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Merkel’s Conservatives Widen Lead 5 Months Before German Vote

German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservative Christian Democrats have opened a seven-point lead over the center-left Social Democrats five months ahead of the Sept. 24 election, according to a poll on Sunday in the Bild am Sonntag newspaper.

The Emnid institute survey found the Christian Democrats and their Christian Social Union allies winning 36 percent of the vote if the election were held on Sunday, unchanged from a similar Emnid poll for Bild am Sonntag taken a week ago.

But the Social Democrats (SPD), led by their chancellor candidate Martin Schulz, continued to slide and lost two percentage points in the week to 29 percent. The CDU/CSU long held a comfortable lead in polls until Schulz was nominated in early 2017 and lifted the SPD to the same levels as the CDU/CSU.

The latest poll, taken just one week before an important state election in Schleswig-Holstein, also showed the CDU/CSU’s preferred coalition partner, the Free Democrats (FDP), rising one point to 6 percent in the last week.

The center-right alliance would still be well short of winning a majority in parliament with 42 percent.

The far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) would win 9 percent, unchanged over the week. All parties have said they will not join forces with the AfD, making it more difficult to form the next government.

The SPD’s preferred partner, the Greens, rose 1 point to 7 percent in the last week. The far-left Linke party would win an unchanged 9 percent, according to the latest Emnid poll. The so-called “red-red-green” alliance of SPD, Linke and Greens would also fall short of a majority with 45 percent.

The CDU/CSU and SPD currently lead Germany in a grand coalition government. Both parties have said they do not want to continue that arrangement after the Sept. 24 election.

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FIFA Official Sheikh Ahmad Resigning Amid Bribery Claims

FIFA Council member Sheikh Ahmad al-Fahad al-Sabah of Kuwait is resigning from his soccer roles under pressure from allegations in an American federal court that he bribed Asian officials.

Sheikh Ahmad said Sunday in a statement he will withdraw from a May 8 election in Bahrain for the FIFA seat representing Asia, which he currently holds.

“I do not want these allegations to create divisions or distract attention from the upcoming AFC [Asian Football Confederation] and FIFA Congresses,” said the Kuwaiti royal, who denies any wrongdoing.

“Therefore, after careful consideration, I have decided it is in the best interests of FIFA and the AFC, for me to withdraw my candidacy for the FIFA Council and resign from my current football positions,” he said.

The long-time Olympic Council of Asia president contacted the ethics panels of FIFA and the IOC after the allegations were made in Brooklyn federal courthouse on Thursday.

FIFA audit committee member Richard Lai, an American citizen from Guam, pleaded guilty to wire fraud conspiracy charges related to taking around $1 million in bribes, including from Kuwaiti officials. The cash was to buy influence and help recruit other Asian soccer officials prepared to take bribes, Lai said in court.

Sheikh Ahmad resigned his candidacy ahead of a FIFA panel deciding whether to remove him on ethical grounds.

The FIFA Review Committee, which rules on the integrity of people seeking senior FIFA positions, has been studying the sheikh’s candidacy since the allegations emerged, The Associated Press reported on Saturday.

The FIFA ethics committee is making a separate assessment of whether to provisionally suspend the sheikh, a long-time leader of Kuwait’s soccer federation who was elected to FIFA’s ruling committee in 2015.

Resigning from his soccer positions does not necessarily put Sheikh Ahmad out of reach of FIFA ethics prosecutors and judges if any action was taken.

In 2012, former FIFA presidential candidate Mohamed bin Hammam of Qatar was banned for life by the ethics committee days after he resigned.

Bin Hammam was also clearly identified in Lai’s court hearing for having paid Lai a total of $100,000 in bribes to support the Qatari’s failed challenge to FIFA’s then-president Sepp Blatter in 2011. Bin Hammam was removed from that election contest in a Caribbean bribery case.

Sheikh Ahmad has also contacted the IOC’s ethics commission about the allegations against him, the IOC said on Saturday.

As president since 2012 of the global group of national Olympic bodies, known as ANOC, Sheikh Ahmad’s support has often been cited as key to winning Olympic election and hosting awards. The sheikh was widely credited for helping Thomas Bach win the IOC presidency in 2013.

Although Sheikh Ahmad was not named in Department of Justice and court documents last week, he has become one of the most significant casualties of the sprawling U.S. federal investigation of bribery and corruption in international soccer revealed two years ago.

The sheikh could be identified in a transcript of Lai’s court hearing which said “co-conspirator [hash]2 was also the president of Olympic Council of Asia.” Sheikh Ahmad has been OCA president since 1991.

Co-conspirator #3 was described as having a “high-ranking” role at OCA, and also linked to the Kuwait soccer federation.

According to the published transcript, Lai claimed he “received at least $770,000 in wire transfers from accounts associated with Co-Conspirator [hash]3 and the OCA between November of 2009 and about the fall of 2014.”

“I understood that the source of this money was ultimately Co-Conspirator #2 and on some occasion Co-Conspirator #3 told me to send him an email saying that I need funds so he could show the email to Co-Conspirator #2,” Lai said in court.

Lai admitted that he agreed to help recruit other Asian officials that voted in FIFA elections who would help Kuwait’s interests.

The Guam soccer federation leader since 2001, Lai pleaded guilty to wire fraud conspiracy charges and failing to disclose foreign bank accounts. He agreed to pay more than $1.1 million in forfeiture and penalties, and will be sentenced at a later date.

The American federal investigation of corruption linked to FIFA has indicted or taken guilty pleas from more than 40 people and marketing agencies linked to soccer in the Americas since 2015.

Lai’s case marked the first major step into Asia, and suggests other soccer officials potentially recruited by the Kuwait faction could be targeted.

The Asian election for FIFA seats on May 8 in Manama, Bahrain, is the same day as a FIFA Council meeting which the sheik will not attend. The FIFA congress is held in the city three days later.

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Pope Calls for End to Violence, Respect for Human Rights, in Venezuela

Pope Francis called on Sunday for the respect of human rights and an end to violence in Venezuela, where nearly 30 people were killed in unrest this month.

Francis, speaking to tens of thousands of people in St. Peter’s Square for his weekly address, decried a “grave humanitarian, social , political and economic crisis that is exhausting the population”.

Venezuela’s opposition is demanding elections, autonomy for the legislature where they have a majority, a humanitarian aid channel from abroad to alleviate an economic crisis, and freedom for more than 100 activists jailed by President Nicolas Maduro’s government.

“I make a heartfelt appeal to the government and all components of Venezuelan society to avoid any more forms of violence, respect human rights and seek a negotiated solution …,” he said.

Supporters say Leopoldo Lopez, the jailed head of the hardline opposition Popular Will party, and others are political prisoners whose arrests symbolize Maduro’s lurch into dictatorship.

Maduro says all are behind bars for legitimate crimes, and calls Lopez, 45, a violent hothead intent on promoting a coup.

Vatican-led talks between the government and the opposition have broken down.

Francis told reporters on the plane returning from Cairo on Saturday that “very clear conditions” were necessary for the talks to resume.

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Macedonian Politicians Turn Parliament Violence in War of Words

Macedonia’s rival parties are trading blame for violence in parliament, while world powers are giving opposing reactions to the events.

The European Union and the United States condemned Thursday’s attack, in which protesters stormed the Macedonian parliament in Skopje, attacking opposition lawmakers after they elected an ethnic Albanian speaker.

Russia blamed the events on the West, saying it had meddled in the Balkan nation’s internal affairs.

Pointing fingers

In Macedonia, the previous night’s violence turned into a war of words between rival politicians on Friday.

Zoran Zaev, the head of the opposition Social Democrats, who were targeted in the attack, accused the attackers of attempted murder.

Former Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski, whose supporters were among the mob that stormed the parliament, said he deplored the violence, but he accused the opposition of instigating it with an attempted power grab.

Interior Minister Agim Nuhiu announced his resignation Friday over the night’s events. He told reporters that 10 lawmakers and an unspecified number of journalists were among those hurt.

The interior ministry said 102 people were treated at city hospitals.

Speaker election

The violence began Thursday after lawmakers from the Social Democrats and ethnic Albanian parties elected former Defense Minister Talat Xhaferi speaker, even though the country has no functioning government.

Demonstrators stormed the parliament and began throwing chairs and attacking opposition lawmakers.

Demonstrators blocked the door of the chamber, refusing to let lawmakers leave as demonstrators waved flags in lawmakers’ faces and shouted “traitors.” Police outside the building fired stun grenades to break up the crowd.

 

 

Zaev’s Social Democrats and the ethnic Albanians would have enough seats to form a coalition government, but President Gjorge Ivanov has refused to give him a mandate.

The conservatives won December’s parliamentary election, but without enough seats to form a government. Coalition talks with other parties collapsed over ethnic Albanian demands to make Albanian an official language.

International reaction

The United States condemned Thursday’s violence “in the strongest terms.” In a statement posted on its State Department website, the U.S. Embassy in Skopje said the violence “is not consistent with democracy and is not an acceptable way to resolve differences.”

The U.S. called on all parties to “refrain from violent actions which exacerbate the situation.”

The European Union also condemned Thursday’s violence. 

“I condemn the attacks on MPs in Skopje in the strongest terms. Violence has no place in parliament,” enlargement commissioner Johannes Hahn said. “Democracy must run its course.”

However, Russia blamed the events on the West, saying the Macedonian opposition had “foreign patrons.”

A Foreign Ministry statement said Xhaferi’s election was an “unceremonious manipulation of the will of citizens” and said EU and U.S. representatives were quick to recognize the speaker, indicating the vote was planned in advance.

The United Nations said in a statement by the U.N. secretary-general’s spokesman that it is “following developments unfolding in the former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia with great concern and call for restraint and calm. Violence directed at democratic institutions and elected representatives of the people is unacceptable.”

Macedonia has a Slavic majority, but about a third of the population is ethnic Albanian. The Balkan country aspires to join the European Union and NATO.

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French National Front Has Third Leader in One Week

France’s far-right National Front, the party of presidential candidate Marine Le Pen, has replaced its leader for the second time in three days.

Jean-Francois Jalkh, who was named interim president of the party on Tuesday after Le Pen stepped down, was forced to vacate the office in response to allegations he praised a Holocaust denier. He also expressed doubts about the reality of Nazi gas chambers, which killed millions of Jews during World War II.

Jalkh is being replaced by Steeve Briois. Each has served as one of the party’s five vice presidents.

Another party vice president, Louis Aliot — Marine Le Pen’s partner — told reporters that Briois would take over the interim leadership and “there’ll be no more talk about it.”

It is a blow to the campaign of Le Pen, who had a better-than-expected showing in French elections on Sunday and faces a runoff with centrist rival Emmanuel Macron on May 7.

Le Pen raised controversy earlier in the campaign by saying France was not responsible for the roundup and demise of thousands of Parisian Jews during World War II.

Ironically, she expelled her father, party founder Jean-Marie Le Pen, from the party in 2015 because he referred to the Holocaust as a “detail of history.”

Macron is expected to win the May 7 runoff, but experts say an unexpected voter turnout could rock the results to one side or the other.

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Medvedev’s Popularity Sinks Amid May Day Politics in Russia

The independent Russian television channel Dozhd (Rain) reported Friday that the central executive committee of the country’s ruling party, United Russia, had distributed to its regional branches a list of 36 slogans that party activists should use during party activities next week marking the annual May Day holiday.

While, according to Dozhd, the slogans include some praising the country’s president (“Putin is for the People, He is Leading Russia to Success!”) and others condemning corruption (“Praise Honesty, Jail Bribe-takers!”), none of them refers to the Russian prime minister, Dmitry Medvedev, who happens to be United Russia’s formal head.

 

The likely reason for that omission is not hard to figure out: Medvedev has seen his popularity drop sharply since early March, when anti-corruption blogger and opposition leader Alexei Navalny published a video investigation into the prime minister’s alleged wealth. It offered viewers shots of yachts, villas, and even a winery in a picturesque Italian village, all allegedly belonging to Medvedev.

A survey released Thursday by the Levada Center, Russia’s only independent national polling agency, found that Medvedev’s “trust” rating had fallen to a record low since Navalny’s video was posted and viewed more than 20 million times.

Bloomberg News, citing two Medvedev “allies,” reported this week that he “is more worried than ever about his political future.”

The news agency quoted President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, as brushing aside the drop in Medvedev’s approval, saying “ratings go up and down, that’s a normal process.”

Still, Peskov declined to say whether the prime minister still “enjoys Putin’s full trust,” Bloomberg reported.

The prime minister has become a lightning rod for Russian anger over official malfeasance. On March 26, an estimated 60,000 people answered Navalny’s call and took to the streets in more than 80 Russian cities to protest corruption. Many protesters mocked Medvedev’s taste for expensive athletic shoes by hanging sneakers on street lamps.

Medvedev finally responded to Navalny’s video in early April. He claimed, among other things, that the allegations of corruption cited in the video were based on “nonsense” about “acquaintances and people that I have never even heard of.” He also obliquely referred to Navalny as “a political opportunist” who is trying to seize power.

Meanwhile, another Levada poll published this week found that 45 percent of respondents would like to see Medvedev dismissed as prime minister, up sharply from the 33 percent who felt that way last November.

Medvedev’s press secretary, Natalya Timakova, a former Kremlin pool reporter, called the Levada poll a “political hit job.”

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British Economy Slows as Brexit Vote Boosts Inflation

Britain’s economy slowed sharply in the first three months of 2017 as higher inflation, boosted by last year’s Brexit vote, hit spending on the high street and hurt other consumer-focused businesses.

With the country heading for an election June 8, there were other signs Friday of a slowdown in the economy as house prices fell for a second month and measures of consumer confidence fell.

The Office for National Statistics said growth in the overall economy weakened to a one-year low of 0.3 percent in the January-March period from 0.7 percent in the last three months of 2016.

That represented a sharper slowdown in the rate of quarterly gross domestic product growth than the drop to 0.4 percent forecast by economists in a Reuters poll.

Last year, on par with Germany

Last year, Britain vied with Germany to be the fastest growing of the world’s major advanced economies with annual growth of 1.8 percent, defying widespread predictions of recession after the vote to leave the European Union.

But Friday’s figures are the clearest sign so far that the country is slowing in the run-up to the early election called by Prime Minister Theresa May.

British finance minister Philip Hammond said the economy remained resilient.

Fair to blame Brexit

But Alan Clarke, an economist at Scotiabank, said he expected it would slow further in the coming months.

“This weakness is likely to be blamed on Brexit. That is probably fair,” Clarke said, citing higher inflation.

“We see the trough in growth at 0.2 percent quarter-on-quarter towards the end of this year, when the squeeze from inflation is at its most intense,” he added.

The June 2016 Brexit vote led to a big fall in the value of sterling, which is now starting to push up inflation and eat into consumers’ disposable income.

The ONS said the biggest drag to first-quarter growth came from retailers and hotels, which had been hurt by higher prices.

Official data last week showed the biggest quarterly fall in retail sales since 2010.

Consumer price inflation is rising at its fastest since September 2013 as companies pass on increased costs caused by sterling’s slide in value since the Brexit vote, and many economists expect it to hit 3 percent later this year.

Despite the pick-up in inflation, the Bank of England is widely expected to keep interest rates at their record low of 0.25 percent as it waits to see the full impact of Brexit on the country’s economy.

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Stockholm Truck Attack Toll Rises to Five

A woman in her 60s who was injured in the April 7 truck attack in Stockholm has died, Swedish authorities said Friday, raising the death toll to five.

The Stockholm police said in a statement the woman, who has not been publicly identified, had been hospitalized in southern Sweden.

Other victims of attack were an 11-year-old Swedish girl, a 31-year-old Belgian woman, a 69-year-old Swedish woman, and a 41-year-old Briton whom the British government identified as Chris Bevington. Fourteen others were injured in the attack.

A 39-year-old Uzbek man, Rakhmat Akilov, has pleaded guilty to a terrorist crime for ramming the truck into a crowd on a main pedestrian shopping street in the Swedish capital. Police have not disclosed a motive for the attack and no extremist group has claimed responsibility for it.

Akilov’s Swedish residency application was rejected last year, but police said there was nothing to indicate he might plan an attack. After the rejection, Akilov had been been ordered to leave Sweden in December. Instead, he allegedly eluded authorities’ attempts to track him down.

Akilov was caught in a northern suburb of Stockholm, hours after he drove the stolen beer truck into the crowd of afternoon shoppers outside the Ahlens store.

The attack shocked Sweden, known for its welcoming policy toward migrants and refugees.

In 2015, a record 163,000 asylum-seekers arrived in the country, the highest per-capita rate in Europe. The government responded by tightening border controls and curtailing some immigrant rights.

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British Police Say Raids Break up Terror Plot

British counterterror police have shot a woman and arrested six people in raids in London and southeastern England. A senior officer said Friday the arrests disrupted an active terrorist plot.

 

The woman in her 20s is in serious but stable condition in a hospital after the raid on a house in Willesden, northwest London, the Metropolitan Police said Friday.

 

In footage shot by a witness, what sounds like several shots ring out as police surround the row house Thursday evening. 

Woman in hospital, not arrested

 

Police said the injured woman was the subject of an ongoing investigation. She is under police guard but has not been arrested.

 

A 20-year-old woman and a 16-year-old boy were arrested at that address, as was a 20-year-old man nearby. A man and a woman both age 28 were arrested when they returned to the house later.

 

A 43-year-old woman in Kent county, south of London, was also arrested.

 

Police say the suspects are being held on suspicion of preparation of terrorist acts.

 

A police statement says the raids were not related to Thursday’s incident near Parliament in which a man was arrested while allegedly carrying large knives in a backpack.

Police say threat contained

 

Metropolitan Police Deputy Assistant Commissioner Neil Basu said the Willesden raid disrupted an ongoing plot, but did not elaborate.

 

Basu said that in both the Willesden and Parliament incidents, “we have contained the threat that they posed.”

 

Britain’s official threat level from international terrorism stands at the second-highest, severe, meaning an attack is highly likely. 

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US: More Pressure on Russia Needed to Halt Syrian Conflict

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley ratcheted up her rhetoric against Russia on Thursday, saying more pressure needs to be put on Moscow to stop the war in Syria.

“Many of you said we need to put pressure on the Syrian regime; that’s actually not the case. We need to put pressure on Russia,” Haley told her counterparts on the 15-nation Security Council.

The council was holding its monthly meeting on the humanitarian situation in Syria, where U.N. aid chief Stephen O’Brien told them that at least six hospitals and three schools have been bombed there this month, and a “noose has tightened” around besieged eastern Ghouta, where some 400,000 people have been cut off from U.N. aid convoys since October 2016.

“All eyes and all pressure now need to go to Russia, because they are the ones that could stop this if they wanted to,” Haley said.

The U.S. envoy said the regime of Bashar al-Assad has been emboldened by its continued protection from Moscow.

“Because Russia continues to cover for the Syrian regime, Russia continues to allow them to keep humanitarian aid from the people that need it, Russia continues to cover for a leader that uses chemical weapons against his own people, Russia continues to veto and Assad continues to do these things, because they know Russia will continue to cover for him,” Haley said.

“I will continue to press the Security Council to act, to do something regardless if the Russians continue to veto it, because it is our voice that needs to be heard,” she added.

Russia has used its veto eight times in the 6-year-long conflict to protect the Assad regime from sanctions and other international action.

Russian response

“The ongoing criticism of the Syrian government and the emotional calls to the country guarantors, including Russia, don’t help anything,” Russia’s acting ambassador Petr Illichev told council members. “We are carrying out our obligations in good faith; there are other important players who are not hurrying to meet us halfway.”

Russia, along with Iran and Turkey, led talks in Astana, Kazakhstan, that led to a cessation of hostilities in December that can be described as shaky at best. But the Russian envoy told council members that, “In Syria as a whole, the cessation of hostilities is holding.”

This despite a poison gas attack earlier this month and ongoing shelling, airstrikes and ground fighting in several parts of the country.

Israeli airstrikes

Earlier Thursday, the Russian government called on Israel and other countries to avoid any actions that may escalate tension in Syria, after Syrian officials accused Israel of conducting airstrikes against an arms supply hub near Damascus International Airport.

“All countries need to refrain from any kind of actions that lead to an increase in tension in this already restive region,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters in Moscow.

Peskov also said Syria’s sovereignty should be respected.

The arms hub is operated by the Lebanese group Hezbollah. Syrian rebel and regional intelligence sources said the strikes targeted weapons that were shipped from Iran on military and commercial cargo planes.

Throughout the Syrian war, which began in March 2011, Israel has made it clear it would not allow shipments of weapons from Iran to Hezbollah units fighting in Syria. Israeli forces have on multiple occasions used airstrikes or other attacks to stop such moves, with the military often declining to confirm it was responsible for the strikes.

Hezbollah and Israel fought each other in the 2006 Lebanon War.

VOA’s Chris Hannas contributed to this report.

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Greek, Turkish Cypriot Officials Tour Unfinished Crossing

A new crossing point intended to encourage Cyprus’ hoped-for reunification is nearing completion two years after the delay-plagued project was announced, Greek and Turkish Cypriot officials were told Thursday.

The Deryneia crossing, located near the east coast of Cyprus, was hailed as another important milestone in helping to build trust between the ethnically divided island’s breakaway Turkish Cypriots in the north and Greek Cypriots living in the internationally recognized south.

Greek Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades and Turkish Cypriot leader Mustafa Akinci announced the crossing in May 2015, when they launched a new round of negotiations aimed at reunifying Cyprus as a federation.

But there have been delays, and work on the new passageway remains unfinished while troubled reunification talks trudge on.

Slovakia’s ambassador to Cyprus, Oksana Tomova, organized a tour of the crossing point on Thursday, calling the link “one of the most important confidence-building measures agreed by the leaders of the two communities.”

Deryneia would be the eighth such crossing since 2003, when the first cut was made through a U.N.-controlled buffer zone nearly three decades after Cyprus’ was divided. The island’s split came in 1974 when Turkey invaded following a coup by supporters of uniting Cyprus with Greece.

Most of the road work has been finished. But barbed wire, metal obstacles, acacias and other unchecked vegetation still crowd the 150-yard stretch across the no-man’s land that a nearby U.N. guard post oversees.

Deryneia Mayor Andros Karagiannis said the crossing’s opening would be an economic boon for his community by increasing tourist traffic and easing commerce between Greek and Turkish Cypriots.

Turkish Cypriot Halil Onashi said it would only take “a couple of minutes” to cross southwards from his home instead of having to take a longer, circuitous route through another crossing point.

No one on the tour could explain the reasons behind the delays. But an official with knowledge of the project’s details who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly about the project said all that remains is for funding to be allocated.

“We want to believe that it’ll open the soonest,” said Averof Neophytou, president of the largest Greek Cypriot political party, the right-wing Democratic Rally. “But it’s not enough to open crossing points after 43 years. … What we want is to reunify our divided country.”

In August 1996, the area where the new crossing will be located was the site of the worst outbreak of violence since the invasion. A Greek Cypriot man taking part in a protest against the island’s division was killed after being attacked by Turkish Cypriots. His cousin was fatally shot trying to take down a Turkish flag at a guard post a couple days later.

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Narrow Turkish Referendum Victory Reveals Economic Concerns

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s referendum victory to extend his powers was bittersweet.  

For the first time he lost in Turkey’s main cities, including Istanbul, which has been his electoral power base since 1994.  In the aftermath of his narrow win he has ordered a party investigation into the vote.  The drop in support coincides with an economic slowdown, an ominous sign given the president is facing crucial polls in two years.

Erdogan’s unprecedented electoral successes were largely achieved in a period of economic boom, but those halcyon days appear to be waning.  

“Currently, inflation rate is at 11.3 percent and is expected to increase further to around 12 percent in the coming months,” observes Inan Demir, an economist for Nomura Bank, “It would constitute the highest inflation rate since before the global financial crisis in 2009.  Also, unemployment is at multi-year highs.  So we are talking about a significant jump in the inflation and unemployment rate.”

The impact of the economic slowdown has been felt the most in western Turkey, where more than 70 percent of the country’s economic production is located, and most closely linked to European markets.  The same region saw some of the biggest drops in support for the president in the referendum vote.  While the Turkish economy is predicted to grow faster than that of Europe, it is still below the rate needed to absorb new entrants into the labor market.

Disaffected youth

A striking development of the referendum was the youth vote, overwhelmingly voting no, bucking its traditionally stalwart support for Erdogan.  

“Youth unemployment is affecting the first-time vote.  The youth unemployment ratio was 25 percent, according to the last data, notes Atilla Yesilada, a political consultant with Global Source Partners, “Fifty-eight percent of first-time voters voted “No.” (citing IPSOS research).  According to OECD research, Turkish students are the unhappiest in the world with 72 percent saying they are very unhappy with conditions.  So given Turkey’s very high rate of young population, up to six percent of the voters in the next election cycle, which starts in March 2019, will be first-time voters, which in my view is slipping from their [Erdogan government’s] grasp”.

 2019 is scheduled for an unprecedented three polls – of local, general and presidential elections.

Erdogan’s success in the referendum was due in part to the overwhelmingly support he received in the rural heartland of the country, known as Anatolia, a region that has particularly benefited from the expansion of social security benefits under Erdogan’s AK Party rule.

“I detect that certain voters are becoming clients of AKP, these people can’t survive in the globalized economy of Turkey,” claims consultant Yesilada, “they are largely existing on account of the welfare state and also  AKP has been very successful in imposing the view entitlements are coming form the party, rather than the state.  So a dependency has been created between the poor in Anatolia and AKP, and these are people are so afraid if AKP ever loses they will lose their entitlements.”

In the run-up to the referendum, the government again turned to state intervention, launching major programs of cheap loans for businesses, job creation schemes, and massive public works projects.

Early elections?

Economists predict that with individuals and private companies racked with debt, more state intervention is likely, ”Turkey will find it difficult to sustain that debt-fueled growth, that’s why the public sector will play an increasing role in supporting economic activity going forward.  Personally, I expect elections to be held earlier than the current schedule.  I would not be surprised to see elections by this time next year.  So I think it can be sustained until that time.”

The pressure to call early elections will deepen worries about how the government will fund it’s growing economic and financial programs.  “So [numbers] are simple,” warns Yesilada, “we cant borrow abroad, because it very costly or foreign lenders are no longer willing, and Turkish deposits have been completely converted into loans.  I don’t know how this can go forwards.”  

Given that the bedrock of Erdogan’s electoral success has been built on economic prosperity, the continuation and trajectory of those programs ultimately could determine his fate.

 

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South African Court Declares Nuclear Plan with Russia Unlawful

A South African pact with Russia’s Rosatom to build nuclear reactors was deemed unlawful by a High Court on Wednesday, casting fresh doubt over the country’s energy plans.

Operator of Africa’s only nuclear power station, Eskom wants to add 9,600 megawatts (MW) of nuclear capacity — equivalent to up to 10 nuclear reactors — to help wean the economy off of polluting coal in what could one of the world’s biggest nuclear contracts in decades.

South Africa and Russia signed an Intergovernmental Agreement (IGA) in 2014 that sealed a cooperation pact between state-owned nuclear group Rosatom and state-owned utility Eskom.

Judge Lee Bozalek said any request for information to kickstart the procurement process was set aside as was the cooperation pact. The deal had included a favorable tax regime for Russia and placed heavy financial obligations on South Africa, Bozalek said.

“Seen as a whole, the Russian IGA stands well outside the category of a broad nuclear cooperation agreement, and at the very least, sets the parties well on their way to a binding, exclusive agreement in relation to the procurement of new reactor plants from that particular country,” Bozalek said.

The Southern African Faith Communities Environment Institute (SAFCEI) and Earthlife Africa-Johannesburg had jointly filed the court application to stop the nuclear program.

“There are no more secret deals and everything has to be done in the open,” said SAFCEI spokeswoman Liz McDaid.

It was not immediately clear whether the government would appeal the ruling. The Department of Energy declined to comment.

The government has downplayed the agreement with Russia, saying it was not a final contract and that an open tender process would still be conducted.

The head of South African nuclear state agency Necsa said last year that Rosatom is not the frontrunner and that the tender would be open to all bidders.

Eskom Chief Nuclear Officer Dave Nicholls said: “We haven’t been through the judgement yet so we can’t comment.”

Rosatom officials in Moscow were not available for immediate comment.

An official at Rosatom’s regional office in Johannesburg said the company “could not comment on legal disputes between South African entities that do not directly involve us.”

Nuclear option

After the 2011 nuclear disaster in Fukushima led many countries to cut back nuclear programs, South Africa is one of the few still considering a major new reactor project and the tender is eagerly awaited by manufacturers from South Korea, France, the United States and China.

 

With U.S. firm Westinghouse in Chapter 11 proceedings and France’s Areva being restructured, Rosatom’s two main competitors are hamstrung by financial difficulties, boosting the Russian firm’s chances.

China has little experience building reactors abroad and Korea’s KEPCO has only one major foreign reactor contract, in the United Arab Emirates.

France, which built South Africa’s two existing reactors, is keen to stay in the race and utility EDF – which is taking over Areva’s reactor manufacturing unit – said last month it would respond to the South Africa’s “request for information.”

With Eskom set to decommission 34 gigawatts of coal-fired power generation over the next 20 years and a lack of large-scale hydro or natural gas plans, nuclear is the best alternative, Eskom’s Nicholls said in an opinion piece in the Sunday Times.

Some economists, however, have questioned whether the country’s ailing economy can afford a nuclear building program they estimate could cost around 1 trillion rand ($76 billion).

Rating agencies S&P Global and Fitch downgraded South Africa’s credit to junk this month over the firing of finance minister Pravin Gordhan, saying the move risked changes to government policy.

Some pundits say Gordhan was axed partly because he resisted pressured by a faction allied to President Jacob Zuma, which criticised Gordhan’s plans to block spending on nuclear expansion.

New Finance Minister Malusi Gigaba has said nuclear expansion will only be pursued if it is affordable.

“This is most probably just another bump in the road and nothing is going to derail the nuclear program,” said Travis Hough, business unit leader for energy & environment at consultancy Frost & Sullivan Africa.

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Turkish Warplanes Kill 6 Kurdish Militants in Northern Iraq: Army

Turkish warplanes hit Kurdish militant targets in northern Iraq on Wednesday and killed six militants, the military said, in a second day of cross-border raids.

A military statement said the air strikes targeted the Zap region, the Turkish name for a river which flows across the Turkish-Iraqi border and is known as Zab in Iraq.

The air strikes hit “two hiding places and one shelter, and killed six separatist terrorist organization militants who were understood to be preparing an attack,” the statement said.

The raids were part of a widening campaign against the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) which has also hit other Kurdish fighters inside Iraq – apparently by accident.

On Tuesday, Turkish planes bombed Kurdish targets in Iraq’s Sinjar region and northeast Syria, killing about 70 militants inside the two neighboring states, according to a Turkish military statement.

The United States expressed “deep concern” over those air strikes and said they were not authorized by the U.S.-led coalition fighting Islamic State.

Five members of the Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga forces, which are also deployed in Sinjar, were killed. Kurdish authorities who run their own autonomous region in north Iraq enjoy good relation with Turkey and, like Ankara, oppose the presence of a PKK affiliate in Sinjar.

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan on Tuesday told Reuters that he would not allow Sinjar to become a PKK base, adding that Ankara informed its partners including the United States, Russia and Iraqi Kurdish authorities ahead of the operation.

On Wednesday, Turkish foreign ministry spokesman Huseyin Muftuoglu said the parties were informed through both military and diplomatic channels.

Turkey had passed on information to the United States and Russian military attaches in Ankara, Muftuoglu said, and Turkish army chief Hulusi Akar also held a telephone conversation with his U.S. and Russian counterparts.

The Combined Air Operations Center in Qatar, responsible for providing command and air control in regions including Iraq and Syria, was also informed in advance, Muftuoglu said.

Designated a terrorist group by Turkey, the United States and the European Union, the PKK has waged a three-decade insurgency against the Turkish state for Kurdish autonomy. More than 40,000 people have been killed in the conflict, most of them Kurds.

The army also reported on Wednesday cross-border mortar fire from two areas inside Syria — one believed to be under the control of Syrian government forces and the other by Kurdish YPG militants. It said there were no casualties, and it retaliated.

 

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EU Launches Legal Action Over New Hungarian Education Law

The European Union has launched legal action against Hungary over a new higher education law that critics say is aimed at shutting down a university founded by billionaire philanthropist George Soros.

 

European Commission President Valdis Dombrovskis said Wednesday that the EU’s executive arm has sent a “letter of formal notice” to Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s government, which is a first step in legal action.

 

Dombrovskis said the move is based on “an in-depth legal assessment.”

 

The Commission believes the law could infringe on European rights to provide services, but also on academic freedoms and the right to an education.

 

The Hungarian government will have one month to respond, and based on Budapest’s reaction, the Commission will consider what steps to take next.

 

The higher education law was approved earlier this month. The president of the Soros-backed Central European University says it means that his campus in Budapest might not be able to accept new students after Jan. 1.

“My institution has a gun pointed to its head,” CEU President Michael Ignatieff said Tuesday as he sought support at the European Parliament.

 

Orban says the CEU is “cheating” because it issues diplomas accepted both in the United States and in Hungary, where it has been operating since 1993. The university is accredited in New York state but has no campus there.

 

Orban says this gives it an unfair advantage over other Hungarian universities, but has denied that he wants to shut it down.

 

The Hungarian leader will face his critics in the European Parliament later Wednesday as EU lawmakers debate concerns about his country, including a “Let’s Stop Brussels” campaign aimed at highlighting what he says is an EU power grab.

 

Given the legal action, a showdown seems likely between Orban and Commission First Vice President Frans Timmermans, who will address lawmakers just before him.

 

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Spain, Brazil Want EU-Mercosur Deal, Worry About Venezuela

The governments of Spain and Brazil on Monday reinforced their commitment to completing a trade pact between the European Union and South American trade bloc Mercosur despite protectionist sentiments.

On a two-day visit to Brazil, Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy said he agreed with Brazilian President Michel Temer about the need to wrap up a trade deal that has taken more than 15 years to negotiate.

Rajoy also called for elections as the only way to reach a negotiated solution to the political crisis in Venezuela, expressing “deep concern” over the volatile situation in the neighboring country.

“We agree that given the degree of confrontation and the volatility of the situation, a negotiated solution is needed, and it must inevitably involve giving back to the Venezuelan people their voice,” he said.

Rajoy is heading a large delegation of Spanish businessmen who are looking for investment opportunities in Brazilian banking, energy, water and infrastructure sectors.

Spain backs deal

Brazil is the third-most important market for Spanish investors, who account for the second largest stock of foreign investment in the South American nation after the United States.

Spain is one of the strongest backers of an accord to lower trade barriers between the European Union and Mercosur members Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay. Negotiations have been delayed for years by the reluctance of European farmers and Mercosur manufacturers to face competition.

“Spain has always been and will continue to be a firm supporter of the agreement,” Rajoy said after meeting Temer. “In these moments in which some feel protectionist temptations, we both agree on the importance of free trade.”

US retreat favors EU  

Argentine Foreign Minister Susana Malcorra, who is hoping to clinch the EU-Mercosur deal by the end of the year, said external reasons would help advance it.

Malcorra said the retreat of the United States from trade talks had opened a window for the European Union to become a strong player in multilateral, region-to-region accords.

“Our view is that [the EU-Mercosur accord] is not only an economic agreement,” she said in Geneva on Monday. “It’s more than that, a political agreement.”

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Italy, Greece Look to Macron to Help Douse Anti-EU Fires

The Italian and Greek governments are counting on France’s likely next president Emmanuel Macron to help them see off populist parties that blame European Union-enforced austerity and open immigration policies for economic and social ills.

Greek prime minister Alexis Tsipras and Italian premier Paolo Gentiloni both called Macron on Monday to congratulate him after the independent centrist won Sunday’s first round of voting in the French election.

The former economy minister, who is seen in southern Europe as an opponent of rigid austerity, is favored to defeat far-right, anti-EU candidate Marine Le Pen in the May 7 run-off.

Five Star Movement a concern

The ruling parties in heavily indebted Italy and Greece hope his enthusiasm for the EU will help them see off challengers such as Italy’s Five Star Movement, which wants a referendum on ditching the shared euro currency.

A Greek official said Tsipras and Macron had an amicable discussion in which Macron noted his previous support for Athens in tough bailout talks with EU powers.

“I supported the need for a change of stance towards Greece,” the official quoted Macron as telling Tsipras. “It is certain that if I’m elected we will work closely together to ensure that Europe meets the needs of our generation.”

Gentiloni also spoke to Macron, an Italian official said, adding that the two would work together to ensure Europe can face its economic challenges.

Former Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi, who is plotting a path back to power at elections due next year, also welcomed Macron’s first-round victory, saying he represented a Europe that looked to the future, not “to the decimal points.”

Italian European Affairs Minister Sandro Gozi told Reuters a Macron presidency would bolster the ruling Democratic Party (DP) against populist forces like Five Star, which opinion polls show rivaling the DP with as much as a third of the vote. A path to government remains difficult, however, given its refusal to consider alliances and Italy’s electoral system.

 

 

Le Pen’s plans

Five Star and the right-wing Northern League question to varying degrees the adoption of EU open-immigration policies, the cornerstone of which is the Schengen open-borders area.

“Macron’s first round win and his likely victory in the second round will help give us a push,” Gozi said.

“Le Pen wants to get out of the eurozone, to get out of NATO, to dismantle Schengen and basically do many things that either the Northern League or Five Star want to do here. So if Macron wins, it is excellent news for us.”

The French connection

For Greece, a Le Pen victory would knock its major EU ally out of the union and weaken its defenses against a push from Germany, the bloc’s biggest creditor, for continued austerity.

Greece has debts equal to 178 percent of its economy and is struggling to conclude a progress review on reforms prescribed by its international lenders in exchange for vital loans.

Outgoing French President Francois Hollande helped fellow leftist Tsipras seal a 86 billion euro ($93 billion) bailout from the EU in July 2015, its third since 2010, which kept the crisis-hit country in the eurozone.

It expires next year, however, and Athens now needs France to lobby the rest of the EU, especially Germany, to agree to debt relief. Tsipras is counting on this support as the next election approaches in 2019.

Markets react to results

“Relations between Greece and France are strategic, they are based on mutual interests and common views on European affairs and I believe that Macron would stick to Hollande’s policy, which was supportive on Greece,” deputy foreign minister George Katrougalos told Reuters.

A senior Greek government official close to the bailout talks, which resume this week in Athens, agreed that a Macron presidency would be “sympathetic and supportive” of Greece.

Markets in Greece and Italy also welcomed the prospect of a Macron victory next month. Greek 10-year government bond yields hit a two-and-a-half-year low and Italian yields sank despite a credit rating downgrade on Friday.

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Turkish Referendum Result Sparks Peace Process Speculation

Observers say one of the few positives that supporters of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan took from the controversy-marred narrow referendum victory last week was the widely touted bump in support from southern Turkey’s restive predominantly Kurdish region.

Critics say that bump had more to do with fraud and intimidation, but Erdogan advisers and members of his ruling AK Party argue it signifies a sea change in Kurdish sentiments toward the president and away from separatist politics.

“The Kurds stood next to Erdogan at a critical turning point,” wrote Abdulkadir Selvi, an influential columnist with Hurriyet newspaper, who added that “these results have reminded the ruling party of its historical responsibility in the solution to the problem.”

Adding to the weight of Selvi’s words is that fact that he is widely seen as being close to Erdogan.

“Kurds saved Erdogan, coalition with nationalists failed. Erdogan needs to pay back this favor,” tweeted Altan Tan, a parliamentary deputy from the pro-Kurdish HDP party, highlighting the widely held belief that Erdogan’s strategy of courting Turkish nationalist voters in the referendum failed.

 

But many within the pro-Kurdish movement remain deeply skeptical there has been any momentous change in policy, “No one really believes that,” said Ertugrul Kurkcu, an HDP deputy and its honorary president, dismissing any hopes for a new peace process. He argued that actions speak louder than words.

“The day after the referendum they arrested another HDP MP in Mus,” he said. “Who is is going to make peace with whom? The government with their local henchmen will make a peace process? This is something very amusing, in fact.”

 

The “henchmen” Kurkcu is referring to is Huda Pa, a hardline Kurdish Islamist party that strongly backs Erdogan.

Turkish security forces continue to crackdown on the PKK, the outlawed Kurdish insurgent group, claiming this week to have killed more than 50 rebels. But Friday saw the unexpected release from jail of two HDP parliamentary deputies. A dozen more remain in jail, including the party’s co-leaders. Last week also saw the PKK call off a prison hunger strike.

 

Erdogan has presided over previous peace efforts, and while they ultimately failed, his efforts were initially rewarded by a surge in support from Kurdish voters. Analysts suggest that, given the animosity between Erdogan and the HDP — in particular, its imprisoned leader — peace efforts could circumvent the party and involve direct talks with imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan. That is what occurred in previous attempts at negotiations, the last of which ended in 2015 amid mutual recriminations.

The PKK has been fighting for greater minority rights and regional autonomy since 1984. The conflict has claimed over 45,0000 lives.

Observers say Turkey’s presidential and general elections in 2019 could provide a powerful impetus toward peace efforts, in Erdogan’s calculations.

“If Turkey is able to go back to that environment of seeking a negotiated solution to the Kurdish problem, then this would not only have a positive impact regarding stability at home,but surely enhance Turkey’s diplomatic hand abroad,” said Sinan Ulgen, a visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe in Brussels. “From there on, Turkey could adopt different policies toward the PYD.”

The PYD is the main pro-Kurdish party in Syria, which Ankara designates as a terrorist organization, linking it to the PKK. The PYD militia, the YPG, forms the backbone of the Syrian Democratic Force that is fighting Islamic State and is militarily backed by Washington.

 

That support remains a major point of tension between the NATO allies, and is expected to top the agenda when U.S. President Donald Trump meets Erdogan next month in Washington.

 

Many predict Trump will press Erdogan to change his stance towards the Syrian Kurdish forces, which would likely pave the way to an enhanced U.S.-Turkish relationship, a top Erdogan priority. But hawks within the Turkish presidency are pressing for military incursions into Syria and Iraq against the PKK.

“AKP is not on its own when speaking about the PKK,” said HDP deputy Kurkcu. “They have made a coalition with the MHP [Turkish nationalist party], they have made a coalition with the hardliners in the army. Therefore, this coalition does not allow for any reconciliation in this respect.”

Erdogan has repeatedly threatened new cross-border operations against the PKK, and local reports say military preparations are already underway. But observers suggest Erdogan is likely still digesting the lessons of the referendum and has not yet decided on his future strategy.

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Landmine in East Ukraine Kills American OSCE Monitor

An American member of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) was killed and at last two others were injured Sunday when their car hit a mine near rebel-held Luhansk in eastern Ukraine.

Austria’s Foreign Ministry confirmed the incident near the small village of Pryshyb.  Austria currently holds the OSCE’s rotating presidency.

Austrian Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz demanded a thorough investigation, adding that those responsible would be held accountable.

Alexander Hug, deputy chief of the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission (SMM), told journalists that a German and a Czech national were injured but have been treated at a local hospital in Ukraine’s eastern republic of Lugansk.

According to reports, the vehicle drove over a mine in territory controlled by the self-proclaimed Luhansk People’s Republic.

A rebel statement said the OSCE team was traveling along an unsafe road.  “We know that the mentioned crew deviated from the main route and moved along side roads, which is prohibited by the mandate of the OSCE SMM,” local media reported.

The incident marks the first loss of life for the OSCE’s Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine.

The OSCE has 600 members in eastern Ukraine, the only independent monitoring mission in the destroyed industrial war zone.  It provides daily reports on the war and has angered insurgents for accusing them of being responsible for most truce agreement violations.

For the past three years tensions between Ukraine and separatists in the Russian-held eastern part of the country continue to increase, despite a 2015 ceasefire agreement that is repeatedly violated.

At least 9,750 people have been killed in the war in eastern Ukraine since April 2014.  More than 40 died during the first two months of this year, when hostilities in the conflict suddenly surged.

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Macron, Le Pen Head to Runoff in French Presidential Race

Preliminary results from France’s first round of presidential elections confirmed that centrist candidate Emmanuel Macron and nationalist, anti-immigration candidate Marine Le Pen are heading into a runoff in two weeks, marking what analysts describe as a political earthquake in France.

 

It is the first time in the history of the modern French Republic that the presidency will be held by a member of a non-traditional party, highlighting a deep anti-establishment sentiment that ultimately could determine whether France remains a part of the EU or follows an independent path like that of post-Brexit Britain and the United States under Donald Trump.

 

According to projected results, Macron garnered 23.8 percent, and Le Pen won 21.7 percent.  The winner needs an absolute majority and that will be determined in a runoff on May 7th.

 

“In one year, we have entirely changed French politics,” Macron said at a victory rally Sunday night.

Macron, a 39-year-old center-left former economy minister who is pro-EU, pro-business, led pre-election polls despite his previous association with unpopular Socialist President Francois Hollande. The appeal of his year-old En Marche! (Onward!) movement lies mainly in France’s prosperous urban areas, where globalism has benefited many.

 

His challenge is to galvanize support of centrists and the left, including members of France’s fractured Socialist party, and convince voters he does not represent an extension of Hollande’s policies.

 

Macron will face Le Pen and her National Front party, whose strongholds are largely in formerly industrial areas of France where unemployment is high and so is disillusionment with the modern economic and social order.  Le Pen, who wants France out of the European Union, has succeeded in winning over large numbers of former leftists and centrists. Over the next two weeks, she hopes to draw from the right and the center, especially those who are most disillusioned with the status quo.  

 

“It is time to liberate the French people,” she told supporters at a rally Sunday.

Among the top contenders from 11 candidates was former Prime Minister Francois Fillon, a center-right social conservative whose bid was damaged by allegations of creating fake jobs for close relatives.  Conceding defeat on Sunday, he endorsed Macron.

The vote happened amid tight security following a terrorist attack in Paris just days before the poll that observers thought would benefit Le Pen.

 

On Sunday, 50,000 police officers backed by 7,000 soldiers, including special forces, were deployed to the streets amid tensions following the attack claimed by the Islamic State terrorist group. The shooting along the iconic Champs-Elysees in the heart of Paris left one police officer dead and several other people injured.

 

In a tweet one day after the Champs Elysees shooting, U.S. President Trump said, “The people of France will not take much more of this.  Will have a big effect on presidential election!”

Analysts and voters interviewed saw this as the most unpredictable election since World War II.  One third of voters were undecided just days before the balloting.

In the last few weeks before the vote, far-left candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon surged in the polls and so did discussion of the previously obscure candidate in social media.

Among the ways his campaign lured young voters was through the release of a video game in which a player pretending to be Melenchon walks the streets and takes money from men in suits.  The player is shown in a battle against the rich and powerful.

Anger at the establishment is the sentiment driving voters in an election in which security, France’s lagging economy, its 10 percent unemployment rate, and Islamist extremism are issues on the minds of those on the left and on the right.

That, say analysts, is what influenced large numbers of people, including some of the middle and upper class residents of Paris, to vote for candidates of the extreme.  

“Some of them for the thrill of it.  It’s the principle, you know.  Like playing Russian roulette, but politically.  Some others it would be because they despise the elite of this country,” said Thomas Guénolé, a political analyst in Paris, told VOA.

 

Socialist President Francois Hollande announced he would not to run for reelection after his approval ratings sank to 4 percent, something analysts widely attribute to a string of terrorist attacks in France and a stagnation of economic growth during his tenure.  Hollande is the first incumbent president not to seek reelection in the history of modern France.

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Polls Show May’s Conservatives With Once-in-Generation Popularity

Britain’s Theresa May appeared on course to win a crushing election victory in June after opinion polls put support for her ruling Conservative party around 50 percent, twice that of the opposition Labor party.

May’s decision to call a June 8 election stunned her political rivals this week and a string of polls released late Saturday suggested the gamble had paid off, with one from ComRes showing the party of Margaret Thatcher enjoying levels of support not seen since 1991.

May, appointed prime minister in the turmoil that followed Britain’s vote to leave the European Union last June, said she needed the election to secure her own mandate and strengthen her hand for the Brexit negotiations ahead.

She is also looking to capitalize on the disarray swirling around the Labor party, which has been riven with internal division over its leader Jeremy Corbyn. Voters also appear to be switching from the anti-EU UKIP party, which helped campaign for Brexit, to May’s Conservatives, which will likely deliver it.

Gaining in Scotland

In two other polls, May’s Conservatives also gained ground in Scotland at the expense of the Scottish National Party, potentially weakening the nationalists’ demand for another independence referendum.

May has warned her party not to take victory for granted, a message that was echoed by pollsters Saturday.

“While no political party could ever object to breaching the 50 percent barrier for the first time this century, this spectacular headline result masks a real danger for the Tories,” said ComRes Chairman Andrew Hawkins.

“The fact that 6 in 10 voters believe Labor cannot win under Corbyn’s leadership bring with it the threat of complacency among Tory (Conservative) voters who may be tempted to sit at home on June 8th and let others deliver the result they expect.”

According to polls by Opinium, ComRes and YouGov, May’s Conservatives held a lead of 19 to 25 percentage points, with the party’s support ranging from 45 percent to 50 percent.

Labor-like policies

Having repeatedly denied that she would call an election, May is now also poised to announce a raft of policy proposals more commonly associated with the left-leaning Labor party, according to the Sunday Times.

The newspaper said the Conservatives would pledge to protect workers’ rights and cap more household energy prices in a bid to help those hit by rising inflation and muted wage growth.

If the polls are correct, the Conservatives could secure a once-in-a-generation victory that will realign the British political landscape. According to the polls, Labor has lost its reputation as the party that would best protect the National Health Service — once its strongest claim.

The improved Conservative fortunes across the country have also spread to Scotland, where First Minister Nicola Sturgeon’s Scottish National Party, or SNP, has stepped up calls for a second independence referendum.

According to an analysis for the Times, the Conservatives are on course to win 12 seats in Scotland while Labor will be wiped from its former political stronghold. Currently, the Conservatives hold one of Scotland’s 59 seats in the British parliament. The SNP holds 54.

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Expatriates Cast Votes as France Prepares for Election Day

French expatriates in South America, Canada and the United States kicked off the voting Saturday in France’s presidential election, on the heels of several terror attacks that could affect the outcome.

Far-right candidate Marine Le Pen and a former economy minister, independent centrist Emmanuel Macron, are the top contenders, followed by conservative former Prime Minister Francois Fillon and far-left candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon.

The candidates are vying to replace incumbent Francois Hollande, who announced earlier this year that he would not run for another term.

Campaigning ended earlier than expected Thursday when a French policeman was killed by a gunman on the Champs-Elysee, one of Paris’ most popular streets for shopping and tourism. Analysts have long said a last-minute event could swing the election outcome.

In November 2015, Paris terror attacks, in which 130 people were killed, happened just weeks before France held regional elections. The attacks are thought to have given a boost to Le Pen’s National Front party, which lost in the second round of voting and failed to win control of any region.

Some French critics of LePen told reporters they feared this week’s attack and others like it could push her campaign to a win, perhaps endangering France’s future in the European Union.

But national security is not the only issue that matters in this year’s election. France’s unemployment rate is about 10 percent, more than twice as high as that of its neighbor Germany, and the state of the economy is a constant worry.

The bulk of the first-round voting in France itself will come Sunday. Early results are expected around 9 p.m. Paris time.

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Earth Day: European Scientists Stage Protest March Against Reduced Budgets

European scientists are taking part in the March for Science demonstration taking place in hundreds of cities around the world to commemorate Earth Day. Science and research skeptics are becoming more mainstream in an era of populist and Eurosceptic movements. And on both sides of the Atlantic, there is less funding to support independent research.

Jean-Pascal van Ypersele, a professor at the University of Leuven, says shifting priorities in Europe has had an impact on the work of scientists.

 

“Now funds for fundamental research are much more difficult to get. Even if the budget remains the same or sometimes has increased, there was a shift in priorities towards research that is supposed to deliver more immediate results in terms of job creation or that kind of thing. Or research that helps the European industry to bring a product to the market. And climate scientists are not building any products that the European industries can sell.”

 

The European Union set a target for its member states that they should spend three percent of their budget on science, but many countries are only at around two percent.

 

Scientists hope that by joining forces globally, they will raise awareness about a global trend that seems to take science less serious. With U.S. President Donald Trump in the White House and populist and Eurosceptic movements gaining popularity in Europe, scientists say their budgets are being reduced and their work is being taken less serious.

 

Bas Eickhout, a scientist and member of the European Parliament for the Greens Party, says climate change policy should not be seen as a “left wing hobby.” He calls on scientist to be more involved in the decision making process.

 

“Not in policy making itself but providing information to politicians is crucial. And quite often once we start with decision making, that information is just lost. Scientist are really a bit too scared for the word lobby, and I don’t think its lobbying that your doing, but its also trying to feed decision making also during the negotiations, and not only at the beginning.”

 

The March for Science is a volunteer based movement and organizers say there is an “alarming trend toward discrediting scientific consensus and restricting scientific discovery.” The organizers aim to celebrate science and hold political and science leaders accountable, but do not affiliate with any political party.

 

Sofie Vanthournout, director of Sense about Science EU, a charity advocating the importance of science, says the march aims to change the perspective of citizens and politicians who doubt the importance of science:

 

“The message that we want to bring it is important for every aspect of our lives, for every aspect of society. Whether it’s in technology that we use in our daily lives or whether it is for important decisions that politicians make about our lives. We don’t want scientists to tell politicians what to do but we need the politicians to have access to all of the facts and all of the knowledge that is available.”

 

One week after the March of Science, the Peoples Climate March will follow. In 2015, the world came together to sign the Paris Accord, an agreement signed by almost all nations in the world to curb global warming.

U.S. President Trump promised during his election campaign to pull the United States out of the international accord, but later softened his stance, saying he thinks there is “some connectivity” between human activity and global warming.

 

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Giro d’Italia Champ Killed in Training Ride Accident

Michele Scarponi, the 2011 Giro d’Italia champion, has been killed in a road accident while training close to his home in Filottrano, his Astana team said Saturday.

Scarponi, 37, left home early on Saturday morning for a training ride and was hit by a van at a crossroads.

“This is a tragedy too big to be written,” Astana said in a statement.

“We left a great champion and a special guy, always smiling in every situation, he was … a landmark for everyone in the Astana Pro Team.”

Scarponi, who completed the Tour of the Alps on Friday, after winning a stage and finishing fourth overall, is survived by his wife and two children.

Scarponi, who started his professional career in 2002, got his best results in Italian races, winning three stages on the Giro before being handed the 2011 title after Alberto Contador was stripped of his victory in a retroactive doping ban.

He also had good results in the one-day races, finishing fourth on the Liege-Bastogne-Liege classic in 2003.

Scarponi was suspended for 18 months after being implicated in the Operation Puerto blood doping scandal in 2006.

After he returned from suspension, he won the Tirreno-Adriatico in 2009 and the Tour of Catalonia in 2011.

“We will miss this guy in the peleton, always with a smile,” Olympic champion Greg van Avermaet wrote on Twitter. 

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Billionaire Philanthropist Bill Gates Warns Against Cuts to Aid Budgets

The co-founder of Microsoft, billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates, has given a passionate defense of foreign aid and voiced fears that the political climate in the US and Britain could see aid budgets cut. In a speech in London this week, he warned that withdrawing aid would create a ‘leadership vacuum that others will fill.’ Henry Ridgwell reports.

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Russian Hacker Sentenced to 27 Years in Credit Card Scheme

The son of a Russian lawmaker was sentenced Friday by a U.S. federal court to 27 years in prison after being convicted of a cyber assault on thousands of U.S. businesses, marking the longest hacking-related sentence in the United States.

Roman Seleznev, 32, was found guilty last year by a jury in Seattle of perpetrating a scheme that prosecutors said involved hacking into point-of-sale computers to steal credit card numbers and caused $169 million in losses to U.S. firms.

The Russian government has maintained that his arrest in 2014 in the Maldives was illegal. It issued a statement Friday criticizing the sentence and said it believed Seleznev’s lawyer planned to appeal.

“We continue to believe that the arrest of the Russian citizen Roman Seleznev, who de facto was kidnapped on the territory of a third country, is unlawful,” the Russian Embassy in Washington said in a post on its Facebook page.

Seleznev is the son of Valery Seleznev, a member of the Russian parliament.

The sentence, imposed by Judge Richard A. Jones of the Western District of Washington, followed a decade-long investigation by the U.S. Secret Service.

In a handwritten statement provided by his lawyer, Seleznev said he believed the harsh sentence was a way for the United States government to send a message to Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin.

“This message the United States sent today is not the right way to show Vladimir Putin, Russia or any other government in this world how justice works in a democracy,” Seleznev wrote in the statement.

Prosecutors said that from October 2009 to October 2013, Seleznev stole credit card numbers from more than 500 U.S. businesses, transferred the data to servers in Virginia, Russia and the Ukraine and eventually sold the information on criminal “carding” websites.

Seleznev faces separate charges pending in federal courts in Nevada and Georgia.

A federal grand jury in Connecticut returned an eight-count indictment charging a Russian national who was arrested earlier this month with operating the Kelihos botnet, a global network of tens of thousands of infected computers, the U.S. Justice Department said Friday.

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Russian Has Become ‘Second Language’ Taught in Syrian Schools, Official Says

Russian has become the “second language” taught in Syrian schools, and President Bashar al-Assad’s children are studying Russian, Syria’s ambassador to Russia was quoted as saying Friday.

“The decision by Assad that the Russian language become the country’s second language is a sign of gratitude to the Russian people for their support of the Syrians,” Russia’s TASS state news agency quoted Syria’s Ambassador Riyad Haddad as saying.

“Also as a mark of that gratitude, many families are even naming their sons Putin,” Haddad added.

“It is no secret if I say that the children of the president [Bashar al-Assad] are now learning Russian,” Interfax news agency quoted the ambassador as saying.

According to Haddad, Russian-language instruction in Syria’s schools starts in the seventh grade, and Russian language departments have been opened in all of Syria’s universities.

Russian news agencies also quoted the ambassador as saying Syria’s president has donated a plot of land near Damascus for the construction of a Russian school.

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Russia Denies Gays Persecuted in Chechnya

Russian authorities say there is no evidence that gay men in Russia’s conservative republic of Chechnya are facing a wave of persecution. A number of gay Chechen men have fled the region amid allegations of abduction, torture and murder. VOA’s Daniel Schearf visited a safe house on the outskirts of Moscow where gay Chechen men are in hiding, and has this report.

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