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Afghanistan's second election: not exactly democratic consolidation

Perhaps it’s because we like to reinforce our own prejudices with positive reaffirmations or perhaps it’s because the media does not know how to tell a complex story simply, but the weekend’s presidential election in Afghanistan was not the democratic triumph we have been led to believe. Yes, they were elections, but this was somewhat short of "two turnover test" that has been incorrectly applied to the notion of "democratic consolidation".
The most positive news to come from the elections was that there was relatively little violence on the part of the Taliban. This meant that most voters who wanted to participate could do so.
Indications are that the voter turnout was in excess of 50%, which might look good set against the United States' own abysmal electoral participation but falls well short of the enthusiastic 80%-plus registered in other new democracies. There has also been much celebration of the fact that around a third of the voters were women, which otherwise indicates how poor the status of women is in this still deeply traditionalist country.
Of the 11 presidential candidates, none was expected to come out as a clear winner with 50%-plus of the vote, meaning the elections would go to a run-off between the two leading candidates. Abdullah Abdullah appeared to be the candidate most favoured by the West, in part because he is a known figure, having run against Hamid Karzai in the 2009 elections, and in part because he is photogenic and speaks English well.
However, unlike 2009, the half-ethnic Pashtun-half Tajik Abdullah was not a frontrunner this time around. The winner is expected to be a full-blooded Pashtun, which while not of an absolute majority in their own right is still Afghanistan’s largest ethnic group.
Of the two leading candidates, Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai is an American-educated academic and former finance minister who spent much of his adult life outside Afghanistan. He appears competent and the least corrupt of the leading candidates. The other lead candidate is Zalmay Rassoul, who is backed by outgoing Hamid Karzai, and may be implicated in some of the allegations of profound corruption that have swirled around the Karzai camp.
Other candidates include religious figures, some close to the Taliban and a smattering of warlords. It will be several days, perhaps weeks, before it is known, however, who will head into the run-off.
Early reports suggest that the 2014 elections were not as compromised as the 2009 elections, in part because there were very few election observers left in the field to actually monitor the elections. Even so, there have still been numerous reports of irregularities and a lack of ballot papers in some areas, notably where Abdullah has the strongest support.
The run-off election, with massive opportunities for patronage available to the winner, is likely to see more serious electoral fraud. If reports continue to say that the situation has improved since 2009, that perhaps less reflects that the electoral process is a good one and more that the 2009 elections were, according to all of the electoral observers there then, the most corrupt and compromised in the history of election observation.
A large part of the Afghanistan political equation, though, is the Taliban, which conformed to an increasing political type by not disrupting election day itself. They know this is not the main game.
As the international presence in Afghanistan winds down, both in military and aid terms, no matter who is elected as the new president, they will have to negotiate directly with the Taliban. And the Taliban has shown that any such negotiations will, increasingly, be on their terms.
Afghanistan has had elections, which is positive, even if the process only partially fulfilled the criteria for being truly democratic. However, any suggestion that the "two turnover test" means anything more than forestalling the inevitable is to reflect a poor appreciation of Afghanistan’s conflicted history or fractured political dynamics.

Weekend cheaters weigh less

For those following a strict diet to lose weight, a new study proposes that there may just be merit in the idea of ‘weekend cheating’ in loosening the bounds of food self-control.

Making concerted dietary changes and having them stick long term to help with weight loss is tough. Just how many people fall off their best-intentioned diet plans is testament to this. We only have enough willpower to force dietary changes upon ourselves and one day that firm resolve will fail. Enter the idea that having a ‘cheat’ day or weekend may lessen the feelings of self-deprivation when following a strict diet.

Researchers from the United States examined the idea that because our lives follow a weekly rhythm where weekdays are normally very different to weekends, there may be merit in having our eating habits follow a similar pattern as well.

The new tri-polar world: why Russia can do whatever it likes

United States political leaders bluster, but Russia continues to be unmoved by their protestations over its annexation of Crimea and the massing of troops along Ukraine’s border. Long having believed itself the world’s only superpower, the US is now being delivered a lesson in real politik, if not humility.
Estonia, which has a large Russian population, has hit back against Russia, saying the West should freeze all Russian bank accounts … for what little that would appear to do. Estonia’s President Toomas Hendrik Ilves says that what is most threatening about Russia’s behaviour is that "the old rules don’t apply". Since Russia’s 2008 invasion of Georgia, he says, it has been clear that Putin would ignore guarantees of territorial sovereignty that conflicted with Russia’s sense of national interest.
Despite US President Barack Obama claiming that Russia’s seizure of Crimea is a sign of weakness rather than strength, US commentators, such as Stratfor’s George Friedman, believe the US is now headed towards direct confrontation with an increasingly assertive Russia. Assuming the US continues to believe that it is the world’s remaining superpower, and not one that has to negotiate, this may be correct.
There are now real concerns that, having established the precedent of "protecting" Russian speakers in former Soviet satellite states, it may move to annex further regions. Despite some commentary suggesting that Russia’s assertiveness is solely Putin’s doing, in fact it represents the wholesale reorientation of Russian politics towards a dominant conservative nationalist paradigm.
To illustrate, Deputy Speaker of Russia’s Duma, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, bluntly says that the south-east of Ukraine be re-incorporated into Russia. Yet Zhirinovsky is the head of the inappropriately named Liberal Democratic Party, rather than Putin’s United Russia Party.
Within Russia, there is strong support for asserting Russia’s "return to greatness". According to Irina Yarovaya, a prominent member of the Duma's security committee: "Any person whatsoever who criticises the policies of the Russian authorities in Crimea becomes thereby an enemy of the fatherland."
Criticism of Msocow’s policies or Putin himself is no longer tolerated. Leading Moscow academic Professor Andrei Zubov was recently sacked from the prestigious Moscow State Institute of International Relations for comparing Moscow's actions in Ukraine with Nazi Germany's annexation of Austria in 1938. In a parallel move, a number of critical websites have also been closed.
As if to illustrate the parallels between Russia’s former and current oligarchies, and the shift from one strong leader to another, Russia’s Orthodox Church Press has recently released its 2014 calendar featuring none other than the infamous Joseph Stalin. One analyst noted: "As Stalin would say 'this is not mere chance, Comrades'."
In large part, what appears to be missing from the West’s expressions of moral outrage over Russia’s perceived expansionism is that they are not presenting the world as it is, but rather as they would like it to be. The collapse of the Soviet Union was a moment of deep reflection for Russia, but the West’s triumphalism did not mean that Russia had disappeared. It many respects, it remains powerful, perhaps almost as much as it has earlier been.
Similarly, the rise of China as an economic and strategic power -- and the US' Asia "pivot" recognising that -- has added a third key player to the global balance of power. With the US economically and strategically weakened, perceptions of its pre-eminence and ability to shift global events are increasingly doubtful.
The Cold War era was characterised by two superpowers, and the post-Cold War era by just one. But, in the wake of the US’ ill-advised adventures in Afghanistan and Iraq, the world increasingly appears as tri-polar. No one now seriously questions that China is a global player and that Russia can act, more or less, with impunity in areas it claims to be in its sphere of influence, tends to confirm this fundamental global strategic shift.

Being active improves cancer survival odds

Evidence continues to grow that physical activity after a cancer diagnosis is linked to a better survival outlook.

Being physically active is now recognised as a potent ‘cancer-preventing’ habit. Some estimates link regular physical activity to as much as a 20 to 40% lower risk of colon and post-menopausal breast cancer and a potential benefit in lowering prostate cancer risk too.

Being active also comes with the added bonus of improving fitness, keeping bones healthy, keeping body weight in check and reducing stress.

The injustice of the provocation defence in NSW continues...

On Friday, Yassir Ibrahim Mohamed Hassan was sentenced in the NSW Supreme Court to a maximum term of 12 years imprisonment, with a non-parole period of nine years, for the manslaughter of his wife, Mariam Henery Yousif. Hassan's case is a stark reminder of the injustices caused by the partial defence of provocation, which continues to reduce what would otherwise be murder to manslaughter in New South Wales,

Hassan, aged 56 years old at the time of sentencing, killed his 24-year-old wife in a ‘frenzied’ knife attack that occurred on a background of over two years of disharmony in the marriage. While the specific cause of the marriage deterioration was not clear, on sentence the judge noted multiple contributing factors including their significant age difference, cultural differences and disagreements over parenting discipline style.

All Under the Family’s Control?

Saturated fat not linked to heart disease? Not so fast, the real message behind the headlines

Many of you would have come across today's 'hot topic' in the media citing a just published meta-analysis showing little link between saturated fat and heart disease.

I really feel for the public in being faced with such conflicting nutrition messages. I could blame no one for throwing their hands up in despair, proclaiming that all nutrition health messages are rubbish as they reach for the salami stick and deep fried Mars Bar.

But hold on for just one moment before you take that first bite. Saturated fat was never, repeat never, proclaimed as the big villain for heart disease. It was one of a whole range of diet and lifestyle habits including smoking, obesity, inactivity, and a poor diet overall, that together add to a person’s risk.

Dietary advice to reduce heart disease risk was never just about cutting back on saturated fat, it was cutting back on saturated fat as WELL AS eating less processed foods, salt, and sugar, and eating more fruit and vegetables. As a population, Australians have made little shift in making these type of inherently healthy eating changes permanent.

You can eat a diet high in saturated fat that is healthy, or you could eat less saturated fat and replace it with processed carbohydrates and sugar. These types of changes can’t always be seen in many of the studies that went into this latest research.

Dietary patterns consistently linked to lower rates of heart disease as well as longer-term health and longevity are almost universally low in saturated fat, yet also high in plant based foods, and fibre, and low in salt and sugar.

The nutrition profession as a whole (which includes me) is guilty of focussing too much on single nutrients as being health saviours or villains. But we don’t eat nutrients, we eat foods.

The positive news out of this latest conflicting research is that it sees more and more nutrition researchers are waking up to the risk of only focussing on nutrients, and instead look at whole diets.

Our latest Dietary Guidelines in fact have been framed much more in terms of foods, and less focus is given to nutrients.

Get the foods right, and the nutrients take care of themselves.

A sclerotic Malaysian government stumbles in MH370 crisis

If times of crisis show the true mettle of a government, Malaysians must be wondering about their government’s response to missing Malaysian Airlines flight MH370.
After decades of working with a tightly controlled media and, overwhelmingly, getting a very easy run, the Malaysian government has been asked to answer hard questions by unbowed journalists.
The Malaysian government is used to passing over issues without question, much less challenge, by local media (online media, such as Malaysiakini, is the exception). But over the past several days the struggling Malaysian government has been looking increasingly inept. It would be a laughing stock, but that this is no laughing matter.
At one level, government spokespeople have contradicted each other, often within hours, about the status of the plane, what could have happened to it and what the likely scenarios are. At another, more basic level, they appear wholly unable to gather clear and hard information and to present it coherently.
The government was initially slow to report that the plane was missing at all. It then took days to announce that military radar had determined that the plane had doubled back on its course.
Transport Minister Hishammuddin Hussein (pictured), who has been the government’s public face on the issue, said that his handling of the MH370 issue was "above politics". Yet the government has "outed" opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim by saying that he is related (distantly, by marriage) to the pilot of the missing plane, Captain Zaharie Ahmad Shah. The implication is that there was some connection between the plane’s disappearance and the government’s trumped-up sodomy conviction against the opposition leader.
Yet when French journalist Carrie Nooten asked Hishammuddin if he was being protected for his incompetence as a result of being the cousin of the Prime Minister, Najib Razak, she received a barrage of criticism from the pro-government Star newspaper.
Hishammuddin has been criticised internationally for saying the police had gone to the home of the pilot of the missing plane, even though they did not go to the pilot’s home until several days after the acting minister made this statement. He also raised doubts about the plane’s communications systems being switched off, even though that information had been confirmed.
The Chinese government is also dismayed by the Malaysian government’s inability to provide timely information. China’s official Xinhua News Agency said the delay "smacks of either dereliction of duty or reluctance to share information".
When a foreign journalist on Monday asked about criticism over slow and confused information, Hishammuddin said it was baseless. "I have got a lot of feedback saying we’ve been very responsible in our actions," he said, then went on the attack: "It’s very irresponsible of you to say that."
The government is also refusing to share what information it has about the missing plane with the opposition. Opposition members were not invited to an update briefing on the investigation on Tuesday, yet government parliamentarians were invited. A government MP told the opposition they should not question the minister’s "prerogative" on the matter of invitations. He said opposition MPs had not been invited because they would release the information via social media.
In an information vacuum, and fuelled by the government’s ill-informed ramblings, rumour and speculation has taken the place of hard information.
The Malaysia media has recently reported everything from the plane having burst into flames mid-flight, crashed in the ocean, been hijacked by the crew or others, landed on a remote airstrip, flown in the shadow of another plane, and being seen over the Maldives. Even that doyen of accurate reporting, Rupert Murdoch, has been twittering into the void: 'World seems transfixed by 777 disappearance. Maybe no crash but stolen, effectively hidden, perhaps in northern Pakistan, like Bin Laden.'
The Malaysian government’s incompetence is now playing out as an election issue in a byelection in the town of Kajang in Selangor state on Malaysia’s central west coast. Ibrahim’s wife, Wan Azizah, is a PKR (People’s Justice Party) candidate in that election. Kajang is currently held by the PKR.
In its five decades in power, assisted by rigging electoral boundaries, the Malaysian government has rarely been held to account, much less scrutiny. It is not used to addressing questions directly or, sometimes, honestly. However in recent years its grip on power has weakened.
The MH370 crisis has shown how sclerotic the otherwise comfortable Malaysian government has become.

A view to lead India: who are the candidates?

India will go to the polls from April 5 to May 12 to choose between three party leaders for its next prime minister. The first is a seasoned politician and three-time chief minister, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP, or Indian People’s Party) Narendra Modi.

Obesity can reshape our sense of taste

As surprising as it may sound, for some people the problem of weight gain may lie right on the tip of their tongue.

There are many things that can influence a person’s desire for food. When given a choice between foods, the desire to choose one food over another is closely linked to taste and other sensory signals such as smell and the feel of the food in the mouth.

A very simple hypothesis posed by obesity researchers is that as people gain weight, their taste perception changes. This theory is supported by studies in both animals and humans and suggest that obese people may not detect sweet tastes as well as their lean counterparts. This partly could be because of genetic factors, but also from changes in taste sensitivity as people gain weight.

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