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A man walks past Sinn Fein election posters along the nationalist Falls Road in Belfast.

REUTERS/Clodagh Kilcoyne

What We're Watching: Elections in Northern Ireland, South African president in trouble

Northern Ireland’s choice

On Thursday, voters across the UK head to the polls for local elections, but it’s the contest in Northern Ireland that might make history. Sinn Féin is expected to finish with the most seats in Northern Ireland’s assembly. Its victory would be more symbolic than immediately substantive, since power in the assembly must be shared between the two lead parties, and Sinn Féin has focused its campaign on today’s economic hardship, not on a century of Irish partition. But the symbolism matters. A Sinn Féin win would mark the first time in Northern Ireland’s 101-year history that the UK province is led by a party that supports reunification with the Republic of Ireland, an EU member state. It would make Sinn Féin the most popular party on both sides of the Irish border. And it would prove deeply embarrassing for UK PM Boris Johnson, who is fighting for his scandal-plagued political life at the moment and considering another battle with the European Union over Northern Ireland’s place in the EU’s single market.

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Russian troops arrive in Belarus for a joint response force exercise.

Russian Defence Ministry/TASS

What We’re Watching: Russia-Belarus drills, US inflation, Quad meeting, Libyan PM defiant, South African speech

War games in Belarus. On Thursday, more than 30,000 Russian troops, supported by surface-to-air missiles and fighter jets, begin 10 days of active military drills in Belarus. NATO says it’s the Kremlin’s biggest deployment there since the end of the Cold War, and it comes amid Putin’s military buildup on Ukraine’s doorstep. Western capitals worry the drills could be a smokescreen for action against Kyiv, though it’s unlikely Putin would bust a move that steals the spotlight from his pal Xi Jinping during the Winter Olympics. Still, with US troops deploying to the region and Russian warships steaming into the Black Sea, there’s a lot of firepower and room for error at a time when trust between Russia and the West is badly frayed. Any miscalculation could quickly spin out of control.

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U.S. President Joe Biden arrives for the G20 leaders summit in Rome, Italy October 30, 2021.

Brendan Smialowski/Pool via REUTERS

What We’re Watching: Biden in Europe, Gulf states vs Lebanon, elections in Nicaragua, South Africa & Virginia

Biden's Euro trip. President Joe Biden is on a crucial Euro trip. It began in Rome at the G-20 Summit, where his idea for a global minimum tax rate was broadly endorsed by the group. Biden also visited Pope Francis at the Vatican — a get-together that produced decidedly less scary photos than when his predecessor held a papal visit — and met with France's President Emmanuel Macron to try to smooth over strained relations after the AUKUS debacle, which he now says had been "clumsy." The US president had another face-to-face with Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, just a week after Ankara threatened to expel the US ambassador. But there's a domestic component at play too: Biden was hoping to have passed two infrastructure bills, which include money for climate change, before he attended the COP26 meeting in Glasgow, which kicked off on Sunday. Failure to close the deal on Capitol Hill would deal Biden's credibility a heavy blow just at the moment he wants to reinforce the US commitment to climate change reduction goals at this week's summit and to claim, yet again, that America is indeed back! But Democrats continue to wrangle over both what's in the bills and how to pay for them. Meanwhile, only a third of Americans now say that the US is headed in the right direction. Biden was hoping to have the wind at his back as he sailed into Europe. Instead, he is facing a strong political headwind.

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A supporter of the African National Congress (ANC) looks on ahead of the launch of an election manifesto at the church square in Pretoria, South Africa, September 27, 2021.

REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko

What We're Watching: South Africa's local elections

ANC feels heat as South Africa votes. South Africans go to the polls on Monday to vote in local elections, which are viewed as the biggest test for the ruling ANC party since the end of apartheid. The ANC, which has won every nationwide election since 1994, could lose control of major cities, including Johannesburg, to the opposition Democratic Alliance and coalitions of small independent parties because many South Africans are fed up with government corruption and dysfunction. Indeed, ongoing power outages are being blamed on a state-owned power utility long suspected of graft, and crumbling infrastructure on years of financial mismanagement by successive ANC-led governments. President Cyril Ramaphosa, an ANC stalwart, has admitted (some) party mistakes, and required all ANC candidates to sign a non-enforceable pledge to improve public services. More broadly, it's also the first time the ANC will face voters since the deadly riots that followed former president Jacob Zuma's conviction for contempt of court last July. Zuma is now on parole while he faces trial for corruption, but he remains immensely popular with the ANC's left wing — and a thorn in the side of his successor Ramaphosa.

South Africa: Rule of law or cult of personality?

Imagine for a moment that you have been elected president of a major country because of your promises to root out corruption and kickstart the economy. Now imagine that the moment you arrest the most corrupt person in your country's history, the streets explode in a destructive orgy of riots and looting in response.

This is the situation currently facing South Africa's president, Cyril Ramaphosa. In recent days, he has deployed the army to control the worst upheaval the country has seen in decades. Malls and warehouses have been ransacked and torched. Dozens have been reported killed. Hundreds have been arrested.

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