Comedian ahead in unpredictable Ukraine presidential poll

People walk past a campaign poster of the Ukrainian presidential candidate Anatoliy Grytsenko reading the slogan "Honest President will serve people" in Kiev, on February 4, 2019. (AFP)
Updated 04 February 2019
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Comedian ahead in unpredictable Ukraine presidential poll

  • Surveys showed Volodymyr Zelensky ahead of former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko and incumbent Petro Poroshenko

KIEV: A Ukrainian comedian who plays the country’s president in a TV series is currently the favorite to take on the real-life role in this spring’s election, recent polls show.
As the deadline for candidate nomination expired overnight, surveys showed Volodymyr Zelensky ahead of former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko and incumbent Petro Poroshenko.
But with a record number of candidates in the race, the vote remains highly unpredictable.
“Thirty people have been registered, this is an all-time high,” commission spokesperson Kostyantyn Khivrenko told AFP, saying the documents of another 40 potential candidates are also being considered.
Zelensky, 40, has tapped into widespread frustrations with the country’s political class and the slow pace of reforms.
Various recent polls put him at between 19 and 23 percent, with Tymoshenko and Poroshenko several points behind — varying between second and third place.
But political analyst Anatoly Oktysiuk from Kiev’s Democracy House told AFP that Zelensky’s largely “young, often passive” supporters were likely to not turn out, predicting his final share of the vote would be lower.
Zelensky, already a popular comedian, has in recent years won further fans with his portrayal of the country’s leader in a sitcom called “Sluga Narodu” — which translates as “Servant of the People.”
But he has also rallied largely young supporters to his own political cause.
Others, however, highlight his lack of experience and flag up his ties to Poroshenko’s billionaire foe Igor Kolomoisky, who owns the television channel on which Zelensky stars.
Observers say the race is too close to call.
“It’s very unpredictable at this stage who might actually win,” US Ambassador Kurt Volker told journalists last week, stressing that Washington would work with whichever democratically-elected leader emerged from the vote.
Poroshenko, a 53-year-old chocolate tycoon, sailed to victory in a May 2014 election after a popular uprising ousted the Moscow-backed regime of Viktor Yanukovych.
He promised to pivot the former Soviet country of nearly 45 million people toward the West and has sought to push through ambitious reforms.
But critics say corruption is still rampant and Poroshenko has done little to rein in fellow oligarchs, although the economy is showing signs of recovery after a recession.
Tymoshenko, the runner up, rose to international prominence through her role in the 2004 Orange Revolution.
But after 15 years — three of which were spent as head of government and another three in jail following a trial denounced in the West as selective justice — she remains a highly divisive figure.
Voting will take place on March 31, with a second round three weeks later if no candidate takes more than 50 percent.


UN gives Myanmar aid cut warning over Rohingya camp closures

Updated 18 June 2019
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UN gives Myanmar aid cut warning over Rohingya camp closures

  • Myanmar has closed several camps holding around 9,000 Rohingya
  • They have not been allowed to return to their former homes and remain dependent on handouts

YANGON: The UN has warned it will pare back aid to thousands of Rohingya Muslims left destitute as Myanmar’s government closes camps in Rakhine state, over fears its continued support “risks entrenching segregation.”
Aid agencies are facing an increasingly sharp dilemma in the region as they balance relief for desperate communities with leverage over the government.
The majority of Myanmar’s Rohingya were driven into Bangladesh by a 2017 army crackdown, but around 400,000 remain inside conflict-battered Rakhine.
Those include nearly 130,000 held since 2012 in squalid camps, currently supported by UN agencies and humanitarian groups.
As part of its strategy to address the crisis, Myanmar has closed several camps holding around 9,000 Rohingya.
But they have not been allowed to return to their former homes and remain dependent on handouts. Instead, they are being settled in new accommodation close to the former camps.
That has sparked fears aid agencies are effectively being used to prop-up a policy that fails to address the fundamental needs of the Rohingya, including housing, work, food and security.
The camp closure plan “risks entrenching segregation,” UN Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator in Myanmar Knut Ostby wrote to the government in a leaked letter, dated 6 June and seen by AFP.
The letter, also written on behalf of aid groups, warned support “beyond life-saving assistance” at the closed sites would in future be linked to “tangible” progress made on “the fundamental issue of freedom of movement.”
“Life-saving” support includes food, health and water, but site planning, shelter construction and education facilities could be phased out, aid agency sources told AFP.
The UN has faced criticism for a slow response to violence against the Rohingya, which escalated after 2012 riots between Muslim Rohingyas and ethnic Rakhine Buddhists.
A UN report released Monday admitted “systemic failures” in its handling of the build-up to the Rohingya crisis.
Limited access to Rakhine’s camps makes independent reporting on conditions difficult.
But AFP has reviewed recent interviews conducted in five camps by an NGO requesting anonymity to protect its work.
“If I build a house, it can be seized arbitrarily,” one Rohingya man said.
“I have no right to the land and I can also be arrested at any time.”
An aid worker called the remaining 23 sites in Rakhine little more than “concentration camps.”
On condition of anonymity, she spoke of the “complicity” humanitarian staff feel for perpetuating the segregation.
Amnesty International has described Rakhine as an “apartheid state.”
All aid must be “heavily conditioned,” researcher Laura Haigh said, warning donors that building infrastructure could make them complicit in crimes against humanity.
The government defended the camp closures, telling AFP it would continue working with the UN and NGOs on the issue.
Any former camp resident holding a National Verification Card (NVC) will be able to “move freely within their township” and access “education, health facilities and livelihood activities,” the social welfare ministry said.
Most Rohingya refuse to apply for the card believing they should already be treated as full citizens.
Those interviewed said the few to have caved had no more rights than anyone else.
They were also forced to designate themselves as “Bengali,” a term implying they are from Bangladesh.
“They are just trying to dominate us and make us illegal through different ways,” one Rohingya man said.