Thailand has military coups like other countries have elections. This week’s, like the 11 that have preceded it, will probably end as soon as the army thinks the country’s endless political conflict (explained well by Vox) has once again subsided to tolerable levels.
There are doubts about when that will be, in part because of the waning influence of the elderly king, the country’s historical arbiter. But Thailand is relatively lucky. It has, if not political stability, at least political stalemate, and it has both tourist and manufacturing industries that its rulers will try to preserve. Ukraine, which holds a presidential election on Sunday, and Egypt, which holds one on Monday and Tuesday, are both considerably worse off.
Since the Soviet era, power in Ukraine has bounced between pro- and anti-Russian factions. It’s the turn of the antis; a pro-Western oligarch, Petro Poroshenko, is leading the polls. But this time the threat of a Russian takeover in the east, which is also Ukraine’s industrial base, will hang constantly over him.
Egypt’s army, like Thailand’s, sees itself as the guarantor of stability. Unlike Thailand’s, it has never been comfortable ceding control to civilians (it has ruled, behind the scenes or in front of them, for six decades), and least of all Islamist civilians. Next week’s election will be merely a way to consolidate its own coup last year against the brief elected rule of the Muslim Brotherhood. That may bring stability, but pretty much guarantees the economy will continue to stagnate.
If there’s any lesson in all this, it’s a reminder that democracy isn’t an end in itself. It’s just the most reliable way, when done right, of handing over power without violence, political unrest, economic disruption, or mass theft by the outgoing regime. When it isn’t done right, countries seek stability in other ways—rarely good ones.—Gideon Lichfield
Five things on Quartz we especially liked
The strange connection between Ukraine and Syria. Russia has been arming the Syrian regime; this week it emerged that a former American defense official tried to arm the rebels. Both arms conduits, Tim Fernholz explains, had roots in eastern Ukraine, which puts another perspective on why Russia is so keen to control it.
How we know Israel has a housing bubble. Tiny country, fast-growing population, cumbersome land laws: Rising house prices seem like just what economics would predict. Matt Phillips takes apart the numbers to explain how there can nonetheless be an asset bubble even when it doesn’t look like one.
The depth of the Modi effect. Mitra Kalita’s extended family were staunch supporters of the Congress party. When she went back to India for the elections, she found many of them backing the BJP’s Narendra Modi. Through subtle changes in her cousins’ behavior she traces the deeper change in the national psyche that last week propelled Modi to power.
The future of music streaming may hang on golden oldies. Pre-1972 song recordings aren’t copyrighted in the US. Now the recording industry is trying to argue that they’re nonetheless protected. If it wins, it could potentially cripple streaming services like Pandora that don’t pay for older songs. But, asks John McDuling, is the industry trying to protect the artists, as it claims, or just its own rents?
You’d really like these Chinese government cars. China’s military this week ordered 1,000 Hongqi (“Red Flag”) sedans, the brand beloved of Chairman Mao, in what was billed as a show of frugality eschewing foreign marques. But as Lily Kuo explains, the Hongqi would grace the finest luxury-car showrooms, combining a delightfully retro exterior with advanced touches like individual seat massagers.
Five things elsewhere that made us smarter
Silicon Valley wants to disrupt your washing machine. Some people look at laundry and see a chore. Some see a startup idea. New York magazine’s Jessica Pressler has met most of these entrepreneurs, and in their struggles found an apt metaphor for the hedonic treadmill on which many startups find themselves, seeking riches by solving life’s most banal problems.
The age of quantum computing has (almost) arrived. The D-Wave is a large black box that claims to be the most powerful quantum computer ever built. But (as Quartz explained not long ago) that claim is disputed. Wired’s Clive Thompson went to see one, and explains why the jury-rigged, trial-and-error process of building a fundamentally new kind of machine makes it so hard to figure out what it really does.
Ukraine is haunted by echoes of past wars. It was a country where people complained and grumbled but got by, writes Tim Judah in the New York Review Books, but then something changed. “The simmering anger at being ripped off by the rich and politicians had melded into a narrative of fighting fascism and playing a part in a grand and glorious story of liberation and victory.”
The case for reparations to black America. America was built on slave labor, writes Ta-Nehisi Coates in the Atlantic, and racial inequality remains deeply, structurally woven into the very fabric of the state, the economy and the populace. But what would it cost? Coates argues that even if they can’t be fully made, understanding what reparations would entail is “the price we must pay to see ourselves squarely.”
100 fantastic things to read. If all the above wasn’t enough, take a look at this list of the best journalism of the past year from Conor Friedersdorf, a writer at the Atlantic and founder of the Best of Journalism newsletter.
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