The World Today for August 23, 2023

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ZIMBABWE

Police in Zimbabwe arrested 40 leaders of the opposition Citizens’ Coalition for Change (CCC) party on charges of blocking traffic about a week before the southern African country’s voters go to the polls to choose a new president, parliament, and local councils.

Law enforcement claimed that the CCC notified them of their demonstration but diverted from their planned path, Africanews reported.

The election on Aug. 23 is the second since President Emmerson Mnangagwa of the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union–Patriotic Front (ZANU–PF) party took power in a coup in 2017 that deposed longtime leader Robert Mugabe. Mugabe ran the country like an autocrat since 1980, when white minority rule ended in the former British colony. Mnangagwa similarly won office in a disputed 2018 election marked by allegations of fraud and other irregularities.

Mnangagwa, 80, a former Mugabe ally, is squaring off against the 45-year-old CCC leader Nelson Chamisa.

Inflation and human rights are at the top of voters’ minds. Mnangagwa took office pledging to uphold free speech, political expression and other rights. But his critics say that little has changed from Mugabe’s iron rule.

As the BBC explained, for example, Chamisa won 44 percent of the vote in 2018. But two years later, a court kicked him out of the Movement for Democratic Change opposition party, forcing him to build a new political organization without state funding. For this election, the government has banned voters living abroad to vote, a move that will likely hurt Chamisa.

Human Rights Watch published a report entitled “‘Crush Them Like Lice’: Repression of Civil and Political Rights Ahead of Zimbabwe’s August 2023 Election,” that gives an idea of the scale of the Zimbabwean government’s underhanded meddling, including “weaponizing the criminal justice system against the opposition.”

Mnangagwa has also proposed legislation that would punish “unpatriotic acts,” including meeting with foreign agents (a catchall term that could refer to spies – or humanitarian non-governmental organizations) with prison sentences of 20 years if those meetings involve talk of changing the government, added the Associated Press.

Analysts say the president needs to compromise his people’s rights because he’s arguably been incompetent at managing the economy. Still, part of this isn’t his fault: The cost of living in Zimbabwe has skyrocketed in the last year because of the lagging effects of the pandemic and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, both of which have led to increased food and fuel costs. Through May this year, prices were almost 86 percent higher compared with 12 months earlier.

The president’s critics, meanwhile, want a national discussion on the economy, job creation, electricity shortages, diversifying the economy, and regaining more control of the country’s resources, said members of a Chatham House roundtable discussion. Zimbabwe is a major exporter of lithium, an important component in electric vehicle batteries and other green tech, but Chinese companies control many of the country’s mines, Foreign Policy noted.

Telling voters to shut up and pay up doesn’t seem like a winning strategy, but Mnangagwa is unlikely to leave things to chance.

THE WORLD, BRIEFLY

New Beginnings

THAILAND

Real estate tycoon Srettha Thavisin secured enough votes in parliament to become Thailand’s new prime minister Tuesday, finally ending the political deadlock in the Southeast Asian country following May’s elections, CNBC reported.

Srettha, a candidate of the populist Pheu Thai Party, received 482 votes, including from conservative and military-backed lawmakers.

Since March, Thailand has been under a caretaker government because of a parliamentary deadlock.

The Move Forward party emerged as the largest group after May’s parliamentary election, but its bid for leadership was thwarted when its leader, Pita Limjaroenrat, fell 51 votes short of the required 375 votes needed to become prime minister.

This paved the way for Pheu Thai – the second largest party in the legislature – to pursue power on its own after initially supporting Move Forward.

On Monday, Pheu Thai announced an 11-party coalition, gathering 314 votes to form a government. However, this political union also includes pro-military parties associated with former Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha.

Srettha will inherit the task to revitalize Thailand after almost 10 years of military rule and to improve its economy, which grew by 1.8 percent in the second quarter but fell short of the expected 3.1 percent expansion.

His appointment also coincided with the return of Thaksin Shinawatra, a former prime minister and Pheu Thai’s founder, to Thailand after 15 years of self-imposed exile. Thaksin was ousted in a military coup in 2006 and has been living abroad to avoid charges of corruption, the Guardian wrote.

He now faces eight years in prison, but analysts noted that the former leader could request a pardon from the new Pheu Thai-led government.

Even so, observers added that it’s unclear if Pheu Thai will be able to grant that pardon, and also questioned the stability of the 11-party coalition.

The political union will likely hold together for now, driven by a shared interest in preventing the Move Forward party from entering the government.

The Slippery Slope

NIGER

The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) rejected a proposal by Niger’s military junta to return to civilian rule within three years, a move that prolongs the ongoing regional crisis as the bloc mulls military intervention, the Voice of America reported Tuesday.

The regional bloc’s dismissal came a few days after Niger’s junta leader Abdourahamane Tchiani said that the military government would relinquish power within three years.

He added that the junta’s ambition “is not to confiscate power” and urged Nigerien political parties to submit a vision for the transition within a month.

The Nigerien leader met with an ECOWAS delegation last week, with the bloc urging the return to democracy in Niger and the release of ousted President Mohamed Bazoum. The president has been held captive since the July 26 coup.

But on Tuesday, ECOWAS officials called for an immediate return to constitutional order, warning that the junta’s proposal was an attempt by the military leaders to stay in power.

The organization imposed a series of sanctions on Niger following the coup. It also threatened military action and recently activated a standby force to intervene in the West African country if negotiations fail.

Analysts cautioned that ECOWAS shouldn’t trust the junta’s transition plans because they are similar to proposals from the military governments in Mali and Burkina Faso, which came to power following recent coups in those countries.

Meanwhile, the African Union (AU) suspended Niger from the continental bloc Tuesday and ordered the return of constitutional order, Al Jazeera added.

The AU also called on its members and the international community to refrain from taking any action that could legitimize Niger’s military government, and warned against external interference – including the involvement of private military companies.

The Hostages

CANADA

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau slammed Facebook’s parent company Meta for blocking news content in Canada, as the country fights massive wildfires that have forced the evacuation of tens of thousands of people from their homes, and provinces to declare states of emergency, Bloomberg reported.

The prime minister blamed the US-based social media company for “choosing to put corporate profits ahead of ensuring that local news organizations can get up-to-date information to Canadians and reach them.”

“In a larger picture, that’s bad for democracy because democracy depends on people being able to trust high-quality journalism and of all sorts of different perspectives and points of view,” he added. “But right now, in an emergency situation, up-to-date local information is more important than ever.”

This month, Meta began blocking news on its sites in Canada after Ottawa passed the Online News Act, which requires digital platforms to negotiate payments with local publishers for content.

While news distribution doesn’t solely rely on Facebook and Instagram, these platforms were one of the key avenues for media outlets to connect with their audience.

This means that links and content shared by publishers and broadcasters on these platforms are no longer accessible to people in Canada. Users within the country are also unable to read and share articles.

Still, Meta representatives countered that they will stand by their decision to block news content, adding that people in Canada can still use Facebook and Instagram to engage with their communities and access reliable information, including official content, according to the New York Post.

The act has drawn criticism from tech companies, with Mark Zuckerberg, the head of Meta, saying that the law wrongly assumes that the company gains excessive benefits from shared news content.

Google, owned by Alphabet, is also planning to block news in response to the law.

Meanwhile, Trudeau has deployed the military to deal with fast-spreading wildfires in British Columbia that have resulted in the evacuation of more than 35,000 people and the province to declare a state of emergency. At the same time, the Northwest Territories capital of Yellowknife ordered the evacuation of the entire city.

Canada has experienced an unprecedented number of wildfires this year with blazes that have produced heavy smoke that has even affected parts of the United States, including New York City.

DISCOVERIES

Perpetual Storms

Astronomers have known that Jupiter’s massive storm known as the “Great Red Spot” has been running on the gas giant for hundreds of years.

Now, a new research paper found evidence that Saturn, another gas giant, also experiences similar long-lasting freak storms, Live Science reported.

These “megastorms” – also known as “Great White Spots” – occur every 20 or 30 years in the planet’s northern hemisphere and rage for months. Since 1876, astronomers have observed these planet-wide storms that span hundreds of thousands of miles, according to Newsweek.

Meanwhile, the most recent one occurred in December 2010, and NASA’s Cassini spacecraft had a close view of the storm for its entire 200-day life span.

These storms last much longer than Earth’s due to the longer duration of the planet’s orbit around the Sun: Saturn takes around 29 Earth years to complete a single lap around the Sun due to its distance – it is 10 times further away. As a result, its seasons each last around 7 years.

In their study, a research team analyzed Saturn following its most recent storm and found that its effect is still seen on Saturn to this day even though it lasted less than a year.

Using a special telescope to study the planet’s radio signals, researchers found signs of all six previously recorded megastorms over the past 130 years, as well as a potentially new storm never recorded before.

These signals appeared as strange ammonia gas spots in the planet’s atmosphere. Some areas had less gas than usual, while others had more, suggesting that megastorms move ammonia gas from high up in the atmosphere to lower levels – a process that could last for centuries after the storm ends.

Although there are many mysteries regarding the inner workings and behavior of these storms, studying them gives scientists insights into how gas giants form. It also helps understand why these storms become so gigantic, similar to the “spots” seen on Saturn or Jupiter.

“Understanding the mechanisms of the largest storms in the solar system puts the theory of hurricanes into a broader cosmic context, challenging our current knowledge and pushing the boundaries of terrestrial meteorology,” said lead author Cheng Li.

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