Democracy in the balance as the US election edges toward a result

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Gwinnett County election workers look over absentee and provisional ballots at the Gwinnett Voter Registrations and Elections office on November 6, 2020 in Lawrenceville, Georgia. (Jessica McGowan/Getty Images/AFP)
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People gather and celebrate in Washington Square Park as they hope for a call in the presidential race for Democratic candidate Joe Biden on Nov. 6, 2020, in New York. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)
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Supporters of Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden gather near the parking lot at the Chase Center where Mr. Biden was expected to make an announcement to the Nation on Nov. 06, 2020 in Wilmington, Delaware. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images/AFP)
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Updated 07 November 2020

Democracy in the balance as the US election edges toward a result

  • Biden quietly confident and calls for patience; Trump steps up false claims and allegations of voter fraud without offering evidence

NEW YORK: As we await confirmation of the result of the US presidential election, it is easy to forget that, beyond the delays, confusion and misinformation, the truth of the contest and its result was precisely determined days ago and remains safely sealed in the ballots that remain to be counted.

About 130,000 of those ballots are in the pivotal state of Pennsylvania, where Joe Biden pulled ahead on Friday after steadily erasing a large initial lead built by Trump on election day.

Democrats were, therefore, in a cheerful mood in the early hours on Friday, as the counts of those final ballots started to trickle in, many of them from blue strongholds: 37,000 from Allegheny County in Pittsburg, for example, and 20,000 from Philadelphia.

Support for Biden was trending much higher than the percentage point lead he needed in the remaining ballots to win those counties. This appears to be thanks in large part to a high turnout by suburban women and mothers, arguably the demographic most affected by the coronavirus crisis. Women have borne the brunt of the pandemic nationwide; in September alone, nearly 1 million women lost their jobs. Many sacrificed their careers to care for locked down or quarantined children.

But even the tallies of remaining mail-in votes from traditionally Republican counties in Pennsylvania were favoring Biden. He netted 2,500 votes in Mercer County alone last night.

Trump’s supporters rallied outside tabulation centers under the slogan “Stop the Steal,” and described mail-in ballots as “write-ins” that were received after election day. Election officials have segregated ballots that might be challenged in court later.

As Biden edged past Trump in Pennsylvania, TV news networks faced a politically fraught question: when would they call the race? Prominent statistician Nate Silver encouraged them to do so, and fast.

“Whichever network calls this first will look good in retrospect,” he tweeted. That is not such an easy task for networks given that this is a highly unusual election. Fox News, for example, already took a lot of heat from the Trump campaign after calling Arizona for Biden early on in a very close race.

Biden, meanwhile, already looks like someone who has taken on the mantle of president.

“Democracy can be messy,” he said during a press conference on Friday as he again called for patience and reiterated that every vote will be counted. He then moved on to discuss the COVID-19 briefing he had just received. Biden had made the pandemic the main focus of his campaign — and today the US hit a record high of 116,000 new cases.

Meanwhile, pundits were wondering where Trump was. He has largely remained out of the public eye but emerged on Thursday evening to make a statement in the White House. His stance was quite a departure from Biden’s, as once again he called the integrity of the election into question, made claims of widespread voter fraud and threatened to take his fight “to the highest court in the land.” He described media polls as “election interference” aimed at “creating the illusion of momentum for Biden.” As he was speaking, the captions on TV screens were being updated with the latest nationwide vote shares: Biden 50 percent, Trump 48 percent.

In a highly unusual move, some networks cut away from the conference, telling viewers they were doing so because the information given by the president was misleading.

Trump’s camp has been hinting for some time that no one should expect him to concede defeat gracefully. “This election is not over,” a campaign attorney said.

The president’s eldest son, Donald Trump Jr., blasted Republicans who are not supporting Trump’s efforts to discredit the election, going so far as to suggest that this should be remembered when the 2024 Republican presidential primary comes around.

“Everyone should be watching who is actually fighting this flagrant nonsense and who is sitting on the sidelines,” he said in a message posted on Twitter. “The total lack of action from virtually all of the 2024 GOP hopefuls is pretty amazing.”

Aside from a few lukewarm statements of support — from South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham, for example, and Vice President Mike Pence — most Republicans have remained silent about the commotion surrounding the results. Many observers believe this illustrates the dilemma they face between supporting their party’s candidate while also respecting the democratic process.

The Trump campaign also ratcheted up its pressure on election officials, accusing the states that remain uncalled of being run by Democrats — even though the governors of Arizona and Georgia are Republican. Since 2005, the GOP has also controlled the latter state’s representation in the House of Representative and Senate.

Despite the noise from protesters outside, election officials and poll workers continue the thankless task of counting votes as if inoculated from the reality outside. Election commissioners have suddenly found that everything they utter becomes breaking news, as they continue to reassure the people of America there is no evidence of voter fraud.

Normally anonymous secretaries of state have also found themselves in the spotlight as they battle misinformation. The latest example was “Sharpiegate,” a conspiracy theory that went viral claiming that ballot papers filled in using a Sharpie, a particular brand of pen, were invalid. New Mexico Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver offered a detailed explanation of how tabulation systems are designed to scan ballots correctly under a variety of conditions.

Democrats dismiss all of this as a distraction from the reality that Biden is inching toward victory.

What, then, are the remaining pathways to the White House for the candidates? Biden has many. With 253 Electoral College votes already in his pocket, winning the 20 on offer in Pennsylvania alone would clinch the election. Victory in Arizona and Nevada offers another way for Biden to reach the magic 270 Electoral College votes he needs to secure the presidency. In fact, any two from North Carolina, Arizona, Nevada and Georgia will do. Trump currently leads only in North Carolina.

Keep an eye on those states. Pennsylvania promises to have enough votes counted to call a winner any time now. Arizona said counting will not be completed before the weekend.

But no one in the US is under any illusion that this election will be over in a day or two, even if all the votes have been counted. All eyes are on states — but also on the rival camps as they gear up for what could be a protracted legal battle for the Oval Office.

Russia reports 10,595 new COVID-19 cases, 368 deaths

Updated 20 min 26 sec ago

Russia reports 10,595 new COVID-19 cases, 368 deaths

  • The government’s coronavirus taskforce said that 368 people had died in the last 24 hours

MOSCOW: Russia on Sunday reported 10,595 new COVID-19 cases, including 1,534 in Moscow, taking the national case tally to 4,322,776 since the pandemic began.
The government’s coronavirus taskforce said that 368 people had died in the last 24 hours, bringing the Russian death toll to 89,094.

Train derails killing 1, injuring 40 in southern Pakistan

Updated 50 min 41 sec ago

Train derails killing 1, injuring 40 in southern Pakistan

  • It wasn’t immediately clear what caused the derailment
  • Rescue official Muhammad Arshad said darkness and the remote location of the derailment hampered rescue efforts
MULTAN, Pakistan: Eight cars of a Lahore bound train derailed in southern Pakistan early Sunday, killing at least one passenger and injuring 40 others, officials said.
The accident took place between the Rohri and Sangi stations in southern Sindh province and caused a temporary suspension of railway traffic in both directions, said Kamran Lashari, a railway official.
It wasn’t immediately clear what caused the derailment. Train accidents are common in Pakistan, where successive governments have paid little attention to improving the poorly maintained signal system and aging tracks.
Lashari said eight cars of the 18-car train that departed from Karachi for the eastern city of Lahore derailed and six fell into a shallow ditch.
Rescue official Muhammad Arshad said darkness and the remote location of the derailment hampered rescue efforts. He said the body of the woman who died and 40 injured passengers were taken to hospitals in nearby towns. It wasn’t immediately clear how many passengers were on the train.
Railway Minister Azam Sawati told a local television station that the accident was being investigated and the government would provide financial compensation to the heirs of deceased woman and all the injured.

Khalilzad seeks support to shake up Afghan peace process, warring parties object

Updated 07 March 2021

Khalilzad seeks support to shake up Afghan peace process, warring parties object

  • Zalmay Khalilzad is on a visit to Kabul, Doha and other regional capitals, his first since under Joe Biden's administration
  • Peace negotiations in Doha are making little progress and violence in Afghanistan escalating

KABUL/ISLAMABAD/WASHINGTON: The US special envoy to Afghanistan proposed a shakeup of the stalled peace process this week, including an interim government and a conference of key players, according to diplomatic and political sources, but his plan faced immediate objections by the warring sides. 
Afghan-born US diplomat Zalmay Khalilzad is on a visit to Kabul, Doha and other regional capitals, his first since US President Joe Biden’s administration began reviewing its options for the peace process and as time runs out before a May 1 US troop withdrawal deadline. 
With peace negotiations in the Qatari capital making little progress and violence in Afghanistan escalating, Khalilzad is trying to build consensus around alternative options with all Afghan sides and key regional players, sources said.
“(The United States) thinks Doha isn’t working and needs impetus and an alternate approach,” said one diplomatic source who closely follows the process.
In Kabul, Khalilzad met Abdullah Abdullah, the chief peace envoy, President Ashraf Ghani and other political and civil society leaders, including former President Hamid Karzai.
Three diplomatic sources, two sources on the teams of political leaders who met with Khalilzad and two international sources in Kabul said one of the envoy’s main proposals was an interim government arrangement, referred to as a participatory or representative government.
A former Afghan government official familiar with the matter said Khalilzad shared a document detailing the power-sharing proposal and that it revised a paper he circulated in December.
Another proposal was a meeting with a similar format to the 2001 Bonn conference, to involve representatives from a wide range of Afghan parties meeting in person while international agencies and diplomats push them to a solution.
Anti-Taliban leaders met under international auspices in the German city of Bonn after the 2001 US-led invasion ousted the insurgents from power and agreed on a provisional administration and a roadmap for forming a permanent government and writing a new constitution.
“We’re considering a number of different ideas that might accelerate the process,” State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters on Friday.
“The United States is not making any formal proposals and is continuing to review all relevant options for future force posture — and all means all,” a State Department spokesperson said on Saturday. “Ambassador Khalilzad has discussed a range of ways to move the diplomacy forward, nothing more.”
The two international sources said Khalilzad is asking the United Nations to take a lead role and call the conference.
Spokespeople for the UN mission in Afghanistan did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Two of the sources said the conference could be held in Turkey, but a third cautioned that location might meet resistance from Western nations and other countries including Germany and Uzbekistan were being considered.

Khalilzad’s plans immediately encountered objections from both the Afghan government and the Taliban.
Ghani made a fiery speech in Afghanistan’s parliament on Saturday, repeating his refusal to step aside for an interim government. “Any institution can write a fantasy on a piece of paper and suggest a solution for Afghanistan” he said, warning any transfer of power would have to take place through elections as required by the constitution.
Two international officials in Kabul said Ghani’s fierce opposition would be a problem for the plan.
“The problem here is that Ghani can blame the United States directly ... by challenging his legitimacy and considering an interim government it implies they are undermining the democratic process,” one of the officials said.
A Taliban leader in Doha who spoke on condition of anonymity said Khalilzad raised the possibility of an interim government and a conference with the insurgents’ negotiating team, as well as asking for a cease-fire or reduction in violence by 60-70%.
“Khalilzad has come with some ideas and his top agenda is the intra-Afghan dialogue to deliver some tangible results and very soon,” he said.
He said the Taliban would not join an interim government, but was not opposed to one being formed.
“We would recommend people with a good reputation for the interim government and this set up would need to work for at least two years to depoliticize all the government departments, including the security establishment,” he said.
They could consider the reduction in violence, but not a cease-fire, the Taliban leader said, and had asked Khalilzad to pressure the Afghan government to release 7,000 more Taliban prisoners.
“We don’t believe any other conference in any country would help resolve the Afghan conflict,” he said.
Zabihullah Mujahid, a Taliban spokesman, said they had not yet seen the plan, but if an alternative to talks in Qatar was sought, “it is doomed to failure.”
Two sources said Khalilzad was expected to visit Islamabad, Pakistan, a key player in the peace process, on his trip.
The envoy was the architect under President Donald Trump’s administration of a February 2020 deal between Washington and the Taliban, which envisaged the Afghan government and Taliban negotiating a peace agreement and setting a final withdrawal of foreign forces by May 1. 


Myanmar junta forces make night raids after breaking up protests; number of detained people rise to 1,700

Updated 07 March 2021

Myanmar junta forces make night raids after breaking up protests; number of detained people rise to 1,700

  • Protests erupted last month after the military overthrew and detained elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi
  • Security forces have already killed more than 50 people protesting to restore democracy, United Nations says

YANGON: Myanmar security forces fired gunshots as they carried out overnight raids in the main city Yangon after breaking up the latest protests against last month’s coup with teargas and stun grenades.
The Southeast Asian country has been plunged into turmoil since the military overthrew and detained elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi on Feb. 1. Daily demonstrations and strikes have choked business and paralyzed administration.
More protests were planned on Sunday after local media reported that police fired tear gas shells and stun grenades to break up a protest in Yangon, Myanmar’s biggest city, on Saturday. There were no reports of casualties.
The General Strike Committee of Nationalities protest group said protests would be held in Yangon, the second city of Mandalay and Monywa, also centers for protests in which the United Nations says security forces have killed more than 50 people.
Into the early hours of Sunday, residents said soldiers and police moved into several districts of Yangon, firing shots. They arrested at least three in Kyauktada Township, residents there said. They did not know the reason for the arrests.
“They are asking to take out my father and brother. Is no one going to help us? Don’t you even touch my father and brother. Take us too if you want to take them,” one woman screamed as two of them, an actor and his son, were led off.
Soldiers also came looking for a lawyer who worked for Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy but were unable to find him, a member of the now dissolved parliament, Sithu Maung, said in a Facebook post.
Reuters was unable to reach police for comment. A junta spokesman did not answer calls requesting comment.

Punched and kicked"
Well over 1,700 people had been detained under the junta by Saturday, according to figures from the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners advocacy group. It did not give a figure for overnight detentions.
“Detainees were punched and kicked with military boots, beaten with police batons, and then dragged into police vehicles,” AAPP said in a statement. “Security forces entered residential areas and tried to arrest further protesters, and shot at the homes, destroying many.”
Myanmar authorities said on Saturday they had exhumed the body of 19-year-old Kyal Sin, who has become an icon of the protest movement after she was shot dead in Mandalay on Wednesday wearing a T-shirt that read “Everything will be OK.”
State-run MRTV said a surgical investigation showed she could not have been killed by police because the wrong sort of projectile was found in her head and she had been shot from behind, whereas police were in front.
Photographs on the day showed her head turned away from security forces moments before she was killed. Opponents of the coup accused authorities of an attempted cover-up.
The killings have drawn anger in the West and have been condemned by most democracies in Asia. The United States and some other Western countries have imposed limited sanctions on the junta. China, meanwhile, has said the priority should be stability and that other countries should not interfere.
Protesters demand the release of Suu Kyi and the respect of November’s election — which her party won in landslide but which the army rejected. The army has said it will hold democratic elections at an unspecified date.
Israeli-Canadian lobbyist Ari Ben-Menashe, hired by Myanmar’s junta, told Reuters the generals are keen to leave politics and seek to improve relations with the United States and distance themselves from China.
He said Suu Kyi had grown too close to China for the generals’ liking.
Ben-Menashe said he also had been tasked with seeking Arab support for a plan to repatriate Rohingya refugees, hundreds of thousands of whom were driven from Myanmar in 2017 in an army crackdown after rebel attacks.
Junta leader and army chief Min Aung Hlaing had been under Western sanctions even before the coup for his role in the operation, which UN investigators said had been carried out with “genocidal intent.”

Rioters ransack police stations and buildings as Senegal opposition steps up protests

Updated 07 March 2021

Rioters ransack police stations and buildings as Senegal opposition steps up protests

  • At least five people have died in protests sparked by Wednesday’s arrest of Ousmane Sonko
  • The most prominent opposition leader was arrested on rape charges, which he said was a fabrication

DAKAR: A 17-year-old boy was killed by gunfire in southern Senegal on Saturday, a government official said, and several police stations were ransacked as opponents of President Macky Sall called for more protests next week.
The boy was killed during clashes in the southern town of Diaobe, said the official, who asked not to be named. Protesters also burned down a military police station and ransacked several government buildings, the official said.
At least five people have died in protests sparked by Wednesday’s arrest of Ousmane Sonko, Senegal’s most prominent opposition leader. It is the worst political unrest in years for a country widely seen as one of West Africa’s most stable.
A spokesman for Senegal’s military police confirmed one person had died during clashes in Diaobe but did not say under what circumstances. He said protesters ransacked six police stations across the country on Saturday.
Sonko, who finished third in the 2019 presidential election, was arrested after an employee of a beauty salon accused him of raping her. Sonko denies the allegation and says it is an attempt by Sall to kneecap a political rival.
The government denies this.
The mostly young protesters cited a range of other grievances too, including high unemployment and strict measures to control the coronavirus that have inflicted economic pain, especially on informal workers.
Many are especially dubious about the accusation against Sonko because two other top rivals of Sall were previously targeted by criminal charges that prevented them from running for president in 2019.
In a statement, the opposition Movement to Defend Democracy (M2D) coalition called for three days of nationwide protests beginning on Monday.
“M2D ... calls on the Senegalese people to pursue its mobilization and peaceful struggle by using all of its constitutional rights to reject the dictatorship of Macky Sall,” it said.