Contenders tout credentials in close vote to replace Merkel

Contenders tout credentials in close vote to replace Merkel
Photos taken in 2021 of the chancellor top candidates, Olaf Scholz of the Social Democrats, Anna-Lena Baerbock of the Greens and Armin Laschet of the Christian Democrats during different election campaigns in Germany. Elections will be on Sept.26. (AP)
Short Url
Updated 24 September 2021

Contenders tout credentials in close vote to replace Merkel

Contenders tout credentials in close vote to replace Merkel
  • Merkel is stepping down after 16 years in power, and the race is wide open ahead of Sunday's parliamentary election
  • Polls show the outgoing leader's center-right Union bloc, with Armin Laschet as its candidate for chancellor

BERLIN: The contenders to succeed Angela Merkel as Germany’s chancellor sought to mobilize voters Friday as the election campaign neared its close.
They touted their credentials to lead Europe’s biggest economy into a new era as it grapples with the fallout from the coronavirus pandemic and climate change.
Merkel is stepping down after 16 years in power, and the race is wide open ahead of Sunday’s parliamentary election. Polls show the outgoing leader’s center-right Union bloc, with Armin Laschet as its candidate for chancellor, a little behind or nearly level with the center-left Social Democrats, who have Finance Minister Olaf Scholz seeking the chancellorship.
The Greens, with Annalena Baerbock making the party’s first run for chancellor, are trailing in third place but could end up playing the kingmaker in forming a government.
Experts say one reason why this year’s German election is tighter and less predictable than usual is that the candidates are relative unknowns to most voters.
“It’s certainly not the most boring election,” University of Leipzig political scientist Hendrik Traeger said. “There were those in which Angela Merkel stood as the incumbent and it was simply a question of who she would govern with.”
This time, Merkel’s party has struggled to energize its traditional base, which has so far failed to warm to Laschet, the governor of North Rhine-Westphalia state.
“The key question is whether these voters will overcome the Laschet hurdle and vote for the Union despite Laschet” said Peter Matuschek of polling company Forsa. “Or will they abstain from the vote or even choose another party?”
Scholz, whose party has made steady gains in opinion polls during the campaign on the strength of his relative popularity, touted the outgoing government’s success in preserving jobs during the pandemic.
“What we have seen is that we are succeeding in avoiding the major economic and social crisis that otherwise would have hit us,” he said at a rally in Cologne. “We put a lot of money into bringing jobs and companies through this crisis, and today, we can say that we have succeeded. We see an upswing ahead of us.”
Scholz, who wants to raise Germany’s minimum wage and increase taxes for top earners, argued that anyone calling for tax relief for the rich now “can’t count, doesn’t understand anything about finance.”
The Union bloc, an alliance of Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union party and its Bavaria-only sister party, the Christian Social Union, contends that any tax increases would be counterproductive as the German economy recovers. Laschet said at a rally in Munich that it would be “exactly the wrong way” out of the pandemic.
“The pandemic is now in its final phase, and (the Social Democrats) are beginning again with their old socialist classics from the 80s — bureaucracy, tax increases, patronizing people,” he said.
Merkel declared that “for Germany to remain stable, Armin Laschet must become chancellor and (the Union) must be the strongest party.” She was making the second of three appearances in the final week of a campaign from which she has been largely absent.
Laschet praised Merkel’s record. “It’s up to us to carry this legacy forward,” he said. “If we get it wrong now, everything that was achieved in 16 years could be squandered.”
Baerbock, the Greens’ candidate, focused her pitch on fighting climate change, her party’s central issue.
“This election is a choice of direction,” she said in Duesseldorf. “This election is a climate election.”
“We can’t afford half-measures anymore,” said Baerbock, whose party wants to ramp up carbon prices and end the use of coal earlier than planned. “We need finally to have a climate government — with all its strength, with all its heart and with full passion.”
“Yes, it’s a risk to do something new, but where has government experience alone brought us, if that’s the standard for a parliamentary election?” asked Baerbock, the only candidate for chancellor who lacks government experience. “It has led us to a dead end.”
Tens of thousands of environmental activists staged a rally outside Germany’s parliament earlier Friday to demand that politicians take stronger action to curb climate change.
Migration has been less of a concern to many voters than in 2017. Foreign policy has not come up much during the campaign but became an issue during the final television debate Thursday, with the Greens calling for a tougher stance on China.
About 60.4 million Germans are eligible to vote for a new parliament on Sept. 26. The strongest party will be best-placed to form a governing coalition, though that isn’t automatic.
The business-friendly Free Democrats are angling for a place in government after pulling the plug on coalition talks after the 2017 election. The far-right Alternative for Germany is expected to do well in the country’s east, but other parties refuse to work with it.
The Left Party, which opposes NATO and German military deployments abroad, remains a possible governing partner for the Greens and Social Democrats, a prospect that has drawn alarm from conservatives. Friday’s center-right rally was larded with warnings that such an alliance would damage Germany’s economy and international standing.
Election officials say many more people will vote by mail this year due to the pandemic, but this isn’t expected to affect turnout significantly.


South Korea’s leader vows final push for talks with North

South Korea’s leader vows final push for talks with North
Updated 25 October 2021

South Korea’s leader vows final push for talks with North

South Korea’s leader vows final push for talks with North
  • Moon praised himself for paving the way for a peace process on the Korean Peninsula by holding three summits with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un
SEOUL, South Korea: South Korea’s president said Monday he’ll keep striving to promote peace with North Korea through dialogue until the end of his term next May, after Pyongyang raised animosities with a resumption of provocative weapons tests.
While launching a spate of newly developed weapons in recent weeks, North Korea has also slammed Washington and Seoul over what it calls hostility toward the North. Its actions indicate North Korea wants its rivals to ease economic sanctions against it and accept it as a legitimate nuclear state, experts say.
In his final policy speech at parliament, President Moon Jae-in said he’ll “make efforts to the end to help a new order for peace and prosperity on the Korean Peninsula be established through dialogue and diplomacy.”
Moon, a champion of greater reconciliation with North Korea, once shuttled between Pyongyang and Washington to help facilitate now-stalled nuclear diplomacy between the two countries. Pyongyang turned a cold shoulder on Moon after its diplomacy with Washington broke down in early 2019 amid bickering over the sanctions.
Moon praised himself for paving the way for a peace process on the Korean Peninsula by holding three summits with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and helping arrange the first-ever North Korea-US summit between Kim and then-President Donald Trump in 2018.
But Moon acknowledged his push for peace through dialogue remains “incomplete.”
Moon’s single five-year term ends next May, and he’s barred by law from seeking reelection. The presidential candidate of Moon’s ruling liberal party has unveiled a similar North Korea policy as Moon’s. Surveys indicate a neck-and-neck race with a potential conservative candidate, who will likely take a harder line on the North.
Moon’s appeasement policy on North Korea has been divisive, with his supporters call him a peace-making mediator while his opponents accused him of helping North Korea find ways to weaken international pressure and perfect its weapons systems.
The North Korean weapons systems tested recently are mostly short- and medium-range weapons that place South Korea and Japan within their striking ranges. Last Tuesday, North Korea fired a ballistic missile from a submarine in its most significant weapons test since President Joe Biden took office in January.
Some experts say North Korea may test a longer-range missile that could pose a direct threat to the American homeland to increase its pressure on Washington in coming weeks.
In part of his efforts to ease tensions, Moon has recently been pushing for a symbolic declaration to end the 1950-53 Korean War, which ended with an armistice, not a peace treaty. When Moon meets Pope Francis at the Vatican this week during his European tour, they’ll discuss a possible North Korea trip by Francis as the pope has repeatedly expressed hopes to visit the North, according to Moon’s office.
South Korea’s Unification Ministry said Monday the government will make efforts to help realize Francis’ trip to North Korea if related talks have progress. Spokeswoman Lee Jong-joo said a North Korea visit by the pope would make a big contribution to peace on the Korean Peninsula.

China warns of further spread in latest COVID-19 outbreak

China warns of further spread in latest COVID-19 outbreak
Updated 25 October 2021

China warns of further spread in latest COVID-19 outbreak

China warns of further spread in latest COVID-19 outbreak
  • China is giving booster shots to adults whose last dose was at least six months earlier, with priority groups including essential workers, older people and those with weaker immune systems

BEIJING: China’s latest COVID-19 outbreak is increasingly likely to spread further, a health official said on Sunday, as authorities urged all regions to step up monitoring and called for a reduction in travel across provinces.

China has largely contained the virus but it is determined to stamp out any sporadic local outbreaks, particularly in the run-up to the 2022 Winter Olympics in February.

More than 100 locally transmitted cases have been confirmed over the last week across 11 provincial areas, with most linked to 13 different tour groups.

There is increasing risk that the outbreak might spread further, helped by “seasonal factors,” said Mi Feng, spokesman at the National Health Commission.

The Delta variant causing the outbreak is also highly transmissible, said commission deputy director Wu Liangyou, adding that sequencing showed it to be different from the source of an earlier outbreak, and suggesting that the new cases came from a new source from abroad.

Authorities have banned travel agencies from arranging cross-provincial tours that involve regions deemed of higher virus risk, and has imposed nationwide suspension on some travel services linking multiple tourist attractions.

The capital Beijing has said it will impose strict restriction on travels to the city by people who have been to counties with at least one infection.

Health authorities also said on Sunday that about 75.6 percent of China’s population had received complete vaccine doses as of Oct. 23, or some 1.068 billion people.

China is giving booster shots to adults whose last dose was at least six months earlier, with priority groups including essential workers, older people and those with weaker immune systems.

Data showed antibodies elicited by vaccines, including the most-used shots from Sinovac and Sinopharm, declined within months.

Wang Huaqing, chief expert for the immunization program at the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said China would not keep giving people booster shots indefinitely.

“Even if it needs to be strengthened later, the number of boosters is limited,” Wang told the briefing.

“We hope in the future there will be better vaccines and better vaccination procedures to achieve solid protection among the public.”


COVID-19 cases recorded in eastern Europe hit 20 million

COVID-19 cases recorded in eastern Europe hit 20 million
Updated 25 October 2021

COVID-19 cases recorded in eastern Europe hit 20 million

COVID-19 cases recorded in eastern Europe hit 20 million
  • Three of the top five countries reporting the most deaths in the world are in eastern Europe — Russia, Ukraine and Romania

LONDON: The number of coronavirus infections recorded so far in eastern Europe surpassed 20 million on Sunday, according to a Reuters tally, as the region grapples with its worst outbreak since the pandemic started and inoculation efforts lag.

Countries in the region have the lowest vaccination rates in Europe, with less than half of the population having received a single dose.

Hungary tops the region’s vaccination rates with 62 percent of its population having gotten at least one shot, whereas Ukraine has given just 19 percent of its residents a single dose, according to Our World in Data.

New infections in the region have steadily risen and now average over 83,700 new cases per day, the highest level since November last year, Reuters data through Friday showed.

Although it has just 4 percent of the world’s population, eastern Europe accounts for roughly 20 percent of all new cases reported globally.

According to a Reuters analysis, three of the top five countries reporting the most deaths in the world are in eastern Europe — Russia, Ukraine and Romania.

More social gathering indoors after the lifting of restrictions just as winter sets in is driving a rise in COVID-19 infections in many countries across Europe, the World Health Organization’s emergency director Mike Ryan said on Thursday.

As the wave of infections intensifies, many people in eastern Europe are torn between defiance and regret over not getting vaccinated.

Hundreds have protested in Sofia and other cities against mandatory certificates that came into force on Thursday, limiting access to many indoor public spaces to those who have been vaccinated.

A European Commission poll, the Eurobarometer, has shown that at least one person in three in most countries in the European Union’s east does not trust the health care system, compared to a bloc average of 18 percent.

More than 40 percent of all new cases reported in eastern Europe were in Russia, with 120 people testing positive every five minutes, according to a Reuters analysis. The country’s health care system is operating under great strain, Health Minister Mikhail Murashko said on Wednesday.

The nation on Friday reported record COVID fatalities for the fourth straight day.

So far, Russia has vaccinated about 36 percent of its population with one vaccine shot.

Moscow, the country’s most populous city and capital, will next week shutdown all businesses except essential stores such as supermarkets and pharmacies to stem the spread of the disease.

Slovakia reported 3,480 new COVID-19 cases on Oct. 19, its highest daily tally since March, health ministry data showed Wednesday. The country has one of the lower vaccination rates in the EU, with just over half the adult population fully inoculated in the country of 5.5 million. This has contributed to a faster rise in infections than in some neighboring countries.

In Romania, hospitals are stretched to breaking point, with emergency beds fully occupied across the country.

Morgues were also running at full capacity. The country reported record numbers of daily coronavirus fatalities and infections on Tuesday.

The virus was killing one person every five minutes on average this month in a country where the inoculation rate is low.

Ukraine registered a record daily high of new coronavirus infections and related deaths for the second consecutive day on Friday.

It also extended a state of emergency that allows authorities to impose curbs until year-end to rein in infections.


Myanmar activist arrested in junta raid: Wife

Myanmar activist arrested in junta raid: Wife
Updated 25 October 2021

Myanmar activist arrested in junta raid: Wife

Myanmar activist arrested in junta raid: Wife
  • 52-year-old Kyaw Min Yu, better known as Ko Jimmy, was arrested when soldiers raided a housing complex in the North Dagon township of Yangon

BANGKOK: An activist who rose to prominence during Myanmar’s 1988 student uprising has been arrested in an overnight raid, his wife said Sunday, the latest blow to the anti-junta movement as the military cracks down on dissent.

Myanmar has been in turmoil since the generals ousted civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi in a February coup, triggering nationwide protests that have seen more than 1,100 people killed by security forces.

Junta opponents — including allies of Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party and activists — have gone into hiding across the country, while some villagers have taken up arms, forming local militias to defend themselves.

On Saturday evening, 52-year-old Kyaw Min Yu, better known as Ko Jimmy, was arrested when soldiers raided a housing complex in the North Dagon township of Yangon.

“He was staying in a safe house together with two other activists who escaped from the back door,” his wife Nilar Thein said, adding that police had not informed her of his whereabouts.

Nilar Thein and Ko Jimmy are part of the so-called 88 Generation movement that challenged Myanmar’s previous military government.

They also played a major role in anti-government protests in 2007 — nicknamed the “Saffron Revolution” for the participation of orange-robed monks.

The couple have been in and out of prison for their activism.

Ko Jimmy’s last stint behind bars was from 2007 to 2012. He was released as the generals loosened their grip to start opening up Myanmar in preparation for 2015 elections.

After the February 1 putsch this year, the junta issued an arrest warrant for him alleging that he had incited unrest with his social media posts. Another 88 Generation member, Ko Ko Gyi, confirmed Ko Jimmy’s arrest, expressing worry for him and his family.

While the couple are intimately aware of the risks of activism in Myanmar, Nilar Thein said the situation is “riskier” under the current regime, which has dubbed itself the State Administration Council.

“I am afraid that I won’t see him alive” again, she said, adding that she was afraid to go to the police for fear of her own arrest.

“I urge the international community to keep their eyes (on the situation) to save the lives of Myanmar people.” Groups including the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners — which tracks arrests under the regime — have alleged that torture has taken place during the interrogation of dissidents.

The UN special rapporteur on Myanmar on Saturday raised alarm about troops amassing in the country’s north, warning the international community to be prepared for “more mass atrocity crimes.”


Husband of detained Iranian-British woman on hunger strike

Husband of detained Iranian-British woman on hunger strike
Updated 24 October 2021

Husband of detained Iranian-British woman on hunger strike

Husband of detained Iranian-British woman on hunger strike
  • Richard Ratcliffe started his fast on Sunday outside the British government’s Foreign Office in central London
  • He plans to maintain a “constant vigil” by sleeping in a tent outside the building’s main entrance

LONDON: The husband of UK charity worker Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who has been detained more than five years in Iran, has gone on a hunger strike again after a court decided she has to spend another year in prison.
Richard Ratcliffe started his fast on Sunday outside the British government’s Foreign Office in central London.
He plans to maintain a “constant vigil” by sleeping in a tent outside the building’s main entrance in an effort to pressure Prime Minister Boris Johnson to secure the release of his wife and other detained dual British-Iranian nationals, Amnesty International said.
Zaghari-Ratcliffe served five years in prison after being taken into custody at Tehran’s airport in April 2016 and convicted of plotting the overthrow of Iran’s government, a charge that she, her supporters and rights groups deny.
In May, she was sentenced to an additional year in prison on charges of spreading “propaganda against the system” for having participated in a protest outside the Iranian Embassy in London in 2009 — a decision upheld this month by an appeals court. The verdict includes a one-year travel ban, meaning she wouldn’t be able to leave Iran until 2023.
Ratcliffe went on a 15-day hunger strike two years ago outside the Iranian Embassy, a move he credits with getting their 7-year-old daughter Gabriella released.
“We are now giving the UK government the same treatment. In truth, I never expected to have to do a hunger strike twice. It is not a normal act,” Ratcliffe said on his change.org petition.
He said Iran remains the “primary abuser” in Nazanin’s case, but the “UK is also letting us down.”
“It is increasingly clear that Nazanin’s case could have been solved many months ago – but for other diplomatic agendas. The PM needs to take responsibility for that.”
Zaghari-Ratcliffe was employed by the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of the news agency, and was arrested as she was returning home to Britain after visiting family. Rights groups accuse Iran of holding dual-nationals as bargaining chips for money or influence in negotiations with the West, something Tehran denies.
Iran doesn’t recognize dual nationalities, so detainees like Zaghari-Ratcliffe can’t receive consular assistance.