and is receiving advanced Western weapons and training. Zelenskyy’s statements came amid reports that a Russian brigade abandoned its position on a bridge in Bakhmut, allowing Ukrainian forces to capture it, according to the Independent. Ukrainian military officials, meanwhile, confirmed that the Russians left behind “500 corpses.” The Russian Wagner Group mercenaries’ chief, Yevgeny Prigozhin, whose fighters were deployed in that battle, said the 72nd Brigade fled and that his troops were not receiving enough shells.

Also this week:

  • Ukraine shot down over two dozen drones above Kyiv as Russia intensifies strikes, aiming to weaken Ukrainian air defenses ahead of the expected offensive, the Wall Street Journal wrote. The strikes followed recent attacks on Russian soil, including a drone attack on the Kremlin.
  • Russian President Vladimir Putin used a scaled-down Victory Day commemoration to denounce the West and make dubious claims about Ukraine, equating his war against Kyiv with the Soviet Union’s fight against Nazi Germany, according to the New York Times. The annual celebration of Victory Day was more subdued due to Russia’s struggles on the battlefield against Ukraine. The Biden administration announced another aid package for Ukraine, and European leaders emphasized solidarity and called for a militarily robust Europe.
  • Meanwhile, the European Parliament overwhelmingly supported a proposal to speed up legislation to boost ammunition production for Ukraine, Politico added. The proposal, known as the Act in Support of Ammunition Production (ASAP), aims to increase production to one million rounds per year with a budget of more than $540 million. Critics, mainly left-wing lawmakers, said the proposal provides undeserved subsidies to the arms industry and called for a diplomatic solution to end the war in Ukraine.
  • Ukraine’s state-owned nuclear plant operator Energoatom warned that Russia plans to evacuate over 3,000 workers from the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant, Voice of America reported. The evacuation would exacerbate the already critical shortage of skilled personnel, posing risks to the safe operation of Europe’s largest nuclear plant. The International Atomic Energy Agency urged immediate action to protect the facility and prevent a severe nuclear accident.
  • Poland will use its historical name “Krolewiec” for the Russian city of Kaliningrad, a move that prompted outrage from Russia, the Associated Press wrote. Kaliningrad was previously known as Koenigsberg and was renamed after Mikhail Kalinin, one of the leaders of Russia’s Bolshevik Revolution. Polish authorities said that Kalinin was involved in ordering the execution of Polish prisoners of war, adding that the name “Krolewiec” reflects the city’s cultural heritage. Russia in reply accused Poland of Russophobia.


Special Traits

Balto was a heroic dog, immortalized in a 1995 film with his name for delivering a lifesaving anti-toxin to a remote Alaskan town that was struck by diphtheria in 1925.

Now, this iconic Siberian husky’s DNA is offering new insight into how genetic diversity affects the health of dogs, both past and present, Scientific American reported.

In a new study, biologists found that Balto’s genome was more diverse and healthy than most modern breeds, suggesting that a population bred for work rather than aesthetics produces more genetically diverse and healthier dogs.

Balto was part of an imported population of Siberian huskies bred for speed, fitness, and relatively small size. Researchers sequenced DNA samples from Balto’s taxidermied specimen at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History and compared his sequences with those of current living dog breeds.

The canine’s genome showed that he had a phenotype that was optimal for Arctic survival, with adaptations that help digest starch, a trait that is not found in wolves but is relatively common in modern dog breeds.

But compared with modern dog breeds, the dog’s genome was less inbred, had more genetic diversity, and fewer potentially damaging genetic variations. The researchers suggest that selective breeding may be a factor in reducing genetic diversity and introducing harmful mutations among current dog breeds.

Overall, the study showed that genetic diversity confers more ability to adapt to environmental changes and stressors, which researchers use to measure genetic health.

Balto’s genome analysis is a part of the Zoonomia research project, which aims to understand the genetic diversity and evolution of mammals, and to apply findings to conservation efforts.

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