The World Today for February 27, 2024

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Family Feud


Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, whom the Barcelona Centre for International Affairs and others have described as illiberal because of his predilection for authoritarianism and admiration for Russia and China, has long portrayed himself as a defender of traditional family values.

That was then.

Now, the allegations that Orban’s ally, ex-Hungarian President Katalin Novak, pardoned a man convicted of covering up sexual abuse of underage boys at a state-run children’s home has tarnished that image, CNN reported. Novak resigned on Feb. 17, saying she made a mistake and didn’t know the abuser’s record. Former Justice Minister Judit Varga is also embroiled in the scandal.

Despite the resignation, the furor is unabated. Recently, tens of thousands of angry Hungarians took to the streets to protest against Orban and his rule, in the biggest anti-government demonstrations in years, wrote Reuters. Social media influencers helped organize the protests, an interesting development that highlights a new kind of popular pressure that Orban hasn’t really encountered before in his 18 years as prime minister.

“I don’t know exactly what we’re going to achieve at the end of the day,” said Zsolt Osváth, one of the online figures, in an interview with the Associated Press. “But it’s certain that we won’t stay silent any longer, and that we had to step out from the comfort zone of our computer screens.”

These developments were the latest of recent blows to Orban’s normally iron grip on power, opined World Politics Review.

Orban had been blocking Sweden from joining NATO, for example. Recently, however, he relented, reported Axios, as his opposition – essentially a pro-Russian stance – became untenable within the alliance.

He similarly threatened to veto a crucial European Union aid package to Ukraine, leading Politico to contend that he was behaving like a Russian ally. But, when European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, French President Emmanuel Macron, and Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni threatened to cut EU subsidies to Hungary, the prime minister yielded.

Domestically, he’s won ‘family-friendly’ battles: Orban’s so-called “child protection law” enacted in 2021, was designed to limit minors’ access to books, movies, or other forms of expression that “promote or portray” nonconforming gender identities. Authorities fired the director of the Hungarian National Museum for hanging photographs of men in women’s clothing, for example, reported the New York Times, because they claimed his staff couldn’t check if viewers were 18 years or older.

Rather than reducing interest in homosexuality and other themes in art and culture, however, wrote Radio Free Europe, the law and its enforcement seem to have emboldened more Hungarians to continue discussing, reading, and consuming art about these topics.

Can Orban survive these tests? In a move that appeared designed to improve his chances of keeping power, Bloomberg reported, his government recently levied heavy fines on opposition parties for allegedly financing their campaigns illegally.


A ‘Half-step’


The prime minister and government of the Palestinian Authority (PA) stepped down Monday as the United States and Middle Eastern countries are demanding reforms for the body to govern Gaza after the war, a move falling short of key demands, the Wall Street Journal reported.

In a televised statement, Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh said he and his cabinet had offered their resignations in writing to President Mahmoud Abbas, paving the way for the appointment of a technocratic government. American and Arab partners are pushing for a new government to conduct a series of changes to the PA, which partly rules the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

The proposed changes include transferring competence from the president to a new prime minister. Abbas remains in power despite calls for him to quit and has yet to approve the government’s resignation. This prompted the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), which represents Palestinians internationally, to call the resignation a “half-step.”

Negotiators are currently working on a ceasefire deal in the conflict that opposes the Israeli government, led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and the armed group Hamas, which has governed the Gaza enclave since 2006. They are also scrambling to lay the ground for the aftermath of the war.

International leaders such as US President Joe Biden would like to see the PA run both the West Bank and Gaza after the war, the Washington Post reported. Netanyahu opposes the plan, while an overwhelming majority of Palestinians do not trust Abbas, whom they consider ineffective and corrupt.

“The next phase and its challenges require a new government and political arrangements that take into account the new reality in the Gaza Strip, national unity, and the urgent need for achieving inter-Palestinian consensus,” Shtayyeh said. Palestinian territories have been battered by an internal conflict that culminated in 2007, when Hamas expelled Fatah, Abbas’ party, from the ruling apparatus in Gaza.

Senior Fatah members have advertised their wish to reconcile with Hamas, and a meeting between the two factions was set to be held in Moscow on Monday. Five Arab states uphold a plan for Hamas to be folded into the secular PLO, but Israel and Western allies reject any role for the Islamist group in Gaza.

Meanwhile, Israel struck air defense systems operated by the Lebanese armed group Hezbollah following the downing of an Israeli drone. The confrontation, 50 miles deep into Lebanon, saw two Hezbollah members killed. At the same time, the Israeli Defense Force shared a plan to evacuate civilians from the southern Gazan city of Rafah, which it plans to invade despite the disapproval of some Western allies.

Last Resort


A crowd of supporters of Brazil’s former President Jair Bolsonaro demonstrated in São Paulo on Sunday as the far-right leader faces charges for his alleged role in an attack on government buildings, the Associated Press reported.

An estimated 185,000 people occupied Paulista Avenue, according to independent measuring, a testament to the influence Bolsonaro has on his base, more than a year after leaving office.

Federal police are investigating the former president over his alleged role in the Jan. 8, 2023 storming of Brazil’s main government buildings in the capital.

That day, thousands of Bolsonaro supporters attacked Brasilia’s Three Powers Plaza – which houses the country’s congress, presidential palace and supreme court – to oppose the recent inauguration of left-leaning President Luis Inácio Lula da Silva, who had defeated Bolsonaro in the 2022 presidential elections.

Dozens of protesters were arrested in January 2023 and are still in jail. In a speech on Sunday calling for “pacification to erase the past,” Bolsonaro demanded amnesty for the protesters. He and his supporters denied the attack was a coup.

Israeli flags were seen in the crowd in São Paulo as a sign of opposition to incumbent Lula, who was declared persona non grata by Israel after his comments comparing the war in Gaza to the genocide of Jewish people by Nazi Germany in World War II. Many of Bolsonaro’s supporters claimed Lula’s victory in 2022 was unfair.

They also claimed Bolsonaro was being persecuted by Brazil’s supreme court, as he is involved in a number of cases of abuse of power. These have already led to him being barred from running for office until 2030.

Political science professor Carlos Melo told the newswire Sunday’s demonstration would not help him legally, and downplayed fears of Bolsonaro, a former military officer, using the army to return to power.

Nonetheless, the turnout showed that his manifesto still resonates with many Brazilians.

A Verdict, Kurzgesagt


A court in Austria last week found the country’s former Chancellor Sebastian Kurz guilty of perjury and handed him a suspended eight-month prison sentence, in a case that’s part of a series of corruption scandals that eventually sent the charismatic leader out of office, Al Jazeera reported.

The Vienna court focused on a testimony Kurz gave to a 2020 parliamentary inquiry on the appointment of executives to the state-owned Österreichische Beteiligungs AG (ÖBAG) company that oversees the investments of sovereign funds in fully or part-public companies. Though the appointments were officially under the competence of the finance minister, Kurz was accused of taking matters into his own hands.

He told the parliamentary commission that he was “involved in the sense of (being) informed” but did not influence the nomination process. However, prosecutors rejected the claim, using evidence such as text messages and testimony from ÖBAG chief Thomas Schmid. Schmid alleged that Kurz had established a “system” for him to be the main decision-maker regarding personnel in critical companies and conferred him the power of veto power.

Following a four-month trial, the court ruled in favor of prosecutors. Kurz decided to appeal the ruling, which he called “unfair.”

Kurz became one of Europe’s youngest leaders at age 31 in 2017 when his conservative Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP) entered a coalition with the far-right Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ), making him chancellor. The administration collapsed two years later after a leaked video showed his FPÖ vice chancellor offering public contracts to a Russian investor for campaign support.

Though he won the following snap election and headed another coalition with the Greens, he quit his position and politics in 2021 amid growing scandals over his alleged attempts to use public money for his own image. Prosecutors are still probing this corruption case.

Observers described last week’s ruling as the last nail in the coffin of a potential comeback for Kurz, which could have boosted his party’s fortunes. Nonetheless, as Austria is holding a general election later this year, polls predict that the ÖVP will lose seats, and a majority of Austrians do not want Kurz to return to government.

Meanwhile, the former Chancellor said he was happy with his new duties as a businessman.


Stinky Solutions

Scientists in Australia recently came up with a novel solution to safely deter herbivores from eating certain plant species, Cosmos magazine reported.

Due to a lack of natural predators, there are many native and invasive herbivores in Australia ravishing the country’s flora and threatening biodiversity.

Ecologists from the University of Sydney said they were looking into ways to address the overabundance of herbivores, including deer and wallabies, in a more humane way.

For their study, they focused on protecting palatable Eucalyptus seedlings from wallabies – a shorter relative of the iconic kangaroo.

The team explained that wallabies love to munch on the seedlings but would avoid scents emanating from boronia – a native shrub species that many local herbivores naturally avoid.

In their experiment, they surrounded the eucalyptus seedlings with vials containing aromas mimicking boronia. Their findings showed that the wallabies would not approach the tasty seedlings placed next to the shrub’s aroma – the middle-sized marsupials were 20 times less likely to go after the eucalyptus, the researchers noted.

This level of deterrence was equivalent to Eucalyptus seedlings that were surrounded by real boronia plants, they added.

Lead author Patrick Finnerty highlighted the advantage of manipulating smells: It provides protection without competition among plants and avoids confusion with local pollinators by replicating leaf odors instead of floral odors.

He hopes that the stinky method could be applied elsewhere in the world and on larger herbivores – such as elephants – to protect local ecosystems.

“A main step we need to take is to see whether these findings could be actually replicated at a larger scale, but also, to see how long these tools we have developed could be used to deter herbivores over time,” Finnerty added.

Correction: In Monday’s THE WORLD, BRIEFLY section, we said in our story “Slow Progress” that around 130 hostages abducted by Hamas are still in Gaza and not many of them are alive. In fact, the original Times of Israel article said not all of them are alive. We apologize for the error.

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