Kazakhstan kicks off snap parliamentary polls

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Kazakhstan's President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev. (AP file photo)
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Kazakhstan's House of the Parliament in Astana. (Wikimedia Commons / Mазур Владимир)
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Updated 19 March 2023

Kazakhstan kicks off snap parliamentary polls

  • President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev announced the early vote as part of a “modernization” drive introduced months after protests against fuel prices erupted in January last year

ASTANA: Kazakhstan holds snap parliamentary elections Sunday as the leader of the Central Asian country pushes political reforms that critics say are designed to consolidate power one year after deadly protests.
Polling stations opened at 7 a.m. (0100 GMT). Around 12 million voters have until 8 p.m. to cast their ballots.
The huge, oil-rich nation is wedged between its former Soviet master Russia and China, which is gaining status in Central Asia as an economic powerhouse.
President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev announced the early vote as part of a “modernization” drive introduced months after protests against fuel prices erupted in January last year. They were brutally crushed and 238 people died, according to the official toll.
Tokayev, a former diplomat, was hand-picked in 2019 by his predecessor and mentor Nursultan Nazarbayev to take the helm after a nearly three-decade rule. But Tokayev purged vestiges of that era after the demonstrations.
He promised to reform government institutions and in January dissolved parliament, saying early polls would “give new impetus to the modernization.”
The ex-Soviet country’s elections now feature a wider array of candidates but there was skepticism in Almaty over the changes.
“Will I take part in the elections? No, to be honest... because I hardly believe in fair elections in Kazakhstan in general,” Aset Smagulov, a 21-year-old IT specialist, told AFP before the poll.
Independent candidates are allowed to run for parliament for the first time in nearly 20 years, whereas the previous lower house was made up of three pro-government parties.
The threshold to enter the 98-seat legislature has been lowered to five percent and a 30 percent quota was introduced for women, young people and people with disabilities.

Political scientist Dimash Alzhanov said the ruling elites remain in control of the votes, despite the changes.
“The electoral system has changed and gives the impression of choice. But in reality, the president and his administration are keeping the vote count in their hands,” Alzhanov told AFP.
“Here, elections are held in order to keep power. That’s what elections are in an authoritarian country,” he said.
After the riots that grew out of peaceful demonstrations against a fuel price spike, Tokayev was re-elected in a snap presidential vote in November, securing a landslide win in an election criticized for lacking competition.
Inequality and corruption persist and soaring inflation is hurting the purchasing power of the population of nearly 20 million people.
In economic hub Almaty, the campaign was in full swing with candidate posters on restaurant windows, scaffolding and street lamps.

Ambiguous slogans — like “Order is where the truth is” or “With me there is no mess” — reflect candidates’ lacklustre political platforms.
But some young voters welcomed the new faces.
“This is the first time I’ve seen new parties and independent candidates in parliamentary elections. For me, it’s new,” Adia Abubakir, a 20-year-old graphic designer, told AFP.
In total, seven parties will participate in this election. Two of them were recently registered, but several opposition parties and independent candidates were banned.
“I would like to believe that my voice can make a difference,” said Akbota Silim, a 21-year-old journalist.
Almaty-based political analyst Andrei Chebotarev estimated that four or five parties will be presented in parliament following the election.
“Loyal parties will be present in parliament and Amanat, the presidential party, will retain the majority of seats,” he told AFP.
But he added: “The diversity of parties will have an impact on the acceptance of the election results, both for the population and internationally.”

Moscow ally Kyrgyzstan says ready to work with EU

Updated 11 sec ago

Moscow ally Kyrgyzstan says ready to work with EU

CHOLPON-ATA, Kyrgyzstan: The president of Kyrgyzstan said on Saturday his ex-Soviet republic was ready to work with the EU, which hopes to tighten ties with a region Russia sees as its sphere of influence.
Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine has prompted global powers such as China and the European Union to seek a greater role in Central Asia.
This comes at a time when many in the region are questioning their long-standing ties with Russia and are seeking economic, diplomatic and strategic assurances elsewhere.
“Kyrgyzstan is ready to work hand in hand with the European Union to resolve shared problems, encourage dialogue and find lasting solutions,” said President Sadyr Japarov, whose country is an ally of Moscow.
He was speaking during a meeting with EU Council President Charles Michel.
Michel on Friday took part in a summit attended by the leaders of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.
The high-profile gathering in the resort of Cholpon-Ata on the shores of Lake Issyk-Kul was the second summit between the former Soviet republics of Central Asia and the EU, the top donor to the region and its main investment partner.
“We offer a sincere partnership” to the region’s five former Soviet republics, Michel told AFP in an interview Friday.
Japarov stressed the potential for solar and hydroelectric power in Kyrgyzstan, a mountainous country of six million inhabitants where Central Asia’s main rivers rise.
Japarov also defended the planned Kambarata-1 dam, a huge project on the Naryn river, which flows through both Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan.
The dam and other hydroelectric projects have sparked tensions between states in Central Asia, where water shortages are increasingly frequent.
Russia remains the main power in the unstable and tightly controlled region, whose leaders have been criticized for helping Moscow circumvent Western sanctions over the war on Ukraine.
Neighbouring Afghanistan, under control of the Taliban, is also a source of instability.
Japarov and Michel issued a joint statement stressing their commitment to ensuring the Central Asian states remained independent.
On Friday, the Kyrgyz president openly called for the end to the war in Ukraine, another former Soviet republic.
It was a rare declaration from the leader of a country which refrains from publicly criticizing Moscow, on which it is still economically and military dependent.

Pope Francis to make historic visit to Mongolia in September

Updated 03 June 2023

Pope Francis to make historic visit to Mongolia in September

  • Pontiff will tour the vast nation from August 31 to September 4 at the invitation of the country’s president and church authorities

VATICAN CITY: Pope Francis will go to Mongolia in early September in the first visit by a pontiff to the Buddhist-majority Asian nation, the Vatican announced Saturday.
The 86-year-old pontiff will tour the vast nation, sandwiched between Russia and China, from August 31 to September 4 at the invitation of the country’s president and church authorities, the head of the Vatican’s press service Matteo Bruni said.
The announcement of the trip comes just two months after Francis was hospitalized for three nights with bronchitis, after which he returned to his busy schedule.
Mongolia has one of the world’s smallest Catholic communities, estimated at just 1,500 people among the more than three million residents.
But Francis has long championed trips to smaller or more far-flung nations.
Last August, he made a cardinal Italian missionary Giorgio Marengo, who as apostolic prefect of Ulaanbaatar is the most senior Catholic official in Mongolia.
China will likely loom large over the visit, given its close economic ties with Mongolia.
Francis led a years-long effort to build ties with Communist Beijing and in 2018 the Holy See reached a two-year agreement on the thorny issue of the appointment of bishops.
The accord was renewed for two years in October, against a backdrop of tensions over the place of the country’s estimated 10 million or so Catholics.
“Mongolia is a peripheral state for China,” said Antoine Maire, a Mongolia specialist at France’s Fondation pour la Recherche Strategique.
But he said he did not see the country playing a mediating role between the Vatican and Beijing, saying it was balanced between its two giant neighbors.
“They are caught in a vice between Russia and China” Maire told AFP, suggesting with the pope’s visit Mongolia allows them to “diversify their external relations.”
Mongolia has struggled with political instability since its first democratic constitution in 1992, when it emerged from the Soviet orbit.
It has been the subject of growing interest in recent years from the United States as part of a strategy to thwart the rise of China.
The Vatican established formal diplomatic relations with Mongolia in 1992.
Since becoming pope in 2013, Francis has conducted 41 overseas trips and visited around 60 different countries.
Despite an increasing number of health issues, notably a knee problem that has required him to use a wheelchair for the past year, he continues to travel.
Earlier this year he visited the Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan, and Hungary, and has trips planned later this year to Portugal and to Marseille.
He has talked about potentially going to India in 2024, while other Asian visits in the past have included trips to Kazakhstan, Japan and South Korea.

US, Canadian navies stage rare joint mission through Taiwan Strait

Updated 03 June 2023

US, Canadian navies stage rare joint mission through Taiwan Strait

  • While US warships transit the strait around once a month, it is unusual for them to do so with those of other US allies

TAIPEI: A US and a Canadian warship sailed through the Taiwan Strait on Saturday, the US Navy said, in a rare joint mission in the sensitive waterway at a time of heightened tensions between Beijing and Washington over Chinese-claimed Taiwan.
The US Navy’s 7th Fleet said the guided-missile destroyer USS Chung-Hoon and Canada’s HMCS Montreal conducted a “routine” transit of the strait “through waters where high-seas freedoms of navigation and overflight apply in accordance with international law.”
“Chung-Hoon and Montreal’s bilateral transit through the Taiwan Strait demonstrates the commitment of the United States and our allies and partners to a free and open Indo-Pacific,” it said in a statement.
While US warships transit the strait around once a month, it is unusual for them to do so with those of other US allies.
The mission took place as the US and Chinese defense chiefs were attending a major regional security summit in Singapore.
At that event, US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin rebuked China for refusing to hold military talks, leaving the superpowers deadlocked over Taiwan and territorial disputes in the South China Sea.
There was no immediate response to the sailing from China’s military, which routinely denounces them as a US effort to stir up tensions.
The last such publicly revealed US-Canadian mission in the narrow strait took place in September.
China has been ramping up military and political pressure in an attempt to force Taiwan to accept Beijing’s sovereignty claims, which the government in Taipei strongly rejects.

US, Japan, South Korea aim to share North Korea missile warning data

Updated 03 June 2023

US, Japan, South Korea aim to share North Korea missile warning data

  • Pyongyang has doubled down on military development since diplomatic efforts collapsed in 2019

The United States, Japan and South Korea aim to share North Korean missile warning data before the end of 2023, the three countries said in a statement following a Saturday meeting of their defense chiefs in Singapore.

The three sides “recognized trilateral efforts to activate a data sharing mechanism to exchange real-time missile warning data before the end of the year in order to improve each country’s ability to detect and assess missiles launched” by North Korea, the statement said.

The announcement followed a failed North Korean attempt to launch a spy satellite on Wednesday, which crashed into the sea after a rocket failure.

South Korea’s military said it had managed to locate and salvage a portion of the suspected debris.

Seoul, Tokyo and Washington all slammed the launch, which they said violated a raft of UN resolutions barring Pyongyang from any tests using ballistic missile technology.

Pyongyang has doubled down on military development since diplomatic efforts collapsed in 2019, conducting a string of banned weapons tests, including test-firing multiple intercontinental ballistic missiles.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un last year declared his country an “irreversible” nuclear power and called for an “exponential” increase in weapons production, including tactical nuclear weapons.

India train crash kills over 280, hurts 900 in country’s deadliest rail accident in decades 

Updated 03 June 2023

India train crash kills over 280, hurts 900 in country’s deadliest rail accident in decades 

  • Around 12 coaches of one train derailed, hit by another passenger train coming from opposite direction, railway spokesperson says 
  • The accident led to a chaotic scene as rescuers climbed atop the wrecked trains to break open doors, windows to free survivors 

NEW DELHI: Rescuers waded through piles of debris and wreckage to pull out bodies and free people on Saturday after two passenger trains derailed in India, killing more than 280 people. Hundreds of others were trapped inside more than a dozen mangled rail cars overnight in one of the country’s deadliest train crashes in decades. 

The accident, which happened about 220 kilometers (137 miles) southwest of Kolkata on Friday night, led to a chaotic scene as rescuers climbed atop the wrecked trains to break open doors and windows using cutting torches to free survivors. 

About 900 people were injured in the accident in Balasore district in the eastern state of Odisha, said P.K. Jena, the state’s top administrative official. The cause was under investigation. 

More than 288 dead bodies were recovered overnight and into Saturday morning, Sudhanshu Sarangi, director of Odisha’s fire department, told The Associated Press. He said more than 800 injured passengers were taken to various hospitals with many in critical condition. 

Rescuers were cutting through the destroyed rail cars to find people who may still be trapped, but it is unlikely they would still be alive, Sarangi added. 

Ten to 12 coaches of one train derailed, and debris from some of the mangled coaches fell onto a nearby track, said Amitabh Sharma, a railroad ministry spokesperson. The debris was hit by another passenger train coming from the opposite direction, causing up to three coaches of the second train to also derail, he added. 

A third train carrying freight was also involved, the Press Trust of India reported, but there was no immediate confirmation of that from railroad authorities. PTI said some of the derailed passenger coaches hit cars from the freight train. 

The death toll rose steadily throughout the night as footage showed shattered carriages that had overturned completely. Scores of dead bodies, covered by white sheets, lay on the ground near the train tracks as locals and rescuers raced to help survivors. 

Teams of rescuers and police continued sifting through the ruins on Saturday morning as the search operation carried on, amid fears that the death toll is likely to rise further. Scores of people also showed up at a local hospital to donate blood. 

Officials said 1,200 rescuers worked with 115 ambulances, 50 buses and 45 mobile health units through the night at the accident site. Saturday was declared as a day of mourning in Odisha as the state’s chief minister, Naveen Patnaik, reached the district to meet injured passengers. 

Villagers said they rushed to the site to evacuate people after hearing a loud sound created by the train coaches going off the tracks. 

“The local people really went out on a limb to help us. They not only helped in pulling out people, but retrieved our luggage and got us water,” PTI cited Rupam Banerjee, a survivor, as saying. 

Passenger Vandana Kaleda said that inside the train during the derailment people were “falling on each other” as her coach shook violently and veered off the tracks. 

“As I stepped out of the washroom, suddenly the train tilted. I lost my balance. ... Everything went topsy turvy. People started falling on each other and I was shocked and could not understand what happened. My mind stopped working,” she said, adding she felt lucky to survive. 

Another survivor who did not give his name said he was sleeping when the impact woke him up. He said he saw other passengers with broken limbs and disfigured faces. 

The derailed Coromandel Express was traveling from Howrah in West Bengal state to Chennai, the capital of southern Tamil Nadu state, PTI said. 

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi said his thoughts were with the bereaved families. 

“May the injured recover soon,” tweeted Modi, who said he had spoken to the railway minister and that “all possible assistance” was being offered. 

Despite government efforts to improve rail safety, several hundred accidents occur every year on India’s railways, the largest train network under one management in the world. 

In August 1995, two trains collided near New Delhi, killing 358 people in one of the worst train accidents in India. 

In 2016, a passenger train slid off the tracks between the cities of Indore and Patna, killing 146 people. 

Most train accidents are blamed on human error or outdated signaling equipment. 

More than 12 million people ride 14,000 trains across India every day, traveling on 64,000 kilometers (40,000 miles) of track.