Weekly Briefing

Indonesia: disasters

Separated by 800 miles but within less than 24 hours of each other, the joint force of Indonesia's two most recent natural disasters has been severe and the full death toll is as yet unknown. At least 25 of the 5,000 people living on or around the volcano Mount Merapi in Java were killed by heat and ash after it erupted on 26 October. Although many residents have been evacuated, others are refusing to leave. Meanwhile, a tsunami off the coast of Sumatra, triggered by a 7.7-magnitude earthquake (more powerful than the one that hit Haiti in January), has killed more than 270 people on Indonesia's Mentawai Islands. Hundreds more remain missing.

Merapi is the most volatile volcano in a country prone to both geological and political instability. The worst of the eruption seems to have passed, but the clean-up has barely begun.

Burma: democracy

“We'll be expecting that this election will be a fair one, a credible one and an inclusive one," said the UN secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon, on a visit to Bangkok before Burma's 7 November general election - its first in 20 years. With more than 2,000 political prisoners in Burma - including Aung San Suu Kyi, whose latest house arrest is due to end on 13 November - the fairness odds don't look good. But Ban insisted: "It is not too late."

Anti-junta activists and Burmese migrants protesting in Bangkok were less convinced. Khin Omar of the Burma Partnership argues that, without the release of prisoners, an end to military attacks and a review of the constitution, the elections "will not bring any substantial positive change to the country but shame".

Côte d'Ivoire: elections

Three years after President Laurent Gbagbo's mandate expired, and following six postponements, Côte d'Ivoire was finally due to go to the polls on 31 October, with the results to be announced on 10 November. An additional 500 UN security personnel have been flown in to join the 8,650 already present in the country and, reporting that at least 55,000 fraudulent names have been removed from the voting register, President Gbagbo has declared himself "a happy man", ready to face the poll.

Indeed, there is plenty for him to be happy about: not only is he the likely winner, a fair and functional election will signal a new phase in the country's journey back to the stability for which it was once known, before the popular uprising of 2000 and the ensuing civil war.

Sweden: anti-far right

Counterbalancing the worrying rise of far-right groups across Europe, Tarek Alkhatib - a doctor who heads a clinic in Stockholm - has formed a new political party in reaction to the anti-immigrant Sweden Democrats (SD). The SD party gained its first ever seats in parliament in early October
and has described Islam as the biggest threat to Europe since the Second World War, calling for drastic cuts in immigration.

Alkhatib founded his party, Svartskalledemokraterna, after seeing the 20-seat gain by SD as a "clear warning signal" that immigrants must "defend ourselves through greater political activity". Others seem to agree. The party, he says, gained 1,000 members within days.

US: midterm madness

What does it say about the US that a week before the midterm elections, an online poll found "the most influential man in the country" to be Jon Stewart, with Barack Obama at number 21? One can only hope his later appearance on The Daily Show helped the president claw back some respect.

It couldn't be less successful than Obama's recent visit to Rhode Island. He was welcomed by a live radio announcement by the local Democrat candidate for governor, Frank T Caprio. The president, Caprio said, could "take his endorsement [which Caprio has not got] and really shove it".