Ahad, 8 Disember 2013

The Star Online: World Updates

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The Star Online: World Updates

Venezuela's socialists win majority in local polls


CARACAS (Reuters) - President Nicolas Maduro's government won a majority of votes in Venezuela's local elections on Sunday, disappointing the opposition and helping his quest to preserve the late Hugo Chavez's socialist legacy.

With votes in from three-quarters of the nation's 337 mayoral races, the ruling party and allies had combined 49.2 percent support, compared with the opposition coalition and its partners' 42.7 percent, the election board said.

Since taking power in April, Maduro, a 51-year-old former bus driver, has faced a plethora of economic problems including slowing growth, the highest inflation in the Americas, and shortages of basic goods including milk and toilet paper.

Yet an aggressive campaign launched last month to force businesses to slash prices proved popular with consumers, especially the poor, and helped Maduro's candidates on Sunday.

"The father of the revolution has gone, but he left the son who continued helping the poor," said government supporter and pensioner Freddy Navarro, 62, in Caracas.

Sunday's election was the biggest political test for Maduro since he narrowly won the presidential election after Chavez's death from cancer ended his 14-year rule of the OPEC nation.

Winning the overall vote share may help Maduro shake off perceptions of weakness, enabling him to exert more authority over the different factions in the ruling Socialist Party and perhaps take unpopular measures such as a currency devaluation.

"The Venezuelan people have said to the world that the Bolivarian revolution continues stronger than ever," Maduro said in a late-night speech, referring to Chavez's self-styled movement named for independence hero Simon Bolivar.


The government took nearly 200 municipalities, with three-quarters counted, reflecting the traditional strength of "Chavismo" in rural and poorer areas.

As expected, the opposition performed well in urban centres, keeping the principal mayorship of the capital, Caracas, and that of Venezuela's second city, Maracaibo. The opposition also won the capital of Barinas, Chavez's home state

But their failure to win the overall vote share was a blow to opposition leader Henrique Capriles' claim that he leads a majority. Capriles had repeatedly called for the vote to be seen as a referendum on Maduro's performance.

"I did everything humanly possible," Capriles said after the results were out. "Remember that Venezuela does not have a single owner. A divided country needs dialogue."

Opponents portray Maduro as a buffoonish autocrat with none of his predecessor's political savvy and say his continuation of statist economic policies - including the crackdown on retailers for alleged price-gouging - are disastrous.

In a triumphant speech in Bolivar Square in downtown Caracas, Maduro mocked Capriles and urged him to resign.

"They underestimate us. They call me a donkey, there is social racism," he said. "They said that today was a plebiscite, that Maduro would have to leave the presidency after today."

Despite the encouraging results for Maduro, he still faces a daunting task to right Venezuela's economy. Inflation has hit 54 percent annually, the local bolivar currency has tanked on the black market, power cuts are frequent, and shortages have spawned queues and irritation around the country.

Opposition activists alleged some irregularities on Sunday, including intimidation of some observers and the use of state oil company PDVSA's vehicles to ferry pro-government voters.

Capriles accused the government of intimidating local media to silence his voice and running the most unfair campaign in Venezuelan history. "I had to go round the country practically with a megaphone in my hand ... This campaign saw a brutal waste of Venezuelans' resources (by the government)," he said in a midnight speech.

But unlike April's vote, there was no call by Capriles for the results to be appealed or opposed.

The opposition's next chances to gain political ground are 2015 parliamentary elections and a possible signature drive for a recall referendum on Maduro in 2016.


Some anti-government activists are pressing for more action, such as street protests, and Capriles may find his authority challenged within his coalition after Sunday's results.

"They did not achieve their objective of a protest vote against Maduro," local pollster Luis Vicente Leon said.

Since taking office, Maduro has maintained core support among "Chavistas" by keeping his popular welfare programs and repeating his rhetoric and politics.

Opponents and some economists say Maduro's price-cutting measures smack of short-term populism that do nothing to fix what they consider the roots of Venezuela's economic mess: persecution of the private sector, and rigid price and currency control systems.

"We're not giving up, we're going to keep fighting," said Oskeiling Lopez, 25, a bank manager and opposition supporter.

Voting was largely peaceful, though one newspaper reported a woman was shot dead in a queue in a western state.

(Additional reporting by Patricia Velez, Deisy Buitrago, Eyanir Chinea and Brian Ellsworth and Diego Ore; Editing by Brian Ellsworth, Kieran Murray and Paul Simao)

Thai PM calls snap election, protesters press on


BANGKOK (Reuters) - Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra dissolved parliament on Monday and called a snap election, but anti-government protest leaders pressed ahead with mass demonstrations seeking to install an unelected body to run Thailand.

About 50,000 protesters marched through Bangkok, extending a rally that descended into violence before pausing late last week to honour the king's birthday. Blowing whistles, they vowed to oust Yingluck and eradicate the influence of her self-exiled brother, former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

"At this stage, when there are many people opposed to the government from many groups, the best way is to give back the power to the Thai people and hold an election. So the Thai people will decide," Yingluck said in a televised address as thousands of protesters resumed demonstrations across Bangkok.

The protesters ignored Yingluck's announcement, deepening nearly decade of rivalry between forces aligned with the Bangkok-based establishment and those who support Thaksin, a former telecommunications tycoon who won huge support in the countryside with pro-poor policies.

Protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban told Reuters he would lead a march to Yingluck's offices at Government House as planned.

"We have not yet reached our goal. The dissolving of parliament is not our aim," said Suthep, a former deputy prime minister under the previous military-backed government.

Yingluck's Puea Thai Party won the last election in 2011 by a landslide, enjoying widespread support in the north and northeast, Thailand's poorest regions. The pro-establishment opposition Democrat Party have not won an election since 1992. Its supporters say democracy has been corrupted in Thailand.

Aware Yingluck and Thaksin's allies would almost certainly win another election, Suthep has called for a "people's council" of appointed "good people" to replace the government. Yingluck has dismissed the idea as unconstitutional and undemocratic.

Saying they were unable to work with Yingluck, the Democrats on Sunday resigned en masse from the House of Representatives, raising a question over whether they would boycott an election and send Thailand into a deeper political spiral.

Such a move would raise the prospect that a minority of people in Thailand, a fast-growing country of 66 million people in the heart of Southeast Asia with the region's second-biggest economy, could dislodge a democratically elected leader without help from the military.


Calling an election will not end the political deadlock if the Democrats boycott it, said Pavin Chachavalpongpun of Kyoto University's Centre for Southeast Asian Studies.

In 2006, amid mass protests, the Democrats refused to contest a snap election called by Thaksin, who was deposed by the military five months later.

"This is only a short-term solution because there is no guarantee that the Democrats will come back and play by the rules," says Pavin. "We don't know whether they will boycott the elections or not."

"It seems like Thailand is going nowhere," he said.

Democrat Party leader Abhisit Vejjajiva sidestepped a question on whether his party would contest an election, which must be held between 45 and 60 days of a dissolution.

"House dissolution is the first step towards solving the problem," Abhisit, a former prime minister, told Reuters as he marched with thousands of flag-waving protesters in Bangkok's central business district. "Today, we march. I will walk with the people to Government House."

Many protesters such as Winai Putonghua, a small business owner, said dissolving parliament solved nothing. " We will fight until power is in the hands of the people. We don't need more politicians to rob this country," he said.

Suthep has told his supporters they have to take back power from what he calls the illegitimate "Thaksin regime" and that they cannot rely on the army to help.

The politically powerful army, which has staged or attempted 18 coups in the past 80 years, has said it does not want to get involved though it has tried to mediate.

Thaksin fled Thailand in 2008 to avoid a graft conviction but has remained closely involved with his sister's government. The protests were sparked last month by a government bid to introduce an amnesty that would have expunged his conviction.

The Thai baht rose to 32.05 per dollar in reaction to Yingluck's announcement but then slipped back to around 32.12, up about 0.3 percent from Friday, when comments from Suthep and others made it clear an early election might not end the crisis.

The stock market reacted in the same way, adding more than 1 percent in early trade, then slipping. It was up 0.6 percent at 0410 GMT.

(Additional reporting by Andrew R.C. Marshall and Apornrath Phoonphongphiphat; Writing by Jason Szep; Editing by Robert Birsel)

India's ruling party stumbles as opponent Modi marches on


NEW DELHI (Reuters) - India's ruling Congress party has a very big problem, and his name is Narendra Modi.

With no more than five months to go before nearly 800 million people choose their next leader, the prime ministerial candidate for the main opposition party has seized the initiative through rabble-rousing speeches at huge rallies across the country.

Results from local elections in four states, announced on Sunday, suggest Modi, chief minister of economic powerhouse Gujarat in the west of the country since 2001, has helped galvanise his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

The BJP retained Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh and ousted Congress in Rajasthan. In Delhi, the BJP was the biggest party, with Congress pushed from first to third place by an impressive debut from the anti-corruption Aam Aadmi Party.

The outcome represented a vote of no-confidence in Congress as much as one of confidence in Modi, but it was a humiliating blow that the opposition candidate will ruthlessly exploit.

Congress has floundered in the face of the Modi phenomenon. It is unsure how seriously to take him, undecided on what to do next and hampered by a presumptive leader who has lacked his challenger's charisma, leaving the party drifting at a crucial juncture.

Senior figures within Congress - in power for the last nine years, and historically the dominant force in Indian politics - have long dismissed Modi as irrelevant.

"Modi has come in a flash and will go in a flash," said one influential party member in a recent interview.

"Congress has been here for 128 years and will survive god knows how many hundreds of years more," he added, in a now-familiar refrain from the party's top brass.

That argument is becoming harder to sustain.

But as Congress fumbles for a response, one name dominates debate at the party's slightly shabby headquarters in the leafy centre of the capital: Rahul Gandhi.

Vice president of Congress and scion of a dynasty that has towered over Indian politics since independence, the 43-year-old is the obvious choice to rally his party and unite voters by playing up its secularist agenda and social welfare schemes.

Rahul's mother, Sonia, Congress president and the power behind Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, will also play a key role in the party's election strategy and campaigning, although younger leaders see Rahul as their figurehead.


If only it was that simple.

Congress insiders familiar with Rahul's thinking have expressed concern over his preoccupation with long-term reform of the party, something they say is important and necessary but could prove costly given the more pressing matter of elections.

"My frustration is that he is too forward-looking," said Jairam Ramesh, minister of rural development and one of the most outspoken figures in the Congress leadership.

"He's talking of structure, systems; he's talking of building up Congress in the long term, whereas we are now faced with fighting an election in the short term," he told Reuters last month.

However, even if they could persuade Rahul to focus fully on the 2014 vote, party officials wonder if pitting him against the crowd-pleasing Modi in a one-on-one contest would be wise.

Even if Congress wins, the 81-year-old Singh is expected to step down as prime minister after the election.

Modi has deliberately sought to turn the 2014 election into a presidential-style race between himself and Rahul by projecting his personal achievements and convictions over those of the BJP, and by mercilessly goading the Gandhis.

In his speeches, Modi ridicules Rahul by calling him "shehzada", or "prince", highlighting his opponent's privileged upbringing that contrasts strikingly with his own roots as the son of a tea-seller.

There is method in his mockery. Congress has traditionally enjoyed support among the poor, due to farm subsidies and food handouts, and so Modi is targeting its core vote.

Rallies and media debates have been light on policy so far.

Modi has highlighted his pro-business credentials in Gujarat, and sees his economic record as a way of tapping into India's aspirational masses who are growing impatient over what they see as stagnation, complacency and endemic corruption under Congress-led governments since 2004.

Both Gandhis have boasted of their successes in welfare. But they have avoided playing one potentially strong card for fear of appearing to exploit mistrust among India's sizeable religious minorities of Modi's Hindu nationalism.

That suspicion dates back to 2002, when Hindu mobs killed more than 1,000 people, mostly Muslims, in the state of Gujarat, shortly after Modi became chief minister there. Modi, 63, denies accusations that he could have done more to prevent the clashes, or that he encouraged them.

In a sign that the gloves may finally be coming off, however, the Congress-led coalition said last week it would seek to pass a long-delayed communal violence bill that would increase central powers over states' handling of such unrest.


Congress leaders say the party may not identify its candidate for prime minister until after the election, which is expected to be held sometime in April.

That would allow Rahul to campaign alongside his mother, protecting him to some extent and drawing on Sonia's authority and experience in the run-up to the vote.

Beyond fears that Modi would win a confrontational campaign, which analysts expect to become increasingly nasty the closer the election gets, Congress insiders also believe it might help promote the BJP in regions where its footprint is negligible.

Congress is banking on the opposition failing to win many votes in the south, for example. To set up the election as a Gandhi-versus-Modi duel might erode that advantage.

Now that state elections are over, India's political parties can focus on the big prize, the Lok Sabha - parliament's lower house - where 272 seats are needed for an outright majority.

Few expect either of the main rivals to get anywhere near that total, meaning regional parties will again be instrumental in deciding who rules the world's biggest democracy.

In terms of coalition building, Congress has the advantage, political analysts say, because Modi is such a divisive figure.

They estimate that the BJP needs to win at least 180 seats, compared with 116 in the last election in 2009, to build enough momentum to convince non-traditional partners to join, underlining the scale of Modi's task.

For Modi, thoughts of partnerships are premature.

He wants to project a statesman-like image across India to reach regions where the BJP has long been weak, using rallies, covered extensively on news channels, and an elaborate social media strategy that has eclipsed that of Congress.

Congress, meanwhile, is waiting for Modi to trip up. As he moves on from populist rhetoric, he will be more prone to mistakes, says Ajay Maken, chief media manager for Congress.

"I personally feel ... that Modi has already peaked. And we have not started yet."

(Additional reporting by Frank Jack Daniel and Shyamantha Asokan; Writing by Mike Collett-White; Editing by John Chalmers and Alex Richardson)

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