The World Today for October 18, 2023

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Bloody Franchise


Ukrainians are fighting to defend their country’s sovereignty and, ostensibly at least, democracy. That’s why the US and Europe are supporting Ukrainians’ efforts to defeat Russia.

From the Western point of view, it would make sense, then, for Ukraine to hold elections so that voters can either replace or demonstrate their continued support for Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, whose five-year term ends in March next year.

When American and European diplomats bring up the issue, however, the Ukrainians are baffled, according to Visegrad Insight, a Polish think tank. When Russia invaded in February 2022, Zelenskyy declared martial law, which suspended voting – arguably for good reasons.

Most Ukrainians feel that an election would be impossible now. Nobody will vote against Zelenskyy, a former comedian who has become a symbol of stalwart resistance to violence and tyranny. The logistics of holding a vote also appear extremely difficult. Millions of Ukrainians are displaced or have fled elsewhere in Europe to avoid the fighting, living in Russian-occupied territory where voting would be difficult to conduct (Russia has held elections in these regions, but Ukrainians don’t take them seriously), or fighting the Russians on the front.

Ukrainian officials were also concerned that Russia could easily disrupt or manipulate the vote, Foreign Policy wrote. Why wouldn’t Russian President Vladimir Putin, for example, order a devastating air attack to commence as soon as voting starts, and distract the Ukrainians?

Sixty-four percent of Ukrainians don’t support holding elections in wartime, reported Euromaidan Press, a Ukrainian outlet, citing a Razumkov Center poll. “The first step is victory,” Serhiy Prytula, a popular opposition leader who runs a charity that assists the Ukrainian military, told the New York Times. “The second step is everything else.”

Still, American politicians like US Senator Lindsey Graham and Europeans like Tiny Kox, a Dutchman who serves as the president of the parliamentary assembly of the Council of Europe, have argued that Ukraine must hold elections at some point soon, the Financial Times wrote. Their logic is that Zelenskyy and other Ukrainian politicians must practice democracy – or otherwise what is the point of fighting in the first place. These advocates for a vote argue that Israel has been holding elections for the last 30 years despite waves of war and violence in that time, Le Monde added.

Zelenskyy has said he would consider holding polls if the West helps, Reuters noted. He obviously couldn’t reject Graham and Kox outright. Western support is absolutely vital to Ukraine’s capacity to fight the Russian military.

Meanwhile, Russia will also hold elections in March, the Kyiv Post reported.

Nobody outside Russia, of course, thinks they will demonstrate anything other than Putin’s autocratic power.

Many hope for much more from Ukraine.


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Folding the Hand


The United States and Venezuela reached a deal this week that will see Washington ease sanctions on the oil-rich South American country, in return for Caracas allowing a competitive and internationally monitored presidential election next year, the Guardian reported.

The sanctions will be relaxed once Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro restarts talks with the country’s opposition, officials said.

Negotiations between Maduro and Venezuela’s opposition broke down last year when the authoritarian government banned some candidates from running in the 2024 presidential polls.

On Tuesday, both government and opposition representatives agreed to a series of electoral guarantees for next year’s election, following a Norway-brokered meeting in Barbados, Reuters added.

Under the agreement, the election will take place in the second half of next year, and international observers – including from the European Union and United Nations – will oversee the vote.

The deal also said that each side can select its own candidates, but did not reverse a ban on some opposition figures that prevent them from holding office.

In a joint statement, Western governments welcomed the Barbados agreement, calling it a necessary step toward the “restoration of democracy in Venezuela.”

But as the US continues to study the details of the agreement, questions remain about when Washington will loosen sanctions and how far it will go.

The US has put a time limit on sanctions relief, allowing for reversals if Maduro does not uphold his end of the deal. Analysts said the agreement signals a new approach in US–Venezuela relations, moving away from the “maximum pressure” strategy pursued over the past few years, the Washington Post noted.

Venezuela has been reeling from an economic and humanitarian crisis that has seen millions of its citizens leaving the country. The US imposed a series of sanctions on the Venezuelan government, further tightening them in 2019 following the country’s disputed presidential vote the year before.

In 2019, Maduro survived an international campaign supported by numerous Western governments, including the US, to oust him. This effort was led by opposition politician Juan Guaidó, who fled to the US earlier this year after support for him dwindled as further attempts to oust Maduro failed.

Relations between Caracas and Washington began improving in early 2022 when senior US officials held talks with their Venezuelan counterparts.

The Biden administration’s decision to re-engage with Maduro after years of isolation is aimed at steering the country away from Russia and also to explore alternative sources to Russian oil imports.

Venezuela is home to the world’s largest proven oil reserves.

Royal Rumble


A South African court began hearing a case this week over the leadership of the country’s influential Zulu nation, as factions within its royal family battle over who should be king of South Africa’s largest ethnic group, the Associated Press reported.

The case has pitted current King Misuzulu kaZwelithini against his half-brother, Prince Simakade Zulu, who believes he is entitled to the throne. It revolves around the traditional and legal processes used to designate the Zulu king, with Prince Simakade seeking to challenge President Cyril Ramaphosa’s recognition of Misuzulu’s legitimacy.

Misuzulu ascended the throne last year following the death of his father, King Goodwill Zwelithini, in 2021. The late king had six wives and a number of male heirs. He ruled for more than five decades, making him the longest-reigning Zulu monarch.

Following his death, Misuzulu’s mother, Queen Mantfombi, served as regent for a brief period before her own death. She designated her son as the next king in her will.

But Misuzulu’s ascension to the throne was also challenged last year.

During Tuesday’s proceedings, Ramaphosa’s lawyer said that the president’s issuance of the certificate recognizing Misuzulu as the heir resulted from consultations with the Zulu royal family, confirming his status as king.

Ramaphosa also relied on past court rulings that dismissed earlier legal challenges to Misuzulu’s ascent to the throne.

The proceedings are expected to continue Wednesday. Meanwhile, the decision will have profound implications for the future leadership of the Zulu nation.

The Zulu nation comprises around 12 million Zulu-speaking people and is known historically for resisting British colonialism in the 19th century.

The Zulu king is considered the most influential traditional leader in South Africa, with the royal house believed to control about 30 percent of the land in KwaZulu Natal province.

The Wall


The United States and the Marshall Islands signed a series of agreements this week that will give the US a stronger presence in the western Pacific, a move aimed at shutting down China’s rising influence in the region, the Voice of America reported.

Under the agreement, the US will be able to control a vast area of the western Pacific that encompasses the Marshall Islands, Guam, and the Northern Marianas. In return, Washington will provide the Pacific nation with $2.3 billion in economic aid over 20 years.

The agreement is the latest between Washington and three so-called Freely Associated States, which includes the Marshall Islands, the Republic of Palau and the Federated States of Micronesia – the latter two signed similar deals with the US in May.

The agreements come as China continues to expand its influence in the region, including fostering economic and security ties with the Pacific islands. Leaders in the Marshall Islands and Palau have lamented that Beijing continues to exert economic and political pressure on them because they diplomatically recognize Taiwan.

China considers self-governing Taiwan as part of its territory.

Meanwhile, diplomats and observers said the aid agreement was also meant to address the environmental and health impacts of dozens of US atmospheric nuclear weapons tests between 1946 and 1958 in the Marshall Islands.

The Pacific island country had asked for funds to deal with radioactive soil, dying coral reefs and elevated cancer rates among Marshall Islands citizens.

While the deal does not contain any reference to address the impacts of US nuclear testing, Marshallese officials said the government would “repurpose” $700 million under the agreement “to address the extraordinary needs of those who have suffered hardships and challenges from the nuclear testing program.”


Choice and Consequences

Scientists recently discovered that females learn from other females to go after males with rare and distinctive traits that include looks, size or good genes, the Jerusalem Post reported.

Sexual selection often drives the evolution of traits in species, such as bigger antlers or colorful plumage. In the animal kingdom, males exhibit various traits to attract females, both physical and behavioral – think of “sword” length in swordfish or song and dance moves in some birds.

Current theories of sexual selection suggest that animals choose mates based on genetic quality, but these hypotheses don’t explain why there is so much variation in male traits or why female preferences change, according to the Conversation.

For their study, a research team sought to explore female agency, as well as its influence on sexual selection and evolution, by creating a mathematical model to explore how female preferences affect sexual selection.

The model showed that when females consistently chose males based on the same traits as their experienced counterparts, those traits became dominant with no diversity. However, when females preferred distinctive males, this led to rare traits becoming more common and subsequently less appealing.

The team suggested that female preferences change over time, rather than sticking with a single trait over all others.

Whether this model accurately reflects real-life scenarios requires confirmation through field studies. Still, the findings provide a novel explanation for how variation can be preserved within populations in the context of sexual selection.

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