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Vatican, Moscow & China: A New Global Religious and Spiritual Hegemony

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The record is substantially positive. This is how Cardinal Parolin has summarized the results of his recent visit to the Russian Federation.Firstly, there is the Russian Catholic community to protect,  with 300 parishes and 270 priests – mostly non-Russians, but Poles, Lithuanians, Germans, Ukrainians – as well as an Archbishop of Moscow, namely the Italian Paolo Pezzi, coming from the movement of “Communion and Liberation”, who is an expert in Russian political, cultural and religious issues.

A brilliant prelate to be supported, having a profound knowledge of Russian issues and Orthodox theology.

It is worth recalling that Pope Francis shook hand with Patriarch Kirill in the first historic meeting held in Havana last year between the two highest representatives of the 1054 schism.

An action that was favourably viewed by the United States and supported by the whole Cuban people.

This is a diplomatic success of which the Pope will soon take advantage.

Finally, Pope Francis is no longer very interested in the Eastern schism and in its doctrinal, theological and strategic connotation.

If anything, Pope Francis is interested in a new alliance between Russia, the Catholic Church of Rome and, in the future, China, so as to put an end to the Western Church’s  geopolitical dependence on the Euro-American West.

As explicitly stated, the Pope no longer wants to only be the spokesman of Western civilization, which is now dechristianized.

As Cardinal Parolin himself has recalled, he is the first High Representative of the Catholic Church to visit  Moscow after the Crimean War.

This is an essential political and symbolic aspect to mark the distance between the Vatican and the Atlantic axis between Western Europe and the United States.

With Foreign Minister Lavrov, whom Cardinal Secretary of State met in Moscow, a clear agreement was reached quickly: the Russian forces’ de facto protection of all religious minorities in the Middle East.

And to think that, in this case, the United States have even come to blame Russia for “penalizing” the so-called moderate jihadists that NATO and the United States keep on training in Syria and in other parts of the world.

Therefore the Vatican explicitly views the Kremlin’s pro-Assad policy favourably, together with the Syrian Christian community – in all its various forms – that continues to live in Syria and the Middle East, protected by Russia and   Bashar al-Assad’s Alawites much more than by the “moderate” jihad that, since the time of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, is still at the core of US operations in that region.

Considering the current condition of Catholics in Russia, there was some foreseeable friction between Minister Lavrov and Cardinal Parolin.

Apart from the practical freedom to profess the Catholic faith, one of the issue at stake is the ownership of churches and palaces of the Russian Catholic Church, confiscated by the Soviet regime and never returned to the legitimate owners after the USSR collapse in spite of the favourable court judgments for the Church of Rome in Russia.

Catholics in Russia are few – approximately 800,000, accounting for 0.5% of the total population. Nevertheless, the true strategic aim is not the number, but the quality of the Vatican and Russian joint strategic actions: the goal is exactly Pope Francis’ visit to Russia.

It would be the seal of a Catholic Church that – as at the time of Pope John Paul II – anticipates and overcomes the end of the Cold War, thus envisaging a link between the Vatican and the emerging powers of the Eurasian Heartland, which is now the alternative to a weak and dangerous strategic link between the Vatican and the consumerist and scientist atheism currently in power in the Euro-American West.

It is now clear that Pope Francis does not like this West at all: a universe without God that is heading for a quick, ethical and anthropological cupio dissolvi.

In fact, the Pope prefers the areas of the world in which the Catholic Church can still serve as “field hospital” and operate in a cultural universe in which religion, even the non-Catholic one, is respected.

Better a Confucian than a naive European atheist, only believing in science (he/she does not know) and in the freedom of instincts.

Here Cardinal Parolin’s and the Pope’s ideas are on the same wavelength as those of Patriarch Kirill, who wants fewer links between the Orthodox Church and the Russian State, as well as a spiritual status not far from the Kremlin, but autonomous from Putin’s line of politique d’abord (politics, first of all).

A system envisaging Patriarch Kirill as the world leader of the Orthodox Church and Pope Francis as the world  inevitable leader of Catholicism, designed to build – also   after the agreement with the Chinese government – a sort of new global religious and spiritual hegemony, outside the subjection to Westernism for the Vatican, and lateral to the Russian strategic interest for Patriarch Kirill.

The central political factor of this new geo-religious system is the Ukrainian question.

The extraordinary fundraising campaign launched by Pope Francis for Ukraine, which has been operating since 2014, has had positive impact on the Russian Orthodox Church and the whole community of believers. The success has been great (1 million and 230 thousand euros have been collected) and it has proved that the Vatican – even in the charitable and universalistic dimension characterizing it – does not think in the same way as the Western powers currently operating in the Ukrainian theater of operations.

While the West currently operates in the war-stricken regions with an inept internationalism, the Vatican of Cardinal Parolin and Pope Francis is still based on the traditional and unsurpassed “law of nations” (ius gentium) – and on a reasonable and never sectarian respect for nationality, ethnicity, borders and legitimate States.

Pope Francis’ and Cardinal Parolin’s law is, first and foremost, humanitarian law: agreements between the parties, wherever possible; immediate release of prisoners, a theme that alone can break through the political situation; truce and cease-fire are all actions that the Vatican is putting in place to solve the Ukrainian crisis.

And possibly solve also the tension in Syria where, since 2011, the two million Catholic believers have fallen to one only.

In Iraq, Christians have currently fallen from 300,000 to  200,000.

In Syria a real “war against Christians” is being waged – as recently stated by Jacques Benhan Hindo, the Syrian-Catholic Archbishop of Hassakè-Nisibi, the diocese in which Raqqa is located – while the YPG Kurds behave very badly with the various Christian churches still present there.

It can be easily foreseen that these Kurds will be abandoned by the United States as soon as it has exploited  them fully and all the way.

Daesh-Isis is supported by Turkey and the United States, while the Christian communities are protected – within the limits of their areas and fields of competence – by the Russian soldiers and Bashar al-Assad’s forces.

In such a situation, certainly Pope Francis’ Church cannot fully work, but it can certainly unite the basic religious and ethnic communities and make them act as parties in the future negotiations.

An operation that could more easily take place in Ukraine.

In fact, if Syria is broken up – as is increasingly likely – the Shiite axis between Bashar al-Assad’s area and Iran – which was at the origin of the Sunni and jihadist war against the Syrian Baathist regime – will be strengthened,  while Russia will become the true strategic player in the region, with the United States relegated to the rank of mere counterparts of Qatar (funding Al Nusra) and Saudi Arabia (funding Isis-Daesh).

Hence the Christian traditions are being eradicated in Syria and in rest of the Middle East with a view to fostering the final clash between Shiites and Sunnis – a clash that the Vatican does not want and will do its utmost, with Russia and China, to avoid.

A clash between Shiites and Sunnis – “a piecemeal World War Three”, just to use Pope Francis’ expression – in which Westerners side with the Sunnis, thus preparing other years of blood and destruction for them and for the Middle East.

As already happened with Cuba, in the new world context it will be the Vatican to bring the United States and Russia closer at the right time.

Possibly with a new agreement for the Middle East, as is said in the Vatican Secretary of State’s office.

This will exactly be the purpose of Pope Francis’ and Cardinal Parolin’s “geopolitics of mercy”.

With a tough statement made in September 2013 the Pope condemned the United States for wanting to overthrow Assad with  missiles, but there is another point of agreement between Putin and the Pope, namely the defense of the traditional family.

The Kremlin leader has repeatedly condemned the Western “nihilistic drift”, as well as the obsessive and philosophically unreasonable confidence in Reason. On the media both Patriarch Kirill and President Putin often repeat the old statement made by former Pope Benedict XVI whereby “the worst enemy of the West is the West itself”.

Furthermore, the schism could be doctrinally overcome with a statement – that Patriarch Kirill had already suggested – in which it is accepted that the Pope, the Patriarch of Rome, is the protos among the Patriarchs of the other  Churches – on the basis of the document discussed in 2008 on the island of Crete, regarding the history and identity of the Churches before and after the Great Schism.

This is another theme that will soon come to its natural fulfillment in the diplomatic practice of mercy established by Cardinal Parolin and Pope Francis.

Advisory Board Co-chair Honoris Causa Professor Giancarlo Elia Valori is an eminent Italian economist and businessman. He holds prestigious academic distinctions and national orders. Mr. Valori has lectured on international affairs and economics at the world’s leading universities such as Peking University, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the Yeshiva University in New York. He currently chairs “International World Group”, he is also the honorary president of Huawei Italy, economic adviser to the Chinese giant HNA Group. In 1992 he was appointed Officier de la Légion d’Honneur de la République Francaise, with this motivation: “A man who can see across borders to understand the world” and in 2002 he received the title “Honorable” of the Académie des Sciences de l’Institut de France. “

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Iceland’s Historic(al) Elections

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The morning of September, 26 was a good one for Lenya Run Karim of the Pirate Party. Once the preliminary results were announced, things were clear: the 21-year-old law student of the University of Iceland, originating from a Kurdish immigrant family, had become the youngest MP in the country’s history.

In historical significance, however, this event was second to another. Iceland, the world champion in terms of gender equality, became the first country in Europe to have more women MPs than men, 33 versus 30. The news immediately made world headlines: only five countries in the world have achieved such impressive results. Remarkably, all are non-European: Rwanda, Nicaragua and Cuba have a majority of women in parliament, while Mexico and the UAE have an equal number of male and female MPs.

Nine hours later, news agencies around the world had to edit their headlines. The recount in the Northwest constituency affected the outcome across the country to delay the ‘triumph for women’ for another four years.

Small numbers, big changes

The Icelandic electoral system is designed so that 54 out of the 63 seats in the Althingi, the national parliament, are primary or constituency seats, while another nine are equalization seats. Only parties passing the 5 per cent threshold are allowed to distribute equalisation seats that go to the candidates who failed to win constituency mandates and received the most votes in their constituency. However, the number of equalisation mandates in each of the 6 constituencies is legislated. In theory, this could lead to a situation in which the leading party candidate in one constituency may simply lack an equalisation mandate, so the leading candidate of the same party—but in another constituency—receives it.

This is what happened this year. Because of a difference of only ten votes between the Reform Party and the Pirate Party, both vying for the only equalisation mandate in the Northwest, the constituency’s electoral commission announced a recount on its own initiative. There were also questions concerning the counting procedure as such: the ballots were not sealed but simply locked in a Borgarnes hotel room. The updated results hardly affected the distribution of seats between the parties, bringing in five new MPs, none of whom were women, with the 21-year-old Lenya Run Karim replaced by her 52-year-old party colleague.

In the afternoon of September, 27, at the request of the Left-Green Movement, supported by the Independence Party, the Pirates and the Reform Party, the commission in the South announced a recount of their own—the difference between the Left-Greens and the Centrists was only seven votes. There was no ‘domino effect’, as in the case of the Northwest, as the five-hour recount showed the same result. Recounts in other districts are unlikely, nor is it likely that Althingi—vested with the power to declare the elections valid—would invalidate the results in the Northwest. Nevertheless, the ‘replaced’ candidates have already announced their intention to appeal against the results, citing violations of ballot storage procedures. Under the Icelandic law, this is quite enough to invalidate the results and call a re-election in the Northwest, as the Supreme Court of Iceland invalidated the Constitutional Council elections due to a breach of procedure 10 years ago. Be that as it may, the current score remains 33:30, in favor of men.

Progressives’ progress and threshold for socialists

On the whole, there were no surprises: the provisional allocation of mandates resembles, if with minor changes, the opinion polls on the eve of the election.

The ruling three-party coalition has rejuvenated its position, winning 37 out of the 63 Althingi seats. The centrist Progressive Party saw a real electoral triumph, improving its 2017 result by five seats. Prime-minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir’s Left-Green Movement, albeit with a slight loss, won eight seats, surpassing all pre-election expectations. Although the centre-right Independence Party outperformed everyone again to win almost a quarter of all votes, 16 seats are one of the worst results of the Icelandic ‘Grand Old Party’ ever.

The results of the Social-Democrats, almost 10% versus 12.1% in 2017, and of the Pirates, 8.6% versus 9.2%, have deteriorated. Support for the Centre Party of Sigmundur Gunnlaugsson, former prime-minister and victim of the Panama Papers, has halved from 10.9% to 5.4%. The centrists have seen a steady decline in recent years, largely due to a sexist scandal involving party MPs. The populist People’s Party and the pro-European Reform Party have seen gains of 8.8% and 8.3%, as compared to 6.9% and 6.7% in the previous elections.

Of the leading Icelandic parties, only the Socialist Party failed to pass the 5 per cent threshold: despite a rating above 7% in August, the Socialists received only 4.1% of the vote.

Coronavirus, climate & economy

Healthcare and the fight against COVID-19 was, expectedly, on top of the agenda of the elections: 72% of voters ranked it as the defining issue, according to a Fréttablaðið poll. Thanks to swift and stringent measures, the Icelandic government brought the coronavirus under control from day one, and the country has enjoyed one of the lowest infection rates in the world for most of the time. At the same time, the pandemic exposed a number of problems in the national healthcare system: staff shortages, low salaries and long waiting lists for emergency surgery.

Climate change, which Icelanders are already experiencing, was an equally important topic. This summer, the temperature has not dropped below 20°C for 59 days, an anomaly for a North-Atlantic island. However, Icelanders’ concerns never converted into increased support for the four left-leaning parties advocating greater reductions in CO2 emission than the country has committed to under the Paris Agreement: their combined result fell by 0.5%.

The economy and employment were also among the main issues in this election. The pandemic has severely damaged the island nation’s economy, which is heavily tourism-reliant—perhaps, unsurprisingly, many Icelanders are in favor of reviving the tourism sector as well as diversifying the economy further.

The EU membership, by far a ‘traditional’ issue in Icelandic politics, is unlikely to be featured on the agenda of the newly-elected parliament as the combined result of the Eurosceptics, despite a loss of 4%, still exceeds half of the overall votes. The new Althingi will probably face the issue of constitutional reform once again, which is only becoming more topical in the light of the pandemic and the equalization mandates story.

New (old) government?

The parties are to negotiate coalition formation. The most likely scenario now is that the ruling coalition of the Independence Party, the Left-Greens and the Progressives continues. It has been the most ideologically diverse and the first three-party coalition in Iceland’s history to last a full term. A successful fight against the pandemic has only strengthened its positions and helped it secure additional votes. Independence Party leader and finance minister Bjarni Benediktsson has earlier said he would be prepared to keep the ruling coalition if it holds the majority. President Guðni Jóhannesson announced immediately after the elections that he would confirm the mandate of the ruling coalition to form a new government if the three parties could strike a deal.

Other developments are possible but unlikely. Should the Left-Greens decide to leave the coalition, they could be replaced by the Reform Party or the People’s Party, while any coalition without the Independence Party can only be a four-party or larger coalition.

Who will become the new prime-minister still remains to be seen—but if the ruling coalition remains in place, the current prime-minister and leader of the Left-Greens, Katrín Jakobsdóttir, stands a good chance of keeping her post: she is still the most popular politician in Iceland with a 40 per cent approval rate.

The 2021 Althingi election, with one of the lowest turnouts in history at 80.1%, has not produced a clear winner. The election results reflect a Europe-wide trend in which traditional “major” parties are losing support. The electorate is fragmenting and their votes are pulled by smaller new parties. The coronavirus pandemic has only reinforced this trend.

The 2021 campaign did not foreshadow a sensation. Although Iceland has not become the first European country with a women’s majority in parliament, these elections will certainly go down in history as a test of Icelanders’ trust to their own democracy.

From our partner RIAC

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EU-Balkan Summit: No Set Timeframe for Western Balkans Accession

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From left to right: Janez JANŠA (Prime Minister, Slovenia), Charles MICHEL (President of the European Council), Ursula VON DER LEYEN (President of the European Commission) Copyright: European Union

On October 6, Slovenia hosted a summit between the EU and the Western Balkans states. The EU-27 met with their counterparts (Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Kosovo) in the sumptuous Renaissance setting of Brdo Castle, 30 kilometers north of the capital, Ljubljana. Despite calls from a minority of heads of state and government, there were no sign of a breakthrough on the sensitive issue of enlargement. The accession of these countries to the European Union is still not unanimous among the 27 EU member states.

During her final tour of the Balkans three weeks ago, German Chancellor Angela Merkel stated that the peninsula’s integration was of “geostrategic” importance. On the eve of the summit, Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz backed Slovenia’s goal of integrating this zone’s countries into the EU by 2030.

However, the unanimity required to begin the hard negotiations is still a long way off, even for the most advanced countries in the accession process, Albania and North Macedonia. Bulgaria, which is already a member of the EU, is opposing North Macedonia’s admission due to linguistic and cultural differences. Since Yugoslavia’s demise, Sofia has rejected the concept of Macedonian language, insisting that it is a Bulgarian dialect, and has condemned the artificial construction of a distinct national identity.

Other countries’ reluctance to join quickly is of a different nature. France and the Netherlands believe that previous enlargements (Bulgaria and Romania in 2007) have resulted in changes that must first be digested before the next round of enlargement. The EU-27 also demand that all necessary prior guarantees be provided regarding the independence of the judiciary and the fight against corruption in these countries. Despite the fact that press freedom is a requirement for membership, the NGO Reporters Without Borders (RSF) urged the EU to make “support for investigative and professional journalism” a key issue at the summit.”

While the EU-27 have not met since June, the topic of Western Balkans integration is competing with other top priorities in the run-up to France’s presidency of the EU in the first half of 2022. On the eve of the summit, a working dinner will be held, the President of the European Council, Charles Michel, called for “a strategic discussion on the role of the Union on the international scene” in his letter of invitation to the EU-Balkans Summit, citing “recent developments in Afghanistan,” the announcement of the AUKUS pact between the United States, Australia, and the United Kingdom, which has enraged Paris.

The Western Balkans remain the focal point of an international game of influence in which the Europeans seek to maintain their dominance. As a result, the importance of reaffirming a “European perspective” at the summit was not an overstatement. Faced with the more frequent incursion of China, Russia, and Turkey in that European region, the EU has pledged a 30 billion euro Economic and Investment Plan for 2021-2027, as well as increased cooperation, particularly to deal with the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Opening the borders, however, is out of the question. In the absence of progress on this issue, Albania, North Macedonia, and Serbia have decided to establish their own zone of free movement (The Balkans are Open”) beginning January 1, 2023. “We are starting today to do in the region what we will do tomorrow in the EU,” said Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama when the agreement was signed last July.

This initiative, launched in 2019 under the name “Mini-Schengen” and based on a 1990s idea, does not have the support of the entire peninsular region, which remains deeply divided over this project. While Bosnia and Herzegovina and Montenegro are not refusing to be a part of it and are open to discussions, the Prime Minister of Kosovo, Albin Kurti, who took office in 2020, for his part accuses Serbia of relying on this project to recreate “a fourth Yugoslavia”

Tensions between Balkan countries continue to be an impediment to European integration. The issue of movement between Kosovo and Serbia has been a source of concern since the end of September. Two weeks of escalation followed Kosovo’s decision to prohibit cars with Serbian license plates from entering its territory, in response to Serbia’s long-standing prohibition on allowing vehicles to pass in the opposite direction.

In response to the mobilization of Kosovar police to block the road, Serbs in Kosovo blocked roads to their towns and villages, and Serbia deployed tanks and the air force near the border. On Sunday, October 3, the conflict seemed to be over, and the roads were reopened. However, the tone had been set three days before the EU-Balkans summit.

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German Election: Ramifications for the US Foreign Policy

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Image source: twitter @OlafScholz

In the recent German election, foreign policy was scarcely an issue. But Germany is an important element in the US foreign policy. There is a number of cases where Germany and the US can cooperate, but all of these dynamics are going to change very soon.

The Germans’ strategic culture makes it hard to be aligned perfectly with the US and disagreements can easily damage the relations. After the tension between the two countries over the Iraq war, in 2003, Henry Kissinger said that he could not imagine the relations between Germany and the US could be aggravated so quickly, so easily, which might end up being the “permanent temptation of German politics”. For a long time, the US used to provide security for Germany during the Cold War and beyond, so, several generations are used to take peace for granted. But recently, there is a growing demand on them to carry more burden, not just for their own security, but for international peace and stability. This demand was not well-received in Berlin.

Then, the environment around Germany changed and new threats loomed up in front of them. The great powers’ competition became the main theme in international relations. Still, Germany was not and is not ready for shouldering more responsibility. Politicians know this very well. Ursula von der Leyen, who was German defense minister, asked terms like “nuclear weapons” and “deterrence” be removed from her speeches.

Although on paper, all major parties appreciate the importance of Germany’s relations with the US, the Greens and SPD ask for a reset in the relations. The Greens insist on the European way in transatlantic relations and SPD seeks more multilateralism. Therefore, alignment may be harder to maintain in the future. However, If the tensions between the US and China heat up to melting degrees, then external pressure can overrule the internal pressure and Germany may accede to its transatlantic partners, just like when Helmut Schmid let NATO install medium-range nuclear missiles in Europe after the Soviet Union attacked Afghanistan and the Cold War heated up.

According to the election results, now three coalitions are possible: grand coalition with CDU/CSU and SPD, traffic lights coalition with SPD, FDP, and Greens, Jamaica coalition with CDU/CSU, FDP, and Greens. Jamaica coalition will more likely form the most favorable government for the US because it has both CDU and FDP, and traffic lights will be the least favorite as it has SPD. The grand coalition can maintain the status quo at best, because contrary to the current government, SPD will dominate CDU.

To understand nuances, we need to go over security issues to see how these coalitions will react to them. As far as Russia is concerned, none of them will recognize the annexation of Crimea and they all support related sanctions. However, if tensions heat up, any coalition government with SPD will be less likely assertive. On the other hand, as the Greens stress the importance of European values like democracy and human rights, they tend to be more assertive if the US formulates its foreign policy by these common values and describe US-China rivalry as a clash between democracy and authoritarianism. Moreover, the Greens disapprove of the Nordstream project, of course not for its geopolitics. FDP has also sided against it for a different reason. So, the US must follow closely the negotiations which have already started between anti-Russian smaller parties versus major parties.

For relations with China, pro-business FDP is less assertive. They are seeking for developing EU-China relations and deepening economic ties and civil society relations. While CDU/CSU and Greens see China as a competitor, partner, and systemic rival, SPD and FDP have still hopes that they can bring change through the exchange. Thus, the US might have bigger problems with the traffic lights coalition than the Jamaica coalition in this regard.

As for NATO and its 2 percent of GDP, the division is wider. CDU/CSU and FDP are the only parties who support it. So, in the next government, it might be harder to persuade them to pay more. Finally, for nuclear participation, the situation is the same. CDU/CSU is the only party that argues for it. This makes it an alarming situation because the next government has to decide on replacing Germany’s tornados until 2024, otherwise Germany will drop out of the NATO nuclear participation.

The below table gives a brief review of these three coalitions. 1 indicates the lowest level of favoritism and 3 indicates the highest level of favoritism. As it shows, the most anti-Russia coalition is Jamaica, while the most anti-China coalition is Trafic light. Meanwhile, Grand Coalition is the most pro-NATO coalition. If the US adopts a more normative foreign policy against China and Russia, then the Greens and FDP will be more assertive in their anti-Russian and anti-Chinese policies and Germany will align more firmly with the US if traffic light or Jamaica coalition rise to power.

Issues CoalitionsTrafic LightGrand CoalitionJamaica
Russia213 
China312 
NATO132 

1 indicates the lowest level of favoritism. 3 indicates the highest level of favoritism.

In conclusion, this election should not make Americans any happier. The US has already been frustrated with the current government led by Angela Merkel who gave Germany’s trade with China the first priority, and now that the left-wing will have more say in any imaginable coalition in the future, the Americans should become less pleased. But, still, there are hopes that Germany can be a partner for the US in great power competition if the US could articulate its foreign policy with common values, like democracy and human rights. More normative foreign policy can make a reliable partner out of Germany. Foreign policy rarely became a topic in this election, but observers should expect many ramifications for it.

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