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Angola’s Lourenço returns but youths shake ruling party chokehold | Elections

Angolan President Joao Lourenço was sworn in on Thursday for a second term in office, in front of approximately 15,000 selected guests in the historic palm tree-lined square in the capital city Luanda.

At first glance, the ruling People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA)’s win in the August 22 vote might be viewed as another routine victory for the party, which has been in power since independence from Portugal in 1975.

A closer look however reveals that the party is in crisis, posting its worst result since multi-party politics were introduced in 1992.

In the last four consecutive elections, the MPLA has become increasingly unpopular, losing about an additional 10 percent of the available votes every cycle. This was despite a change of guard from Jose Eduardo dos Santos who ruled for almost 40 years to Lourenço who succeeded him in 2017.

In this election, MPLA received just over 51 percent of the vote, securing a second five-year term for Lourenco while its archrival, main opposition party UNITA, gained approximately 44 percent.

In 2008, the MPLA won 81 percent of the votes. In 2012 and 2017, that decreased to 74 percent and 61 percent respectively. Four years on, it won by only 61 percent.

In addition, the party lost to UNITA in the capital Luanda, historically an MPLA stronghold. The ruling party also lost its two-thirds majority in parliament, forcing it to cooperate with opposition legislators for the first time.

“The MPLA will no longer be able to pass legislation uncontested, meaning that its control over state institutions will weaken,” Marisa Lourenço (no relation to the president), a Johannesburg-based political analyst with Control Risks told Al Jazeera.

The political shift reflects the wider socioeconomic transformation happening in Angola where the youth, representing the majority of the voting population, has become extremely vocal in opposing the status quo.

Deep divisions

After independence, the MPLA and UNITA, which had begun as rebel movements fighting for the country’s liberation, turned on each other. After 27 years of civil war, a truce was reached in 2002.

But the country’s political structure was deeply affected by the war and its dark legacy lingers on as the top political parties bicker over Angola’s future.

Under dos Santos who ruled for nearly 40 years with an iron fist, Angola moved from socialism to crony capitalism as the MPLA-linked elite amassed control over its natural resources, financial institutions and mass media.

As skyscrapers appeared on Luanda’s coastline to showcase Angola’s post-war boom driven by enormous oil and diamond exports, slums surrounding the city grew exponentially, creating one of the world’s most unequal societies.

Even today, the majority of the population lives below the poverty line even though the country is now Africa’s largest oil producer.

In 2017, dos Santos stepped down following calls for reform, handpicking his Defence Minister Lourenço as his successor.

The new president pledged to turn a new page in the country’s history and started with an ambitious crackdown on corruption that affected his benefactor’s family including Isabel dos Santos, once Africa’s richest woman.

However, citizens and civil society say that promise remains unfulfilled and that his campaign to boost transparency is yet to prompt wider structural reforms that could lead to a more free and equal Angola.

His presidency has struggled to cope with the economic crisis triggered by the global drop in oil prices. The oil-dependent economy was hit hard and the living conditions of people, particularly the youth, worsened.

Force for change

In recent years, they have been complaining that the post-war boom had benefitted only the elite and has not translated into wider socioeconomic transformation. And the numbers back up their assertions.

The official unemployment rate is approximately 30 percent, but among the youth, that figure doubles. Indeed, more than half of Angolans under the age of 25 are unemployed, according to its national statistics institute.

In his inauguration speech, Lourenço promised to be “president for all Angolans” and offered an olive branch to the country’s disenfranchised and largely unemployed youth.

“We will work on policies and good practices … to create more jobs for Angolans, but especially for young people,” he said.

But Luanda-based political analyst Claudio Silva said the youth having witnessed how MPLA has “wasted” the country’s resources, remain far from impressed.

“They have witnessed how billions of dollars were thrown away in multiple monthly corruption scandals”, Silva told Al Jazeera. “Our generation has seen political leaders become fabulously wealthy.”

Since the new generation was born after the civil war and many voted for the first time in this election, they are seemingly less interested in MPLA’s patriotic rhetoric which some say has no effect on current realities affecting their everyday lives.

“We young people can’t do it any more,” Cristovao Semedo in Luanda said. “We don’t work. We don’t have anything. We can’t eat. It’s more suffering than anything else”.

Feeling distanced from the ruling party, the youth overwhelmingly threw its support behind UNITA which went after young urban voters by capitalising on their frustration about the widespread corruption, inflation, rising public debt and unemployment.

Âurea Mouzinho of Global Alliance for Tax Justice says the overwhelming sentiment in the election campaign was that young people would vote for change, “something that became synonymous with voting in UNITA”.

With the youth support, UNITA was able to hit 44 percent of the vote this time, its highest voter share in history and twice what it garnered in the 2017 polls.

Following the calls from opposition candidate Costa Junior to protect their vote, young voters stayed in polling stations to make sure their vote had been counted as per the law.

“In an unprecedented way, they voted en masse and organised civic movements to monitor the results in polling stations”, Mouzinho said.

One of those movements was the youth-led civil society group Movimento Cívico Mudei. Apart from drawing attention to transparency issues in Angola’s electoral system, it has been encouraging more active youth participation in the political process.

Its members also played a vital role in challenging MPLA’s amassing more state power, said political analyst Lourenço.

“Luaty Beirao, a prominent activist, has been very vocal about the darker side of the MPLA regime,” she told Al Jazeera. “He has also been imprisoned before under the dos Santos administration in which he went on a hunger strike.”

Ahead of the elections, the group launched Projecto Jiku, a parallel vote count which showed a slim UNITA lead against MPLA, in contrast to the official results.

“The project showed that there were serious concerns about the partiality of the electoral commission”, Lourenço said.  “They have established themselves as a force to be reckoned with and can, if not, will determine the outcome of future elections”, she said.

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First female premier poised to take helm of Italy government

ROME — A party with neo-fascist roots won the most votes in Italy’s national election, setting the stage Monday for talks to form the country’s first far right-led government since World War II, with Giorgia Meloni at the helm as Italy’s first female premier.

Italy’s lurch to the far right immediately shifted Europe’s geopolitics, placing Meloni’s euroskeptic Brothers of Italy in a position to lead a founding member of the European Union and its third-largest economy. Italy’s left warned of “dark days” ahead and vowed to keep Italy in the heart of Europe.

Right-wing leaders across Europe immediately hailed 45-year-old Meloni’s victory as sending a historic, nationalist message to Brussels. It followed a right-wing victory in Sweden and recent gains by the far-right in France and Spain.

Still, turnout in the Italian election Sunday was a historic low of 64%, and pollsters suggested voters stayed home in protest, disenchanted by the backroom deals that had created the country’s last three governments and the mash-up of parties in outgoing Premier Mario Draghi’s national unity government.

By contrast, Meloni was viewed as a new face in the merry-go-round of Italian governments and many Italians appeared to be voting for change, analysts said.

The victory of Meloni’s just 10-year-old Brothers of Italy was more about Italian dissatisfaction with the decades-long status quo than any surge in neo-fascist or far-right sentiment, said Nathalie Tocci, director of the Rome-based Institute of International Affairs.

“I would say the main reason why a big chunk of (voters) … will vote for this party is simply because it’s the new kid on the block,” she said.

The election’s sharp swing to the right, “confirms that the Italian electorate remains fickle,″ said London-based political analyst Wolfango Piccoli, noting that an estimated 30% of voters went for a different party than their choice in 2018 elections.

Meloni, whose party traces its origins to the postwar, neo-fascist Italian Social Movement, tried to sound a unifying tone, noting that Italians had finally been able to determine their leaders.

“If we are called to govern this nation, we will do it for everyone. We will do it for all Italians and we will do it with the aim of uniting the people,” said. “shechose us. We will not betray it.”

Near-final results showed the center-right coalition netting 44% of the parliamentary vote, with Meloni’s Brothers of Italy snatching 26% in its biggest win in its decade-long meteoric rise. Her coalition partners divided up the remainder, with the anti-immigrant League party led by Matteo Salvini winning 9% and Forza Italia of ex-Premier Silvio Berlusconi taking around 8% of the vote.

The center-left Democratic Party and its allies had around 26% support, while the populist 5-Star Movement — which had been the biggest vote-getter in the 2018 parliamentary election — saw its share of the vote halved to 15%.

While the center-right was the clear winner, the formation of a government is still weeks away and will involve consultations among party leaders and with President Sergio Mattarella. In the meantime, Draghi remains in a caretaker role.

The elections, which took place six months early after Draghi’s government collapsed, came at a crucial time for Europe as it faces Russia’s war in Ukraine and related soaring energy costs that have hit ordinary Italians as well as industry.

A Meloni-led government is largely expected to follow Italy’s current foreign policy, including her pro-NATO stance and strong support for supplying Ukraine with weapons to defend itself against Russia’s invasion, even as her coalition allies take a different tone.

Both Berlusconi and Salvini have ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin. While both have distanced themselves from his invasion of Ukraine, Salvini has warned that EU sanctions against Moscow are hurting Italian industry. Berlusconi has even excused Putin’s invasion as an event foisted upon him by pro-Moscow separatists in the Donbas.

A bigger shift and one likely to cause friction with other EU nations is likely to come over migration. Meloni has called for a naval blockade to prevent migrant boats from leaving North African shores, and has proposed screening potential asylum-seekers in Africa, not Europe.

Salvini has made clear he wants the League to recapture the interior minister post, where he once imposed a tough anti-migrant policy. But he may face an internal leadership challenge, with Meloni’s party outperforming the League even in its northeastern stronghold.

On relations with the EU, analysts note that for all her euroskeptic rhetoric, Meloni moderated her message during the campaign and has little room to maneuver, given the economic windfall Italy is receiving from Brussels in coronavirus recovery funds. Italy secured 191.5 billion euros, the biggest chunk of the EU’s 750 billion-euro recovery package, and is bound by certain reform and investment milestones to receive it all.

That said, Meloni has criticized the EU’s recent recommendation to suspend 7.5 billion euros in funding to Hungary over concerns about democratic backsliding, defending autocratic Prime Minister Viktor Orban as the elected leader in a democratic system.

French far-right leader Marine Le Pen praised Meloni for having “resisted the threats of an anti-democratic and arrogant European Union.”

Santiago Abascal, the leader of Spain’s far-right Vox opposition party, tweeted that Meloni “has shown the way for a proud and free Europe of sovereign nations that can cooperate on behalf of everybody’s security and prosperity.”

Meloni is chair of the right-wing European Conservative and Reformist group in the European Parliament, which includes her Brothers of Italy, Poland’s nationalist Law and Justice Party, Spain’s far-right Vox and the right-wing Sweden Democrats, which just won big there on a platform of cracking down on crime and limiting immigration.

“The trend that emerged two weeks ago in Sweden was confirmed in Italy,” acknowledged Democratic Party leader Enrico Letta, calling Monday a “sad day for Italy, for Europe.”

“We expect dark days. We fought in every way to avoid this outcome,″ Letta said at a somber news conference. “(The Democratic Party) will not allow Italy to leave the heart of Europe.”

Thomas Christiansen, professor of political science at Rome’s Luiss University and the executive editor of the Journal of European Integration, noted that Italy has a tradition of pursuing a consistent foreign and European policy that is bigger than individual party interests.

“Whatever Meloni might be up to will have to be moderated by her coalition partners and indeed with the established consensus of Italian foreign policy,” Christiansen said.

———

Colleen Barry contributed from Milan.

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Tense Japan holds funeral for assassinated ex-leader Abe

TOKYO — A tense Japan prepared Tuesday for a rare and controversial state funeral for assassinated former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, the longest-serving leader in his nation’s modern history and one of the most divisive.

Tokyo was under maximum security, with angry protests opposing the funeral planned around the capital and nation. Hours before the ceremony began, dozens of people carrying bouquets of flowers queued at public flower-laying stands at nearby Kudanzaka park.

Thousands of uniformed police mobilized around the Budokan hall, where the funeral is being held, and at major train stations. Roads around the venue are closed throughout the day, and coin lockers at main stations were sealed for security. World leaders, including U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris, were in town for the funeral.

Opponents of the state-sponsored funeral, which has its roots in prewar imperial ceremonies, say taxpayers’ money should be spent on more meaningful causes, such as addressing widening economic disparities caused by Abe’s policies.

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has been criticized for forcing through the costly event to honor his mentor, Abe, who was assassinated in July. There has also been a widening controversy about Abe’s and the governing party’s decades-long close ties with the ultra-conservative Unification Church, accused of raking in huge donations by brainwashing adherents. Abe’s alleged assassin reportedly told police he killed the politician because of his links to the church; he said his mother ruined his life by giving away the family’s money to the church.

Kishida says the longest-serving leader in Japan’s modern political history deserves a state funeral. The government also maintains that the ceremony is not meant to force anyone to honor Abe. Most of the nation’s 47 prefectural governments, however, plan to fly national flags at half-staff and observe a moment of silence.

Opponents say Kishida’s one-sided decision, which was made without parliamentary approval, was undemocratic, and a reminder of how prewar imperialist governments used state funerals to fan nationalism. The prewar funeral law was abolished after World War II. The only postwar state funeral for a political leader, for Shigeru Yoshida in 1967, also faced similar criticism.

“Spending our valuable tax money on a state funeral with no legal basis is an act that tramples on the constitution,” organizer Takakage Fujita said at a protest Monday.

About 1.7 billion yen ($11.8 million) is needed for the venue, security, transportation and accommodation for the guests, the government said.

A group of lawyers has filed a number of lawsuits in courts around the country to try to stop the funeral. An elderly man last week set himself on fire near the prime minister’s office in an apparent protest of the funeral.

In what some see as an attempt to further justify the honor for Abe, Kishida has launched a series of meetings with visiting foreign leaders in what he calls “funeral diplomacy.” The talks are meant to strengthen ties as Japan faces regional and global challenges, including threats from China, Russia and North Korea. He was to meet about 40 foreign leaders through Wednesday. No Group of Seven leaders are attending.

Kishida met about 10 dignitaries Monday, including Harris, Vietnamese President Nguyen Xuan Phuc and Philippine Vice President Sara Duterte. He will meet with his Australian and Indian counterparts separately and host a reception Tuesday.

About 4,300 people, including Japanese lawmakers and foreign and local dignitaries, are attending the funeral.

Japanese troops will line the streets around the venue, and 20 of them will act as honor guards outside of Abe’s home as his family leaves for the funeral. There will then be a 19-volley salute.

The ceremony will start when Abe’s widow, Akie Abe, enters the hall carrying an urn containing her husband’s ashes, placed in a wooden box and wrapped in white cloth. The former leader was cremated after a private funeral at a Tokyo temple days after his death.

Government, parliamentary and judicial representatives, including Kishida, will make condolence speeches, followed by Akie Abe.

The main opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan and the Japanese Communist Party are boycotting the funeral, along with others.

Abe’s opponents recall his attempts to whitewash Japan’s wartime atrocities, his push for more military spending, his reactionary view of gender roles and a leadership seen as autocratic and supportive of cronyism.

Protests of the funeral have increased as more details emerged about Abe’s and LDP lawmakers’ connection to the Unification Church. The South Korea-based church has built close ties with LDP lawmakers over shared interests in conservative causes.

“The fact that the close ties between the LDP and the Unification Church may have interfered with policymaking processes is seen by the Japanese people as a greater threat to democracy than Abe’s assassination,” wrote Hosei University political science professor Jiro Yamaguchi in a recent article.

Abe’s grandfather, former Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi, helped the church take root in Japan and is now seen as a key figure in the scandal. Opponents say holding a state funeral for Abe is equivalent to an endorsement of ruling party ties to the Unification Church.

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In Tokyo, Harris calls US-Japan alliance ‘a cornerstone’

TOKYO — U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris met with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida shortly after arriving in Tokyo for the state funeral of assassinated former leader Shinzo Abe.

Abe, a former prime minister who was assassinated in July, will be honored on Tuesday, and Harris is leading a U.S. delegation to pay its respects.

“The alliance between Japan and the United States is a cornerstone of what we believe is integral to peace, stability and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific region,” she said Monday at the Akasaka Palace.

Kishida said Abe “poured his heart and soul” into strengthening ties between their two countries.

“I feel it is my duty to carry on his aspirations,” Kishida said.

Abe forged closer ties with the United States at a time of increased concern about China’s ambitions, and Kishida is continuing his push for a stronger national defense.

The potential for war over Taiwan, a self-governed island that China claims as part of its own territory, has troubled Japan, which would likely be pulled into such a conflict.

President Joe Biden said recently that the U.S. would send its own troops to defend Taiwan if China attacked.

“The president has addressed that issue. And if it comes up, the vice president will align with the president,” said a senior administration official, who requested anonymity to discuss a private meeting.

The official also said Harris would “make clear our ironclad commitment to Japan’s security.” More than 50,000 U.S. troops are based there.

Harris on Thursday will visit South Korea and its Prime Minister Han Duck-soo during a meeting early Tuesday said Harris will make a trip to the Demilitarized Zone, the border area with North Korea that is jointly controlled by the American-led United Nations Command and North Korea.

A White House official, speaking on the condition on anonymity, confirmed that Harris will tour sites at the DMZ and visit with troops there to demonstrate that the U.S. commitment to South Korea’s defense is “ironclad.”

Her visit, the first by a ranking U.S. official since House Speaker Nancy Pelosi went to the DMZ in August, will come the same week North Korea test-fired a short-range ballistic missile in apparent response to joint military exercises between the U.S. and Korea. Harris will be the highest-level American to go to the DMZ since former President Donald Trump visited in 2019 for a meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

Harris, who is scheduled to spend three nights in Tokyo, is visiting Japan at a politically fraught moment. Kishida’s decision to hold a state funeral for Abe, a conservative nationalist, has been controversial in a country where such memorials are uncommon, and some oppose honoring him in this way.

Kishida is also pushing for a dramatic expansion of defense spending that would give Japan the world’s third-largest military budget in the coming years, after the United States and China. A new national security strategy, the first in almost a decade, is in the works as well.

The debate is playing out as Japan reevaluates the risk of war after the shock of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, said Christopher Johnstone, senior adviser and Japan chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

The fighting in Europe is a reminder that “conflict really is possible,” he said, and “Japan lives in a pretty difficult neighborhood.”

Japan is upgrading missiles and considering using them for preemptive strikes — a move critics say would fundamentally change the country’s defense policy and breach the postwar pacifist constitution that limits use of force to self-defense.

It has also shifted its defense from the northeast to southwestern Japan, including Okinawa and other remote islands.

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