The World Today for June 05, 2024

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Irreconcilable Differences

BELGIUM

A few years ago, Belgium famously had no elected government for more than 600 days, as politicians negotiated a coalition agreement.

Now, reflecting that history of instability, Belgians are seriously discussing splitting the country into Dutch-speaking Flanders in the north and French-speaking Wallonia in the south.

“We believe Belgium is a forced marriage,” Tom Van Grieken, the leader of the political party Vlaams Belang, told Politico last year. “If one of them wants a divorce, we’ll talk that out as adults … we have to come to an orderly division. If they don’t want to come to the table with us, we’ll do it unilaterally.”

Vlaams Belang is expected to become the largest party in parliament when the West European country holds its general election on June 9, reported the Financial Times.

Many Vlaams Belang supporters complain that wealthy, more populous Flanders subsidizes the less well-off citizens of Wallonia. Critics say hate drives their agenda, however.

Originally known as the Flemish Bloc, the party was dissolved in 2004 when a court ruled that members had violated laws against racism, explained Agence France-Presse. But the party rose again under a new name, with a similar campaign platform of halting immigration, stiffening punishments for convicted criminals and other conservative policies.

The party also espouses a Dutch version of the “Great Replacement” theory that claims non-European migrants, especially Muslims, are set to displace Europeans in their own country, for instance.

Meanwhile, voters in Wallonia and Brussels appear to be heading in the opposite direction. They are expected to back far-left politicians who are likely to clash with Van Grieken and his colleagues, noted the Brussels Times. The Socialists, who are forecast to win the most seats in Wallonia, would tax the wealthy, boost spending, and follow similar leftist policies. The leftist Worker’s Party would push those policies even further along a Marxist bent, added the Rosa Luxembourg Stiftung.

These sharp divisions reflect voters’ lack of confidence in their government and democracy, wrote the Robert Schuman Foundation. Unfortunately, the election could exacerbate those views as gridlock between polar opposite political parties grips Brussels.

Under Belgium’s election system, Flanders, Wallonia, and Brussels elect lawmakers who must then work together to form a federal government. That’s not easy when one of the three wants to eliminate the system altogether. However, the New European envisioned a silver lining to these tensions. Left and centrist parties might unite to stop Vlaams Belang.

It added, nothing brings folks together like a common enemy.

THE WORLD, BRIEFLY

Fault Lines

INDIA

Indian voters delivered a rebuke to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the country’s massive parliamentary elections, with the leader’s Hindu-nationalist party losing its majority in parliament, the Washington Post reported.

The BJP secured only 240 seats in the 543-member lower house of parliament, down 63 seats from 2019’s tally and 32 shy of the majority needed to form a government, the BBC reported. The party now needs help from the Telugu Desam Party and Janata Dal to create a coalition.

With counting ongoing Wednesday morning in Uttar Pradesh – India’s most populous state and a BJP stronghold – results also indicated Modi’s party as neck-and-neck with the INDIA opposition alliance, according to the Wall Street Journal.

The outcome of 642 million votes cast nationwide over six weeks marks a major setback for Modi and the BJP, which have dominated India’s politics since they first came to power in 2014 on a wave of national anger over corruption. They also defied exit-poll predictions that showed the Hindu-nationalist movement would win more seats than in the previous elections and Modi’s own claim of winning some 370 seats.

India’s stock market was also affected by the results, dropping six percent on fears that the pro-business BJP might fall short of expectations. Meanwhile, shares in Adani Enterprises – led by billionaire and Modi ally Gautam Adani – dropped 19 percent.

Political analysts said the results indicated displeasure among voters over inflation, unemployment and the government’s attempts to curb dissent.

Before the election, the opposition Indian National Congress party faced a series of tax-related actions, while another opposition party leader was arrested on corruption charges.

Some voters complained about the decline of government job openings, while those working in farming areas – which employ almost half of India’s workforce – lamented that the BJP-led government did not deliver on its pledges to double rural incomes.

Observers also pointed out that comments made by Modi and other BJP members attacking India’s Muslim community infuriated some voters.

The results have also prompted questions about whether the prime minister will be able to push forward with his agenda to pass labor reforms to make it easier to hire and fire employees, help local entrepreneurs and welcome foreign investment.

Meanwhile, the Congress party and other opposition groups celebrated the results as an indictment of Modi.

Scorched Earth

UNITED KINGDOM

Two whistleblowers accused Standard Chartered, one of the United Kingdom’s largest banks, of conducting billions of dollars in undisclosed transactions for entities linked to Iran and terrorist organizations, according to a New York court filing, the Guardian reported Tuesday.

The allegations, which the bank denies, claim transactions worth $100 billion were made in violation of international sanctions.

Julian Knight, a former global head of foreign exchange at Standard Chartered, and Robert Marcellus, a currency trader, said they have uncovered hidden transactions using forensic data analysis.

Their findings are aimed at reviving a previously dismissed lawsuit against the bank. The whistleblowers’ company, Brutus Trading, provided data to US authorities in 2012 and 2013, revealing what they describe as “countless illegal transactions.”

In court documents, the whistleblowers claimed that by February 2024, they had identified $3.3 million in previously undisclosed transactional records, including 500,000 unique transactions during the period 2008 to 2013. These records allegedly include 20,000 foreign exchange transactions related to Iran, valued at $100 billion. Additionally, they isolated more than 900 Iranian-related transactions between 2008 and 2012, totaling $9.6 billion.

The transactions were conducted after Standard Chartered had announced it would cease all new business with Iranian customers in 2007. They were directed at entities subject to international sanctions, including Iranian banks and Middle Eastern money exchanges financing groups such as Hezbollah, Hamas and the Taliban, according to the Financial Times.

Standard Chartered rejected the allegations, describing the filing as another attempt to keep alive fabricated claims. The bank emphasized that US authorities had previously investigated and deemed the allegations meritless. Despite past sanctions on breaches leading to more than $2 billion in fines, Standard Chartered maintains it never conducted transactions for terrorist organizations.

The whistleblowers also alleged that the US government committed a “colossal fraud” on the court by failing to provide evidence to support enforcement actions against the bank.

However, government agencies argue that their case against Standard Chartered was based on unrelated evidence. In February, the US Supreme Court declined to hear the whistleblowers’ civil suit, already dismissed by a lower court.

Show’s Over

COLOMBIA

Colombian lawmakers voted to ban bullfighting in the Latin American country, bringing an end to the centuries-old tradition amid increasing controversy and a backlash from animal rights groups, CNN reported.

The draft law calls for the banning of the blood sport in three years’ time, to allow families financially dependent on the sport to find an alternative source of income.

The bill still needs to be signed by President Gustavo Petro for final approval. Petro, the country’s first leftist president, strongly opposes the practice and hailed the ban.

Bullfighting originated in Europe’s Iberian Peninsula and continues to be practiced in a number of countries, including Spain, Portugal, Mexico, and Ecuador.

In Colombia, bullfights have been held since colonial times and continue to be practiced in fewer than two dozen municipalities, the Associated Press reported.

The spectacle sees a matador using a red cape to taunt a bull bred to be aggressive. The bull is then injured with lances and exhausted during the show before the matador uses a sword to strike the killing blow.

Observers said the event was popular in the past and would be broadcast live on television networks. But criticism against the sport became more vocal as views about animal welfare changed.

Animal rights advocates have slammed the sport for being barbaric and causing suffering to the animals.

But bullfighting supporters have described it as a form of “art” and a key source of income for bull breeders and street vendors working near areas where events are held.

They criticized the ban for infringing on the freedoms of minorities and warned that it could impact tourism in cities where these events draw in thousands of visitors.

DISCOVERIES

The Mystery of Feathers

Most depictions of dinosaurs feature the fearsome creatures with scaly skin – but that wasn’t always the case.

Instead, recent discoveries show that some dinosaurs such as the vicious velociraptor sported feathers. In fact, the prevailing scientific consensus is that modern birds descended from members of the extinct reptiles.

Now, a new study is shedding some new light on how dino scales evolved into feathers, a transition pivotal in vertebrate evolution, according to Cosmos Magazine.

“The evolution of feathers from reptilian scales is one of the most profound yet poorly understood events in vertebrate evolution,” said senior study author Maria McNamara.

Paleontologists from University College Cork in Ireland in collaboration with Nanjing University in China analyzed a Psittacosaurus fossil specimen found in northeastern China, dating back 133-120 million years.

Psittacosaurus, a small, bipedal ceratopsian dinosaur weighing up to 220 pounds, lived during the early Cretaceous period in what is now Asia. Unlike their larger Triceratops relatives, they had notable filamentous structures on their tails, indicating early feather development.

For their paper, researchers utilized ultraviolet light to reveal previously unseen patches of preserved skin, which glowed orange-yellow under ultraviolet (UV) light. Further X-ray and infrared analysis exposed detailed cellular structures of the fossilized skin, composed primarily of silica, a mineral often used in glass-making.

Lead author Zixiao Yang described the fossil as a “hidden gem,” noting that analysis on the Psittacosaurus’ skin – invisible without UV light – suggests there could be other examples similarly hidden away, waiting to be discovered, the BBC noted.

At the same time, the study also showed that the extinct creature had mixed skin, with reptilian scaly patches in some areas and bird-like feathered skin in others.

“This zoned development would have maintained essential skin functions, such as protection against abrasion, dehydration and parasites,” McNamara explained. “The first dinosaur to experiment with feathers could therefore survive and pass down the genes for feathers to their offspring.”

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