Ethiopia finally set to vote as prime minister vows first fair election

The election is the centerpiece of a reform drive by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed. (Reuters)
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Updated 19 June 2021

Ethiopia finally set to vote as prime minister vows first fair election

KAMPALA: Ethiopians will vote on Monday in a landmark election overshadowed by reports of famine in the country’s war-hit Tigray region and beset by logistical problems that mean some people won’t be able to vote until September.
The election is the centerpiece of a reform drive by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, whose rise to power in 2018 seemed to signal a break with decades of authoritarian rule and led to his Nobel Peace Prize the following year.
He has described the poll as “the nation’s first attempt at free and fair elections.”
Abiy’s ruling Prosperity Party, formed in 2019 by merging groups who made up the previous ruling coalition, is widely expected to cement its hold on power.
The party that wins a majority of seats in the House of Peoples’ Representatives will form the next government.
“We will secure Ethiopia’s unity,” Abiy said ahead of his final campaign rally on Wednesday, repeating his vow of a free and fair election after past votes were marred by allegations of fraud.
But opposition groups have accused Ethiopia’s ruling party of harassment, manipulation and threats of violence that echo abuses of the past.
And Abiy is facing growing international criticism over the war in Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region.
Thousands of civilians have been killed and more than 2 million people have been displaced since fighting broke out in November between Ethiopian forces, backed by ones from neighboring Eritrea, and those supporting the now-fugitive Tigray leaders.
Last week, humanitarian agencies warned that 350,000 people in Tigray are on the brink of famine, a crisis that several diplomats have described as “manmade” amid allegations of forced starvation.
Ethiopia’s government has rejected the figure and says food aid has reached 5.2 million in the region of 6 million.
No date has been set for voting in Tigray’s 38 constituencies, where military personnel who usually play a key role in transporting election materials across Africa’s second-most populous country are busy with the conflict.
Meanwhile, voting has been postponed until September in 64 out of 547 constituencies throughout Ethiopia because of insecurity, defective ballot papers and opposition allegations of irregularities.
Outbreaks of ethnic violence have also killed hundreds of people in the Amhara, Oromia and Benishangul-Gumuz regions in recent months.
Some prominent opposition parties are boycotting the election. Others say they have been prevented from campaigning in several parts of the country.
“There have been gross violations,” Yusef Ibrahim, vice president of the National Movement of Amhara, said earlier this month.
He said his party had been “effectively banned” from campaigning in several regions, with some party members arrested and banners destroyed.
Neither officials with the Prosperity Party nor Abiy’s office responded to requests for comment on such allegations.
Ethiopia last year postponed the election, citing the COVID-19 pandemic, adding to the tensions with Tigray’s former leaders.
Recently, the vote was delayed again by several weeks amid technical problems involving ballot papers and a lack of polling station officials.
Abiy’s Prosperity Party has registered 2,432 candidates in the election, which will see Ethiopians voting for both national and regional representatives.
The next largest party, Ethiopian Citizens for Social Justice, is fielding 1,385 candidates. A total of 47 parties are contesting the election.
But on Sunday, five opposition parties released a joint statement saying that campaigning outside the capital, Addis Ababa, “has been marred by serious problems, including killings, attempted killings and beatings of candidates.”
Two prominent opposition parties, the Oromo Liberation Front and the Oromo Federalist Congress, are boycotting the vote.
“It’s going to be a sham election,” OFC chairman Merera Gudina said earlier this month.
That means the Prosperity Party will face little competition in Oromia, Ethiopia’s most populous state.
Several prominent OFC members remain behind bars after a wave of unrest last year sparked by the killing of a popular Oromo musician, and the OLF’s leader is under house arrest.
The leader of the Balderas Party for True Democracy, Eskinder Nega, was also detained and is contesting the election from prison.
Getnet Worku, secretary-general of the newly established ENAT party, said earlier this month it is not standing candidates in several constituencies because the threat of violence is too high, asserting that armed militias organized by local officials frequently broke up rallies.
There are growing international concerns over whether the elections will be fair.
The EU has said it will not observe the vote after its requests to import communications equipment were denied.
In response, Ethiopia said external observers “are neither essential nor necessary to certify the credibility of an election,” although it has since welcomed observers deployed by the African Union.
Last week the US State Department said it is “gravely concerned about the environment under which these upcoming elections are to be held,” citing “detention of opposition politicians, harassment of independent media, partisan activities by local and regional governments, and the many interethnic and inter-communal conflicts across Ethiopia.”
Abiy’s appointment as prime minister in 2018 was initially greeted by an outburst of optimism both at home and abroad.
Shortly after taking office, he freed tens of thousands of political prisoners, allowed the return of exiled opposition groups and rolled back punitive laws that targeted civil society.
In 2019 he won the Nobel Peace Prize in part for those reforms and for making peace with Eritrea by ending a long-running border standoff.
But critics say Ethiopia’s political space has started to shrink again. The government denies the accusation.
Several prominent opposition figures accused of inciting unrest are behind bars.
While opening a sugar factory earlier this month, Abiy accused “traitors” and “outsiders” of working to undermine Ethiopia.
This week his spokeswoman, Billene Seyoum, described the election as a chance for citizens to “exercise their democratic rights” and accused international media of mounting a “character assassination of the prime minister.”

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Far-right and others march against French virus rules

Updated 24 July 2021

Far-right and others march against French virus rules

  • Legislators in France’s Senate were debating the bill Saturday after the lower house of parliament approved it Friday
  • French government is trying to speed up vaccinations to protect vulnerable populations and hospitals, and avoid new lockdowns

PARIS: Far-right activists and members of France’s yellow vest movement protested Saturday against a bill requiring everyone to have a special virus pass to enter restaurants and other venues and mandating COVID-19 vaccinations for all health care workers.
Legislators in France’s Senate were debating the bill Saturday after the lower house of parliament approved it Friday, as virus infections are spiking and hospitalizations are rising anew. The French government is trying to speed up vaccinations to protect vulnerable populations and hospitals, and avoid new lockdowns.
Most French adults are fully vaccinated and polls indicate a majority of French people support the new measures. But not everyone.
Protesters chanting “Liberty! Liberty!” gathered at Bastille plaza and marched through eastern Paris in one of several demonstrations Saturday around France. Thousands also joined a gathering across the Seine River from the Eiffel Tower organized by a former top official in Marine Le Pen’s anti-immigration party.
While most protesters were calm, tensions erupted on the margins of the Bastille march. Riot police sprayed tear gas on marchers after someone threw a chair at an officer. Other projectiles could also be seen in a video of the incident.
Many marchers focused their anger on a French “health pass” that is required to enter museums, movie theaters and tourist sites. The bill under debate would expand the pass requirement to all restaurants and bars in France and some other venues. To get the pass, people need to be fully vaccinated, have a recent negative test or have proof they recently recovered from the virus.
Lawmakers have debated the measure amid divisions over how far to go in imposing health passes or mandatory vaccinations.
Last weekend, more than 100,000 people protested around France against the measures. They included far-right politicians and activists as well as others angry at President Emmanuel Macron for various reasons.
Remaining members of France’s yellow vest movement, largely from political extremes, are using the virus bill to try to rekindle its flame. The movement started in 2018 as a broad uprising against perceived economic injustice and led to months of protests marked by violence between demonstrators and police, but subsided after the French government addressed many of the protesters’ concerns.


Afghan government imposes night curfew to stem Taliban advance

Updated 24 July 2021

Afghan government imposes night curfew to stem Taliban advance

  • The curfew will be effective between 10:00 p.m. and 4:00 a.m. local time
  • The resurgent Taliban now controls about half of Afghanistan’s roughly 400 districts

KABUL: Afghan authorities on Saturday imposed a night-time curfew across 31 of the country’s 34 provinces to curb surging violence unleashed by a sweeping Taliban offensive in recent months, the interior ministry said.
“To curb violence and limit the Taliban movements a night curfew has been imposed in 31 provinces across the country,” except in Kabul, Panjshir and Nangarhar, the interior ministry said in a statement.
The curfew will be effective between 10:00 p.m. and 4:00 a.m. local time, Ahmad Zia Zia, deputy interior ministry spokesman said in a separate audio statement to reporters.
Since early May, the Taliban have launched a widespread offensive across the country that has seen the insurgents capture border crossings, dozens of districts and encircle several provincial capitals.
With the withdrawal of American-led foreign forces all but complete, the resurgent Taliban now controls about half of Afghanistan’s roughly 400 districts.


Vietnam locks down capital Hanoi for 15 days as COVID-19 cases rise

Updated 24 July 2021

Vietnam locks down capital Hanoi for 15 days as COVID-19 cases rise

  • The lockdown order, issued late Friday night, bans the gathering of more than two people in public
  • In the latest wave of COVID-19 since April, Vietnam has recorded over 83,000 infections and 335 deaths

HANOI, Vietnam: Vietnam announced a 15-day lockdown in the capital Hanoi starting Saturday as a coronavirus surge spread from the southern Mekong Delta region.
The lockdown order, issued late Friday night, bans the gathering of more than two people in public. Only government offices, hospitals and essential businesses are allowed to stay open.
Earlier in the week, the city had suspended all outdoor activities and ordered non-essential businesses to close following an increase in cases. On Friday, Hanoi reported 70 confirmed infections, the city’s highest, part of a record 7,295 cases in the country in the last 24 hours.
Nearly 5,000 of them are from Vietnam’s largest metropolis, southern Ho Chi Minh City, which has also extended its lockdown until Aug. 1.
In the latest wave of COVID-19 since April, Vietnam has recorded over 83,000 infections and 335 deaths.
A meeting of the National Assembly that opened in Hanoi on Tuesday with 499 delegates is going ahead, although it was shortened to 12 from the original 17 days.
The delegates have been vaccinated, are regularly tested for the coronavirus and are traveling in a bubble, and are isolated at hotels, according to the National Assembly.


At least 125 dead as heavy rain in India triggers floods

Updated 24 July 2021

At least 125 dead as heavy rain in India triggers floods

  • Maharashtra state is being hit by the heaviest rain in July in four decades, experts say
  • Parts of India’s west coast have received up to 594mm of rain, forcing authorities to move people out of vulnerable areas

MUMBAI/NEW DELHI: Rescue teams in India struggled through thick sludge and debris on Saturday to reach dozens of submerged homes as the death toll from landslides and accidents caused by torrential monsoon rain rose to 125.
Maharashtra state is being hit by the heaviest rain in July in four decades, experts say. Downpours lasting several days have severely affected the lives of hundreds of thousands, while major rivers are in danger of bursting their banks.
In Taliye, about 180 kilometers southeast of the financial capital of Mumbai, the death toll rose to 42 with the recovery of four more bodies after landslides flattened most homes in the village, a senior Maharashtra government official said.
“About 40 people are still trapped. The possibility of rescuing them alive is thin as they’ve been trapped in mud for more than 36 hours,” said the official, who declined to be identified as he is not authorized to talk to the media.
Harsh weather has hit several parts of the world in recent weeks, with floods in China and Western Europe and heat waves in North America, raising new fears about the impact of climate change.
Parts of India’s west coast have received up to 594 mm (23 inches) of rain, forcing authorities to move people out of vulnerable areas as they released water from dams about to overflow. The hill station of Mahabaleshwar recorded its highest ever rainfall — 60 cm in 24 hours.
Rescuers were searching for victims of landslides in four other places in the state, the official said.
“Around 90,000 people were rescued from flood affected areas,” the Maharashtra government said in a statement, as authorities released water from overflowing dams.
Thousands of trucks were stuck for more than 24 hours on a highway linking Mumbai with the southern technology hub of Bengaluru, with the road submerged in some places.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi said he was in anguish over the loss of lives.
“The situation in Maharashtra due to heavy rains is being closely monitored and assistance is being provided to the affected,” Modi said on Twitter on Friday.
In the southern state of Telangana, heavy rain caused flooding in the state capital of Hyderabad and other low-lying areas.
Indian environmentalists have warned that climate change and indiscriminate construction in fragile coastal regions could lead to more disasters.
“The rain fury that lashed Mahabaleshwar ... is a strong warning against any more tampering with the ecologically fragile Western Ghats,” environment economist Devendra Sharma said on Twitter referring to the range of hills along India’s west coast.


Philippines evacuates thousands as monsoon rains flood cities, provinces

Updated 24 July 2021

Philippines evacuates thousands as monsoon rains flood cities, provinces

  • Over 14,000 people, most of them from a flood-prone Manila suburb, had moved into evacuation centers

MANILA: Philippine authorities moved thousands of residents of the capital, Manila, out of their low-lying communities on Saturday as heavy monsoon rain, compounded by a tropical storm, flooded the city and nearby provinces.
The national disaster agency said 14,023 people, most of them from a flood-prone Manila suburb, had moved into evacuation centers.
“We ask residents of affected areas to remain alert and vigilant, take precautionary measures, and cooperate with their respective local authorities,” presidential spokesperson Harry Roque said in a statement.
Harsh weather has hit several parts of the world in recent weeks, bringing floods to China, India and Western Europe and heat waves to North America, raising new fears about the impact of climate change.
The Philippines, a Southeast Asian archipelago of more than 7,600 islands, sees about 20 tropical storms a year but a warmer Pacific Ocean will make storms more powerful and bring heavier rain, meteorologists say.
In some parts of the Philippine capital region, an urban sprawl of more than 13 million people, flood waters, in places waist-deep, cut off roads to light vehicles.
The Philippines is also grappling with one of the worst outbreaks of COVID-19 in Asia, and has tightened curbs to prevent the spread of the more infectious Delta variant.