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Rethink the News

Perspective matters.

Reducing news to hard lines and side-taking leaves a lot of the story untold. Progress comes from challenging what we hear and considering different views.

2017
September
25
Monday

The protests by National Football League players this weekend sparked raw emotions and striking images. Standing with arms linked, they opposed comments by President Trump Friday that those who kneel during the national anthem to protest police violence were “sons of b-----s” who should be “fired.”

Before this weekend, the NFL’s relationship with protesting players was at best awkward. There was support, but it was muted.

Why? Some 63 percent of white Americans say the protests are inappropriate, according to one poll. But 70 percent of NFL players are black, and 74 percent of black Americans support the protests. This weekend, the NFL took a side.

There were boos. A former New England Patriots player said he was “ashamed” by players kneeling. A current Patriots player saw something different in his teammates.

“One thing about football is that it brings so many guys together, guys that you would never have the opportunity to be around,” said quarterback Tom Brady, a Trump supporter, on Monday. “We’re all different. We’re all unique. That’s what makes us all so special.”

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Here are our five stories for today, which examine self-government, political identity, and the deeper power of economic growth. 

1. Defiant Kurds stage symbolic vote on independence

The Kurds have been a century-long Mideast asterisk – a people without a country. Today's independence referendum is a symbolic step to address that. It's nonbinding and just in Iraq. But it's a reminder that the hope of self-government survives time and tyrants. 

Mark
A voter leaves a security checkpoint for women before entering a polling station in the disputed city of Kirkuk, northern Iraq, Sept. 25. Iraq's Kurdish region is voting in a nonbinding referendum on whether to secede from Iraq.
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Bram Janssen/AP
 

The 30 Sec. ReadThe Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916, with which Britain and France carved up the Ottoman Empire, left millions of Kurdish people stateless and their population strewn across several countries. In modern Iraq, Iran, Turkey, and Syria, sizable Kurdish minorities have endured decades of marginalization or persecution. Today, in northern Iraq, where Kurds have enjoyed increasing self-rule since the end of the Gulf War in 1991, voters flocked to polls to decide whether they would start down the path to full independence. In Erbil, families arrived early at polling stations, proud parents allowing their children to share in the celebrations and dip their fingers in the ink of history. Despite escalating pressure from the region’s powers, including the United States, for a delay, the Iraqi Kurdish leadership pressed ahead with the vote. “We are not going to wait for an unknown fate,” Kurdish leader Masoud Barzani said Sunday night. Today, at a polling station in Erbil, a Kurdish poet sang the national anthem for fellow voters before breaking down in tears. “This referendum is like a passport to heaven,” he said. “Our future is bright.”

Jacob Turcotte/Staff
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1. Defiant Kurds stage symbolic vote on independence

In Erbil, capital of northern Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdish region, the longstanding dream of statehood has been sold as a done deal. Streets have been lined with billboards in favor of Kurdish independence, and hawkers old and young have been making a killing selling the sun-emblazoned tricolor flag of Kurdistan.

Over the weekend, young men sparked traffic jams with their celebrations, the graffiti on cars spelling out: “Bye Bye Baghdad.”

On Monday, defying sharp opposition from regional neighbors, the federal government in Baghdad, and the international community, Iraq’s Kurds voted in a referendum on Kurdish independence. The vote is nonbinding, but seeks to set in motion a negotiated path to statehood.

In the run-up to the vote, major powers, including the United States, issued dire warnings that the vote will undermine the war against the so-called Islamic State (ISIS) and further destabilize Iraq. But the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) repeatedly rejected the mounting pressure.

Voters check names on the lists at a polling station, during Kurds' independence referendum in Erbil, Iraq, Sept. 25, 2017.
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Ahmed Jadallah/Reuters

“The partnership with Baghdad has failed and we will not return to it,” Masoud Barzani, the KRG president, told reporters in Erbil on the eve of the vote. “We are going ahead whatever the price. We are not going to wait for an unknown fate, and will not be subject to pressure and threats.”

On Monday, families arrived early at polling stations in Erbil, many of them dressed in traditional Kurdish attire and military uniforms. Proud parents brought their children to share in the celebrations, and allowed them to dip their fingers in the ink of history. While polling stations were bustling in Erbil, the streets were relatively quiet throughout the day.

“This referendum is like a passport to heaven,” said Rebwar Ahmet, a Kurdish poet, who sang the national anthem for fellow voters before breaking down into emotional tears. “Our future is bright.”

Sizeable minority in four nations

The Kurds’ quest for statehood was born out of the ashes of the Ottoman Empire and is shared today by millions in Iraq, Iran, Turkey, Syria and beyond. In these four nations, Kurds comprise sizable minorities and have endured decades of violent state persecution, marginalization, and outright conflict with central authorities.

In Iraq, the Kurds have secured a growing degree of self-rule since the end of the Gulf War in 1991, when the US established a no-fly zone in northern Iraq to protect them from Iraqi persecution. And the Iraqi Kurds, with their Peshmerga fighters, like Syrian Kurds, with their own militia, have been vital partners in the US-led coalition fighting ISIS since 2014.

But today’s vote could test the strength of the broadening partnership with the US, which has strategic interests at stake both with its complicated relations with Turkey, a NATO ally, and with a Shiite-led federal government in Baghdad that it has long sought to guide and strengthen.

On the office wall of Nasr al-Din Sindi, head of the KRG’s ministry for the areas outside its control, a giant map reflects the scale of the territorial ambition of the Kurds but also the hurdles to carving a viable chunk out of Iraq, a country whose borders were largely defined by the French and British in the Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916.

Kurdish security forces outside a polling station during Kurds' independence referendum in Kirkuk, Iraq, Sept. 25, 2017.
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Thaier Al-Sudani/Reuters

Sykes-Picot, which carved up the Ottoman Empire and determined the borders of many modern Middle Eastern countries, left the Kurds stateless and their population, which inhabits a relatively contiguous swath of territory, divided by several international boundaries.

Kurdistan’s borders

The borders that Iraqi Kurds aspire to stretch from the northwestern mountains of Sinjar on the border with Turkey to Diyala in the southeast on the border with Iran. Their ideal state would include Kirkuk, cut across the Nineveh Plains, and integrate parts of Mosul city. Arab, Turkmen, Yazidi, and Christian minorities also populate these regions.

Nearly half the land that the Kurds want and currently de facto control falls outside the designated borders of the KRG. Mr. Sindi says these areas were neglected by the Iraqi federal government even before the conflict against ISIS erupted, adding that the Kurdish authorities spent 130 billion Iraqi dinars (about $111 million) on them between 2011 and 2013.

“Conducting the referendum isn’t the end of the world,” Sindi says in an interview. “Independence won’t be declared tomorrow."

Kurdish officials have repeatedly stated that the referendum will not define the final borders of Kurdistan, but all election billboards and material carry maps annexing the disputed areas.

In the referendum, voters in Kurdish-controlled areas, including those claimed by Baghdad, are being asked whether they would like to be part of an independent Kurdistan. Kurdish officials have reached out to the leaders of different minorities to reassure them that an independent Kurdistan would be a democratic and inclusive state, and that the referendum is no threat.

The vote was being held in the Kurdish governorates of Erbil, Dohuk, Sulaymaniyah, and Halabja. Arrangements were also made to facilitate voting for natives of the Kurdish-controlled areas of the disputed provinces of Kirkuk, Sinjar, the Nineveh Plains, and Diyala.

Election officials said before the vote that more than 12,000 polling stations were being set up within areas defended by the Peshmerga. Natives of areas defined by Erbil as “Kurdish” but outside its control were expected to go to the nearest polling station.

Diverse Kirkuk as a bellwether

In the days leading up to the referendum, a steely determination to achieve statehood was palpable at rallies across the region. “We will become a nation no matter what,” says Nasrin Hamed, the proud mother of two young men who are serving in the Kurdish police forces.

She was among tens of thousands of Kurds who gathered at an Erbil stadium Friday. Mr. Barzani, president of the Iraqi Kurdistan Region since 2005, told an adoring crowd of partisans that the vote represents “the historic achievement of the Kurdish nation.”

But that sense of exuberant certainty and manifest destiny on blatant display in Erbil begins to fade once you enter the city limits of  oil-rich and ethnically diverse Kirkuk, a bellwether and in many ways a microcosm of troubled Iraq.

The city came under Kurdish control when the Iraqi Army fled the advancing black flag of ISIS. The jihadists still have a foothold in the eponymous province, in the mainly Arab Sunni town of Hawijah. Fearing more conflict, Kirkuk residents of all backgrounds have been stocking up on food, flour, and medicine.

Voting took place with a celebratory vibe in Kirkuk’s predominantly Kurdish neighborhoods. Turkmen and Arabs largely boycotted the vote and kept a low profile. At a polling station in an Arab neighborhood, only a trickle of Kurds showed up to cast their vote.

Analysts warn the referendum risks aggravating internal and regional tensions; it could spark intercommunal violence or set the stage for a confrontation between the Peshmerga and the mainly Shiite People’s Mobilization Forces, also known as Al-Hashd Al-Shaabi. The fight against ISIS has put both forces at close quarters in Kirkuk and other disputed areas.

Partisans of each camp clashed Monday in the tinderbox town of Tuz Khurmatu. At least one person reportedly was killed.

‘Kurdish Jerusalem’

“The truth is, Iraq has been torn apart already,” says Juwad Qadim Hafiz, a tribal leader close to the Kurdish authorities whose unfinished but large villa at the end of an unpaved road in Kirkuk contrasts sharply with the ramshackle dwellings of his more humble Arab neighbors. 

For him, the key is not who governs Kirkuk, but who delivers services. Kurdish leaders have long labeled Kirkuk as the “Kurdish Jerusalem,” a moniker that captures both its desirability and contested status as a land that has been the historic home of Arabs, Kurds, Turkmen, and Chaldean Christians, or Assyrians.

Mr. Hafiz says he has spent the past few days trying to reassure and encourage Arabs to strengthen their ties with all their neighbors. He likes to think of Kirkuk as “bouquet” in which all components can continue to coexist peacefully, but acknowledges that these are “tense” and “dangerous times.”

Hammad Ali was born in Mosul but raised in Kirkuk. He now has six children of his own. He had no clue if he was eligible to vote in the referendum. Mr. Ali has lived in an Arab neighborhood for two decades and makes a living at a small supermarket in a Kurdish neighborhood. He does know that as a native of Mosul, he has not been entitled to buy a house in Kirkuk because it is a disputed territory.

Kurdish officials say that only Arabs whose families were registered in Kirkuk during the Iraqi census of 1957 have the right to vote. That requirement effectively excludes Arabs who arrived in Kirkuk as a result of the Arabization policies of Saddam Hussein, Sunni Arabs fleeing sectarian violence in Baghdad in recent decades, or those displaced from nearby Mosul in the fight against ISIS.

“Our biggest fear is that this referendum will bring war,” says Ali. “That is the dinner topic in every household of Kirkuk. Everyone is stressed, even the children. I believe that if there was no outside intervention, nothing would happen between the people, but on television all we hear are threats.”

A man arrives to cast his vote during Kurds' independence referendum in Kirkuk, Iraq, Sept. 25.
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Thaier Al-Sudani/Reuters

Stiff opposition to vote

Keen to keep the focus on ISIS and concerned by the specter of conflict between Kurdish forces and the different Iraqi forces fighting the jihadists, the international community mounted an intense campaign for the referendum to be delayed.

Iraq Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi insists it should be annulled entirely, calling the vote unconstitutional. He has argued that the ploy is a bid to entrench the presidency of Barzani, which expired two years ago, and to shift away attention from the corruption phenomenon.

“We will not let down or give up our Kurdish people,” said Mr. Abadi addressing the nation on the eve of the vote. “We refuse a sectarian and racist state in Iraq.”

Kawa Hassan, director of the Middle East and North Africa Program at the EastWest Institute in Brussels, says holding the vote amid so much internal, regional and international opposition would fragment and weaken the Kurdish position.

“The risk of violence is serious, particularly in Kirkuk and other disputes areas,” he says. “There are multiple militias, the Islamic State hasn’t been completely defeated, and Kurds are deeply divided.”

Neighboring Iran and Turkey, two nations that have strong trade relations with the Iraqi Kurdistan region, have warned in no uncertain terms there would be harsh consequences if the referendum moves forward. Turkey has been a key gateway for Kurds to export oil, and Iran supplies the region with essential water.  Tehran decided to close its airspace to the Iraqi Kurdistan region even before the vote started, and Ankara closed land borders and told its citizens to leave on the morning of the vote.

Next steps

Pro-referendum officials in Kirkuk and Erbil cling to the hope of an amicable divorce with Baghdad. They downplay the threats from neighbors and dismiss the potential for disaster in the disputed areas. They are quick to relay a sense of hurt and indignation over the position of the international community, accusing it of inconsistency in its promotion of democracy.

“This is no different from Britain asking to get out of the European Union, or the Catalans asking for independence from Spain,” says Kirkuk Governor Najmaldin Karim, whom the Iraqi parliament tried to depose over his pro-referendum stance. “If the vote is yes, then you set a time to discuss the borders and begin separation from Baghdad.”

The stated aim of the vote is to force negotiations with Baghdad and set the stage for a process leading to Kurdish independence. It has also been cast an opportunity to see whether non-Kurds in disputes areas prefer to be administered by the KRG or Baghdad.

“We are ready to go to Baghdad and talk, but after Sept. 25,” Barzani told the cheering crowds in Erbil Friday.

Referendum opponents question its legality and timing. Since it will not translate into territorial partition overnight, some analysts equate it with an opinion poll. Washington bluntly warned it would not play mediator between Kurds and Baghdad if the Kurds held the vote Sept. 25.

The invariable retort from pro-referendum Kurdish officials: “If not now, when?”

Some Kurdish officials and commanders see the international outcry over the referendum as evidence that the goodwill accrued in the fight against ISIS has already began to dissipate. And they worry that Baghdad will be even less compromising once the common enemy is defeated.

Maria Fantappie, the International Crisis Group’s senior analyst on Iraq, writes that the best way to mitigate the serious risks of the referendum is for Baghdad, as well as regional and international actors, to simply “downplay the event and virtually ignore it.”

Kurds who turned out at the polls in Erbil manifested no concern about a lack of international support or potential retaliatory measures from neighbors.

“If things go south, I will pick up arms and fight,” declared Herme Mahmoud, a native of Halabja, the town that suffered chemical attacks in 1988 after the Iran-Iraq war. “Whatever happens cannot be worse than the past or a future without Kurdistan in it.”

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2. An Alabama race tests GOP establishment

Surely, President Trump is backing the brash, flame-throwing outsider in Tuesday's Alabama Republican Senate primary, right? No. Which, in a way, pits Mr. Trump against the spirit of his own political revolution.

Mark
 

The 30 Sec. ReadThe GOP establishment has flooded Alabama with millions of dollars in advertising in advance of Tuesday’s primary election, trying to boost the chances of incumbent GOP Sen. Luther Strange. But Senator Strange, who is also supported by President Trump, is facing a strong challenge from Judge Roy Moore. The conservative former state chief justice is best known for refusing to remove a statue of the Ten Commandments from the Alabama Judicial Building, despite a federal court order. The race is shaping up as a national test of establishment Republicans against conservative grass-roots rebels. The outcome could have implications not only for this seat – but also for the Republican Party writ large. A win by Mr. Moore would undoubtedly send a chill down the spine of GOP incumbents in states like Arizona, Nevada, Mississippi, and Tennessee, all of whom are facing potential primary challenges of their own. And heading into the 2018 midterm elections, the last thing the GOP leadership in Washington wants is to have to defend its incumbents in primaries with money that could otherwise be used to defeat Democrats. “It’s not just about the race here in Alabama. It’s much bigger than that,” says Bill Armistead, Moore’s campaign chairman. Republican incumbents, he says, “are scared to death” that if Moore wins, “there will be a domino effect next year.”

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2. An Alabama race tests GOP establishment

Alabamians don’t take kindly to outsiders interfering in their politics.

“We cannot be bought,” declares B.B. Sellers, as he and his wife leave a sweltering outdoor rally for Roy Moore, the firebrand former judge who has been leading in a tight Republican run-off for US Senate.

The GOP establishment has flooded the state with millions of dollars in advertising in advance of Tuesday’s primary election, trying to boost the chances of incumbent GOP Sen. Luther Strange, who was appointed earlier this year after former Sen. Jeff Sessions stepped down to become US attorney general. But Senator Strange is facing a strong challenge from Judge Moore, the conservative former state chief justice best known for refusing to remove a statue of the Ten Commandments from the Alabama Judicial Building, despite a federal court order.

Moore’s supporters see him as a man of principle – and they bristle at being told by Washington which candidate they ought to support. 

“His law is written in stone,” affirms Sherry Sellers, while her husband emphasizes: “It’s our senator.”

That may be, but this race is shaping up as a national test of establishment Republicans against conservative grassroots rebels.

Supporting Strange is Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell, along with the US Chamber of Commerce, and the National Rifle Association.

Former Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin greets US Senate candidate Judge Roy Moore while campaigning at the historic Union Station Train Shed in Montgomery, Ala., on Sept. 21, 2017.
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Tami Chappell/Reuters

Backing Moore is Breitbart editor and former White House strategist Steve Bannon, along with conservative talk show hosts, and members of the hardline House Freedom Caucus. President Trump, Vice President Pence, and even Alaska’s “Mama Grizzly” Sarah Palin have all flown in to flex their muscles for one side or the other.

The outcome could have implications not only for this seat – but also, to some extent, for the Republican Party writ large. A win by Moore would undoubtedly send a chill down the spine of GOP incumbents in states like Arizona, Nevada, Mississippi, and Tennessee, all of whom are facing potential primary challenges of their own. Heading into the 2018 midterm elections, the last thing GOP leaders in Washington want is to have to defend incumbents in primaries with money that could otherwise be used to defeat Democrats.

“It’s not just about the race here in Alabama. It’s much bigger than that,” says Bill Armistead, Moore’s campaign chairman. Republican incumbents, he says, “are scared to death” that if Moore wins, “there will be a domino effect next year.”  

It will also test, at least to some extent, Mr. Trump’s influence over his own party. Officially, Trump has sided with the establishment in this race, having endorsed the 6-foot-9-inch Strange, whom Trump affectionately calls “Big Luther.” When Trump called him from the White House with his backing last month, Strange said he nearly drove off the road.

But it has not been as full-throated an endorsement as Strange might have wished. At a campaign rally for Strange on Friday night in Huntsville, Trump told the crowd he was “taking a big risk” and mused that he “might have made a mistake.” The president expressed approval for both Strange and for Moore – who is running a “drain the swamp” campaign reminiscent in some ways of Trump’s own.

Outsider appeal

That Moore was thrown off the bench twice – once for his Ten Commandments defiance, and later for refusing to implement the Supreme Court’s decision on same-sex marriage – is a badge of honor in the eyes of many of his supporters, who say that he’s the true outsider in the race.

“Both candidates … want to be seen as outsiders. For Luther Strange, that’s a hard sell,” says Shaun McCutcheon, an Alabama GOP activist and early Trump supporter.  

Strange is a former lobbyist and former attorney general for Alabama. He was appointed to the Senate by former Gov. Robert Bentley, before the governor resigned to avoid impeachment. Strange had asked state lawmakers to pause their investigation of the governor so his office could look into the case. Many voters viewed the appointment as a quid pro quo, which Strange adamantly denies.

The president’s endorsement of Strange “makes it sort of a confusing race,” says Mr. McCutcheon, who declined to say who he was supporting.

In front of an adoring crowd that packed the Von Braun Center Friday night, Trump praised Strange’s loyalty, saying the senator wanted nothing in return for supporting the president on Obamacare repeal, while others asked for favors. (By contrast, Moore has said he would not vote for the current Graham-Cassidy bill to repeal Obamacare, arguing that it is not a “full” repeal.)

Perhaps most important, Trump added, Strange would have no problem winning against Democrat Doug Jones in the December general election - while Moore, who ran twice for governor and lost badly in the GOP primaries both times, might be vulnerable.

The race has been heated enough that some state Republicans are concerned about whether GOP voters will unite behind the winner in time for the general election. Indeed, interviews at headliner Moore and Strange rallies last week revealed strong emotions.

Moore supporters laud his Christian values and strong independent streak. “He stood for the Ten Commandments very boldly,” says Claire Hubbard, sitting in a folding camp chair next to her husband of 50 years at the old Union Station train shed in Montgomery Thursday.

“He knows and can quote most of the Constitution and the Bible. He’s not going to go with the flow,” she says, as the couple waited in the heat for a televised candidate debate that was sometimes interrupted by freight trains rumbling through. The debate was followed by a rally featuring Moore and former Alaska Gov. Palin, who railed against the “swamp creatures” in Washington.

Support for Trump's agenda

But Moore’s unbending defiance is exactly what worries Republican Pam Segars-Morris, who came to Huntsville in her red “proud to be a deplorable” shirt to hear the president stump for Strange.

Speaking of Moore, she said, “I saw him put his hand on the Bible and defy the court he swore to defend.” She added: “We can’t have a loose cannon with his own agenda.” Strange, she says, is also a Christian and will support the president on his agenda, whether it’s healthcare or immigration. His big problem, she laments, is that “they’ve tried to paint him as the establishment candidate. Nothing could be further from the truth.”

For his part, Strange talks about his friend the president with every breath, and repeatedly points to Trump’s endorsement as evidence of his own outsider, anti-establishment credentials.

Still, despite all the national attention and money being poured into the race, some observers believe its impact may be limited – even if Moore wins.

For one thing, Alabama has always had an unusually strong anti-establishment streak, going heavily for Trump last year. The religious right also plays a large role in politics here. So a Moore win here would not necessarily portend trouble for GOP incumbents such as Sens. Jeff Flake in Arizona or Dean Heller in Nevada. And Strange is not a typical incumbent, having been in the Senate for mere months. He hasn’t had time to build the same kind of network of support as colleagues who are defending seats they’ve already won in previous elections.

“This is a unique race,” says Chris Brown, a GOP consultant in Alabama. “I’m not sure you can find the same kind of dynamic elsewhere.”

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3. German election’s jolt may deliver a positive: deeper debate

In recent years, Germany's two major parties have run the country with extraordinary civility and common purpose. But growing unease cracked that "grand coalition" in Sunday's election. The question now: How much populism is the right amount?

Mark
 

The 30 Sec. ReadAs it turned out, the polls predicted the order of Germany’s federal elections perfectly: Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) in front, the Social Democratic Party (SPD) in second, and the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) in third. The surprise came with the margins of victory and defeat. Both the CDU and SPD saw significant slips in their votes, while the AfD went from failing to earn the 5 percent support to be seated in parliament to getting almost 13 percent. But while this ends a period of “civility” in German politics, it may bring back healthy debate. “You will have a much stronger polarization, and there will be more debate in the Bundestag,” says Thomas Kleine-Brockhoff, director of the Europe Program at the German Marshall Fund in Berlin. “Even though there will be surprises on the far right, this Bundestag is more representative of what the mood in the country is, more than the previous one is, and that is not a bad thing for democracy as such.”

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3. German election’s jolt may deliver a positive: deeper debate

German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s party fared far worse than expected in federal elections Sunday. The anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany (AfD) did far better than expected.

Is this the latest political earthquake?

Not exactly.

The results jolted Germany, especially after a placid – practically passionless, some have complained – political campaign. Both mainstream parties did their worst in decades, while the far-right earned an unprecedented new platform from which to share its views and shape attitudes.

The results in Berlin show that while those abroad might look to Ms. Merkel as the clear leader of the liberal order, at home she faces the same political fragmentation and breakdown of loyalties as her international counterparts, amid long-term economic and demographic transformations.

But beneath the shrill headlines, the results are less dramatic and unexpected, and while the outcome brings new challenges to the political arena in Germany – and Europe – it could serve to reinvigorate German politics.

“You will have a much stronger polarization, and there will be more debate in the Bundestag. The cozy times that we lived in are over,” says Thomas Kleine-Brockhoff, director of the Europe Program at the German Marshall Fund of the United States in Berlin. “I would consider that a good thing. Even though there will be surprises on the far-right, this Bundestag is more representative of what the mood in the country is, more than the previous one is, and that is not a bad thing for democracy as such.”

Government and opposition

Polls had predicted Ms. Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) would end up out front, the Social Democrats (SPD) would be in second, and the AfD would likely clinch third place, as it did. The surprise came with the margins of victory and defeat.

The CDU saw its worst performance since 1949 and its results were way down, at 33 percent, from the 41.5 percent it achieved in 2013. But the party faced similar numbers in the 2005 and 2009 races.

The chancellor is weakened. But the results show a plurality of Germans, amid economic prosperity and uncertain geopolitics, still think Merkel, even after 12 years, is the right person for the job.

The SPD was the clearest loser, garnering just 21 percent of the vote, and as of now the center-left party has ruled out continuing to serve as junior partners with the CDU in a so-called “grand coalition.” They say they will now become an opposition force. “We have understood our task – to be a strong opposition in this country and to defend democracy against those who question it and attack it,” said party leader Martin Schulz.

Although the make-up of the coalition is weeks, if not months, away, a clear opposition voice would be welcome. Some observers expect the SPD to move further left as has happened elsewhere in Europe, addressing working-class bases disillusioned with globalization and free trade. It also could take wind out the of sails of the AfD – which went from never having passed the 5 percent threshold to enter the Bundestag in past elections to earning nearly 13 percent of the vote – by preventing the party from presenting itself as the main opposition voice in parliament.

More dissent generally could serve Germany well too. While the polarization in American politics under President Trump is seen as a worrisome sign of the dysfunction in politics, the civility in Germany has also come under fire. Observers pointed to a disappointing debate between Merkel and Schulz ahead of the vote where the two seemed to hardly differentiate themselves.

Eva Nowaki, a Berlin resident taking a walk on a recent day before the elections, says politics has been too consensual in Germany. “We’ve had a grand coalition for too long. We have no opposition, so I think it’s a little bit dangerous,” she says, though she quickly adds she considers the AfD the more dangerous force.

Germans will definitely will find themselves outside of their comfort zones. For all of the media criticism about the “grand coalition,” it aligns with their political identities. A recent Bertelsmann Stiftung report showed that only 2 percent of German respondents self-identify as extreme left or extreme right, compared to 8 percent in the EU (and 18 percent in France). The far majority consider themselves centrist.

Ekkehard Diedrich, a project manager in Berlin, defends the kind of consensus and civility in Germany politics, including the kind on display in a "grand coalition." “It’s important to talk about things in detail, not have a loud debate,” he says. For him the Brexit vote has stirred passions but revealed scant details.

The unquiet far right

It’s unclear what the AfD will actually bring to the table beyond protest. Already co-leader Frauke Petry announced this morning that she was leaving the AfD to serve as an independent in the Bundestag, shocking her peers and revealing deep divisions.

But the party's simple presence in the Bundestag will force Germans to look at a brewing discontent that has been overlooked in their country, amid postwar taboos and an economic prosperity that has dominated the narrative. The CDU’s campaign slogan illustrates this perfectly: “For a Germany where life is good and we enjoy it.”

Merkel acknowledged the need to listen to AfD voters moving forward. Many of her former supporters cast ballots for the far-right Sunday.

Still, she captured more than double the vote the AfD did, even after the refugee crisis that brought 1 million new asylum seekers to Germany.

As she works to build a coalition, which at this point looks most likely between the Greens and the liberal Free Democrats, she’ll have to overcome the two parties’ clear policy divides. New, tough conversations could help Germany, argues Susanne Grund, a stay-at-home mom walking her Russian wolfhound in Berlin. “In a family you fight and debate. That is best for German politics too,” she says.

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4. As waters recede, Bangladesh turns toward adaptation

Bangladesh has long been synonymous with suffering and disaster. Flooding invariably meant thousands dead. But this year's death toll amid the worst floods in 40 years? 145 people. Economic development, it turns out, has dramatically changed the calculus of human life.

Mark
 

The 30 Sec. ReadThe world’s second-biggest garment industry is in tiny Bangladesh, where 165 million people live in an area the size of Illinois. The industry employs 4 million of them. But for the next two months, Mofazzal won’t be among them. The small sari factory at which he works has been temporarily shut down after the worst flooding in decades, which has killed more than 1,200 people in South Asia. For now, Mofazzal plans to repair his house and look for work as a rickshaw puller. “Our crops are ruined,” he says. “The government still hasn’t come to help us.” At least 145 people have died in Bangladesh. That’s no small number. But it is far lower than in previous massive floods – a decrease some experts attribute to better planning and response, thanks in part to the country’s growing economy. With worse flooding on the horizon, those efforts are all the more urgent. “Bangladesh has made considerable progress in preparing for these kinds of natural disasters,” says a United Nations officer in Dhaka. “Now we have to focus on figuring out how to protect our gains.”

Bangladesh is in one of the most frequently flooded parts of the world

Number of flood occurrences, 1985-2011
SOURCE: World Resources Institute (http://www.wri.org/)
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Jacob Turcotte/Staff
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4. As waters recede, Bangladesh turns toward adaptation

For two months of every summer – monsoon season in this corner of South Asia – Sufia lives on an island in a sea of flooded rice fields. The only way to reach her house is by dinghy, on account of the one dirt road that leads to it being under water. 

Yet this monsoon season was far worse than anything Sufia has experienced in decades. In late August, while hurricane Harvey was battering Texas and Louisiana, heavy rain led to devastating floods and landslides across the region. More than 1,200 people have died and at least 41 million people in Bangladesh, India, and Nepal have been directly affected, according to the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC). 

The dangerously high flood waters forced Sufia and her husband to abandon their home, a bare-bones hut of corrugated-steel walls held up by wooden beams and concrete pillars in the countryside of Tangail District, about 50 miles north of the capital, Dhaka. The couple took shelter in a nearby engineering college for much of August. By the time the flood waters began to recede earlier this month, their rice crop had been ruined and their 20-odd chickens were dead.

“We’ll have to wait two or three months before we can plant rice again,” says Sufia, who uses only one name. In the meantime, she and her husband have taken out a loan to buy food and repair their home. “There’s nothing else we can do.”

A child reacts to the camera while sitting on his father's back as they make their way in a flooded area in Bogra, Bangladesh on Aug. 20, 2017.
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Mohammad Ponir Hossain/Reuters

Bangladesh, a densely populated country of 165 million people, has been inundated with what its Ministry of Disaster Management and Relief calls the most serious floods in 40 years. Monsoon flooding is a fact of life in this delta nation, where two-thirds of land is less than five meters above sea level – making it all the more vulnerable to climate change. Although the rains are still deadly, Bangladesh is increasingly able to cope with flooding, experts say, in part because of its quickly growing economy. As gross domestic product increases, so does the economic toll of disasters – but the cost to human lives can decrease. 

Prevention and response

The challenges of recuperating from this summer’s floods are steep. More than 730,000 homes have been partially or entirely destroyed. And with roughly one third of the country’s terrain submerged, more than 1.6 million acres of crops have been damaged.

Most tragically, the floods have so far killed at least 145 people in Bangladesh. While that’s no small number, it’s far lower than the number of people who died in two other massive floods that hit the country in recent years: one in 1988 that killed more than 2,300 people and another in 1998 that killed more than 1,000.

In part, that's because Bangladesh has more resources for prevention and response. The government has spent millions of dollars to improve weather forecasting, public health outreach, and rural support systems, all of which have been made possible by the country’s ongoing economic boom. Many schools and mosques are now designed to double as shelters, and public health campaigns have reduced the spread of water-borne diseases.

The Asian Development Bank estimates that Bangladesh’s economy grew by 7.1 percent in 2016, its fastest expansion in 30 years and one of the fastest in the world. The country’s poverty rate has plummeted as a result. More than 16 million people came out of extreme poverty between 2000 and 2010, according to the World Bank. The extreme poverty rate dropped to 12.9 percent last year, down from 18.5 percent in 2010.

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina praised her country’s disaster relief efforts in a speech to the United Nations General Assembly on Thursday. “We have efficiently responded to the massive flood that has stricken the entire south Asian region this year,” she said.

Bangladesh is in one of the most frequently flooded parts of the world

Number of flood occurrences, 1985-2011
SOURCE: World Resources Institute (http://www.wri.org/)
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Jacob Turcotte/Staff

Yet as Bangladesh’s economy continues to grow – driven largely by its garment industry – the second-largest in the world – so too does the economic cost of major floods like the ones that hit this summer. The World Resources Institute estimates that 4.75 percent of the county’s GDP, or $5.4 billion, is affected by river flooding in an average year – and this year’s floods have been far from “average.”

“Bangladesh has made considerable progress in preparing for these kinds of natural disasters,” says Kazi Shahidur Rahman, a humanitarian affairs specialist at the UN office in Dhaka. “Now we have to focus on figuring out how to protect our gains.”

The challenge ahead

One of the most immediate concerns is food security. The floods devastated Bangladesh’s agriculture sector, which employs nearly half of the country. The widespread damage has raised fears of an impending food shortage. Although Prime Minister Hasina extolled Bangladesh’s ability to feed itself in her UN address – for the last six years, the country has produced enough rice to be self-sufficient – the floods are forcing the government to import 1.5 million tons of rice.

The floods also pose a challenge for Bangladesh’s all-important garment sector, which was worth $28 billion last year. The industry employees about 4 million people. But for the next two months, Mofazzal, a middle-aged man in Tangail District, won’t be among them. The small saree factory at which he works has been temporarily shut down because of flood damage.  

For now, Mofazzal plans to repair his house and look for work as a rickshaw puller in the nearby town. “Our crops are ruined,” he says. “The government still hasn’t come to help us.”

The Department of Disaster Management has promised to deliver support, including bundles of tin and cash for the flood victims to rebuild their houses. But as the Dhaka Tribune reported on Saturday, many victims are still waiting. 

As the flood waters recede, researchers and government officials are looking ahead to the next major flood. Bangladesh is currently developing a plan for managing its delta, the largest in the world, through 2100. One of plan’s central aims is to secure the country against threats posed by climate change. A 2013 report by The World Bank says Bangladesh will be among the countries in South Asia most affected by rising global temperatures.

“Climate change is going to make these kind of extreme weather events more and more common,” says Rezaur Rahman, a professor in the Institute of Water and Flood Management at the Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology. “We have to be ready for them. That’s our next big challenge.” 

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5. When gardens give petri-dish views of climate change

Can a planting of onions in a university greenhouse take the anger and tears out of our climate change debates? Behold the power of botanical gardens! 

Mark
A volunteer weeds planting beds at Cornell University's Pounder Vegetable Garden Aug. 29 in Ithaca, N.Y. Vegetables and pollinator plants thrive in the outdoor garden, while crops struggle in the greenhouse of the nearby Climate Change Demonstration Garden.
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Alfredo Sosa/Staff
 

The 30 Sec. ReadYou don’t need to be a college student to learn from Cornell University professor Sonja Skelly. The horticultural professor welcomes members of the public of all ages into her outdoor classroom at the Cornell Botanic Gardens. There, beds of pollinator crops and vegetables thrive in the open air. But plantings, often of the same species, struggle in a greenhouse where temperatures are just a few degrees higher – a simulation of the temperatures anticipated for the year 2050. These comparative plantings are part of Cornell’s four-year-old Climate Change Demonstration Garden, an experiment in using plants to tell the story of climate change. This upstate New York garden is just one example of how botanical gardens are seeking to offer some common ground in dialogues around the polarizing topic of climate change. “The topic of climate change has become so polarized, and we can’t have a conversation because you either ‘believe in it’ or you don’t,” says Professor Skelly. “There’s something about plants and gardens that takes the polarization out of the equation.”

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5. When gardens give petri-dish views of climate change

Tucked in the back corner of the Pounder Vegetable Garden at Cornell University sits a small greenhouse. The August sun beats down on the structure, raising the temperature inside to 85 degrees F. – a jump above that day’s outside temperature of 72 degrees. 

Onion stalks collapse on top of each other in one of the greenhouse’s six wooden-framed beds. Outside, a crop of the same variety grows tall and perky. 

These comparative onion plantings are part of Cornell’s four-year-old Climate Change Demonstration Garden, an experiment in using plants to tell the story of climate change. This upstate New York garden is just one example of how botanical gardens are seeking to offer some common ground in dialogues around the polarizing topic of climate change.

“The topic of climate change has become so polarized, and we can’t have a conversation because you either ‘believe in it’ or you don’t,” says Sonja Skelly, horticulture professor and director of education at Cornell Botanic Gardens. “There’s something about plants and gardens that takes the polarization out of the equation,” she says.

Jennifer Schwarz Ballard, vice president of education at the Chicago Botanic Garden, agrees. “Being in botanic gardens, surrounded by nature, surrounded by living things, you can actually see their response to changing climates, as opposed to trying to have a conversation about facts and figures and tables and graphs,” she says.

In the Cornell demonstration garden, small signs dot the beds with information about how rising temperatures, mild winters, drought, or other possible climate shifts might promote taller and bushier weeds, or less abundant crops. Other signs invite visitors to record their own observations on erasable boards around the garden. And tour survey results suggest that visitors leave the garden with more concrete ideas about the local effects of a changing climate.

Onions grow in a greenhouse set to mimic expected average temperatures for the year 2050 in the Climate Change Demonstration Garden at Cornell University on Aug. 29, 2017, in Ithaca, N.Y.
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Alfredo Sosa/Staff

As a demonstration, the garden’s premise may sound simple: Turn up the heat 4 or 5 degrees to simulate temperatures anticipated for the year 2050 and the plants will respond accordingly. But putting that into practice with a simple greenhouse is not an exact science, Professor Skelly says. Temperature adjustments are not precise and the team does not alter water levels or simulate extreme weather events. The garden isn’t supposed to be a controlled experiment, says Skelly, but rather a living illustration of plants’ response to temperature changes.

“Plants are the most exquisite indicator for climate change,” says Richard Primack, a biologist at Boston University. Plants are particularly sensitive to seasonal temperature changes, he explains, as it is one of the most important factors dictating phenology, or the timing of life-cycle events. Temperature can affect when a plant leafs out, blooms, bears fruit, and loses its leaves or dies at the end of a season.

Changes in phenology are tricky to display for a one-time visitor to a botanical garden, Ms. Schwarz Ballard says, as it is something that needs to be tracked over many years. So the Chicago Botanic Garden has engaged the public in doing just that in a citizen science effort called Project BudBurst. The online project invites “anyone and everyone” to collect phenological data in backyards and schoolyards across the country. 

Botanical gardens can also empower people to take action, says Schwarz Ballard. Standing in a garden “makes people realize that they are connected to something larger,” she says. “We are all part of this world and I think maybe it also helps people realize that there are things that they can do.”

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The Monitor's View

Why elections in Europe spring a surprise

 

The 30 Sec. ReadThis week, many Germans decided to cast protest votes, which gave a lift to three smaller parties, the far-right Alternative for Germany, the free-market Free Democratic Party, and the environmentalist Greens. The message: The old political alignment, in which the two main parties either trade power or share it in a coalition, relies too much on a model in which professional politicians treat voters like market categories of demographics, sweeping them with broad brooms into one party or another. In an age of Facebook and other new digital expressions of individuality, more voters see their political identity in expansive ways. They are able to quickly form political alliances online. They rely less on parties to define their aspirations. Western democracies face many big tests, such as high public debts, middling wage growth, and a low regard for immigrants. But at a fundamental level, voters may be showing a streak of independence, driven by a desire for a new model of politics that better reflects a higher vision of themselves.

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Why elections in Europe spring a surprise

Last spring, Europe watched with surprise as a new centrist party in France, En Marche!, defeated the two traditional parties. The election win was a signal that the French want more independence and individuality in their political identity. Now it may be Germany’s turn.

In a Sept. 24 vote for a new parliament, Germans displayed a preference for greater choice in politics by delivering a blow to the two establishment parties. The tallies show that only about 1 in 2 Germans voted for the center-right Christian Democratic Union or the center-left Social Democratic Party – far fewer than in recent decades.

And many Germans decided to cast a protest vote, which gave a lift to three smaller parties, the far-right Alternative for Germany, the free-market Free Democratic Party (FDP), and the environmentalist Greens.

The message to German leader Angela Merkel of the Christian Democrats is clear as she tries to form a new government with the Greens and FDP: The old political alignment, in which the two main parties either trade power or share it in a coalition, relies too much on a model in which professional politicians treat voters like market categories of demographics, sweeping them with broad brooms into one party or another.

In an age of Facebook and other new digital expressions of individuality, more voters see their political identity in expansive ways. They are able to quickly form political alliances online. They rely less on parties to define their aspirations.

The loose term for this is populism, which is often described as anti-elitism, but it is rooted in voters seeking political models that are not depersonalized by campaign operatives, pollsters, and the media who divvy up people by their levels of anger over divisive issues.

A similar trend can be found in another major European country. In Italy, the populist Five Star Movement of former comedian Beppe Grillo has rattled the political system. In elections next year, it could provide another example of a big upset for traditional parties.

Western democracies face many big tests, such as high public debts, middling wage growth, and a low regard for immigrants. But at a fundamental level, voters may be showing a streak of independence, driven by a desire for a new model of politics that better reflects a higher vision of themselves.

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A Christian Science Perspective

About this feature

Each weekday, the Monitor includes one clearly labeled religious article offering spiritual insight on contemporary issues, including the news. The publication – in its various forms – is produced for anyone who cares about the progress of the human endeavor around the world and seeks news reported with compassion, intelligence, and an essentially constructive lens. For many, that caring has religious roots. For many, it does not. The Monitor has always embraced both audiences. The Monitor is owned by a church – The First Church of Christ, Scientist, in Boston – whose founder was concerned with both the state of the world and the quality of available news.

The commitment to love

 

These words from a poem by Robert Burns, “Man’s inhumanity to man / Makes countless thousands mourn,” describe how hearts everywhere felt when they heard the news last month of a group of teens who taunted and laughed as they watched a man drown, doing nothing to help. Turning to prayer, contributor Judy Cole was reminded of Christ Jesus’ parable of the good Samaritan, which so clearly illustrates Jesus’ words: “This is my commandment, That ye love one another, as I have loved you” (John 15:12). To love – to be filled with a spiritual and pure love for our neighbor in a world where hate seems prevalent – is the only genuine way to contribute to the lessening of hate and brutality in the world. As the children of God, nothing can stop us from loving in such a powerful and healing way.

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The commitment to love

These words from a poem by Robert Burns, “Man’s inhumanity to man / Makes countless thousands mourn,” describe how hearts everywhere felt when they heard the news in July of a group of teens who taunted and laughed as they watched a man drown, doing nothing to help.

My heartbreak over this was also a wake-up call to ask myself, “What more can I do to help stop such brutal insensitivity?” Turning to God for insight, I recalled Christ Jesus’ parable of the good Samaritan (see Luke 10:25-37). In this parable, a Jewish man was traveling along the road from Jerusalem to Jericho when he was attacked and left to die. First a priest and then a Levite (an individual who also had priestly duties) passed by without helping the man, who had been beaten and stripped of his clothing. The Jews were enemies with the neighboring Samaritans, yet it was a Samaritan who eventually stopped and took the injured man to an inn and paid for the man’s care. At another point in the Bible Jesus said, “This is my commandment, That ye love one another, as I have loved you” (John 15:12), and this parable of the good Samaritan clearly illustrates how such love looks in practice.

I had my answer: To truly help counter the hate and brutality in the world, I needed to be more unwavering in my commitment to follow in the footsteps of Jesus and love as he taught. Jesus showed his deep love for others in countless ways. He healed sickness and disease, compassionately fed the hungry who’d come by the thousands to listen to him preach, and he was ever ready to forgive. What is it that enabled Jesus to love despite the heinous treatment he witnessed against others and that was directed at him? His works point to the profound understanding he had of God as divine Love itself, infinitely more powerful than all the hatred he encountered. It’s also apparent that Jesus had a higher perception of each individual’s actual nature as not the source of anything unlovable or unloving but as the very image of Love, of pure divine Spirit.

Jesus’ command to love, then, was not to ignore or excuse that which is inexcusable, but to recognize man’s God-derived, Christlike nature – to love it, to hold and be true to it, regardless of appearances to the contrary. As can be seen in the many healing accounts that are in the Gospels, this spiritual recognition of man’s true identity has the power to reform others.

Though we may fall short of this consistent love at times, we all have the inherent ability as children of God to love in this way. We have the God-given ability to both discern the true nature of others and to adhere, through prayer, to this view. As doing this proves to have an uplifting, healing effect in our own encounters, it becomes logical to expect that a clear perception of Christlike love can also bring a healing touch to humanity as a whole as we pray to see through cruel indifference, prejudice, and terrorizing brutality to man’s inherent goodness.

The founder of The Christian Science Monitor, Mary Baker Eddy – who faced much injustice in her life – once wrote: “I will love, if another hates. I will gain a balance on the side of good, my true being. This alone gives me the forces of God wherewith to overcome all error” (“Miscellaneous Writings 1883-1896,” p. 104).

We must choose to love even under the most difficult circumstances if we would help elevate ourselves and humanity to that which is good and worthy.

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Viewfinder

Test flight for a taxi

Dubai Crown Prince Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum sits aboard a flying taxi in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, Sept. 25. The occasion: a test flight for the world’s first drone taxi service, Reuters reported. The craft – with 18 propellers – was developed by German drone firm Volocopter.
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Satish Kumar/Reuters
( The illustrations in today's Monitor Daily are by Jacob Turcotte. )
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In Our Next Issue

( September 26th, 2017 )

Thank you for reading today. Come back tomorrow, when we'll look at the relationship between the United States and Puerto Rico. For years, it's been largely characterized by neglect. Might that change in the wake of hurricane Maria? 

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