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  1. [embed_video1 url= style=center]
  2. Chilean presidential candidate Sebastian Pinera speaks and takes part in a campaign rally in Santiago, Chile November 17, 2017. Photo: Reuters SANTIAGO: Chileans vote for a new president today, with billionaire conservative Sebastian Pinera the favourite to win, although a crowded field of leftist challengers are likely to force a December runoff. Opinion polls show Pinera, who was president between 2010 and 2014 and leads the Chile Vamos bloc, with a commanding lead over his seven mostly left-of-centre rivals, but still shy of the 50 per cent needed for an outright win. Former TV anchorman, Senator Alejandro Guillier, is the flagbearer for President Michelle Bachelet?s fractured centre-left Nueva Mayoria coalition. He leads the race for second place, with around 21 per cent of likely voter support compared to about 42 per cent for Pinera, according to a CEP poll last month. The election is the latest in South America to pit left-leaning leaders against the conservatives taking their places. It also marks a turning point for Chile?s coalition of center-left parties, previously known as the Concertacion. The pact, which for decades has dominated Chilean politics, fissured under Bachelet, riven by disagreements over policies such as loosening Chile?s strict abortion laws and strengthening unions. Bachelet, who is barred from running in this election by term limits, will step down with approval ratings near 30 per cent and the legacy of her social and economic policies uncertain. Chile's President Michelle Bachelet. Photo: Reuters/File Many Chileans view the election as a referendum on her second term, which focused on reducing inequality by making education more affordable and overhauling the tax code. Pinera, the market favourite, campaigned on a platform of scaling back and ?perfecting? her tax and labour laws, seen by many in the business community as having crimped investment at a time when slumping copper prices were already driving down economic growth in the world?s top copper producer. Guillier, who is ideologically aligned with Bachelet, has promised to deepen her reforms and sought to tap into fears that a return of Pinera would mark a setback for gains made for students, women and workers. Pinera garnered international attention and domestic praise for his handling of the dramatic rescue of 33 trapped miners during his prior term in 2010, and is seen as a safe pair of hands by investors. But his administration was marred by massive student protests seeking an education overhaul. His responses were often seen as out of touch and grassroots groups still oppose him. Both Pinera and Guillier would keep in place the longstanding free-market economic model in one of Latin America?s most developed countries. Subdued atmosphere On the eve of the vote, the atmosphere in Chilean capital Santiago was subdued. New restrictions on campaigning have left the city uncluttered with political posters and the sense that a Pinera victory was inevitable had quieted the usual political debates in cafes and bars. In addition, Chileans have grown disenchanted with politics following campaign financing and other cash-for-influence scandals that have entangled politicians on both the left and right. But voter turnout will serve as a bellwether for the runoff. A strong showing of voters could help the left marshal enough votes to defeat Pinera in the second round, while apathy and continued quarrelling among left-leaning parties would pave the way for a Pinera victory. Bachelet?s administration has offered free rides to voting centres on public transportation, part of a get-out-the-vote campaign criticised by Pinera?s campaign as a political manoeuvre aimed at bolstering Guillier. Turnout in elections following Chile?s transition from compulsory to voluntary voting in 2012 has dipped as low as 42 per cent, near the bottom of developed countries, according to the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance. ?I?m not going to vote because in the end it doesn?t change anything,? said Santiago resident Catalina Avedano, 38, as she waited in line at a public health centre this week.
  3. A civil defence member wears an oxygen mask following a sarin gas attack in Khan Sheikhoun, Idlib, Syria, April 4, 2017. REUTERS/Ammar Abdullah/Files UNITED NATIONS: The UN Security Council will vote Friday on a last-ditch bid to salvage a UN-led investigation tasked with identifying those behind chemical weapons attacks in Syria, diplomats said. The council will vote at 6:15 PM (2315 GMT) on a Japanese draft resolution that would extend the Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM) for 30 days, to allow time for negotiations on a compromise.
  4. A civil defence member breathes through an oxygen mask, after what rescue workers described as a suspected gas attack in the town of Khan Sheikhoun in rebel-held Idlib, Syria, April 4, 2017. REUTERS/Ammar Abdullah/Files UNITED NATIONS: US President Donald Trump on Thursday urged the UN Security Council (UNSC) to renew an international inquiry into chemical weapons attacks in Syria ahead of planned votes on rival US and Russia resolutions that could spark Moscow?s 10th veto on Syria action. Trump said on Twitter that the joint inquiry by the UN and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), which decided who is to blame, was needed to prevent Syrian President Bashar al-Assad from using chemical weapons. The inquiry, known as the Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM), found the Syrian government used the banned nerve agent sarin in an April 4 attack. If the Security Council cannot agree on a renewal, its mandate will expire at midnight Thursday. ?Need all on the UN Security Council to vote to renew the Joint Investigative Mechanism for Syria to ensure that Assad Regime does not commit mass murder with chemical weapons ever again,? Trump said in a note on Twitter. A resolution needs nine votes in favour and no vetoes by the United States, France, Russia, Britain or China to be adopted. While Russia agreed to the 2015 creation of the JIM, it has consistently questioned its findings, which also concluded that the Syrian government used chlorine as a weapon several times. Diplomats say there is little support among the 15-member council for the Russian draft, which Russian UN Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia has said aims to correct ?systemic errors? of the inquiry, Diplomats said the United States had amended its draft in a bid to win Russian support. Russia has vetoed nine resolutions on Syria since the conflict started in 2011, including blocking an initial US bid on October 24 to renew the JIM, saying it wanted to wait for the release two days later of the inquiry?s report that blamed a sarin gas attack on the Syrian government. Syria agreed to destroy its chemical weapons in 2013 under a deal brokered by Russia and the United States.
  5. Supporters hold placards as they attend a same-*** marriage rally in Sydney in September-AFP SYDNEY: Australians voted decisively in favour of allowing same-*** couples to marry, sparking joyous celebrations Wednesday across the country even though the change must still be enshrined in law. Thousands of marriage equality supporters took to the streets, dancing and singing when the results were announced, as colourful confetti filled the sky at rallies in cities across the country. Almost 62 percent of the 12.7 million people who participated in the two-month non-binding postal survey voted in favour of allowing gay marriage, with Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull vowing to move a bill in favour of equality by Christmas. Australians "have spoken in their millions and they have voted overwhelmingly yes for marriage equality," Turnbull told reporters in Canberra. "They voted yes for fairness, yes for commitment, yes for love." Nearly 80 percent of eligible voters took part in the poll, despite fears that many young people might not respond to the postal survey in the digital age. "This means everything, this means everything," said Chris, at a huge rally in Sydney, fighting back tears and hugging his partner Victor. The "yes" vote was supported by majorities in every state and territory in the vast and varied nation, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, which ran the survey. The "no" vote garnered 38.4 percent. "Australians can have confidence these statistics reflect the view of the eligible population," the statistics bureau chief Davis Kalisch said. Parliament must now adopt legislation to give the result the force of law, with Turnbull confident lawmakers would use their "conscience vote", where they are not obliged to vote along party lines, to bring in change. ´So proud´ The result looks set to cap years of political wrangling about the issue that has seen Australia lag behind its international peers in legalising gay marriage. Irish-born Qantas chief Alan Joyce, who is openly gay and campaigned strongly for the "yes" campaign, also fought back tears as he spoke of his joy. "I was so proud of Ireland in May 2015 when they became the first nation in the world to vote for marriage equality... But today I am even more proud of Australia, the country of my selection," he said in Sydney. "No" campaigners congratulated their opponents but vowed to push for religious protections and exemptions. "In a democracy, just because you win it doesn´t mean you... bulldoze forward," said Senator Eric Abetz, a prominent "no" campaigner. "Keep in mind there are 4.8 million of our fellow Australians that actually voted no... Do we say they should no longer be heard? Or do we actually ask them questions as to how can their concerns be alleviated so we can move forward as a nation?" The result is seen as a positive for Turnbull, a moderate who supports marriage equality. But he must now battle hardliners within his party who want laws that allow commercial service providers to reject same-*** weddings and let parents pull their children from school programmes they feel undermine heterosexual traditions. Turnbull and the opposition Labor Party have backed a simpler draft bill that legalises gay marriage while allowing religious institutions to refuse to wed same-*** couples if they oppose the practice. That bill is expected to be introduced in the Senate as early as Thursday. A survey of federal politicians by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation published Tuesday found that 72 percent of the lower House of Representatives would support changes to marriage laws and in the Senate, 69 percent would approve the changes. Historic change Wednesday´s result was a historic accomplishment for proponents of marriage. But the poll also highlighted deep divisions in Australian society over the issue. "Yes" campaigners complained gay people and their families were subjected to hate speech, while "no" supporters argued they were being accused of being bigots for not favouring such unions. Even before the ballot papers were sent out in September, the debate turned toxic with a poster emblazoned "stop the fags" put up in central Melbourne and flyers describing homosexuality as "a curse of death" distributed in suburban Sydney. The divisive debate split religious groups, businesses and even families. Former Australian prime minister Tony Abbott campaigned hard against same-*** marriage but saw his views opposed by his politician sister, Christine Forster, who is gay. But in the sporting-mad nation, the poll has also seen major codes step up to publicly back same-*** marriages, in an arena where homophobia and discrimination is still seen as widespread and where few players have come out as gay.
  6. The government has also accepted reservations and demands by the Pakistan Peoples Party regarding to the interim census ISLAMABAD: The government has decided to summon the National Assembly session on November 16 to vote on the new delimitation bill agreed upon by all political parties. The agreement was reached in a meeting of the Council of Common Interests (CCI) presided over by Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi on Monday. Sources said lawmakers from the government and its allies have been instructed to ensure their presence in the assembly for voting. People of Sindh have reservations against census results, says CM Shah Shah said that the federal government should announce elections in due time The government has also accepted the reservations and demands by the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) regarding the provisional census. The Sindh government had demanded to be allowed to check and verify census data. CCI approves delimitation The CCI on Monday approved delimitation of new constituencies on the basis of provisional results of Population Census 2017, paving the way for a timely conduct of the next general elections. The 33rd meeting of the CCI was attended by chief ministers of Punjab, Sindh, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan, who resolved to hold elections on time. Prime Minister Abbasi chaired the meeting, with federal ministers for inter-provincial coordination, industries and production, and interior also in presence. The meeting approved the usage of provisional census results for delimitation. Briefing the media after the meeting, the premier's special aide, Musaddiq Mailk, said the political leadership resolved a major constitutional crisis through wisdom. "The Election Commission of Pakistan will immediately start working on the delimitation of new constituencies following a constitutional amendment," he said. According to the new delimitation, Punjab's seat share will decrease by nine, while Islamabad will get one more seat, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa will get five and Balochistan will be given three more, National Assembly Speaker Ayaz Sadiq told the media on November 1. Malik said suspicions regarding Karachi's population were also addressed at the meeting. He said for examining the census process, the meeting approved an audit of 1 per cent of selected census blocks by an independent body. The formula to check and verify census record applies to all provinces. The council, however, also suggested against increasing seats in the representative assemblies. The Good, the Bad and the Unusual of Census 2017 The 2017 census results are contrary to circumstantial evidence. Many are sceptical of the results and the process. Since 1998, Karachi has become denser but not according to the population census Census: A bone of contention Population Census 2017 had been a bone of contention between Sindh and the federal government, especially as it led to an impasse vis-à-vis the required legislation on the delimitation of new constituencies as per the latest population count ? a legal requirement for the next elections. Sindh claimed it was undercounted in the new census, whereas the federal government rejected the assertion. Earlier, parliamentary parties also failed to agree, despite several meetings, over the new delimitation of constituencies for the National Assembly. The PPP, which is the ruling party in Sindh, demanded in the meetings that the matter must be resolved in a CCI meeting. However, despite the deadlock, all political parties represented in Parliament were in agreement that the next elections should not be delayed. The Election Commission of Pakistan has said it needs Parliament to pass necessary legislation in line with the latest census if next year's elections are to be held on time.
  7. Protesters hold the lights of their mobile phones during a demonstration called by pro-independence associations asking for the release of jailed Catalan activists and leaders, in Barcelona, Spain, November 11, 2017. REUTERS/Albert Gea BRUSSELS: Madrid believes Russian-based groups used online social media to heavily promote Catalonia?s independence referendum last month in an attempt to destabilize Spain, Spanish ministers said on Monday. Spain?s defence and foreign ministers said they had evidence that state and private-sector Russian groups, as well as groups in Venezuela, used Twitter, Facebook, and other Internet sites to massively publicize the separatist cause and swing public opinion behind it in the run-up to the October 1 referendum. Catalonia?s separatist leaders have denied that Russian interference helped them in the vote. ?What we know today is that much of this came from Russian territory,? Spanish Defence Minister Maria Dolores de Cospedal said of Russian-based internet support. ?These are groups that, public and private, are trying to influence the situation and create instability in Europe,? she told reporters at a meeting of EU foreign and defence ministers in Brussels. Asked if Madrid was certain of the accusations, Spanish Foreign Minister Alfonso Dastis, also at the meeting, said: ?Yes, we have proof.? Dastis said Spain had detected false accounts on social media, half of which were traced back to Russia and another 30 percent to Venezuela, created to amplify the benefits of the separatist cause by re-publishing messages and posts. Ramon Tremosa, the EU lawmaker for the PDeCat party of Catalan separatist leader Carles Puigdemont, repeated on Monday that Russian interference had played no part in the referendum. ?Those that say Russia is helping Catalonia are those that have helped the Russian fleet in recent years, despite the EU?s boycott,? Tremosa tweeted, referring to Spanish media reports that Spain was allowing Russian warships to refuel at its ports. Those who voted in the referendum opted overwhelmingly for independence. But turnout was only about 43 percent as Catalans who favour remaining part of Spain mainly boycotted the ballot. The separatist vote has plunged Spain, the euro zone?s fourth-biggest economy, into its worst constitutional crisis since its return to democracy in the 1970s. Dastis said he had raised the issue with the Kremlin. Moscow has repeatedly denied any such interference and accuses the West of a campaign to discredit Russia. NATO believes Moscow is involved in a deliberately ambiguous strategy of information warfare and disinformation to try to divide the West and break its unity over economic sanctions imposed on Russia following its 2014 annexation of Crimea. U.S. intelligence agencies concluded in January that Russia interfered in the U.S. election to try to help President Donald Trump defeat rival Hillary Clinton by hacking and releasing emails and spreading propaganda via social media. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, who attended the EU meeting in Brussels, declined to comment on Spain?s accusations, but the alliance?s top commander said last week that Russian interference was a concern. NATO?s Supreme Allied Commander General Curtis Scaparotti said ?Russian malign influence? was trying to sway elections and other decisions in the West, describing it as a ?destabilization campaign,? although he did not directly address the Catalonia referendum.
  8. [embed_video1 url= style=center] MULTAN: Veteran politician Javed Hashmi said on Sunday the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) has its vote bank further increased, despite all efforts to get rid of Nawaz Sharif. Speaking at a ceremony here, Hashmi said Nawaz is being victimised ahead of the general elections, adding that pushing the former prime minister out of politics is not a solution to the crisis. "It has been 70 years replacing individuals; now the system should be allowed to function," he said, maintain that repeating the mistake of imposing a martial law has also ended that option. The veteran politician said that democracy has flaws in it, however, it cannot be thrown away on the basis of those flaws. "We need to carefully make a decision, keeping democracy in view." "In 2014, Imran Khan was conveyed that elections will again be conducted the same year and I told him that no election will be held and you would also be excluded," he claimed. Criticising the former president Pervez Musharraf, Hashmi said who would accept Musharraf as his leader. Commenting on Karachi politics, he said, "There is nothing hidden in Karachi now and only those would resolve this issue who brought the megapolis to this stage." The veteran politician maintained that civilian governments always promoted the country, but they are not tolerated.
  9. Italy's Silvio Berlusconi gestures during the television talk show 'Porta a Porta' (Door to Door) in Rome, Italy, June 21, 2017. REUTERS/Remo Casilli/Files PALERMO: Former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi was poised for a stunning political comeback on Monday, as he claimed victory in an election in Sicily that puts him and his rightist allies in pole position for a national vote due by next May. With about 85 percent of the votes counted, a centre-right bloc backed by the four-times prime minister was running five percentage points ahead of the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement, with the centre-left a distant third. ?Sicily, just as I asked, has chosen the path of real, serious, constructive change, based on honesty, competence and experience,? the 81-year-old said in a video posted on Facebook. The result puts Berlusconi back on the political map after years of *** scandals and graft allegations. By contrast, it deals a stinging blow to Matteo Renzi ? another former prime minister who heads the ruling Democratic Party (PD), which is locked in feuding with erstwhile leftist partners. After a raft of vote setbacks in recent years, Renzi has many critics inside the PD who may now try to mount a challenge to his leadership. Held on Sunday, the regional Sicilian ballot is seen as a dry run for the national vote, with many of the island?s problems reflecting those of the country as a whole ? high unemployment, a debt mountain, and sluggish economic growth. 'A winning model' Sicily is traditionally a centre-right stronghold which was poached by the PD in 2012 thanks to splits in the conservative bloc. This time Berlusconi reunited the coalition behind a widely respected leader with a far-right background. Nello Musumeci ? the centre-right candidate for governor of the island ? had 39.8 percent of the vote, while the 5-Star?s Giancarlo Cancelleri had 34.7 percent. The centre-left Fabrizio Micari was lagging on 18.5 percent. ?From Sicily, we will demonstrate that this is a winning model that can triumph at a national level,? said Giorgia Meloni ? the leader of the right-wing Brothers of Italy party, which is the junior partner in the centre-right alliance. The maverick 5-Star ? founded by comedian Beppe Grillo ? had campaigned relentlessly for months in Sicily, looking to take charge of its first region after a string of successes in municipal ballots in recent years, including in Rome and Turin. Its leader Luigi Di Maio said the party had been penalized in Sicily by low turnout ? less than half of those eligible to cast a vote. ?In two or three months I think many of those who abstained will regret not going to vote,? Di Maio said, insisting that if turnout had been 3 or 4 points higher it could have tilted the result in the movement?s favour. Although defeat is a blow, the 5-Star can take comfort from the fact that it is the largest single political force, taking at least 30 percent of a separate vote on Sicily for party lists against less than 15 percent for its nearest rival ? Berlusconi?s Forza Italia.
  10. Iraqi Kurdish president Masoud Barzani speaks during a news conference in Erbil, Iraq September 24, 2017. REUTERS/Azad Lashkari/File Photo ERBIL/BAGHDAD: Iraqi Kurdish leader Masoud Barzani said he would give up his position as president on Nov. 1, after an independence referendum he championed backfired and triggered a regional crisis. There was high drama at the Kurdish parliament, which was stormed by armed protesters as it met to approve the veteran leader?s resignation as Kurdish president. Some MPs were barricaded in their offices on Sunday evening. In a televised address, his first since Iraqi forces launched a surprise offensive to recapture Kurdish-held territory on Oct. 16, Barzani confirmed that he would not extend his presidential term after Nov. 1 ?under any conditions?. ?I am the same Masoud Barzani, I am a Peshmerga (Kurdish fighter) and will continue to help my people in their struggle for independence,? said Barzani, who has campaigned for Kurdish self-determination for nearly four decades. The address followed a letter he sent to parliament in which he asked members to take measures to fill the resulting power vacuum. The region?s parliament met in the Kurdish capital Erbil on Sunday to discuss the letter. A majority of 70 Kurdish MPs voted to accept Barzani?s request and 23 opposed it, Kurdish TV channels Rudaw and Kurdistan 24 said. Demonstrators, some carrying clubs and guns, stormed the parliament building as the session was in progress. Gunshots were heard. Some protesters outside the building said they wanted to ?punish? MPs who they said had ?insulted? Barzani. Some attacked journalists at the scene. A Kurdish official had told Reuters on Saturday that Barzani had decided to hand over the presidency without waiting for elections that had been set for Nov. 1 but which have now been delayed by eight months. The region, which had enjoyed unprecedented autonomy for years, has been in turmoil since the independence referendum a month ago prompted military and economic retaliation from Iraq?s central government in Baghdad. In his address, Barzani vigorously defended his decision to hold the Sept. 25 referendum, the results of which ?can never be erased?, he said. The vote was overwhelmingly for independence and triggered the military action by the Baghdad government and threats from neighbouring Turkey and Iran. He added that the Iraqi attack on Kirkuk and other Kurdish held territory vindicated his position that Baghdad no longer believed in federalism and instead wanted to curtail Kurdish rights. US condemned Barzani condemned the United States for failing to back the Kurds. ?We tried to stop bloodshed but the Iraqi forces and Popular Mobilization Front (Shi?ite militias) kept advancing, using US weapons,? he said. ?Our people should now question, whether the US was aware of Iraq?s attack and why they did not prevent it.? Asked for reaction to Barzani?s resignation, a US State Department spokesperson said: ?I would refer you to Kurdistan officials for information on President Barzani. Also, we are not going to get into any private diplomatic discussions.? Barzani has been criticised by Kurdish opponents for the loss of the city of Kirkuk, oil-rich and considered by many Kurds to be their spiritual home. His resignation could help facilitate a reconciliation between the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and Iraq?s central government, whose retaliatory measures since the referendum have transformed the balance of power in the north. Barzani has led the KRG since it was established in 2005. His second term expired in 2013 but was extended without elections being held as Daesh militants swept across vast swathes of territory in Iraq and Syria. US-backed Iraqi government forces, Iranian-backed paramilitaries and Kurdish fighters fought alongside each other to defeat Daesh but the alliance has faltered since the militants were largely defeated in the country. After the Kurdish vote, Iraqi troops were ordered by the country?s prime minister Haider al-Abadi to take control of areas claimed by both Baghdad and the KRG. Abadi also wants to take control of the border crossings between the Kurdish region and Turkey, Iran and Syria, including one through which an oil export pipeline crosses into Turkey, carrying Iraqi and Kurdish crude oil. The fall of Kirkuk - a multi-ethnic city which lies outside the KRG?s official boundaries - to Iraqi forces on Oct. 16 was a major symbolic and financial blow to the Kurds? independence drive because it halved the region?s oil export revenue. Iraqi forces and the Peshmerga started a second round of talks on Sunday to resolve a conflict over control of the Kurdistan region?s border crossings, Iraqi state TV said. A first round was held on Friday and Saturday, with Abadi ordering a 24-hour suspension on Friday of military operations against Kurdish forces. He demanded on Thursday that the Kurds declare their referendum void, rejecting the KRG offer to suspend its independence push to resolve a crisis through talks, saying in a statement: ?We won?t accept anything but its cancellation and the respect of the constitution.?
  11. A man waves Spanish and Catalan flags during a demonstration calling for unity in Barcelona, October 28, 2017. AFP/Pierre-Philippe Marcou A young man uses a megaphone as other youths wrapped in Spanish flags listen to him during a demonstration calling for unity in Barcelona, October 28, 2017. AFP/Pierre-Philippe Marcou MADRID: As Catalonia's independence crisis deepens, here are the key events that have rocked the region since this month's referendum on splitting from Spain. October 1: Violence-hit referendum Hundreds of thousands of Catalans vote in an independence referendum that goes ahead despite a court ban deeming it unconstitutional. Spanish riot police try to block the vote. Shocking footage emerges of them using batons and rubber bullets on crowds and roughing up voters. The Catalan government says 90 percent of those who voted backed independence, but turnout was only 43 percent as many who oppose a split boycotted the referendum. October 3: General strike A strike called by unions and political groups disrupts Barcelona's port, transport and some businesses. Up to 700,000 people demonstrate in the city against police violence. King Felipe VI accuses Catalan leaders of threatening Spain's stability and urges the state to defend "constitutional order". October 5: Business exodus Banco Sabadell, Catalonia's second largest bank, announces it will shift its registered domicile out of the region. More than 1,600 companies follow suit. October 7-8: Mass protests Tens of thousands of people demonstrate across Spain on October 7, some demanding unity, others demanding dialogue. The next day hundreds of thousands march in Barcelona to back unity with Spain. October 10: 'Suspended' independence declaration In a move that sparks widespread confusion, Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont and his separatist allies sign a declaration of independence but say they are suspending its implementation to allow for time for negotiations with Madrid. The next day, Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy gives Puigdemont until October 16 to clarify his stance. October 16: Separatists detained Puigdemont refuses to say whether he had declared independence and instead calls for dialogue. Madrid gives him an extended deadline of October 19 to say whether he is planning to secede. A court orders the leaders of two powerful grassroots independence groups, Jordi Cuixart and Jordi Sanchez, to be detained pending an investigation into sedition charges. October 21: Spain to sack Catalan government Rajoy takes drastic steps to stop Catalonia breaking away, employing previously unused constitutional powers under Article 155 to seek the dismissal of Puigdemont's government and new elections for the Catalan parliament. Puigdemont accuses Rajoy of "the worst attack on institutions and Catalan people" since Spain's dictatorship and later turns down an invitation to address the Senate to state his case for independence. October 26: No regional elections Puigdemont says he considered calling elections to stave off the central government's takeover bid but received "no guarantees" to make this possible. October 27: Takeover vs independence Catalan lawmakers approve a motion by 70 votes to 10 to declare independence, a narrow majority in the 135-member assembly, as many opposition members walk out. Tens of thousands of independence supporters gathered outside cheer as the outcome is announced. The Senate swiftly votes to grant Madrid powers to impose direct rule on Catalonia. Rajoy, using those powers, announces he has dissolved the Catalan parliament and formally removed Puigdemont and his executive from office. He calls regional elections for December 21
  12. Iceland's Prime Minister Bjarni Benediktsson. AFP/Halldor Kolbeins REYKJAVIK: Icelandic Prime Minister Bjarni Benediktsson's conservative party looked set to retain its position as the country's biggest party in Saturday's general election, early vote counting showed, but the makeup of the future government remained uncertain. Bolstered by a thriving economy, scandal-plagued Benediktsson and his Independence Party were facing a challenge from the Left Green Movement and its potential allies ? the Social Democratic Alliance and the anti-establishment Pirate Party ? which could still dethrone the conservatives if they manage to secure a fourth ally. With around 25 percent of actual votes counted, Independence was credited with 17 seats in the 63-seat parliament, followed by the Left-Green Movement with 11 and the Social Democratic Alliance with eight. Under the Icelandic system, the president, who holds a largely ceremonial role, tasks the leader of the biggest party with forming a government. "We are winning this election. We hope to get more seats in parliament as the night goes on," Benediktsson told a cheering crowd of supporters at the Independence Party's election rally in Reykjavik. "We will need to take a deep breath and wait for the final results to see the options on the table," he later told AFP, adding: "I am optimistic that we can form a government." Final results were not expected until Sunday morning, but even then it could take days, weeks, or even months for the leader of the biggest party to form a coalition, as up to nine parties vied for seats in parliament and many said all coalition options remained open until negotiations were held. The election campaign has played out against a backdrop of deep public distrust in the political elite following a slew of scandals in recent years. Benediktsson called Saturday's election ? Iceland's fourth since 2008 and second in a year ? after a junior member of his three-party centre-right coalition pulled out last month over a legal controversy involving the PM's father. Benediktsson, a former lawyer and businessman whose family is one of the richest and most influential in Iceland, has also been implicated in several financial scandals, including the so-called Panama Papers release which revealed global tax avoidance and evasion. Economy's big role If the left were to seize power, it would be just the second left-leaning government in Iceland since its proclamation as a republic in 1944. The first one governed in 2009-2013, when the Social Democrats and the Left Greens ousted the right after Iceland's 2008 economic crisis ? when its three major banks collapsed and the country teetered on the verge of bankruptcy. "I hope that when all the results are in, we will be a part of the next government," Left-Green leader Katrin Jakobsdottir, 41, told party supporters in Reykjavik. Her campaign promises included investing in social infrastructure and ensuring that Iceland's economic prosperity reaches the health care and education sectors. Nearly one in two Icelanders would prefer to have her as their new prime minister, according to a September 19-21 poll published by daily Morgunbladid. Since the 2008 financial crisis, Iceland has made a spectacular recovery with robust growth of 7.2 percent in 2016 and unemployment at an enviable 2.5 percent. A year ago, snap elections were called after prime minister Sigmundur David Gunnlaugsson was pressured to resign when he was named in the Panama Papers scandal. More than 600 Icelanders ? in a country of just 335,000 people ? were also named in the documents, including Benediktsson, then finance minister. Benediktsson still managed to build a coalition with the centre-right Reform Party and the centrist Bright Future, but the latter quit after nine months because the prime minister had covered up the fact that his father signed a recommendation letter for a convicted paedophile who sought to restore his civil rights. Independence Party supporters still view it as the main force for economic stability and growth. Nearly half of Iceland's postwar prime ministers came from the eurosceptic party. 'Rich parents' In Iceland, construction is booming: cranes dominate the skies in Reykjavik's city centre, away from the island's breathtaking volcanoes and glaciers. But its thriving tourism scene has caused an increase in housing prices and a shortage of apartments, many of which are rented out to tourists. According to Iceland's Housing Financing Fund, rents in the capital rose 13.9 percent in the year to September. "The people in the government do not understand (working people) because they all have rich parents," Jarya Sukuay, a 23-year-old voter in Reykjavik, told AFP.
  13. Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy gives a press conference after a crisis cabinet meeting at the Moncloa Palace on October 21, 2017 in Madrid. ? AFP MADRID: Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy said Friday he had dissolved the Catalan parliament and called regional elections on December 21 under sweeping powers approved by the Senate to stop a secessionist movement in Catalonia. Rajoy said he had also formally removed Catalonia?s separatist leader Carles Puigdemont and his executive from office as part of measures to "restore normality" after the Catalan parliament voted to declare independence earlier on Friday.
  14. Election officials count ballot papers during Kenya's presidential election in Nairobi, Kenya October 26, 2017. Photo: REUTERS NAIROBI: An estimated 6.55 million Kenyans voted in Thursday?s presidential election re-run, just 34.5 percent of registered voters, Wafula Chebukati, election commission chairman, said on Twitter. Turnout in the August vote that was later annulled by the courts was 80 percent. Opposition leader Raila Odinga boycotted the re-run, saying the election commission had failed to change any of the key personnel involved in the botched first attempt.
  15. A boy rides a bicycle with the flag of Kurdistan in Tuz Khurmato, Iraq September 24, 2017. Photo: REUTERS CAIRO/BAGHDAD : The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) offered on Wednesday to put an independence referendum on hold as part of efforts to end the military confrontation with Iraqi forces, and resolve the crisis with the central government in Baghdad through dialogue. ?The fighting between the two sides will not produce a victory for any, it will take the country to total destruction,? said the KRG in a statement. ?We make the following proposal to the government and Iraqi and international public opinion: 1- immediate ceasefire (..) 2- freezing the results of the referendum (..) 3- starting an open dialogue with the federal government based on the Iraqi Constitution,? it said. The Iraqi government has transformed the balance of power in the north of the country since launching a campaign last week to seize back territory from the Kurds, who govern an autonomous region of three northern provinces and had also seized a swathe of other territory in northern Iraq. The Kurds held a referendum on independence on Sept. 25 that Baghdad called illegal. Baghdad responded by seizing back the city of Kirkuk, the oil-producing areas around it and other territory that the Kurds had captured from Islamic State. Prime Minister Haidar Abadi has ordered his army to recapture all disputed territory and has also demanded central control of Iraq?s border crossings with Turkey, all of which are inside the Kurdish autonomous region itself.
  16. Residents arrive to cast their electronic votes for the Lombardy's autonomy referendum at a polling station in Milan, Italy, October 22, 2017. REUTERS/Alessandro Garofalo MILAN: Two wealthy regions of northern Italy voted overwhelmingly on Sunday for greater autonomy in referendums that could fan regional tensions in Europe at a time when Spain is striving to prevent Catalonia from breaking away. Millions of people in Lombardy and Veneto ? both run by the once openly secessionist Lega Nord party ? voted more than 90 percent for ?yes?, according to preliminary results released just before midnight (2200 GMT). Ballots closed at 2100 GMT. The party called the referendums to secure a mandate to negotiate a better financial arrangement with Rome, an ambition that mirrors Catalonia?s goal to claw back taxes from Madrid. The preliminary turnout in Lombardy was above 40 percent, Lombardy President Roberto Maroni told journalists when announcing preliminary results. In Veneto, it reached 57 percent. ?We can now write a new page: The regions that ask for more power will get it,? Maroni told journalists in Milan. ?I am talking for example about the power to discuss about tax proceeds that normally go to Rome? this is the first step in a path towards big reforms,? he added. Unlike Catalonia?s October 1 independence referendum, which Spain had declared unlawful, the Italian votes were held in line with the constitution. But they are not binding on Rome. Lombardy ? home to financial hub Milan ? accounts for about 20 percent of Italy?s economy, which is, in turn, the euro zone?s third largest. Veneto, which includes the tourist magnet Venice, accounts for 10 percent. In both regions, many people complain their taxes are wasted by the central government, accusing Rome of delivering low-quality public services and diverting money to the poor south. ?Lombardy and Veneto have two efficient administrations and public services work well, much better than in other Italian regions? this is why I think it is worth asking for greater autonomy,? said Massimo Piscetta, 49, who voted outside Milan. Lega Nord was established in the 1990s to campaign for an independent state of ?Padania?, stretching across Italy?s north, from around Lombardy in the west to Venice in the east. It no longer campaigns for secession and its top leadership is trying to broaden its appeal beyond the north ahead of national elections expected early next year ? a goal that could be undermined if the referendums rekindle north-south tensions. Lega?s political opponents say the votes were a waste of time and money, given that the constitution allows regions to enter into negotiations at any time with Rome to take on more functions from the centre. Political experts say neither region is likely to succeed in wrestling much money away from the central government without causing problems for regions in Italy?s poor south. Giovanni Orsina ? a history professor at Rome?s Luiss-Guido Carli University ? said before the referendums that a strong ?yes? vote could deepen the old north-south divide that dates back to before Italian unification in the 19th century. ?Once you open up the issue of what the northern regions pay, then I expect a backlash in southern Italy,? he said.
  17. MILAN: Voters in the northern Italian regions of Lombardy and Veneto were voting Sunday in referendums on autonomy, against the backdrop of Catalonia´s push for independence from Spain. The consultative votes are only the beginning of a process which could over time lead to powers being devolved from Rome. Secessionist sentiment in the two wealthy regions is restricted to fringe groups with little following. Nonetheless, with both regions expected to vote in favour of the principle of greater autonomy, analysts see the referendums as reflecting the pressures that resulted in Scotland´s narrowly-defeated independence vote, Britain's decision to leave the EU and the Catalan crisis. The level of turnout will have a critical bearing on the significance of the results. In Veneto, it has to pass 50 percent for the result to be considered valid. There is no threshold in Lombardy but low voter participation would weaken the region´s hand in any subsequent negotiations with the central government. New powers European Parliament chief Antonio Tajani on Sunday took care to distinguish between Catalan´s chaotic independence referendum, deemed illegal by Madrid, and the votes in Italy. "First of all these two referendums are legitimate, that was not the case in Catalonia," he told the Rome daily Il Messaggero. "In Spain, it is not about autonomy, but a proclamation of independence in defiance of the rule of law and against the Spanish constitution." He said Europe should "fear" the spread of small nations: "It is not by degrading nationhood that we reinforce Europe. Lombardy, which includes Milan, and Veneto, which houses Venice, are home to around a quarter of Italy´s population and account for 30 percent of its overall economic output. With dynamic economies and lower unemployment and welfare costs than the Italian average, both regions are large net contributors to a central state widely regarded as inefficient at best. "Our taxes should be spent here, not in Sicily," says Giuseppe Colonna, an 84-year-old Venetian. Veneto president Luca Zaia says 30 billion euros ($35 billion) are wasted every year at a national level and fiscal rebalancing will be a top priority for him and his Lombardy counterpart Roberto Maroni if the votes go their way. Lombardy sends 54 billion euros more in taxes to Rome than it gets back in public spending. Veneto´s net contribution is 15.5 billion. The two regions would like to roughly halve those contributions -- a concession the cash-strapped state, labouring under a mountain of debt, can ill afford. The two regional presidents, both members of the far-right Northern League, plan to ask for more powers over infrastructure, the environment, health and education. They also want new ones relating to security issues and immigration -- steps which would require changes to the constitution. Pandora´s box? The referendums could have a domino effect -- a similar autonomy vote is being debated in Liguria, the region that includes the Riviera coastline, and Emilia Romagna, another wealthy industrial part of the country, is already trying to negotiate more devolved powers. Economist Lorenzo Codogno says that while Italian unity is not under threat, Sunday could mark the opening of a Pandora´s box. "The issue is likely to spread, and eventually, it will require a generalised approach by the next government and a reform of the constitution." Although the referendums have been driven by the Northern League, which has long abandoned the secessionist principles on which it was founded, the Yes campaign is backed by most of the centre-right and sections of the centre-left. Milan´s mayor Giuseppe Sala, a member of the ruling Democratic Party, says greater self-rule "is an idea shared by everyone, not one that belongs to the League." There is also a substantial body of opinion that regards the votes as unnecessary extravagances: organising them will cost 50 million euros in Lombardy and 14 million euros in Veneto. The referendum questions are framed differently in the two regions but both ask voters to say Yes or No to "further forms and special conditions of autonomy". In a first for Italy, voting in Lombardy will be conducted on computer tablets. Acquiring them raised the cost of the ballot but should ensure an early result after polls close at 11 pm (2100 GMT).
  18. TOKYO: Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe swept to a comfortable victory in a snap election Sunday, handing him a mandate to harden his already hawkish stance on North Korea and re-energise the world´s number-three economy. Abe's conservative coalition was on track to win 311 seats in the 465-seat parliament, according to a projection published by private broadcaster TBS, putting the nationalist blue blood on course to become Japan´s longest-serving leader. The comfortable election win is likely to stiffen Abe´s resolve to tackle North Korea´s nuclear menace, as the key US regional ally seeks to exert maximum pressure on the regime in Pyongyang after it fired two missiles over Japan in the space of a month. Abe was heading for a "landslide win," the Yomiuri daily said on its website. Millions of Japanese braved torrential rain and driving winds to vote, as a typhoon bears down on the country with many heeding warnings to cast their ballots early. "I support Abe´s stance not to give in to North Korea´s pressure," said one voter, Yoshihisa Iemori, as he cast his ballot in rain-swept Tokyo. Abe´s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) benefitted from a weak and splintered opposition, with the two main parties facing him created only a matter of weeks ago. Support for the Party of Hope founded by popular Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike fizzled after an initial blaze of publicity and was on track to win around 50 seats, the TBS projection suggested. Speaking from Paris where she was attending an event in her capacity as leader of the world´s biggest city, a sullen-faced Koike told public broadcaster NHK she feared a "very severe result". The new centre-left Constitutional Democratic Party fared slightly better than expected but was still far behind Abe. "The LDP´s victory is simply because the opposition couldn´t form a united front," political scientist Mikitaka Masuyama from the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies, told AFP. It was unclear in the immediate aftermath of the vote whether Abe´s coalition would retain its two-thirds "supermajority." Such a "supermajority" would allow Abe to propose changes to Japan´s US-imposed constitution that forces it to "renounce" war and effectively limits its military to a self-defence role. 'Sink' Japan The short 12-day campaign was dominated by the economy and the global crisis over North Korea, which has threatened to "sink" Japan into the sea. Nationalist Abe stuck to a hardline stance throughout, stressing that Japan "would not waver" in the face of an increasingly belligerent regime in Pyongyang. Despite the sabre-rattling from North Korea, many voters said reviving the once-mighty Japanese economy was the top priority, with Abe´s trademark "Abenomics" policy failing to trickle down to the general public. The three-pronged combination of ultra-loose monetary policy, huge government spending and structural reform has catapulted the stock market to a 21-year high but failed to stoke inflation and growth has remained sluggish. "Neither pensions nor wages are getting better ... I don´t feel the economy is recovering at all," said 67-year-old pensioner Hideki Kawasaki. Although voters turned out in their millions to back Abe, support for the 63-year-old is lukewarm and surveys showed his decision to call a snap election a year earlier than expected was unpopular. Voter Etsuko Nakajima, 84, told AFP: "I totally oppose the current government. Morals collapsed. I´m afraid this country will be broken." "I think if the LDP takes power, Japan will be in danger. He does not do politics for the people," added the pensioner. Koike briefly promised to shake up Japan´s sleepy political scene with her new party but she declined to run herself for a seat, sparking confusion over who would be prime minister if she won. In the end, the 65-year-old former TV presenter was not even in Japan on election day. "I thought that I would vote for the Party of Hope if it´s strong enough to beat the Abe administration. But the party has been in confusion ... I´m quite disappointed," said 80-year-old pensioner Kumiko Fujimori. The campaign was marked by a near-constant drizzle in large parts of the country and rallies frequently took place under shelter and a sea of umbrellas. But this did not dampen the enthusiasm of hundreds of doughty, sash-wearing parliamentary hopefuls, who have driven around in minibuses pleading for votes via loudspeaker and bowing deeply to every potential voter.
  19. A man places a banner against Argentine President Mauricio Macri outside the judicial morgue, where the corpse of Santiago Maldonado ?disappeared on August 1, during a Mapuche protest in Chubut province ? remains waiting for an autopsy in Buenos Aires, October 20, 2017. AFP/Juan Mabromata1 BUENOS AIRES: Argentine President Mauricio Macri's minority government faces a mid-term electoral test Sunday that is likely to confirm the political comeback of ex-president Cristina Kirchner, who is set to win a Senate seat. Macri's centre-right Cambiemos coalition, seeking a mandate to push forward with plans to overhaul the economy, is on track to strengthen its hand in both houses of Congress in the legislative polls. "We are at the beginning of a long road," the president told an election rally this week, referring to a painful reform program which he has so far managed to push through with the help of allies in Congress despite having only 87 seats in the 257-seat Congress, and 15 of 72 Senate seats. Kirchner, one of Macri's most prominent critics, should cap a return to the political fray with a Senate seat despite facing several corruption charges which she says are politically motivated. The 64-year-old dominated Argentine politics for years alongside her late husband Nestor before leaving office in 2015 after 12 years in power. A seat in the Senate would spare Kirchner jail if convicted of corruption. Her supporters hope it could also pave the way for a fresh presidential bid in 2019. Legal immunity Macri, 58, has staunchly defended his budget cuts throughout the campaign, insisting they have turned the tide of Argentina's long-struggling economy, but Kirchner and other critics say they are hurting the poor. Latin America's third-largest economy has recovered from recession last year and growth is expected to reach 3.0 percent by the end of 2017. Consumer spending began to recover in September, after 18 months of slump. "The outlook is quite positive, the economy has reactivated itself," said economist Hector Rubini. Foreign investors have been largely reassured by Macri's reforms and are watching to see how much of a boost he can get from Sunday's polls. "The government hasn't finished resolving the economic question, but everything indicates that it will do well," in the election, political scientist Fernando Ohanessian said. Ohanessian said Macri's coalition also stands to benefit from divisions in the broadly leftist Peronist movement embodied by Kirchner. "Divisions within Peronism are allowing the government to consolidate its position as the prime political force in the country." The Peronist movement, founded by Juan Domingo Peron in the 1940s, is currently split between Kirchner's leftists and a more centrist current. "If after the election, Peronism unifies, it will be complicated for the government, otherwise the government may consider a strategy to seek a second president term " in 2019, said Ohanessian. In the Italy-sized province of Buenos Aires, home to nearly 40 percent of the electorate, Kirchner is still able to wield considerable political clout. However, she has failed to capitalize on the discontent of Argentinians, whose purchasing power has been weakened by inflation that soared 40 percent in 2016 and 17 percent in the first nine months of 2017. A third of Argentines are living in poverty, according to a study earlier this year by Argentina's Catholic University. "It's time to put to a stop to this," Kirchner told a rally at a football stadium this week. "Do not let this policy continue and put the country into debt." Kirchner's showing, however, isn't enough to mount a serious challenge in 2019, according to political analyst Jorge Giacobbe. "Cristina Kirchner can never again be president," he said. Former president Carlos Menem, at 87, is seeking a third term in the Senate, despite facing accusations he illegally traded weapons to Ecuador and Croatia.
  20. MILAN: The regions of Lombardy and Veneto vote Sunday in referendums on greater autonomy within Italy against the backdrop of the crisis created by Catalonia´s push for independence from Spain. Why the votes and what are they about? The referendums, initiated by the two regional presidents, are consultative. Voters will be asked to say Yes or No to the principle of the two regions having greater autonomy under a procedure provided for in Italy´s constitution. A Yes win would allow the regions to begin negotiating the details of more independence with the central government in Rome. What do the regions want? In the event of victories for the Yes campaigns, Lombardy President Roberto Maroni and his counterpart in Veneto Luca Zaia, both members of the far-right Northern League, plan to ask for more powers over infrastructure, health and education. They also want new ones relating to security issues and immigration -- steps which would require changes to the constitution -- and to retain more of the taxes raised in their wealthy, dynamic areas. Lombardy sends 54 billion euros ($64 billion) more in taxes to Rome than it gets back in public spending. Veneto´s net contribution is 15.5 billion ($18 billion). The two regions would like to roughly half those net contributions. Why the demands? Veneto (population: 5 million) and Lombardy (10 million) are two of Italy´s richest regions and account for 30 percent of GDP. Their debt per capita is low: 73 euros ($86) for Lombardy, 219 euros ($258) for Veneto, against a national average of 407 euros ($480). Lower unemployment and welfare costs mean their citizens also cost the state significantly less than the national average. Maroni and Zaia say this virtuous situation should be rewarded. Constitutional expert Nicola Lupo says the referendums also reflect "a traditional North/South divide and a vision of Rome as corrupt and domineering". The example of other northern regions that already enjoy greater autonomy is also a factor. Will Yes win? Polls put the Yes camp comfortably in front. "Those who make the effort to vote will probably be voting Yes, particularly as the question asked is relatively consensual," said Lupo. Turnout is the big unknown. In Veneto, it has to pass 50 percent for the result to be considered valid. There is no quorum in Lombardy but if turnout is under 40 percent the autonomy push is likely to end up being recorded a "minor blip in the history books" said economist Lorenzo Codogno. As well as the Northern League, the referendums are backed by Silvio Berlusconi´s Forza Italia, the populist Five Star Movement, trade union groupings and employers organisations. Leftwing groups have called on voters to abstain while the ruling Democratic Party has left it up to individuals to decide and several of its big guns, including the mayor of Milan, have said they will vote Yes. First step to secession? Maroni insists the vote is no threat to national unity but he wants to reshape relations with Rome in line with a vision of a "Europe of the nations". Although born as a secessionist party, the Northern League now backs devolution within Italy and emphasises the anti-immigration and anti-euro elements of its platform. Zaia says any parallels with Catalonia are mistaken or a "crafty" attempt to discourage Yes voters. "There is no wide separatist sentiment," notes Lupo. But strong Yes results could encourage other regions to go down the same route. "Although not threatening the unity of the State, this risks setting in motion widespread centrifugal forces within Italy," Codogno said.
  21. Social Democratic Party (SPD) top candidate Stephan Weil celebrates with supporters after Lower Saxony state election in Hanover, Germany, October 15, 2017. REUTERS/Thilo Schmuelgen BERLIN/HANOVER: Germany?s Social Democrats (SPD) defeated Angela Merkel?s conservatives in a vote in the northern state of Lower Saxony on Sunday, a setback for the chancellor as she prepares for tricky coalition talks at the national level this week. The SPD ? which has governed the swing state home to carmaker Volkswagen with the Greens for four years ? won 37.3 percent, well up from 32.6 percent in the last election there in 2013, according to projections on public broadcaster ARD. Merkel?s Christian Democrats (CDU) took 33.4 percent of the vote in the rich agricultural state that has around six million eligible voters, down from 36 percent in 2013. Disgruntled with Merkel?s liberal migrant policy, Germans abandoned her party in droves in September?s national election to hand the conservatives their worst result since 1949. If confirmed, Sunday?s result would be the poorest showing for the CDU in Lower Saxony in 58 years, further weakening Merkel as she tries to put together an alliance with the pro-business Free Democrats (FDP) and environmentalist Greens. Those parties will this week begin discussions about entering a marriage of convenience untested at the federal level that could drag into 2018. Peter Tauber ? the CDU?s secretary general ? said all three parties involved in national coalition talks had lost support in Lower Saxony but dismissed the idea that the state vote would have a big impact on the talks. ?It wouldn?t be wise to think this will weigh us down,? he said. ?We have a clear mandate and we take that very seriously and we are talking about serious and important topics? that?s why we?re now talking seriously and looking forward.? The projections showed the environmentalist Greens ? currently junior coalition partner to the SPD in Lower Saxony ? on 8.9 percent. The liberal Free Democrats (FDP) won 7.4 percent. Both performed considerably worse than in 2013. The far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) cleared the 5-percent threshold to enter parliament with 6.2 percent ? albeit far weaker than the 12.6 percent it scored nationally in September. 'Jamaica' on the horizon Merkel?s poor showing in September, along with the SPD?s insistence on going into opposition, left her with no viable option other than a ?Jamaica? coalition, so named because the three parties? colours correspond with the black, yellow, and green of Jamaica?s flag. It means the prospective partners will need to overcome huge differences on issues ranging from immigration to European Union reform, tax, and environmental protection. Katrin Goering-Eckhardt ? the leader of the Greens in parliament ? said forming a coalition would not be easy. ?It remains difficult but we can at least get started,? she said. A deal brokered last weekend between Merkel?s CDU and the CSU ? its conservative Bavarian sister party ? to cap the number of immigrants is likely to be hard for the Greens to swallow. Merkel has acknowledged the difficulties ahead but added that ?unusual combinations can, of course, bring the opportunity to find some solutions to things that had seemed unsolvable until now?. ?So now we need to put our noses to the grindstone,? she said on the campaign trail in Lower Saxony on Thursday. An SPD-Green coalition has ruled the state for four years but lost its majority when a Greens lawmaker defected to the CDU, triggering a snap election. Lower Saxony?s incumbent SPD premier Stephan Weil said he would talk to all parties except the AfD about forming a coalition. It was the first time the SPD has been the biggest party in the state since 1998. Turnout was about 63 percent, according to broadcaster ARD ? higher than in 2013. Sunday?s win was the first victory for the SPD under Martin Schulz, who was nominated as its leader in January and suffered three state election defeats earlier this year and then the SPD?s worst national result in the post-war era in September.
  22. CARACAS: Venezuelans headed to the polls Sunday in regional elections seen as a crucial test for President Nicolas Maduro and the opposition alike after months of deadly street protests failed to unseat him. Public opinion surveys predicted that the opposition would win a majority of state governorships despite alleged government efforts to suppress a high turnout through last-minute changes in voting places and other tactics. An estimated 18 million people are eligible to elect governors to four-year terms in 23 states. Voting got off to a slow start at 6:00 am (1000 GMT), when the country´s more than 13,500 voting stations opened, AFP journalists on the ground reported. The opposition Democratic Union Roundtable (MUD) coalition called Saturday on Maduro to immediately expel "Nicaraguan advisors" who it said had been brought to Venezuela to carry out electoral fraud. It said they were specialists in abruptly changing the sites of voting places, "a technique used by the Nicaraguan government to disconcert opposition voters." The MUD has cried foul over changes to the locations of 274 polling stations in 16 states from areas where they polled strongly in the 2015 legislative elections. "If the vote were to be free and fair, the MUD would likely win between 18 and 21 states," an analysis by the Eurasia Group said. The vote comes against the backdrop of an International Monetary Fund report in which it sees no end to the economic downturn and suffering of the population. Venezuela "remains in a full-blown economic, humanitarian, and political crisis with no end in sight," the Fund said in a report on Latin American economies. The country´s economy will have contracted by 35 percent by the end of this year from 2014, and the Fund says the country is headed toward hyperinflation when prices soar uncontrollably every day for a long period. It said shortages are taking a huge toll on the Venezuelan people. "The main risk to the region relates to the humanitarian crisis and ensuing migration of Venezuelans to neighbouring countries," it said. "The number of Venezuelans arriving in Brazilian and Colombian border towns has been rising sharply as the crisis in Venezuela intensifies." International powers accuse Maduro of dismantling democracy by taking over state institutions in the wake of an economic collapse caused by a fall in the price of oil, its main source of revenue. Sunday´s polls are the first contested by the opposition since the legislative elections which gave it a majority in the assembly. Opposition base motivated? But the MUD finds itself having to lift its own discouraged support base. They have seen Maduro´s hand strengthened after he faced down four months of protests that killed 125 people, forming a Constituent Assembly packed with his own allies and wresting legislative power from the opposition-dominated national assembly. For Maduro, the polls are an opportunity to counter allegations of dictatorship at home and abroad levelled at him after forming the Constituent Assembly. Maduro signalled this week that the election would effectively be a vote in support of the assembly, forcing even its staunchest critics in the opposition to recognise it. He said governors-elect would have to be "sworn-in and subordinate themselves" to the Assembly, on pain of dismissal. Even if his socialist party suffers heavily at the polls, the elections could still provide a boost for Maduro, analysts said. "Though the government will probably find a way to diminish the importance of the results, it will initially recognize the outcome as it seeks to revive stalled talks with the opposition and stave off additional sanctions," the Eurasia analysis said.
  23. BARCELONA: Catalonia?s regional leader opened the door to a unilateral declaration of independence from Spain on Sunday after voters defied a violent police crackdown and, according to regional officials, voted 90 percent in favour of breaking away. Despite Spanish police using batons and rubber bullets to disrupt the banned referendum, which was declared unconstitutional by Madrid, the Catalan government said 2.26 million people had cast ballots, a turnout of about 42 percent. Carles Puigdemont?s comments followed a television address by Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy who ruled out independence and accused separatists of trying to ?blackmail ... the whole nation?. He offered all-party talks on the region?s future. Catalan officials say more than 800 people were injured in clashes with Spanish riot police during the referendum, which has pitched the country into its deepest constitutional crisis in decades and deepened a rift between Madrid and Barcelona. ?On this day of hope and suffering, Catalonia?s citizens have earned the right to have an independent state in the form of a republic,? Puigdemont said in a televised address. ?My government, in the next few days will send the results of today?s vote to the Catalan Parliament, where the sovereignty of our people lies, so that it can act in accordance with the law of the referendum,? he said. The law of the referendum, deemed unconstitutional by Madrid, foresees a unilateral declaration of independence by the Catalan parliament if the majority votes to leave Spain. The law does not set a minimum turnout for the outcome to be valid. The results announced early on Monday were not a surprise, given that many unionists were not expected to turn out to vote. Earlier in the day, the streets of Catalonia, an industrial and tourism powerhouse accounting for a fifth of Spain?s economy, erupted into violence as national police burst into polling stations with batons, dragging voters away. The action drew criticism at home and abroad. British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson voiced worries over the violence while backing Madrid?s view that the vote was unconstitutional. Spain?s deputy prime minister said force used by the police had been proportionate. ?The absolute irresponsibility of the regional government has had to be met by the security forces of the state,? said Soraya Saenz de Santamaria. The euro lost about a third of a US cent after the violence-marred vote before steadying. It touched a low of $1.1776 in thin Asian trade but soon steadied at $1.1801. In the run-up to the referendum, Puigdemont had said he would move to a declaration of independence within 48 hours of a ?yes? vote. But the fragmented nature of the polling, with many voting stations closed, could complicate any move to a formal declaration. Puigdemont called on Europe to step in to make sure fundamental rights were fully respected. NEXT STEP? In another sign tensions would endure beyond the vote, secessionist groups and trade unions in Catalonia called a general strike for Tuesday, La Vanguardia newspaper said. Catalan officials said 844 people had been injured in the police crackdown and the Spanish Interior Ministry said 12 police officers had been hurt. ?I propose that all political parties with parliamentary representation meet and, together, reflect on the future we all face,? Rajoy said in his televised address. Opinion polls had shown around 40 percent of the northeastern region wanted independence from Spain although a majority were in favour of a referendum on the issue. National police sent into Catalonia for the referendum swept into polling stations, hitting people with batons, firing rubber bullets into crowds and forcibly removing would-be voters from polling stations, some dragged away by their hair. ?Regardless of views on independence, we should all condemn the scenes being witnessed and call on Spain to change course before someone is seriously hurt,? Scotland?s pro-independence leader, Nicola Sturgeon, said on Twitter. Despite the national police action, some polling stations remained open, especially in areas supervised by the Catalan police force which adopted much milder tactics. ?I?m so pleased because despite all the hurdles they?ve put up, I?ve managed to vote,? said Teresa, a 72-year-old pensioner in Barcelona who had stood in line for six hours to vote. The ballot will have no legal status as it has been blocked by Spain?s Constitutional Court which ruled it at odds with the 1978 constitution that effectively restored democracy in Spain after the dictatorship of General Francisco Franco.
  24. BARCELONA (Reuters) - No supporters were able to watch Barcelona?s 3-0 win over Las Palmas on Sunday as the game was played behind closed doors, following clashes between police and voters in Catalonia over a disputed independence referendum. Spanish riot police burst into polling stations across Catalonia, confiscating ballot boxes and voting papers to try to halt the banned referendum on a split from Spain as Madrid asserted its authority over the rebel region. Catalan officials said 337 people were injured in the crackdown. The clashes prompted Barcelona, the club of the Catalan capital, to announce the Las Palmas match would be played in front of an empty Nou Camp stadium. ?FC Barcelona condemns the events which have taken place in many parts of Catalonia today in order to prevent its citizens exercising their democratic right to free expression,? the club said on its website. ?Given the exceptional nature of events, the Board of Directors have decided that the FC Barcelona first-team game against Las Palmas will be played behind closed doors following the Professional Football League?s refusal to postpone the game.? The lack of fans in the Nou Camp, which has a capacity of 99,000, seemed not to harm Barcelona on the pitch as Sergio Busquets opened the scoring early in the second half. Top scorer Lionel Messi then struck twice to seal Barca?s seventh straight win of the Liga season which extended their lead at the top of the table to five points. Las Palmas had said earlier in the day that they would wear the Spanish flag on their jerseys for the match to support the unity of Spain. ?We decided to wear a small Spanish flag on our shirts today to display unequivocally our hope in the future of this country,? their statement said. The game was thrown into chaos when reports in the Spanish media said the club had postponed the game less than an hour before kick off, and supporters were not allowed through the Nou Camp gates. Both Las Palmas and Barcelona published their starting lineups for the game, with the announcement that the game would go ahead without supporters coming 25 minutes before kickoff. Spanish soccer federation rules state that a game can only be postponed if the police cannot guarantee the safety of spectators. If Barcelona had suspended the game without the consent of the federation, they would have automatically lost the game 3-0 and had a further three points deducted. Barcelona supporters group Grada d?Animacio, which organises the ?singing section? behind one of the goals at the Nou Camp, pledged to invade the pitch, if the game went ahead, in protest at the police crackdown. Former Barcelona captain Xavi Hernandez also condemned the police action, in a video released on social media. ?What is happening in Catalonia today is shameful,? said Xavi, who has made more appearances for Barcelona than any other player. ?It?s unacceptable that people are not allowed to vote in a democratic country. All my support goes to the people who are peacefully trying to exercise their right to vote. Long live Catalonia.?
  25. A man holds a placard reading "Catalonia, Spain, Europe" during a demonstration in favour of a unified Spain a day before the banned October 1 independence referendum, in Barcelona, Spain, September 30, 2017. REUTERS/Yves Herman BARCELONA: It´s crunch time for Catalonia and the rest of Spain Sunday as the northeastern region holds an independence referendum banned by Madrid, though how people will be able to vote remains a mystery. This is no ordinary referendum. Spain´s central government is staunchly against a vote ruled unconstitutional by the courts and has used all the legal tools at its disposal to stop it from taking place. On orders of judges and prosecutors, police have seized ballot papers, detained key organisers, and shut down websites promoting the vote. But in an interview with AFP Saturday, Catalan president Carles Puigdemont insisted that his government had "everything in place" so that the referendum could go ahead in the wealthy region which is home to some 7.5 million people. Occupied schools The planned referendum has sown divisions among Catalans and stoked passions further afield in Spain. Opinion polls show the region is deeply divided over independence, but a large majority of Catalans want to be able to settle the matter in a referendum, though most would prefer it to be legal and binding. Whatever happens, Sunday´s referendum result will not be recognised by Madrid, and almost certainly not by the international community. But separatist leaders are banking on a high turnout to give legitimacy to their vote, though it is as yet unclear how people will be able to cast their ballots. Spain´s interior ministry said Saturday police had closed most of the 2,315 polling stations across Catalonia. But at least 160 were occupied by teachers, parents, students and activists determined to let people in anyway. All eyes were on whether police would forcefully evict them early on Sunday morning. Some schools designated as polling stations imagined innovative ways to stay open, organising leisure activities all over the weekend, from kids´ pyjama parties to volleyball games. A regional government source said voting may also take place in other places like health centres and even retirement homes. Farmers and firefighters have also pledged to protect polling stations. Berta Clos, an 18-year-old student, was helping to occupy Barcelona´s Menendez y Pelayo Institute. She said Catalan police had already told those inside that they would come and notify them that they had to shut the school down. "But they have also told us that if there are people inside, they won´t be able to do it so we just need to make sure that this remains open." Unity protests The Mossos d´Esquadra Catalan police have warned about the risk of "disruption of public order" if efforts are made to prevent people from casting ballots. Madrid has sent thousands of extra police officers from other forces to Catalonia to stop the referendum from happening. On Saturday, Puigdemont called on those going to vote to maintain a "peaceful attitude." That same day, thousands took to the streets across the country -- including in Barcelona -- in favour of national unity. As well as being critical of Puigdemont, some protesters also faulted Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy´s conservative government for limiting its response to the crisis to repeating that the referendum is unconstitutional. "The state needs to explain the benefits of remaining united, instead of repeating all the time that the referendum is illegal," said Rafael Castillo, a 59-year-old engineer at a Madrid rally, wearing a scarf with the Spanish flag around his neck. Whatever happens on Sunday, analysts fear that the standoff between Catalan leaders and Madrid has left a damaging mark. And it is unlikely to blow over after the vote. Carles Riera, a regional parliament lawmaker for the radical CUP party, part of Catalonia´s separatist coalition, vowed that mobilisation would continue after Sunday´s vote -- if the "yes" camp won but Madrid opposed the result, as is almost certain. "We´re in a process of popular mobilisation that is going to last a while," he told reporters.