French President Unveils New High-Speed Train
French President Emmanuel Macron on Friday celebrated the 40th anniversary of France’s Train a Grande Vitesse (TGV) — “high-speed train” — system, by unveiling a more efficient and environmentally friendly next-generation train.
During a ceremony at the Gare de Lyon rail station in Paris, Macron hailed the history of the original TGV, inaugurated at the same station by then-French President François Mitterrand.
That first French bullet train first joined Paris to Lyon and then eventually connected the rest of the country, with high-speed tracks now extending to Strasbourg and Bordeaux and trains that travel at speeds of 350 kph. In 2007, a TGV reached a record 574.8 kph, a mark that still stands.
On Friday, Macron dropped the curtain — actually, a large French flag — on the next generation of high-speed train, the TGV M, which the French president described as a “formidable symbol” … which is going to recapture spaces and win back the hearts of the French.”
Macron announced a $7.7 billion plan to redevelop and revitalize the TGV network and the state-run rail company SNCF, including new lines serving cities such as Nice and Toulouse, as well as lines serving smaller communities. He said the plan also includes improving rail freight service.
The new, streamlined version of the TGV will carry more passengers — up to 740 passengers from 600 — and move between cities at a top speed of 320 kph while consuming 20% less electricity.
Increasing train use is also part of France’s plan to reduce emissions in the country.
Some information in this report came from The Associated Press, Reuters and AFP.
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Will Russia’s Young People Vote in Parliamentary Elections?
Russia’s President Vladimir Putin provoked chuckles earlier this month from school kids in the Russian city of Vladivostok when a 10-year-old asked him to subscribe to his YouTube channel. “Sign up please. I’d be very glad,” the kid said.
Russia’s 68-year-old leader seemed baffled.
“What do I have to sign?” Putin asked. “Sign what? I didn’t understand — what should I sign?” the president queried. The exchange was seen by many Russian commentators as an iconic moment in a widening division between Putin and his country’s youngsters.
The Vladivostok school kids are not of voting age, but as Russians started to go to the polls Friday to vote in parliamentary elections, the turnout and voting patterns of the country’s internet-savvy 18-to-24-year-olds will be scrutinized by the Kremlin as well as Putin’s foes.
Over the past year opinion polling has suggested that young Russians are increasingly unhappy with their president. Around half of young Russians expressed dissatisfaction with Putin in a poll by the independent Russian polling organization Levada Center earlier this year. Only 20% said they supported him, a sharp drop from 36% previously. Nearly half said the country was moving in the wrong direction under his leadership, with just 44% saying the direction of travel was okay.
“Young people are becoming more politically active,” analyst Natia Seskuria said in a recent commentary for London-based think tank Chatham House. “After 21 years of Putin’s rule, regime fatigue is settling in — particularly in the younger generations who have known no other leader.”
“Growing dissatisfaction made many join demonstrations that led to more than 10,000 arrests and dozens of criminal cases against the protesters,” Seskuria said, referring to protests mounted in the wake of the imprisonment of Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny earlier this year on charges he says are trumped up. “Young Russians have used social media to mobilize support for rallies and to criticize Putin. Navalny, too, has used the power of social media to connect with younger voters.”
How many of Russia’s young people vote for Putin’s ruling United Russia Party will give some idea of the challenge the Kremlin may face in the coming months. It also will indicate whether Russia’s leader will face a mounting backlash from a young generation that is frustrated with economic stagnation, the lack of job prospects and a propaganda-heavy media machine that does not connect with it in the way Navalny has managed to with You-Tube videos and social media posts.
Polling data suggests that just 26% of Russians are ready to vote for Putin’s United Russia Party, which is seeking to maintain its Duma majority of 334 seats. That is its lowest opinion poll rating since 2008.
But few doubt United Russia will retain its Duma majority. Kremlin critics say this election — voting takes place over three days — is the least free since Putin came to power 21 years ago. Genuinely independent candidates are barred from running, cash-handouts have been offered to voters, and there is evidence of voter intimidation, all taking place amid an unprecedented crackdown on dissent.
Critics also expect plenty of ballot-rigging in the election for the 450-seat State Duma. Long lines formed at some polling stations Friday, according to local reports. Navalny supporters suggested state workers were being mobilized to vote by the Kremlin and local authorities.
“Every time [under Putin], elections have looked a little less like elections. Now this process is complete,” exiled Putin critic Mikhail Khodorkovsky told Echo of Moscow radio station this week. “The next time our people will vote for real will be after they earn that right on the barricades,” he added.
But little is being left to chance by the Kremlin, say Navalny supporters.
And they accused U.S. tech giants Google and Apple Friday of bowing to Kremlin pressure by deleting a youth-oriented Smart Voting app that offers a step-by-step guide on how to vote tactically against pro-Putin candidates.
“This is an act of political censorship, and it can’t be justified,” said Kira Yarmysh, Navalny’s press spokesperson.
“They caved into the Kremlin’s blackmail,” added Leonid Volkov, Navalny’s former campaign manager.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov rejected the allegation of political censorship, telling reporters in Moscow the app was removed in observation of the “letter and spirit” of Russian law.
From prison, via a message on Instagram, Navalny urged voters to undermine the Kremlin by voting for the best placed candidate not affiliated with United Russia, which means in many places voting for candidates offered by the Communist Party. In the message Navalny said: “Are you not interested in trying?”
The removal of Navalny’s tactical voting app by Apple and Google from their app stores also drew criticism from international rights organizations.
“Russian government officials are putting tech companies in a tightening vise, threatening criminal actions against individual employees inside the country to pressure their employers into yielding to calls for censorship,” said Matt Bailey, director of the digital freedom program of PEN America.
“The decision on the part of Apple and Google to remove an app from the iOS and Android App Stores being used to organize protest against the government is the result of blackmail, pure and simple,” he added in a statement.
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Waterfall in Eastern Turkey Sees More Visitors
The tourism industry in Turkey has been hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic, and until recently several wildfires. Several sites, however, have again started to attract local and international visitors. VOA’s Arif Aslan reports from Van, Turkey, in a story narrated by Sirwan Kajjo.
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France Suspends 3,000 Unvaccinated Health Care Workers
France has suspended 3,000 health care workers who were not inoculated with a COVID-19 vaccine by a government-mandated Sept. 15 deadline.
“Several dozens” of the country’s 2.7 million health workers, Health Minister Olivier Veran said Thursday, opted to resign rather than receive the inoculation against the coronavirus.
Tens of thousands health workers were unvaccinated in July when President Emmanuel Macron announced the Sept. 15 deadline to have at least one shot of a vaccine.
Veran said most suspended employees worked in support services, while few doctors and nurses were among the suspended.
Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center said early Friday that France has reported more than 7 million COVID cases and more than 116,000 COVID deaths.
In the U.S. state of Idaho, hospitals have begun rationing care “because the massive increase of COVID-19 patients requiring hospitalization in all areas of the state has exhausted existing resources,” the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare said in a statement Thursday.
“The situation is dire – we don’t have enough resources to adequately treat the patients in our hospitals, whether you are there for COVID-19 or a heart attack or because of a car accident,” DHW Director Dave Jeppesen said in a statement.
The best way to end the rationing “is for more people to get vaccinated,” Jeppesen said.“It dramatically reduces your chances of having to go to the hospital if you do get sick from COVID-19.”
The Intenational Monetary Fund, the World Bank, the World Health Organization, and the World Trade Organization have met with the major COVID vaccine manufacturers to devise strategies to improve vaccine access for low- and middle-income countries.
The goal of the coalition is to vaccinate at least 40% of people in every country by the end of this year and at least 60% by mid-2022.
WHO said the 2021 target is “a critical milestone to end the pandemic and for global economic recovery.”
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Taiwan Calls for Quick Start to Trade Talks with EU
Taiwan’s government called on the European Union to quickly begin trade talks after the bloc pledged to seek a trade deal with the tech-heavyweight island, something Taipei has long angled for.
The EU included Taiwan on its list of trade partners for a potential bilateral investment agreement in 2015, the year before President Tsai Ing-wen first became Taiwan’s president but has not held talks with Taiwan on the issue since then.
Responding to the EU’s newly announced strategy to boost its presence in the Indo-Pacific, including seeking a trade deal with Taiwan, Taiwan’s Foreign Ministry said on Friday talks should start soon. The European Parliament has already given its backing to an EU trade deal with Taiwan.
“We call on the European Union to initiate the pre-negotiation work of impact assessment, public consultation and scope definition for a Bilateral Investment Agreement with Taiwan as soon as possible in accordance with the resolutions of the European Parliament,” it said.
“As a like-minded partner of the EU’s with core values such as democracy, freedom, human rights and the rule of law, Taiwan will continue to strengthen cooperation in the supply chain reorganization of semiconductors and other related strategic industries, digital economy, green energy, and post-epidemic economic recovery.”
EU member states and the EU itself have no formal diplomatic ties with Taiwan due to objections from China, which considers the island one of its provinces with no right to the trappings of statehood, so any investment deal could be tricky politically for the EU.
But the EU’s relations with China have worsened.
In May, the European Parliament halted ratification of a new investment pact with China until Beijing lifts sanctions on EU politicians, deepening a dispute in Sino-European relations and denying EU companies greater access to the world’s second-largest economy.
The EU has also been looking to boost cooperation with Taiwan on semiconductors, as a chip shortage roils supply chains and shuts some auto production lines, including in Europe.
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Russians Start Voting in Parliamentary Polls After Historic Crackdown
Russians in the Far East began voting in a three-day parliamentary election in which vocal Kremlin critics have been barred from running following a historic crackdown on the opposition.
Parliamentary and local polls in the world’s largest country spread over 11 time zones began at 8 a.m. Friday. So as Muscovites prepared to go to bed, residents of the Far Eastern Chukotka and Kamchatka regions were gearing up to cast their ballots.
“Let’s go!” Ella Pamfilova, the head of the Central Election Commission, said in a live broadcast. “We are so excited!”
The run-up to the parliamentary polls has been marred by an unprecedented crackdown on Kremlin critics and independent media, with President Vladimir Putin’s top foe Alexey Navalny jailed in January and his organizations subsequently outlawed.
With many voters frustrated by falling incomes and not planning to cast their ballots, Putin urged Russians to elect a “strong” parliament.
“I’m counting on your responsible, balanced and patriotic civic position,” Putin said in a video address.
The 68-year-old Russian leader is currently isolating after the Kremlin announced this week an outbreak of coronavirus cases among his inner circle. He said Thursday that “dozens” had tested positive.
In a message from prison, Navalny called on Russians to cast aside apathy and vote pro-Kremlin candidates out of power.
“Are you not interested in trying?” he said in a message posted on Instagram, adding that even in prison he remained optimistic and urged Russians to do the same.
“I really do not think that I cannot change anything,” said the 45-year-old, who barely survived a nerve agent poisoning he has blamed on the Kremlin.
The opposition politician’s allies have been barred from running, and his team has promoted Navalny’s tactical voting project app, urging supporters to back candidates best positioned to beat Putin’s United Russia candidates.
A majority of the 225 alternative parliament candidates named by Navalny’s allies are running on the Communist Party’s list.
The media regulator has blocked dozens of websites linked to Navalny, including the tactical voting website, and has also piled pressure on Google and Apple to remove Navalny’s app from their stores.
Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova has claimed that developers of Navalny’s app have ties to the Pentagon, and last week Moscow summoned U.S. Ambassador John Sullivan over interference of U.S. tech giants in the polls.
Recent surveys by state-run pollster VTsIOM showed fewer than 30% of Russians planning to vote for the ruling party, down from 40% to 45% in the weeks ahead of the last parliamentary election in 2016.
But United Russia is expected to retain its two-thirds majority in the Duma, enough to change the constitution as it did last year with reforms allowing Putin to extend his rule to 2036.
The vote is being held both online and in person, in a move officials said is aimed at limiting voters’ potential exposure to the coronavirus.
The opposition says that voting over several days gives officials greater opportunities to fix elections.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe said in August that it would not be sending observers to Russia for the parliamentary election because of a limit on the number of observers imposed by Moscow.
Campaigning was lackluster, and critics said the vote was little more than a rubber-stamping of Putin’s allies.
Andrei Kolesnikov, an analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center, said that the Kremlin needed a pliant legislature ahead of 2024 when Putin’s current term ends.
Widespread claims of voter fraud during parliamentary elections in 2011 sparked major demonstrations, but political observers were not expecting protests this time.
“Once the Duma elections are over, protests are unlikely, since the opposition and civil society are demoralized,” Kolesnikov wrote. “The regime crackdown will intensify.”
Besides United Russia, 13 more parties are running in the elections.
A total of 225 of the State Duma’s 450 members are elected through party lists, while the rest are selected in single-member districts.
More than 108 million voters are eligible to cast their ballots in Russia, and another 2 million Russians can vote abroad.
Russian passport holders from Ukraine’s two breakaway regions can take part in the vote.
Russians are also voting in local polls in dozens of regions, including regional assembly and gubernatorial elections.
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Ukraine, US to Hold Joint Military Drills
Ukraine and the United States will start joint military exercises in western Ukraine next week, the Ukrainian General Staff said on Thursday, days after Belarus and Russia staged large-scale drills that raised neighboring countries’ concerns.
The “Zapad-2021” war games ran on Russia’s and Belarus’ western flanks, including sites close to the European Union’s borders, and alarmed Ukraine and some NATO countries.
Ukraine said the “Rapid Trident 2021” exercises would involve 6,000 troops from 15 countries — Ukraine, the United States and other NATO members — and would last until Oct. 1.
“The main goal is to prepare for joint actions as part of a multinational force during coalition operations,” it said in a statement.
Ukraine views the military exercises with Western partners as an important step on the path to NATO, believing that membership in the alliance would strengthen the country’s resistance to Russian aggression.
Kyiv’s relations with Moscow deteriorated in 2014 after Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine and backed pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine’s Donbass region. The seven-year war with separatists killed more than 13,000 people.
Ukraine’s relations with Belarus also have worsened since Kyiv called the 2020 presidential election in Belarus neither free nor fair and condemned violence against protesters.
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US Sanctions al-Qaida Supporters Working From Turkey
The U.S. Treasury Department sanctioned five al-Qaida supporters for allegedly helping the militant group with financial assistance.
The department said the operatives supporting al-Qaida were working out of Turkey.
“We will continue working with our foreign partners, including Turkey, to expose and disrupt al-Qaida’s financial support networks,” Treasury Department official Andrea Gacki said in a statement.
Five individuals named
The department said Egyptian lawyer Majdi Salim, whom it described as the main facilitator, was sanctioned, along with Muhammad Nasr al-Din al-Ghazlani, an Egyptian financial courier, and Turkish citizens Nurettin Muslihan, Cebrail Guzel and Soner Gurleyen.
“As a result of today’s action, all property and interests in property of these individuals named above, and of any entities that are owned, directly or indirectly, 50 percent or more by them, individually, or with other blocked persons, that are in the United States or in the possession or control of U.S. persons must be blocked and reported to OFAC (Office of Foreign Assets Control),” the department said in a statement.
“Unless authorized by a general or specific license issued by OFAC or otherwise exempt, OFAC’s regulations generally prohibit all transactions by U.S. persons or within the United States (including transactions transiting the United States) that involve any property or interests in property of blocked or designated or otherwise blocked persons,” the statement added.
Some information for this report came from Reuters.
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Deadly Floods, Dirty Coal: Germany’s Climate Dilemma as Election Looms
As Germany prepares to elect a new leader, climate change is high on the agenda. Floods blamed on global warming killed hundreds in July. But as Henry Ridgwell reports from Germany, the country is also Europe’s biggest emitter of carbon dioxide and is struggling to wean itself off fossil fuels
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‘No Journalist Should Die’ – EU Calls for Better Media Safety
The European Union’s executive arm asked its member countries Thursday to better protect journalists amid a rise of physical attacks and online threats against media professionals.
According to the European Commission, 908 journalists and media workers were attacked across the 27-nation bloc in 2020. A total of 23 journalists have been killed in the EU since 1992, with the majority of the killings taking place during the past six years.
“No journalist should die or be harmed because of their job. We need to support and protect journalists; they are essential for democracy,” said Vera Jourova, the commission vice president for values and transparency.
“The pandemic has shown more than ever the key role of journalists to inform us. And the urgent need for public authorities to do more to protect them.”
Murders of reporters remain rare in Europe, but the killings of journalists in Slovakia and Malta in recent years have raised concerns about reporters’ safety in developed, democratic societies.
Earlier this year, European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen expressed support to investigative journalism after the killing of Peter R. de Vries, a renowned Dutch journalist who reported on the violent underworld of the Netherlands.
The commission’s non-binding proposals include recommendations for EU countries to ensure fair and effective investigations and prosecutions, and to provide protection to those under threat, with a strong focus on female journalists.
According to the EU, 73% of female journalists have experienced online violence and the commission said EU countries should “support initiatives aimed at empowering women journalists and professionals belonging to minority groups and those reporting on equality issues.”
The bloc’s executive arm also proposed the creation of support services, including helplines, legal advice, and psychological support. It insisted on the need to ensure reporters’ safety during demonstrations, where most of the attacks take place.
“Member states should provide regular training for law enforcement authorities to ensure that journalists and other media professionals are able to work safely and without restrictions during such events,” the commission said.
Noting that digital and online safety has become a “major concern” because of online attacks but also the risks of illegal surveillance, the executive branch also encouraged EU countries to improve cooperation between media and cybersecurity bodies.
“Relevant national cybersecurity bodies should, upon request, assist journalists who seek to determine whether their devices or online accounts have been compromised, in obtaining the services of cybersecurity forensic investigators,” the commission said.
The proposals were unveiled just months after the commission’s annual report on adherence to the rule of law concluded that democratic standards were eroding in several member countries.
That report notably singled out Slovenia, which currently holds the six-month rotating presidency of the European Council, for attacks against the Balkan nation’s media.
“This is not only Slovenia. We see the very aggressive rhetoric in some other member states,” Jourova said, adding that the EU will keep putting pressure on member countries where continuous issues are spotted.
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Turkey Cracks Down on Afghan Refugees
Security forces in Istanbul detain unregistered Afghans as Turkey’s government faces growing public pressure to not accept any more refugees
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China Envoy Banned from Visiting Britain’s House of Commons
The Speaker of the British House of Commons, Lindsay Hoyle, has banned China’s ambassador to Britain, Zheng Zeguang, from entering Parliament until Beijing lifts sanctions it imposed six months ago on five Conservative lawmakers and two peers.
The ban — the first ever imposed on a foreign envoy by a House of Commons Speaker — is the latest sign that British authorities are growing increasingly frustrated with what they see as Beijing’s aggressive diplomacy. Hoyle consulted with Downing Street and Britain’s Foreign Office before announcing the ban, according to local media reports.
His bar on Zeguang came just hours before British Prime Minister Boris Johnson appointed former trade minister Liz Truss as Britain’s new foreign secretary, part of a wider Cabinet reshuffle. Truss is seen as a China hawk and has lobbied for much tougher measures to be pursued against China’s Communist government for rights violations.
In a statement midweek Hoyle said: “I do not feel it’s appropriate for the ambassador for China to meet on the Commons estate and in our place of work when his country has imposed sanctions against some of our members.”
Last week Hoyle met with British lawmakers targeted by the Chinese sanctions. They urged him to impose a ban on the envoy. The Chinese embassy in London described the prohibition on Zeguang as “despicable and cowardly.”
Zeguang, who was appointed as envoy in June, was scheduled to speak to a British parliamentary group on China, but the invitation was withdrawn.
Relations between China and Britain have become fraught over Beijing’s crackdown on the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong and repression of its Muslim minority in the western Chinese province of Xinjiang, where China’s Communist government has interned more than a million Uyghurs in detention centers, according to rights groups.
The Chinese sanctions imposed in March on British lawmakers, one of whom is a former leader of the ruling of Britain’s ruling Conservatives, were in retaliation for Britain sanctioning Chinese officials and a state-run entity for alleged human rights violations in Xinjiang.
The Chinese sanctions imposed in March on British lawmakers, one of whom is a former leader of Britain’s ruling Conservatives, were in retaliation for Britain sanctioning Chinese officials and a state-run entity for alleged human rights violations in Xinjiang.
China has denied repeated claims that Uyghur Muslims are being held in detention centers. Beijing targeted 10 British organizations and individuals in its March sanctions. The Chinese Foreign Ministry said the British officials were being punished for spreading “lies and disinformation” about Xinjiang.
China’s Global Times newspaper, an English-language outlet of the Chinese Communist Party’s flagship People’s Daily newspaper, reacted with fury to the parliamentary ban on the Chinese envoy, saying in an angry editorial: “It is extremely rare, if not ‘a global innovation,’ for the UK to ban a foreign envoy from Parliament, a public venue for political discussions in the country. It shows brutality, impulsiveness, and the breaking of the rules.”
The editorial added: “London acts as if only it can sanction others, but not the other way around. Given that it simply does not have the strength to deal with China this way, the UK now behaves like a hooligan after having become a loser.” It suggested Beijing bar the British ambassador from entering the Great Hall of the People.
The group of British lawmakers sanctioned by China, which includes former Conservative leader Iain Duncan Smith and MPs Tim Loughton and Nusrat Ghani, welcomed Hoyle’s decision, praising the Speaker for “standing up for freedom of speech in the mother of Parliaments by supporting those parliamentarians who have been sanctioned by China.”
The appointment of Liz Truss as foreign secretary is unlikely to please Beijing. She has been targeted for criticism by China’s Foreign Ministry and Communist Party-run media in the past for lobbying for tough measures against Beijing as international trade secretary. The 46-year-old is only the second woman to hold the post of foreign secretary and is seen as a vigorous champion of free trade and markets and a strong supporter of the transatlantic alliance with Washington.
She faults China for not pursuing fair trade and for engaging in “economic coercion” and warned in a speech last week against Britain becoming “strategically dependent” on China, criticizing Beijing for “unfair” trading practices.
Last December Truss fought a behind-the-scenes battle with Britain’s Foreign Office, her new ministry, over whether Parliament should legislate to allow British courts a role in determining whether the repression of Xinjiang amounts to genocide. The Foreign Office opposed giving British courts preliminary power to determine whether genocide is occurring in Xinjiang, or elsewhere, arguing the decision should rest with international courts.
Nigel Adams, a Foreign Office minister, told a parliamentary panel that there was “credible, troubling and growing evidence” of forced labour taking place on a significant scale in Xinjiang but he feared an “asset flight,” if ministers rushed into enacting measures, warning China could start withdrawing investments from Britain.
Truss backed the legislative proposal.
Commenting on Truss’s appointment, British newspaper The Times said she “is far more hawkish on China than the prime minister, aligning herself with the American shift towards confrontation with Beijing.” Other British commentators said her pick to replace Dominic Rabb will help repair bridges with Washington following the U.S.-led NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan, which was criticized by senior British Conservative lawmakers.
“New UK Foreign Secretary, Liz Truss, is a proper China hawk,” tweeted Sophia Gaston, director of the British Foreign Policy Group, a London-based think tank. Gaston said Truss would be able at the Foreign Office to hold “China to account on values” while “playing a larger role in coordinating diplomatic efforts with our [foreign] partners.”
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Who Will Succeed Angela Merkel as Germany’s Chancellor?
On September 26 Germans will go to the polls in a federal election to apportion seats in the Bundestag and decide who will succeed Angela Merkel as chancellor. Marking the end of the Merkel era, many view this electoral contest as Germany’s most important election in decades.
But one wouldn’t be able to guess that from the campaign, which has been bland and cautious. All the main party leaders have played for safety, promising political continuity and competing over who has the right to be seen as the true ideological heir of Angela Merkel, who’s retiring from politics.
“Is this the most boring election ever?” newspaper Die Welt asked recently.
What excitement and fizz that’s been seen so far in the election has come just in the past few days. Armin Laschet, the leader of center-right Christian Democrats, or CDU, Merkel’s party, accused Sunday his Social Democrat opponent, Olaf Scholz, currently Germany’s finance minister, of mismanagement following recent raids by prosecutors on the finance ministry in a money-laundering probe.
And Merkel has come out from the sidelines to join the fray with an uncharacteristically sharp attack on Olaf Scholz and a warning that a vote for his party could let in the far left. Voters had two options, she says: a government made up of the center-left and the Greens “which accepts the support of the left-wing party, or at least doesn’t exclude it, or a moderate conservative-led government with Armin Laschet as chancellor.”
Merkel’s reference to a “leftwing party” was to Die Linke, a party formed in 2007 after a merger between the remnants of the Communist ruling party of former East Germany and a far-left West German group.
No clear majority
Neither the Social Democrats, SPD, or the CDU will have sufficient votes to form a single-party government and will have to shape a coalition government after weeks and possibly months of horse-trading and wrangling. The new German government will be a coalition of likely three parties, say analysts.
Merkel’s rare criticism of the SPD, the junior partner party in her governing coalition since 2013, is seen as testimony to the CDU’s parlous state in the polls. It is the first time in 15 years that the SPD has overtaken the CDU in opinion polling.
Laschet’s CDU and its Bavarian affiliate, the Christian Social Union, CSU, have fallen six points behind the SPD and with less than two weeks remaining the story of this election has been the surprising rise of the Social Democrats, who are polling at 25%, a back from the dead revival.
Earlier this year, the SPD was being written off but Scholz, a political pragmatist, has managed through his own high favorability ratings to pull the party up and now is being tipped by pollsters and political commentators to succeed Merkel.
“With the German election campaign entering its final stretch, Scholz’ popularity…has finally morphed into support for his party,” according to Henning Hoff, editor of the Internationale Politik Quarterly, which is published by the German Council on Foreign Relations.
“There is now much to suggest that Germany’s next government will be led by Olaf Scholz,” he added in his assessment of the direction of electoral travel. Scholz, he argues, has shown shrewdness in his campaigning and is managing to persuade many voters that he is a natural Merkel successor by projecting “professionalism and reliability almost to a fault.”
“Perhaps most miraculously, the SPD has shown uncharacteristic discipline since the campaign started in earnest. There has been next to no sniping, even when Scholz deftly steers the SPD on a distinctly centrist course. The candidate has practically merged with his party. The SPD is Scholz, at least for now,” according to Henning.
He has also been lucky, considering his opponents.
Green Party leader Annalena Baerbock, a fresh face who was the darling of the media at the start of the year, has fallen by the wayside following a string of mishaps and missteps. And Laschet, state premier of North Rhine-Westphalian, has turned in a lackluster performance, the nadir of which, according to pollsters, came in July when he was caught on camera chuckling with aides in the background when accompanying German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier on a tour of towns stricken by record floods.
Discontent with Laschet in the ranks of the CDU and the CSU has risen with each polling downgrade. Last week, the CSU secretary general, Markus Blume, said the center-right bloc would have fared better if Markus Söder, the President of Bavaria and CSU leader, had been chosen instead of Laschet as the candidate for chancellor. Some CDU lawmakers have publicly agreed.
This week, the walker of the pro-business Free Democrats, Christian Lindner, said he was “surprised by the weakness of the CDU and by how fuzzy its policies are.”
Last week, Laschet suffered another setback when a court ruled that a 2018 police eviction ordered by his North Rhine-Westphalia government against environmental protesters was illegal. An activist died during the police operation.
Laschet’s hopes of turning around the election rest with the large bloc of undecided voters and with the overall volatility of an election that has seen the lead change hands between the CDU, SPD and Greens several times since the start of the year.
But Scholz and his Social Democrats have significant momentum just when it counts — in the home stretch, say pollsters. Many Germans have already voted with early mail-in ballots.
If the SPD does top the poll later this month, Scholz will face the huge task of forming a coalition government and the negotiations likely will take months. His best hope will be to form a coalition with the Greens and the pro-business Free Democrats, but there’s much that divides all three parties. The Greens are polling around 17% and the Free Democrats around 11%.
The divisions were emphasized Wednesday when Lindner, the Free Democrats’ leader, told Britain’s Financial Times that he will have strict conditions on participating in a Scholz-led coalition government.
The conditions will include tax cuts and restrictions on any new borrowing. “The prerequisite for us joining any coalition is that we can’t have tax increases and we respect the constitutional debt brake,” he said. “Whoever wants to do something else will have to look for another partner,” he added.
Both Scholz and the Greens want higher taxes to boost public investment and redistribute wealth. If Scholz fails to reel in the Free Democrats, he might have to turn to Die Linke to form a government or to make an approach to the defeated CDU.It is still quite possible that despite coming in second, Laschet will have an opportunity, too, to form a coalition government. Lindner believes the CDU has more coalition options than Scholz.
Some information for this article came from AFP.
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US Backs Lithuania in Row With China Over Taiwan
The United States is backing Lithuania in the face of what American officials describe as China’s “coercive behavior” after Vilnius recently became the first European country since 2003 to allow Taiwan to open a representative office.On Wednesday, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis met for talks at the State Department. The meeting followed a call on August 21 in which Blinken “underscored ironclad U.S. solidarity” with Lithuania in the face of China’s “coercive behavior.”“Lithuania and the United States are very strong partners in NATO. We stand together for collective defense and security. We stand against economic coercion, including that being exerted by China,” Blinken said Wednesday.Wednesday was the United Nations’ International Day of Democracy. Landsbergis said it’s “truly symbolic” that the NATO allies “reaffirm our commitment to defend democracy, liberty, human rights across the globe.”On this International Day of Democracy, we celebrate a system that responds to the will of the people, respects human rights, and benefits the many, not the few. We look forward to the upcoming #SummitforDemocracy to demonstrate #DemocracyDelivers.— Secretary Antony Blinken (@SecBlinken) September 15, 2021Members of Congress have also expressed support for Lithuania’s position on Taiwan. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Menendez in a tweet praised “Lithuania’s courageous efforts to stand up for Taiwan, as well as democracy activists in Belarus, Russia and Cuba.” Menendez met with Landsbergis on Tuesday.Honored to meet my friend @glandsbergis and discuss Lithuania’s courageous efforts to stand up for Taiwan, as well as democracy activists in Belarus, Russia and Cuba. pic.twitter.com/F8L7EX18kd— Senate Foreign Relations Committee (@SFRCdems) September 14, 2021China has long had a policy of urging countries not to develop closer ties with Taiwan, and this week a spokesperson in Beijing pushed back against American officials’ characterization of Beijing’s tactics.“The label of coercion can never be pinned on China,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said during a Tuesday briefing.“The U.S. should immediately stop ganging up with others to wantonly smear China and stop provoking confrontation and disputes. Such tricks wouldn’t work on China,” Zhao said.In July, Lithuania became the first European country to allow Taiwan, a self-governed democracy, to open an office in Vilnius with the name of “Taiwanese Representative Office in Lithuania.” Other nations often designate such offices with the name “Taipei Representative Office” or “Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office” to avoid offending China, which claims Taiwan as part of its territory.The Taiwanese Representative Office in Lithuania is set to open this fall, marking the first time in 18 years that Taiwan has opened a new representative office in Europe. The last time Taiwan established a representative office in Europe was in 2003, with the name of “Taipei Representative Office in Bratislava, Slovakia.”Lithuania’s move has already led to repercussions and economic retaliation from China. In August, China’s government asked Lithuania to withdraw its ambassador to Beijing while recalling its own envoy to Vilnius. In a statement, China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs urged “the Lithuanian side to immediately rectify its wrong decision, take concrete measures to undo the damage, and not to move further down the wrong path.”The Baltic Timesreported on August 22 that Beijing had stopped approving new permits for Lithuanian food exports to China. The report cited a Lithuanian official saying the country’s talks with China on export permits for feed, non-animal products and edible offal had stopped.China has also reportedly halted direct freight trains to Lithuania.A Lithuanian Railways spokesperson, Gintaras Liubinas, told Newsweek: “We have received information through our customers that several freight trains from China will not arrive in Lithuania at the end of August and in the first half of September. Meanwhile, transit trains pass through Lithuania in the usual way.”On September 3, Lithuania recalled its ambassador to China. The Lithuanian Foreign Ministry expressed regret over China’s actions, but said the Baltic country is ready to develop mutually beneficial ties with Taiwan. The top EU diplomats in China also met to show solidarity with Lithuania Ambassador Diana Mickevičienė as she departed Beijing.@SecBlinken is meeting with Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis @GLandsbergis Wednesday. In their 8/21 call, Blinken “underscored ironclad U.S. solidarity” with #Lithuania “in the face of the People’s Republic of #China’s coercive behavior,” per @StateDept#立陶宛https://t.co/1HqFO1f9HW— VOA Nike Ching 张蓉湘 (@rongxiang) September 15, 2021The meeting between the top diplomats of the United States and Lithuania follows Monday’s call between U.S. national security adviser Jake Sullivan and Prime Minister Ingrida Šimonytė of Lithuania.Sullivan reaffirmed strong U.S. support for Lithuania as it faces attempted coercion from the People’s Republic of China, according to the White House.In another move to show solidarity with Lithuania, Slovenian Prime Minister Janez Jansa has urged the EU to stand with Lithuania against Chinese pressure. Slovenia holds the six-month EU presidency.Jansa said in a letter, dated Monday, that China’s decision to withdraw its ambassador to Lithuania over a dispute about Taiwan was “reprehensible” and would hurt EU-China ties, according to Reuters report.
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British Afghan Women on Hunger Strike to Protest Taliban’s Treatment of Women in Afghanistan
Three British Afghan women are on a hunger strike near the British Parliament to protest the treatment of women in Afghanistan by the Taliban. Yalda Baktash reports.
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Germany Vows ‘No Repeat’ of 2015 Refugee Influx as Election Looms
Campaigning to elect a new German leader this month is being clouded by concerns that the country will face a new influx of refugees — this time those fleeing Taliban rule in Afghanistan. In 2015, more than 1 million migrants, many of them Syrians escaping their country’s civil war, traveled across the Mediterranean and Europe to reach Germany, according to German officials. Angela Merkel is not standing in the September 26 election, so Germany will soon have a new chancellor tasked with formulating policy toward Afghanistan and the unfolding refugee crisis. FILE – Armin Laschet, chairman of the German Christian Democratic Union, addresses the media during a press conference at the party’s headquarters in Berlin, Germany, Sept. 13, 2021.Armin Laschet is the candidate for Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union party, which currently shares power with the Social Democrats. Speaking shortly after the Taliban seized power last month, he pledged there would be no repeat of the refugee influx. “The European Union must be prepared that there will be refugees heading towards Europe. And this time we must provide humanitarian aid to the region, to the countries of origin in time. 2015 must not repeat itself. We need an orderly protection for those who are heading towards Europe,” Laschet told reporters on August 16. Laschet’s rival — Olaf Scholz of the Social Democrats, who are leading in the polls — also maintains that Europe must share the burden of any imminent refugee influx. FILE – German Finance Minister and Vice-Chancellor Olaf Scholz speaks during a press conference in Berlin, Germany, Dec. 13, 2020.”It isn’t just Germany, but all of Europe has a responsibility, and we have to remember that almost all refugees, and there are millions in the world, have often found refuge in a neighboring country,” Scholz told German broadcaster Deutsche Welle. Germany has evacuated more than 4,000 Afghans since August. The government says anyone directly employed by German forces in Afghanistan is entitled to asylum. The situation for contractors, however, is not clear. Afghan brothers Ahmad and Ikram, who did not want to give their real names, arrived in Germany in 2015 as part of the wave of migrants seeking a new life in Europe. They are currently staging a protest outside the Foreign Ministry in Berlin, to demand that Germany speed up the asylum process for refugees. Sorry, but your browser cannot support embedded video of this type, you can
download this video to view it offline.Download File360p | 11 MB480p | 15 MB540p | 21 MB720p | 46 MB1080p | 88 MBOriginal | 236 MB Embed” />Copy Download AudioIkram says he worked with NATO forces in Afghanistan and recently showed VOA the documentation he hopes will secure him refugee status. After six years of trying, they have both been denied visas. The brothers were due to be deported to Afghanistan in August but were given a reprieve after the Taliban seized power.”Afghanistan is no longer safe. People cannot let themselves die there — they themselves, and their families. And so, they say it doesn’t matter how dangerous the way is, people are saying we’re leaving, because otherwise they will be killed,” Ahmad told VOA. So, could Germany face another migrant influx? The situation is very different, says Nora Brezger of the Berlin Refugee Council, a support group for migrants. “At the moment now, there is actually no way to Europe where people can cross, like it was in 2015 or 2016. So, it’s more that a lot of Afghan refugees are in the surrounding countries of Afghanistan, and in the Balkan route they are stuck in Bosnia, they are stuck in Serbia, they are stuck in Greece, they are stuck in Turkey,” Brezger told VOA. “So, it’s not a question of how we should avoid people coming here. For us, it’s more a question of how should we make people come here because they need a safe place,” she said. VOA recently spoke to several Afghan refugees currently stuck in the Turkish city of Erzurum. Among them was Yusuf, who said he was doing casual work to try to save money to reach Europe. Germany continues to exert a strong pull for those seeking a new life. “We want to go to Germany, but the borders are closed at the moment. If you want to go to Germany via Bulgaria, you would be held in Bulgaria. The human smugglers say that the borders are open, you can go — but we know that they are closed. Once the borders are opened, God willing, we will go,” Yusuf said. It appears unlikely that Germany — or the rest of Europe — is prepared to reopen those borders anytime soon. VOA’s Memet Aksakal contributed to this report.
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Germany Vows ‘No Repeat’ Of 2015 Refugee Influx as Election Looms
Six years ago, more than a million migrants traveled across the Mediterranean and Europe to reach Germany — many of them Syrians escaping the civil war. So, could history repeat itself as refugees try to flee Taliban rule in Afghanistan? As Henry Ridgwell reports from Berlin, immigration is high on the agenda as Germany prepares for a general election later this month.Camera: Henry Ridgwell, Memet Aksakal Produced by: Henry Ridgwell, Mary Cieslak
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Repression, Voter Apathy Mark Russia Election Campaign
Russia is preparing for parliamentary and local elections Sunday in what the opposition says is an atmosphere of repression in which a number of candidates not aligned with the ruling party have been excluded. Jon Spier narrates this report from Ricardo Marquina in Moscow.Camera: Ricardo MarquinaVideo editor: Henry Hernandez
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Pope Francis: Bishops Should Show ‘Compassion’ to Politicians Who Support Abortion
Pope Francis said Wednesday that Catholic bishops should minister to politicians who support abortion rights, such as U.S. President Joe Biden, with “compassion and tenderness,” not condemnation.The pontiff, returning to Rome from Slovakia, warned that Catholic Church leaders should not let politics enter into questions about whether observant Catholics like Biden should be refused the right to receive Communion when they attend Mass.But Francis declined to give a direct “yes” or “no” answer to whether Biden should be denied Communion, as some U.S. Catholic bishops have demanded. Francis said he did not know the U.S. case well enough to give an answer.The pope reiterated church doctrine that abortions are “homicide.”But he said priests and bishops should act in a pastoral way and not in a political manner when discussing any issues that confront them. Francis said they must use “the style of God” to talk with the faithful with “closeness, compassion and tenderness.””And what should pastors do?” he asked rhetorically. “Be pastors, and not go condemning, condemning.”U.S. bishops agreed in June that their conference doctrine committee would draft a statement on the meaning of Communion in the life of the church, and that it would then consider it as a group, possibly at a meeting in November.Aboard his flight back to the Vatican, Francis told reporters, “Communion is not a prize for the perfect,” but rather “a gift, the presence of Jesus in his church and in the community. That is the theology.”Some information for this report came from The Associated Press.
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Report Points to Success in Global Campaign Against Cluster Bombs
Authors of theCluster Munition Monitor 2021report say great progress toward the elimination of these lethal weapons has been made since the Cluster Ban Treaty came into force in 2010.The Monitor finds there has been no new use of cluster munitions by any of the 110 states that has joined the treaty, nor by the 13 states that have signed but not yet ratified it. The report says the remaining problems lie with countries that remain outside the convention.The most notable use of cluster munitions last year was by non-member states Armenia and Azerbaijan during their war over the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh. The Monitor records 107 casualties from cluster munition attacks in Azerbaijan, the most in any country last year. Syria has continuously used cluster munitions since 2012. Human Rights Watch arms advocacy director Mary Wareham says use of the weapons in 2020 was greatly reduced compared to previous years.She says another visible example of the treaty’s success is in the destruction of stockpiles.”We know that at least 1.5 million cluster munitions and more than 178 million submunitions have been destroyed from stocks today,” said Wareham. “That goes to show that this convention is truly lifesaving because every single one of those explosive submunitions could take a life or a limb.” Globally, the monitor has recorded at least 360 new cluster munition casualties in 2020, caused either from attacks or explosive remnants. The editor of the Monitor, Loren Persi, says children are the main victims of these weapons, which kill and maim civilians indiscriminately.”Almost half of all casualties, 44 percent are children. About a quarter of casualties were women and girls,” said Persi. “But what we found in 2020 was that women and girls were far less likely to survive their incident with cluster munitions. This is something of concern that we will have to look into as more data becomes available.” The report says many of the 16 countries outside the convention reserve the right to keep making cluster munitions, even though they currently are not doing so.Authors of the report say they are concerned that China and Russia are actively researching, testing, and developing new types of cluster munitions. China, Russia and the United States have not joined the convention. The three countries are among the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council.
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