The World Today for March 12, 2024

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The Masterful Player

ITALY

Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni has been confronting twin crises. The first is low economic growth. The second involves the nearly 160,000 migrants arriving in the country’s Mediterranean waters last year, a 50 percent increase over 2022. Meanwhile, she has been confronting them far more ably than her critics predicted, wrote the Economist.

Before she met recently with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (and before Palestinian demonstrators forced Meloni and Trudeau to cancel a state dinner, reported the Toronto Star), the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation described Meloni as Italy’s “most right-wing leader since the fascist dictator Benito Mussolini.” But the CBC also said she was a “key power player” in Europe who has fashioned continent-wide policies.

Meloni, for example, has supported Italy’s deployment of naval ships in the Red Sea to protect European ships from Houthi militants, an Iran-backed group in Yemen, reported the Associated Press. An Italian destroyer, the Caio Duilio, recently shot down a Houthi drone in the straits between the Arabian Peninsula and the Horn of Africa.

The Italian prime minister has been leading elsewhere on the international stage, too. She recently reached out to African leaders to call for equally beneficial relationships where all sides could meet as equals to solve Africa’s investment and security needs, while addressing Europe’s migrant crisis and energy needs, wrote World Politics Review. Her goal is to make Italy into a hub for African-produced energy, added Agence France-Presse.

She has used that international standing to help her domestically. An Albanian court, for instance, recently ruled in favor of Meloni and the Albanian government’s plan to send migrants rescued by Italian ships in the Mediterranean to camps in Albania while officials process their asylum requests, Euronews reported.

An Oscar-nominated film, Io Capitano, captures the ordeal that these migrants endure to reach Italy, the criminal organizations that run these routes, the government crackdowns on them, and the injustices that have arisen in the process, contended Sicily-based writer Richard Braude in a New York Times op-ed.

At the same time, however, Meloni is letting thousands of migrants stay in Italy if they can help address labor shortages, according to Reuters. Italy’s population is among the oldest and fastest-shrinking in the world. The construction, tourism, and agriculture industries are especially struggling with hiring challenges.

Growth might be harder to achieve. Gross domestic product only rose by 0.9 percent in the last year, Reuters reported. Still, it was on track to expand faster than Germany, Politico noted, a win that only reflects well on the prime minister and her ability to defy critics.

THE WORLD, BRIEFLY

Exit, Stage Right

PORTUGAL

Portugal’s general election Sunday gave the far-right a boost, mirroring a trend across Europe, as the ruling Socialist Party conceded defeat to its center-right rivals despite inconclusive results, the New York Times reported.

For eight years, the Socialist Party governed a country where the presence of far-right parties was minimal – an exception in Europe. But in Sunday’s vote, the right-wing Chega party rose to third place behind the Socialists and the center-right Democratic Alliance, jumping from a 7 percent take in 2022 to 18 percent this time.

While the finished tally in mainland Portugal was not known until late Monday, showing the Democratic Alliance pip the Socialists with 29.5 percent against 28.6 percent, already by Sunday evening Socialist leader Pedro Nuno Santos admitted his party had lost the election.

Meanwhile, Democratic Alliance leader Luis Montenegro, set to become Portugal’s next prime minister, said the results did not allow him to form a majority government.

The election was triggered by the collapse of the government of outgoing Socialist Prime Minister António Costa following a series of corruption scandals. Costa resigned in November amid a probe into alleged graft in lithium and hydrogen deals.

His party’s popularity plummeted amid the scandals and a cost of living crisis. Chega, which means “Enough” in Portuguese, successfully seized on these grievances with its anti-establishment stance. Analysts said the party benefited from a protest vote and a desire for change, the promise of tax cuts and curbs on immigration.

Nonetheless, the party also drew criticism for being racist and xenophobic.

It is the first time the far-right gained political relevance in Portugal since the end of the Estado Novo military dictatorship almost 50 years ago. In its campaign, Chega used the Estado Novo’s “God, country, family, and work” slogan, Politico noted.

Meanwhile, Montenegro ruled out an alliance with Chega. He is set to lead a minority government, which analysts said could lead to further instability in parliament.

As Portugal has to deploy a recovery plan worth billions of dollars of European Union funds, Montenegro’s first test would be the vote on the 2025 budget this fall. A rejection could trigger another snap election, just like in 2021.

Moving Forward

LIBYA

Three key Libyan leaders agreed this week to form a new unity government that would supervise long-delayed elections in the North African country, Reuters reported.

After the deposing of autocrat Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, Libya was split into two rival administrations in 2014 which was followed by a six-year civil war.

The conflict between Libya’s internationally-backed Government of National Accord in Tripoli and forces affiliated with Libyan eastern-based commander Khalifa Haftar officially ended in 2020 following a United Nations-backed ceasefire agreement.

But the political process to resolve lingering issues following the civil conflict has been stalled since an election scheduled for December 2021 collapsed amid disputes over the eligibility of the main candidates.

On Sunday, President Mohammad Younes Menfi of the Presidential Council (PC), Mohamed Takala of the High State Council (HSC) – both based in Tripoli – and Aguila Saleh, the speaker of the House of Representatives (HoR) based in the eastern city of Benghazi, met in the Egyptian capital at the invitation of Arab League Secretary-General Ahmed Aboul Gheit.

The three leaders agreed on the “necessity” of forming a unified government and called on the UN Mission in Libya, as well as the international community, to support the proposals.

They also agreed to form a technical committee to “look into controversial points.”

Menfi expressed optimism regarding the outcomes of their discussions, deeming them pivotal in fulfilling the aspirations of the Libyan people for transparent and fair elections.

However, significant challenges remain on the domestic front: The Government of National Unity under Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibah – installed through a UN-backed process in 2021 – faces questions regarding its legitimacy, particularly as the parliament no longer recognizes it.

Dbeibah has also refused to relinquish power without the holding of elections.

Diplomatic efforts to resolve Libya’s political deadlock are focusing on pushing for new parliamentary and presidential polls to replace the interim political institutions, including the House of Representatives, High State Council and the Government of National Unity.

While all of Libya’s political figures have called for elections, many voters remain skeptical about their leaders’ willingness to go forward with a vote that would see them relinquish power.

I’ll Be There For You

MALDIVES

The Maldives last week signed a “military assistance” deal with China, shifting further away from neighboring India after ordering its troops out amid mounting tensions in a region strategic to international trade, CNN reported.

According to the Maldivian Defense Ministry, the deal was “gratis” – without any payment requirement – and would strengthen “bilateral ties.” No further detail was given on the contents of the agreement.

This comes after President Mohamed Muizzu in January told Indian troops deployed in the country to leave. Muizzu won last year’s presidential election on an anti-India, pro-China platform. After negotiations, India agreed to withdraw its troops in stages by May 10.

An estimated 77 Indian soldiers are stationed in the archipelago.

India has traditionally considered the Maldives to be within its sphere of influence, thanks partly to close relations with former President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih.

But tensions rose after Muizzu’s election. In January, a social media post from India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi promoting the Lakshadweep Islands – an Indian territory 80 miles north of the Maldives – sparked a diplomatic row that led to an Indian tourism boycott of the Maldives.

Meanwhile, Muizzu traveled to Beijing to secure hundreds of millions of dollars in development aid.

New Delhi expressed concern at this foreign policy shift, signaling the growing presence of China in the Indian Ocean. Two South Asian nations, the Maldives and Sri Lanka, are now in the orbit of China. Their location, halfway along east-west shipping lanes and encircling India’s southern tip, makes them strategic partners, Agence France-Presse wrote.

In a move national media described as an attempt to curb Chinese influence, the Indian Navy last week announced plans for a new base in the Lakshadweep archipelago, the Associated Press reported.

The navy, which already has a base on Lakshadweep’s Kavaritti island, said the new base should “facilitate the Indian Navy’s operational effort towards anti-piracy and anti-narcotics operations in Western Arabian Sea.” It’s set to be built on the archipelago’s southernmost island, Minicoy – closer to the Maldives.

DISCOVERIES

Joking Around

Human children love to playfully poke grown-ups, often their parents, until they elicit a reaction.

So do apes, the Washington Post reported.

In a landmark study, researchers found that humans’ distant cousins like to tease each other.

This conclusion provides scientific backing to first-hand observations reported by researchers for years, including from primatologist Jane Goodall, who witnessed chimpanzees playfully annoying their family and friends going about their business.

To show this human-ape link, a team of researchers watched herds of four great ape species – orangutan, chimpanzee, bonobo, and gorilla – at the San Diego and Leipzig zoos for 75 hours. They systemically analyzed spontaneous interactions by juveniles that could be playful or provocative at first glance, by paying close attention to the animals’ actions, movements, and facial expressions.

They found more than a dozen types of teasing, with some also being observed among humans, such as poking, slamming, or pulling – and sometimes even pulling off surprising pranks.

The scientists noted that the teasing apes would look for a response from their target. In the absence thereof, they would resume or even escalate the teasing. For instance, little Aisha the orangutan was seen swinging a hanging rope that brushed the top of her father’s head. When he failed to react after several attempts, she finally swung herself on the rope to bump him.

The targets’ neutral or positive reaction to the teasing helped the researchers understand the behavior was good-natured. Others also opined that it was a way for the young to learn how to behave in a social setting and understand hierarchies.

Though different styles of teasing are not thought to stem from genetics, humans probably share cognitive functions with apes in order to understand humor. These may date back to our common ancestor 13 million years ago.

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