The Economist’s ten most popular articles of 2018

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ARTICLES ON President Donald Trump and Brexit do not take what might have been their expected positions at the top of this list. With fears about the demise of the liberal order spreading ever further around the world in 2018, our leader on the rise of the right-wing populist Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil was the most-read piece on our website. Items on Malaysia and politics in China also proved popular.  

Technology was high on the agenda, with the rise and fall of bitcoin and Silicon Valley’s hiccups featuring prominently. And perhaps reflecting a more escapist mood, or the popularity of the Oscar-winning “The Shape of Water” or even just a fantastic accompanying image, a story on humans with amphibious traits garnered a lot of attention. The full list appears below. Click on the titles or the images to read the articles in full.

1. Jair Bolsonaro, Latin America’s latest menace
September 20th

The most-read piece this year was our leader warning Brazilians not to vote for Jair Bolsonaro in October. We argued that Mr Bolsonaro, a seven-term congressman with illiberal social views and a worrying admiration for dictatorship, would make a disastrous president. Voters fed up with the rampant corruption of the formerly ruling left-wing Workers’ Party chose him all the same. 

2. Malaysia’s PM is about to steal an election
March 10th

In this leader we predicted that Najib Razak, the then prime minister of Malaysia, would steal a government election. Mr Najib stood accused of siphoning off hundreds of millions of dollars through an elaborate series of fraudulent transactions. Happily, our prediction proved ill-founded and Mr Najib lost, against all odds, to a coalition of opposition parties. 

3. A group of people with an amphibious life have evolved traits to match
April 21st

The Bajau, a people of the Malay Archipelago, spend 60% of their working day underwater. A study from earlier this year found that they had evolved traits to help them dive better. A mutation in their genome regulates the activity of a gene known to be involved in controlling blood flow, such that blood can be sent preferentially to oxygen-hungry vital organs. Another mutation is in a gene responsible for the production of an enzyme that slows the build-up of carbon dioxide in the bloodstream, a phenomenon that is associated with extreme diving.  

4. How the West got China wrong
March 1st

In February Xi Jinping, China’s president, announced that he would change the country’s constitution so that he could rule as president for as long as he chooses. That put an end to the long-held Western hope that economic liberalisation would gradually transform China into a democracy. To counter China’s misuse of political and economic power, we called for Western powers to scrutinise their links with the Chinese state and investments by Chinese companies of any kind. We also called for America to invest in new weapons systems and, most of all, ensure that it draws closer to its allies.

5. The next recession
October 11th

The next recession will not be as damaging as that of 2008. But the rich world, in particular, is ill-prepared to deal with it. When the time comes, central banks will be less able to lower interest rates, since they are already very low. They could turn to quantitative easing, but that could be much more politically contentious. And national and global co-operation, which is needed to agree on spending policies, is under strain. 

6. Bullshit jobs and the yoke of managerial feudalism
June 29th

In 2013 David Graeber, a professor at the London School of Economics, achieved viral fame after he published a short essay on the prevalence of work that had no social or economic reason to exist. He referred to these tasks as “bullshit jobs”. We interviewed Mr Graeber as part of our Open Future Initiative. “People want to feel they are transforming the world around them in a way that makes some kind of positive difference,” he says. 

7. The rise and fall of bitcoin
January 17th

Sir Isaac Newton’s law of gravity can be described as “what goes up, must come down.” The same can be said of bitcoin. In December of 2017, the price of bitcoin peaked at over $19,000. Only a month later, it was below $10,000. Bitcoin’s rise and fall is reminiscent of a bubble, having gone through a boom, euphoria and financial distress.

8. Is Netflix the new straight-to-video?
March 12th

In this Prospero blog-post, we argued that Netflix was establishing itself as a dumping ground for science-fiction films that were too bad to merit a theatrical release. The harsh assessment came after three very poorly received science-fiction films aired on the streaming platform, namely “The Cloverfield Paradox”, “Mute” and “Annihilation”. 

9. Python is becoming the world’s most popular coding language
July 26th

This chart looked at how Python, a programming language, had overtaken almost all of its rivals and made coding popular. The language’s two main advantages are its simplicity and flexibility. Its straightforward syntax and use of indented spaces make it easy to learn, read and share. The CIA has used it for hacking, Google for crawling webpages, Pixar for producing movies and Spotify for recommending songs.

10. Why startups are leaving Silicon Valley
August 30th

Silicon Valley is home to three of the world’s five most valuable companies. Its combination of engineering expertise, thriving business networks, deep pools of capital, strong universities and a risk-taking culture have made it impossible to clone, despite many attempts to do so. But in 2017 more Americans left the county of San Francisco, the Valley’s heartland, than arrived. The main reason for the exodus is that the cost of living has become too high. 

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Bangladesh’s prime minister wins a fourth term, in ruthless fashion

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AS RESULTS TRICKLED in following a turbulent day of voting, it grew increasingly clear that Sheikh Hasina Wajed was romping towards an unprecedented fourth five-year term as prime minister of Bangladesh. Along with a clutch of smaller allies, her Awami League party looked set to capture a garish 82% of the popular vote. A rival alliance dominated by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) appeared unlikely to muster more than a handful of the 300 parliamentary seats. But the embarrassingly skewed tally suggested that the BNP was not really the biggest loser. The biggest loss was for democracy itself.

Since winning independence from Pakistan in 1971, Bangladesh has held 11 national elections under radically different circumstances, ranging from absolute dictatorship to relatively open and free contests. The flawed general election of December 30th represented a sharp reversion to the less democratic end of the spectrum. This was not merely because election-day violence left at least 17 dead. The Awami League, which has has been in power continuously for ten years, flagrantly wielded the full power of state institutions, from police to courts to the Election Commission, to promote its chances. Sheikh Hasina’s party also resorted to virtually every electoral trick in the bag.

In the months leading to the vote, BNP leaders and followers found themselves relentlessly harassed by arrests and prosecutions. The party’s leader, Khaleda Zia, has languished in jail since February, on charges of misdirecting funds meant for an orphanage. During December, BNP officials say, no fewer than 10,000 party supporters were rounded up and imprisoned, including 17 candidates in the election. Another 18 candidates were disqualified on varied grounds—including in Ms Zia’s home seat, a party stronghold—and some 51 others were assaulted during the election campaign. 

The sweeping nature of the repression meant that on voting day, few of the BNP’s electoral agents—who guide voters and monitor the process—dared show up at the 40,000 polling stations. By contrast, the Awami League fielded 120,000 agents. In Dhaka, the capital, it was hard to find a single poster for the BNP among the tens of thousands boosting the Awami League. In constituencies expected to lean to the ruling party lines were short and voting easy. In others, voters complained of having to wait for hours, of voting stations closing for lunch, and of reaching ballot boxes only to be told the ballots had run out. “Its like Microsoft 360: they’ve got it all covered,” remarked a BNP follower wryly.

The question that puzzles many in Bangladesh is, why? Why should Sheikh Hasina pull out so many stops to ensure a victory that most observers had assumed was in the bag in any case? Opinion polls had universally shown a solid advantage for the Awami League. Its decade in power has seen incomes triple, exports soar, and every measure of human development leap ahead. Heavy-handed policing and fierce repression of the Awami League’s political adversaries has little effect on ordinary Bangladeshis, who are happy that the spectre of Islamist terrorism has lifted, and proud that their country is hosting some 700,000 Rohingya refugees from neighbouring Myanmar. 

Sheikh Hasina seems to bear a personal grudge against perceived enemies, which springs both from the murder of her father and other relatives in 1975 (he had led the independence movement and served as Bangladesh’s first prime minister) and from an attempt on her own life that has been tied to figures in the BNP. Some of the ruling party’s rivals suggest that it needs to cling to power to cover its own corruption. The more sympathetic say that the BNP was in fact just as high-handed and perhaps more corrupt while in power, and allied to radical Islamists to boot.

The question now is whether the Awami League’s landslide will bring relief, in the form of a government confident enough to ease up, or increased repression. A recent tweet from Sheikh Hasina’s influential son, Sajeed Wajed, is not reassuring in this regard: “Western media has called every eastern leader who developed his country rapidly authoritarian. Leaders like #Mahatir of #Malaysia, #LeeKwanYu of #Singapore. Can’t find any other fault, sling authoritarian mud!”

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Congo has a shambolic, unfair election, two years late

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STANDING ON A chair in a shabby classroom, a technician uses his teeth to peel the plastic off the end of a cable, before attaching it to some exposed wires that dangle around a light bulb. “Soon the machine will work again,” he says cheerfully to a queue of voters, most of whom have waited for more than five hours to cast their ballots. Where are the spare batteries that for months the electoral commission promised would be supplied? “Oh, in some urban areas we don’t have them, but luckily we have had electricity all day today,” replies the technician.

Across Kinshasa, the Democratic Republic of Congo’s capital, some 544 voting machines did not work on presidential polling day, December 30th. The electronic tablets, nicknamed machines à voler (stealing machines), did little to redeem their dodgy reputation. They were hard to use. Many malfunctioned. Officials from the electoral commission (which many people think is in President Joseph Kabila’s pocket) helped voters a bit too much, nudging them to cast ballots for the president’s chosen successor, Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary.

Opinion polls in such a vast and disorderly place as Congo must be treated sceptically. Nonetheless, the ones before the election showed that the main opposition candidates were far more popular than Mr Shadary, a former interior minister with a reputation for cracking heads. Martin Fayulu, a successful former oil executive, promised better governance and less corruption. Félix Tshisekedi, the son of a dead democracy activist, vowed rather improbably to raise average incomes nearly tenfold.

Mr Shadary, by contrast, is seen as offering more of the same. In a country where nearly everyone is poor, rebels rape and rob with impunity and officials are mostly predatory, that is hardly appealing.

Still, Mr Shadary has advantages that the other candidates lack. In one polling station in Kinshasa, where the government is heartily disliked, your correspondent saw a limping old lady failing to fend off the “assistance” given by an election official, who lingered nearby as she voted. In another the head of a voting station forgot the password for the machines and had not managed to turn any of them on by 2pm, complained Vital Kamerhe, a member of the opposition. Some polling stations in Limete, a district in Kinshasa where Mr Tshisekedi lives and enjoys massive support, opened four hours late. Officials said they did not have all the necessary voting materials. Although polling places were meant to close at 5pm, some were still open at 9pm. Even so, large numbers of frustrated would-be voters were turned away when the doors were closed.

Voting was barred in two eastern regions where the president is widely detested. The reasons given were semi-plausible: insecurity caused by marauding rebels and an outbreak of the deadly Ebola virus. But still, opposition supporters smelled a rat. In one excluded city, Beni, residents queued up outside makeshift polling stations and staged a mock vote in protest (pictured).

Power in Congo has never changed hands peacefully via the ballot box. Its former leaders were either shot or forced to flee. Mr Kabila, who has been in power since 2001, has tried hard to derail the democratic process. An election he won in 2011 was widely seen as a sham. When his supposedly final term expired in 2016, he refused to step down, citing the difficulty of organising an election in such a chaotic country. His police shot and killed people taking part in pro-democracy rallies. He clung to office unconstitutionally for another two years. When mounting international pressure forced him to call an election, he blocked his two biggest rivals (Moïse Katumbi and Jean-Pierre Bemba) from standing.

Mr Kabila made sure that Mr Shadary’s campaign was far more visible than his rivals’. His message boomed out constantly on national radio and television. Opposition candidates struggled to be heard.

Intimidation was rife. When Mr Fayulu hosted rallies, the police shot at his supporters. After three people were killed, Mr Fayulu was banned from campaigning in the capital. In some eastern provinces the army put a boot on the scale. “Soldiers…accompanied me to the booth and told me that if I didn’t vote for Shadary I would be arrested,” one voter said in a message that spread on social media.

On the plus side, the capital and most of the country remained calm by Congolese standards. However, if Mr Kabila’s chosen successor is announced as the winner, perhaps at the end of this week, people will be furious. And there is no guarantee that Congo will remain calm.

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Amos Oz, a torn Israeli

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IN THE 1940s, when Amos Oz’s father had to choose a primary school for his son, there were two options within walking distance of their home in Jerusalem—a religious school or one belonging to a Socialist-Zionist workers’ union. Yehuda Klausner, a staunchly secular academic and right-wing nationalist, chose to send him to the religious school, reckoning that the important thing was that Mr Oz shun Bolshevism. While socialism was spreading like wildfire, religion was on the wane and would soon disappear from the land. 

He was wrong both on a national and a personal level. In the new state of Israel, socialists would dominate for the first three decades but then gradually lose their dominance. Religion endured. As for young Mr Oz, shaken by his mother’s suicide, he would rebel against his father, leaving Jerusalem at 14 to become a member of a kibbutz, a Socialist-Zionist agricultural collective. There the haunted young man would try and recreate himself, even changing his name from the Ashkenazi diasporic Klausner, to Oz, a short, stark and austere Hebrew word meaning courage. Years later he said that was the only thing he lacked.

Mr Oz, who died on December 28th, was for half a century Israel’s most celebrated writer, producing fiction, political essays and polemics. In his work, as in his life, he struggled to realise the brave new Jewish state he and his parents’ generation had yearned for. His early work was, like him, torn between the utopian experiment of the kibbutz he tried so hard to be a part of, and the Jerusalem he never fully escaped. 

His first collection of short stories, “Where the Jackals Howl” (1965), and his first novel, “Elsewhere, Perhaps” (1966), dealt with kibbutz life. But instead of describing his fellow young kibbutzniks as having found peace and satisfaction in tilling the land, he wrote of their “sadness of distance”, how “their hearts go out to other places that are not specific, but are far.” His own heart returned to his birthplace. His breakthrough novel, “My Michael” (1968), was about the tortured fantasies of a doomed young woman in 1950s Jerusalem.

“My Michael” was the bestseller that established Mr Oz as Israel’s foremost author, and it was translated into more than 30 languages. Only 34 years later, when his monumental memoir, “A Tale of Love and Darkness”, was published, did it become clear that he had been writing about his own mother. But literary success and confronting his own personal demons was never enough for Mr Oz, who publicly wrestled with Israel’s internal furies throughout his writing career.

In 1967, during the six-day war, he served as a speech-writer for Israel’s victorious generals. At the time he had believed in the war as a justified action of defence against hostile Arab neighbours. But as Israel began to grapple with the realities of a military occupation of millions of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, he was one of the first to warn his fellow citizens. “We were not born to be a nation of masters,” he wrote in a column in Davar, the newspaper of the ruling socialist party. Ten years later Likud came to power, and in the years since, Israel has mostly been ruled by a coalition of right-wing and religious nationalists, bent on remaining masters of the land.

Mr Oz became one of the leading lights of Israel’s peace camp, and a confidante of politicians including Shimon Peres, a prime minister and president. At the same time, he repeatedly tried to engage with the Jewish settlers in the West Bank and other sections of Israel’s society with whom he had bitter differences. While much of his international renown was a result of his 19 novels and collections of short stories, for many Israelis, the true-life accounts of his journeys throughout the land and his meetings with its inhabitants were of even greater importance. “In the Land of Israel”, a collection of Mr Oz’s journalistic essays from the early 1980s on conversations with Israelis and Palestinians, is still read as a pivotal documentary on life in Israel and the West Bank. It also inspired a generation of Israeli and Jewish writers (including your correspondent) to become journalists. 

As the Israeli occupation of Palestinians remained unresolved, Mr Oz, like other liberal Israelis with prominent international voices, increasingly found himself harshly criticising his country at home while defending it abroad. On his 75th birthday in Tel Aviv, he warned of the presence of “Hebrew Neo-Nazis” in Israel. However, he supported Israel’s recent wars in Lebanon and Gaza as necessary acts of defence against “the dark shadows of Iran, Syria and fanatic Islam”. He argued Israel’s case with a historical comparison he made in his memoir: “Out there, in the world, all the walls were covered with graffiti: ‘Yids, go back to Palestine,’ so we came back to Palestine, and now the world at large shouts at us: ‘Yids, get out of Palestine.’”

Mr Oz’s last novel, “Judas” (2014), was his final literary return to Jerusalem, to those young doomed academics—like his parents—in Israel’s early years, struggling to make sense of Jewish history and of their own present. He was never to find peace. He had left the torn city 60 years earlier, but was never fully at home in Kibbutz Hulda. He moved to the Negev desert town of Arad, and lived his last years in the secular and liberal enclave of Tel Aviv. In those years, he continued to write, publishing collections of essays on Jewish literature, fanaticism and love. In his last interview, two months before his death, he described himself as “an involved citizen who writes a lot”.

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