The World Today for July 20, 2023

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Winning Minds, Losing Hearts


“Sanchismo” might be the wedge issue in Spain’s general election on July 23.

That’s because the center-right Partido Popular leader Alberto Núñez Feijóo and other conservative leaders are expected to defeat Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez of the Spanish Socialist Workers Party – in part, because they have succeeded in convincing most Spaniards they should blame Sánchez for everything ailing the West European country.

The leader of the far-right Vox political party even said that Sánchez’s government was the worst in the country in the last 80 years, making him worse than Francisco Franco, the dictator who ran the country from 1939 to 1975. “Anti-Sanchismo therefore, can be understood as an emotional ploy, not a rational one,” wrote the Local Spain.

Outside Spain, in contrast, Sánchez appears to be doing a good job. Even the conservative, free marketeering Economist – no friend to left-wingers – described Sánchez as “reasonably successful.”

As the EUObserver noted, the Spanish economy is doing relatively well given the major problems that Europe faces, as post-pandemic inflation remains a problem and the Russian invasion of Ukraine has hiked fuel and food costs. Sánchez also convinced European Union officials in Brussels to cap energy prices on the Iberian Peninsula, insulating his constituents from serious pain, Reuters added.

Many Catalans remain committed to seceding from the Spanish kingdom. But, as a London School of Economics blog explained, the Catalonian independence movement is divided. Unionists even gained some seats in the region’s elections in 2021.

Lastly, while corruption remains a serious problem in Spain, it’s not so bad in relative terms. The country has dropped one point in Transparency International’s corruption index for two years in a row, hardly a catastrophe but nonetheless a concerning trend. A criminal ring involving Socialist Party members in the Canary Islands has garnered headlines, however, tarnishing the party, Euractiv reported.

Sánchez called a snap election in May after his party suffered bruising defeats in local elections, the New York Times wrote. Perhaps he thought he could run on the positive aspects of his track record. Or maybe he figured he should appeal to voters now in a bid to keep his job before he lost even more support.

The world is now waiting to see whether the prime minister’s gamble will pay off, noted the Guardian. Sánchez instated a host of progressive policies like menstrual leave, expanded abortion rights, and made euthanasia legal, added National Public Radio. Conservative Catholics in Spain hardly welcomed those measures, of course.

Sometimes emotional responses to policies are perfectly reasonable, even to be expected. But they don’t always make for smart politics.


The Unwanted


Thailand’s parliament blocked Pita Limjaroenrat from being nominated for the post of prime minister Wednesday, the second time lawmakers rejected the candidate whose progressive Move Forward Party won a surprise victory in May’s election, the Washington Post reported.

Pita had assembled a coalition of parties holding a majority in the lower house of parliament – his party had the largest share of the vote and won 151 of 500 seats.

But last week, lawmakers from the lower and upper houses – including conservative military-appointed senators – refused to confirm him as the country’s new prime minister.

Wednesday’s vote was the second blow for the leader after Thailand’s Constitutional Court suspended him from the legislature pending its ruling on whether he violated election law. If the court rules against him, he could be subject to a jail term.

Meanwhile, Move Forward supporters and pro-democracy activists called for demonstrations against the parliament’s vote and Thailand’s military-backed establishment, the New York Times noted.

Observers explained, however, that Pita’s chances of becoming prime minister were already low: He was rebuffed by nearly all members of the appointed upper house, which along with the military and courts represents the country’s traditional conservative ruling class.

Pita’s Move Forward also faced resistance over its plan to amend a law criminalizing criticism of Thailand’s royal family – a taboo in the Southeast Asian country. Critics said that the law – carrying prison sentences of up to 15 years – is often used as a political weapon.

Before Wednesday’s vote, Pita said he would allow another candidate from his coalition to become prime minister if he failed in his second bid. The possible candidate is believed to be from the Pheu Thai party, which won 141 seats in the election.

However, should parliament reject a Pheu Thai candidate, there will be a push to form a fresh coalition to include more conservative allies and exclude Move Forward, especially because its stance on royal reform is perceived as the main obstacle to reaching a compromise.

The Old Ways


Honduras is planning to build the only island prison colony in the Western Hemisphere, as the government seeks to address rising crime and gang violence that are rocking the Central American nation, the Associated Press reported.

President Xioamara Castro proposed plans to build an isolated detention facility on the Islas del Cisne archipelago 155 miles off the Honduran coast.

The prison will house around 2,000 gang leaders, with authorities saying the facility’s location would effectively prevent inmates from escaping or running operations from the inside.

The plan comes as the country grapples with a wave of gang-related violence, including last month’s killing of 46 women, who died during a fight between gangs in one prison.

Castro had previously pledged to address the issue through systemic reforms of the criminal justice system. But after last month’s prison massacre, she said she would “take drastic measures” against Barrio 18 and Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13), gangs that have terrorized the nation for years.

Authorities have launched a major crackdown on criminal groups, which observers say mirror efforts from neighboring El Salvador. Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele has imprisoned one in every 100 people in the country, despite warnings from human rights groups that only 30 percent of prisoners have clear ties to gangs.

Island prisons were once common across Latin America, but the last such facility closed in Mexico in 2019.

Honduran officials believe a return to the old ways will curb the wave of violence, but skeptics caution that such attempts do not address the root causes of endemic violence.

Meanwhile, biologists worry that the prison’s construction could impact the island’s ecosystem and biodiversity. They noted that the prison’s suggested location has been designated as an environmentally protected territory for more than three decades.

But Lucky Medina, the country’s secretary of natural resources and the environment, countered that the maximum security penitentiary will be built “in harmony with nature.”

A Heavy Hand


At least one person died and hundreds were injured across Bangladesh this week, after tens of thousands of opposition supporters took to the streets calling for Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to step down ahead of elections early next year, Al Jazeera reported.

The opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and other smaller parties launched the protests in the capital Dhaka and other cities.

Demonstrators demanded Hasina’s resignation and that elections take place under a neutral caretaker government. They also accused police of opening fire at BNP supporters, injuring at least 200 people.

Authorities have not commented on the violence. They also questioned whether the reported fatality was a result of clashes between the opposition and supporters of the ruling Awami League.

The protests are the latest unrest directed at Hasina and her ruling party, which have governed Bangladesh since 2009. The government has been accused of corruption and human rights abuses, including the detention of thousands of opposition activists and the killing of hundreds in extrajudicial detainments.

The BNP and its allies have also accused Hasina’s party of rigging the 2014 and 2018 elections.

Western governments have also raised the alarm about the political climate in Bangladesh, calling for free and fair elections next year.


The Pain of Knowing

People can go to great lengths to acquire information even if that information will not benefit them in any way, Science Magazine reported.

In a series of experiments, psychologist Stefan Bode and his team showed human volunteers a series of coin flips, where each side came with a different monetary reward. The researchers didn’t tell participants which side came with which prize.

Instead, they offered them a choice to immediately learn the payouts of the different sides in exchange for receiving a brief, painful – but ultimately harmless – flash of heat to their forearm.

Importantly, the acquired knowledge did not influence the result of the coin toss, as it remained entirely random. Regardless of their prior knowledge of the values, participants would receive an identical monetary amount.

The volunteers showed a willingness to endure a flash of heat at the lowest pain settings, with their determination further increased when larger monetary amounts were at stake.

Their perseverance wavered as the intensity of the heat flash increased, but in nearly half of the trials participants accepted even the most severe pain levels.

Bode explained that this behavior might derive from a deep-seated aversion to uncertainty, showing how some people are willing to endure such discomfort from a few scraps of information – even if it is not always tied to its usefulness.

“Not knowing is really painful,” he noted.

Other researchers added that the experiments show that information’s value increases when uncertainty is high, which prompts some individuals to go through agony to get it.

Bode’s team plans to further explore our aversion to uncertainty and answer a fundamental question.

“What is information worth?” he asked.

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