The World Today for July 01, 2024

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The Absence of Embarrassment

FIJI

A court in Fiji recently sentenced former Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama to a year in prison for seeking to suppress a police investigation into corruption at the University of the South Pacific. Lower courts had initially allowed Bainimarama, who served for 15 years through 2022, and Sitiveni Qiliho, the former police commissioner, to avoid jail, but the Pacific island country’s high court overturned that ruling, the BBC wrote.

Now Bainimarama’s political party, FijiFirst, faces deregistration after party leaders sought to expel 16 lawmakers who joined the current government of Prime Minister Sitiveni Rabuka in granting themselves pay raises of as much as 130 percent– despite widespread public opposition to the idea and criticism that the measure was illegally passed, explained Radio New Zealand. FijiFirst has no mechanism to oust members, according to electoral officials who said the party would need to create a process or its members would become independents.

Many Fijians are disgusted by their politicians giving themselves more money while nonchalantly sowing political uncertainty. Writing in the Fiji Times, Tui Rakuita, a social scientist at the University of Otago in New Zealand and the University of the South Pacific, described the “absence of any form of embarrassment” among the country’s political elites.

Fiji is not a wealthy country. About 30 percent of the country lives in poverty, according to the Asian Development Bank, and the average annual income is under $14,000. Meanwhile, the country has a high national debt, poor education outcomes for young people, poor quality healthcare services, and crumbling water infrastructure. Recently, nurses had to purchase syringes and needles for patients because the hospital ran out.

At the same time, the government recently increased the retirement age from 60 to 62 years old, saying a brain drain to Australia and New Zealand has hurt the economy, compelling older workers to labor harder and longer, the East Asia Forum reported.

These developments highlight the instability of Fiji’s government, wrote the Strategist, a publication of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. The pay increase was not popular among Rabuka’s important allies in the coalition government, which includes his People’s Alliance as well as the National Federation Party and the Social Democratic Liberal Party. If the opposition FijiFirst party disbands, it will be hard to constitute a new government if Rabuka’s current one falls.

Some actors in Fijian politics might be hoping to capitalize on the chaos. “Veteran politicians are grandstanding with one eye on the next election,” argued the Interpreter, a publication of the Australian think tank, the Lowy Institute. “Others are anticipating the demise of some of the existing political parties and are hoping to pick up their votes. The government has unwisely stumbled into a trap of its own making.”

Fiji has a history of political violence. Both Rabuka and Bainimarama launched coups in Fiji, in 1987 and 2006, respectively. Bainimarama has emphasized “ethnic inclusiveness” in his governments, while Rabuka has played up “Indigenous nationalism”. Rabuka, 75, is also a sportsman who recently won a bronze medal in the shot put at the Oceania Athletics Championships, added CNN.

The world will see if Fiji holds together.

In the meantime, some labor leaders and civil rights groups are planning protests. Labour leader Mahendra Chaudhry said the parliamentarians’ salary hike comes as the ruling party reneges on its campaign pledge to lower the government officials’ salaries, prioritize the legislation of a fair minimum wage for workers and lower living costs.

“This is policy-making at its most self-indulgent without consideration to its detrimental impact on the people of Fiji,” said Chaudhry. “While the general population has to endure austerity measures in depressed economic conditions, ministers are queuing up for pay increases.”

THE WORLD, BRIEFLY

Curb Your Enthusiasm

IRAN

Iran is heading to a presidential runoff next week after Friday’s presidential election failed to deliver a clear majority for any single candidate, even as the single reformist contender took the lead, Voice of America reported.

Official results released Saturday showed reformist candidate Masoud Pezeshkian won 43 percent of the vote, while his conservative opponent Saeed Jalili secured around 39 percent. Conservative parliament speaker Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf drew 13.8 percent, while cleric Mostafa Pourmohammadi received less than one percent.

However, the turnover was around 40 percent, the lowest ever recorded in Iran’s presidential elections. Around 48 percent of voters cast their ballots in the 2021 polls.

Friday’s vote comes nearly two months after the death of hardliner President Ebrahim Raisi and other senior officials in a helicopter crash.

The next round – scheduled on July 5 – will pit Pezeshkian against Jalili, with its outcome influencing Iran’s future amid international sanctions, scrutiny over its nuclear program and its military support to Russia in its war against Ukraine, the Wall Street Journal noted. A health minister under former reformist President Mohammad Khatami and who has also run for president twice before, Pezeshkian is a trained heart surgeon and lawmaker, who gained prominence for his stance against the crackdown on the 2022 protests and violence perpetrated by the morality police, wrote CNN.

During the 2022 protests, Pezeshkian said in an interview with Iran’s IRINN TV: “It is our fault. We want to implement religious faith through the use of force. This is scientifically impossible.”

Pezeshkian favors restarting nuclear talks with the United States and other world powers to lift sanctions and address the country’s economic woes. However, Jalili – an adviser to the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei – opposes curbing Iran’s nuclear program and relaxing the country’s strict religious rules, which would include keeping compulsory head coverings for women.

Observers said the elections are also a referendum on Iran’s regime following the months-long anti-government protests that gripped the country between 2022 and 2023. Those demonstrations ignited following the death of a young woman Mahsa Amini, who died in September 2022 in the custody of the country’s morality police after being detained for allegedly violating the hijab laws.

But the low turnout underscores the continuing decline in public engagement in elections, despite government efforts to boost participation by including a reformist candidate.

Promises, Promises

ZIMBABWE

Supporters of Zimbabwe’s main opposition party protested outside a courthouse in the capital this week over the continued detention of 78 activists, a demonstration that was marked by violent clashes with police and concerns of ongoing repression in the southern African nation, Africanews reported.

Authorities used batons to break up demonstrations by supporters of Citizens Coalition for Change, who were demanding the release of the activists detained since mid-June.

The individuals were arrested for disorderly conduct and participating in a gathering to promote violence. If convicted, they could face up to five years in prison.

Amnesty International criticized the arrests as “part of a disturbing pattern of repression against people exercising their rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and expression.” It called for a probe into allegations that some activists were tortured while in police custody.

The organization and other rights groups also pointed to a continued crackdown on opposition members and critics, including university students and labor unionists.

President Emmerson Mnangagwa, who took power in a 2017 coup with promises of democratic reforms, has denied the allegations of repression but has repeatedly warned the opposition against inciting violence.

The Wipeout

FRANCE

The far-right National Rally took the lead in France’s first round of legislative elections Sunday, dealing a humiliating blow to centrist President Emmanuel Macron and his gamble in calling a snap election to shore up his support, the Associated Press reported.

Results from France’s interior ministry showed that the National Rally secured 33 percent of the vote, Reuters reported. Ahead of a final run-off vote on July 7, this puts the party on course to win 230-280 seats in the 577-seat National Assembly, up from 88, and become easily the biggest group in parliament. Final official results are expected shortly.

“The extreme right is at the doors of power,” Prime Minister Gabriel Attal said, warning that France could end up with its first far-right government since World War II if voters don’t come together to thwart that scenario in round two next Sunday.

When Macron dissolved the National Assembly on June 9 after a stinging defeat by the National Rally in French voting for the European Parliament, he gambled that the anti-immigration party with historical links to antisemitism wouldn’t repeat that success when France’s own fate was in the balance, AP wrote.

That gamble didn’t pay off in the first round. Even so, the French have in past elections voted for fringe parties in the first round before changing their vote in the second.

Still, winning a parliamentary majority would enable National Rally figurehead Marine Le Pen to install her 28-year-old protégé, Jordan Bardella, as prime minister. She inherited the party, then called the National Front, from her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, who has multiple convictions for racist and antisemitic hate speech, and spent years rebranding it as more mainstream.

Meanwhile, the four-party left-wing alliance, New Popular Front, came in second nationally with 28.1 percent of the vote. The alliance is made up of Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s Unsubmissive France, Socialists, Greens and Communists. Ipsos calculated that the bloc could win 125-165 seats, making it the second-biggest parliamentary bloc.

Macron’s centrist alliance, Ensemble, won around 20 percent of the vote and is projected to lose more than half of its seats in what one official called a “total catastrophe.” Macron has said he will not step down before his term expires in 2027.

Meanwhile, turnout was more than 66 percent, according to polling estimates, which would make it the highest for a first-round legislative election in 27 years.

DISCOVERIES

We Can Be Heroes

In the rugged heathlands of southern Australia, an unexpected hero has emerged in the battle against a costly agricultural pest.

Giant lizards known as heath goannas are stepping up as nature’s clean-up crew, providing a much-needed solution to a pervasive problem for sheep farmers. These scavenging reptiles can grow up to five feet in length and are natives to the heathlands – or shrublands – of southern Australia.

Researchers from the University of Cambridge discovered that these scavenging reptiles reduce blowfly populations by consuming maggot-ridden animal carcasses, according to a new study conducted at 18 sites across the Marna Banggara Rewilding Project area on Australia’s southern Yorke Peninsula.

In it, the team placed hundreds of dead rats at various feeding stations – all monitored by camera traps – across the landscape to observe scavenger activity.

Their findings showed that heath goannas and other native scavengers are more effective at controlling blowfly populations than introduced European species such as red foxes.

The team explained that the lizard’s presence and effectiveness can help reduce the incidence of “fly strike” a devastating condition where blowfly larvae burrow into sheep flesh, causing painful wounds, reducing market value, and often leading to death.

The disease costs the Australian sheep farming industry about $186 million annually.

“Blowflies are a massive problem for the Australian sheep farming industry – they cause a horrible disease that is expensive for farmers to manage and a real animal welfare problem for sheep,” said Tom Jameson of Cambridge’s Department of Zoology, in a statement.

Boosting heath goanna populations not only benefits native wildlife but also offers significant advantages to local agriculture and wildlife tourism.

“The results suggest that conservation work should focus on removing invasive species and boosting populations of native species because they’re really important for the wider ecosystem,” Jameson said.

The Marna Banggara project, supported by the Indigenous Narungga traditional owners, aims to restore ecosystem health by reintroducing native species.

Since European settlers introduced red foxes and cats in the 18th century, more than 90 percent of native mammals in the region have become extinct.

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