Tunisia votes in first free municipal elections


Tunisians head to the polls on Sunday for the first free municipal elections since the 2011 revolution, seen as another milestone on the road to democracy in the birthplace of the Arab Spring.

Yet while the North African country has been lauded for its transition from decades of dictatorship, interest in the poll remains muted as struggles with corruption and poverty continue.

Tunisians have voted in parliamentary and presidential elections since the fall of dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, but municipal polls have been delayed four times due to logistic, administrative and political deadlocks.

“This Sunday will not be like other days. For the first time the Tunisian people are called to participate in municipal elections, something that seems simple but it is very important,” Tunisian President Caid Essebsi said on Saturday.

He has called for a “massive turnout”, but observers expect a low attendance.

Seven years after the ouster of Ben Ali sparked hope across the country, Tunisians say they are now disillusioned with rising inflation, persistent unemployment and corruption.

The country was hit by a wave of protest at the start of the year over a new austerity budget introduced by the government.

“These municipal elections won’t change anything for us. We will always be on the same cart without wheels or a horse,” 34-year-old Hilma, a housewife, told AFP.

French-language daily La Presse wrote that voters are “battered, bitter and disillusioned… due to the blatant and heavily felt absence of economic and social reforms”.

The municipal elections, enshrined in the new constitution and one of the demands of the revolution, mark the first tangible step of decentralisation since the end of Ben Ali’s rule.

Experts predict Tunisia’s two political heavyweights — the Islamist Ennahda movement and the secular Nidaa Tounes party — will come out on top in nearly every district.

But there remains some hopes that the polls, the first in four years, will see a new generation elected into office.

More than 57,000 candidates, half of them women and young people, are running for office in Tunisia’s 350 municipalities.

Some 60,000 police and military personnel have been mobilised for the polls, while Tunisia remains under a state of emergency, imposed in 2015 after a string of deadly jihadist attacks.

Voting runs from 8:00 am to 6:00 pm local time (0700 – 1700 GMT) and results are expected in the coming days.

The municipal polls will be followed by legislative and presidential votes in 2019.

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Top parties seek to protect monopoly as Lebanon votes


Lebanese voters went to the polls to elect their parliament for the first time in nine years Sunday, with ruling parties expected to preserve a fragile power-sharing arrangement despite regional tensions.

The Iran-backed Hezbollah movement and its allies could stand to reinforce their clout on the political game in Lebanon, a small country clamped between war-torn Syria and Israel.

The campaign passed without major incidents but security forces were out en masse across a country still sporadically rocked by attacks and with a history of political assassinations.

Queues of voters started forming outside some polling stations in Lebanon’s main cities even before they opened at 7:00 am (0400 GMT).

“It’s the first time I vote,” 60-year-old Therese told AFP outside a voting centre in central Beirut.

“I’ve come to support civil society because there’s nobody else I like in this country, but I doubt they will win,” she said.

In the southern city of Tyre, 28-year-old Jalal Naanou was also up early to support an unprecedented effort by civil society candidates to bring new faces to parliament.

“We came to vote and work for change, to see new lawmakers in parliament, because without it our situation will stay the same or get worse,” he said.

Turnout will be crucial to a new civil society movement’s chances of clinching a handful of seats but analysts predict the traditional sectarian-based parties will maintain their hegemony.

“Will Hezbollah be the biggest winner? At the very least, it won’t be a loser,” said Imad Salamey, a political science professor at Beirut’s Lebanese American University.

Candidates mostly avoided the polarising issue of disarming Hezbollah, the only faction not to have laid down its weapons after the 1975-1990 civil war.

The Shiite movement may only gain a handful of seats but it will benefit from the predicted absence of a united bloc against it, Salamey said, and could play the role of kingmaker in parliament.

The triumvirate heading the state is unlikely to change, with parliamentary speaker Nabih Berri, the octogenarian leader of the rival yet often allied Shiite party Amal, almost certain to keep the post he has held since 1992.

- Civil society list -

President Michel Aoun’s position is not up for renewal but his Christian party is a key player in the vote, for which a reformed, more proportional electoral law is in force.

The new lawmakers will play a vital role in appointing the next prime minister, with many expecting incumbent Saad Hariri to serve another term.

Hariri has historically been supported by Sunni regional kingpin Saudi Arabia while Hezbollah is backed by Shiite Iran, but both seem ready to continue sharing power.

The diagram of alliances across Lebanon’s gerrymandered constituency map is an almost comical spaghetti jumble of local deals between parties working together in one district and competing in the next.

That has fuelled already deep disillusionment in a country where the same dynasties have held political power for decades and are widely seen as self-serving and corrupt.

The force that embodies change is an alliance called “Kulluna Watani” which federates civil society groups, including a movement born of 2015 protests over a waste management crisis.

The most optimistic forecasts see them winning five seats, out of parliament’s 128, but its leaders privately say even just one would be an achievement.

Among the list’s candidates with the best chances is Paula Yacoubian, a prominent TV journalist who is one of a record 86 women to run.

“We have a very corrupt cast and there is a movement of brave people trying to tell them: ‘We are not happy’,” she told AFP.

The complex new voting law passed in 2017 has allowed smaller parties to run but the challenge of rousing lethargic voters is huge.

The country has gone through institutional crises that left it without a president for two years and without a budget for 12 — but many Lebanese argue they could hardly tell the difference.

There were few signs during the campaign that voters would mobilise much more than usual, with one pollster predicting a one point rise from the 2009 turnout rate of 55 percent.

Polling stations are expected to close at 7:00 pm (1600 GMT) and results for all 15 districts could be announced as early as Monday.

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Israel drops bid for UN security council seat


ISRAEL dropped out Friday of a race for a Security Council seat in 2019 and 2020 following a campaign by Arab states at the United Nations to block the bid.

The decision cleared the path for Belgium and Germany to take the two seats allocated on a regional basis when the General Assembly holds the elections next month.

“After consulting with our partners, including our good friends, the state of Israel has decided to postpone its candidacy for a seat on the Security Council,” said a statement from the Israeli mission.

It was Israel’s first attempt to win a seat at the 15-member council. No reason was given for the withdrawal, but diplomats said it had appeared clear in recent weeks that Israel would lose to Germany and Belgium in the General Assembly vote on June 8.

Palestinian Foreign Minister Riyad al-Maliki last month said Arab countries were “doing everything possible to convince as many countries as possible to block the vote on Israel’s bid for a seat on the Security Council”.

Speaking on the sidelines of an Arab summit in Riyadh, Maliki said he was confident that Arab and Muslim states would muster enough votes to block Israel’s candidacy.

South Africa and the Dominican Republic are set to win two of the five seats up for election.

Indonesia and the Maldives will be competing for one seat representing the Asia-Pacific group of countries.

The Security Council is made up of five permanent members — Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States — while the 10 other seats are filled by elected members that serve two-year stints.

“We will continue to act with our allies to allow for Israel to realise its right for full participation and inclusion in decision-making processes at the UN,” the Israeli mission said.

“This includes the Security Council as well as an emphasis on areas related to development and innovation.”

Even if a country is put forward as the region’s candidate for a seat, it still needs to secure more than two thirds of the overall vote in the 193-nation assembly.

That would have made it difficult for Israel to secure enough votes at the assembly. AFP

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Poland, Israel in talks to resolve Holocaust row


Senior Polish and Israeli diplomats met in Jerusalem on Thursday in a bid to resolve differences over a controversial Holocaust law passed in Poland that has raised concerns in the Jewish state.

Deputy foreign minister Bartosz Cichocki led the Polish delegation, while Israeli foreign ministry director general Yuval Rotem headed his country’s team.

“We must make sure that historical truths are preserved and that there is no restriction on freedom of research and speech,” Rotem told journalists before the start of the meeting.

“Preserving the memory of the Holocaust is a matter beyond the bilateral relationship between Israel and Poland. It is a core issue cutting to the essence of the Jewish people.”

Rotem said the Israelis would also raise “an observed increase in anti-Semitic manifestations” recently, but noted Poland’s leadership coming out against them.

Cichocki said “we are committed to join our efforts to promote truth about the Holocaust and the Polish-Jewish centuries-old relationship.”

“We are here open and ready to answer all the questions and clarify whatever is left to be clarified with regard to the anti-defamation law recently amended in Poland.”

The law passed last month and which took effect Thursday ignited a diplomatic row and calls in the Jewish state for the recall of Israel’s ambassador in Warsaw.

It sets fines or up to three years in jail for anyone ascribing “responsibility or co-responsibility to the Polish nation or state for crimes committed by the German Third Reich”.

The main aim is to prevent people from erroneously describing Nazi German death camps in Poland, such as Auschwitz-Birkenau, as Polish.

Israel has expressed deep concerns that the legislation could open the door to prosecuting Holocaust survivors for their testimony should it concern the involvement of individual Poles for killing or giving up Jews to the Germans.

Poland’s Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki recently fuelled the dispute by saying that there were also “Jewish perpetrators” of the Holocaust, referring to Jews who served in police units in ghettos set up by the Nazis.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called the remark “unacceptable” and tantamount to denying the Holocaust.

Poland was occupied by Nazi Germany in World War II, losing six million of its citizens, including three million Jews.afp

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Trump shuns warnings, vows to move embassy to Jerusalem ahead of speech


President Donald Trump on Tuesday slapped down warnings of widespread Middle East unrest as he told anxious Arab leaders he still intends to move the US embassy to Jerusalem, on the eve of a much-anticipated policy speech.

Amid a frantic round of telephone diplomacy, Trump told Palestinian leader Mahmud Abbas and Jordan’s King Abdullah that the deeply controversial move was coming, but crucially did not give a timeframe.

Trump “informed the president (Abbas) on his intention to move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem,” the Palestinian leader’s office said in a statement that was echoed from Amman.

Trump missed a Monday deadline to decide whether to keep the embassy in Tel Aviv or fulfill a campaign promise and move it to Jerusalem — de facto recognizing Israel’s claim on the disputed city.

Such a move would delight both Trump’s donors and the conservative and evangelical base that is so vital for the embattled president’s survival.

But it could also extinguish Trump’s much-vaunted efforts to broker Middle East peace and ignite the flames of conflict in a region already reeling from crises in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Qatar.

The 71-year-old president will give a speech on his decision Wednesday, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said.

Anticipating widespread demonstrations, US government officials have already been ordered to avoid Jerusalem’s Old City and the West Bank.

- ‘Threading the needle’? -

US officials talk of “threading the needle” — fulfilling Trump’s pledge, while keeping the peace process on the rails — but critics say Trump’s approach is more like “splitting the baby.”

Officials say he will hold off on moving the embassy right away, largely for logistical reasons, but may present a timetable for that to go ahead on Wednesday.

Equally controversially, he is also expected to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, while leaving open questions about control of the predominantly Palestinian eastern part of the city.

The White House argues that such a move would not prejudge final talks and would represent the reality that west Jerusalem is and will continue to be part of Israel under any settlement.

But it could upend a decades-old western policy — observed by both Republican and Democratic presidents — that stated Jerusalem’s status can only be decided by negotiation.

Saudi Arabia’s King Salman warned his close ally that moving the US embassy was a “dangerous step” that could rile Muslims around the world.

“Mr Trump! Jerusalem is a red line for Muslims,” Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said in a raucous televised speech, echoing alarm expressed by Palestinian and Arab leaders.

In his address, Erdogan warned that any move to back Israel’s claim to the city would mobilize “the entire Islamic world” and even prompt Ankara to sever its recently renewed diplomatic ties with the Jewish state.

Israel’s government has largely been silent. It earlier left the Trump administration with the impression that moving the embassy was a “no go,” leading to Trump signing the waiver the first time around.

The armed Islamist Hamas movement has threatened to launch a new “intifada” or uprising.

Most of the international community, including the United States, does not formally recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

- ‘A way must be found’ -

Following talks in Brussels with US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, top EU diplomat Federica Mogherini warned that any move which risked undermining efforts to jumpstart moribund peace talks “must absolutely be avoided.”

“A way must be found through negotiations to resolve the status of Jerusalem as the future capital of both states, so that the aspiration of both parties can be fulfilled,” she said.

In Cairo, Arab League chief Ahmed Abul Gheit warned it would be viewed as an act of “clear aggression” against the Arab and Muslim world.

The Palestinians said it would shatter any illusion about Trump’s ability to fairly mediate in any talks.

“That totally destroys any chance that he will play a role as an honest broker,” said Nabil Shaath, an adviser to Abbas.

- The Jerusalem Embassy Act -

In Israel, however, hardline Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman hailed the moment as a “historic opportunity” for Trump, expressing hope he would see the US embassy in Jerusalem “next week or next month.”

The US Congress has already made its aim clear in the so-called Jerusalem Embassy Act, which was passed in 1995 and which stated that the city “should be recognized as the capital of the State of Israel” and that the US embassy should be moved there.

But an inbuilt waiver, which allows the president to temporarily postpone the move on grounds of “national security,” has been repeatedly invoked by successive US presidents, meaning the law has never taken effect.

Israel seized the largely-Arab eastern sector of Jerusalem during the 1967 Six-Day War and later annexed it, claiming both sides of the city as its “eternal and undivided capital.”

But the Palestinians want the eastern sector as the capital of their future state and fiercely oppose any Israeli attempt to extend sovereignty there.

Several peace plans have unravelled over the issue of how to divide sovereignty or oversee sites in the city that are holy for Christians, Jews and Muslims. afp


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Palestine overtakes Israel in FIFA football rankings

Palestine’s football team achieved its highest ranking in history Thursday, rising above Israel in the FIFA world rankings for the first time.

The head of the Palestinian football association labelled it an “historic achievement” as the team rose two spots to 82nd in FIFA’s latest rankings.

Israel fell 16 places to 98th after a disappointing failed World Cup qualification campaign.

Palestine have recently won a series of games as they seek to qualify for the 2019 Asian Cup, including a 10-0 victory over Bhutan.

The announcement comes as the Palestinian football association has campaigned to encourage FIFA to take action against six Israeli clubs located in settlements in the occupied West Bank.

Settlements are considered illegal under international law, and the Palestinians had asked FIFA to take action against the Israeli FA.

Last month, FIFA decided it would not intervene in the matter, with the Palestinians accusing the body of bowing to Israeli pressure.

Palestinian FA boss Jibril Rajoub told AFP Thursday the rankings rise was an “historic achievement” that came despite restrictions on football in the Palestinian territories imposed by Israeli forces.

“With this classification, we have defeated the occupation’s measures and its daily harassment, from preventing the freedom of movement of athletes through to all measures that impede Palestinian sport,” he said.

The Israeli Football Association said the country’s sports minister had ordered the formation of a committee to examine the reasons for the lack of success.

“We wish the Palestinians all the best as always,” a spokesman for the IFA said, adding they were willing to play a friendly match against them any time.

“May the best team win,” he said.

Israel qualify for tournaments with European teams, while Palestine are in the Asian qualifying groups.

Palestine was first recognised by FIFA in 1998. AFP

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