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Ill-Tempered Spanish Election May Lead to Greater Deadlock, Division

For the third time in four years Spaniards head to polling stations Sunday, and are likely to confirm a Europe-wide electoral pattern of voters moving away from traditional parties.

With the emergence of new populist-based factions, European politics is becoming more fragmented, leading to minority governments, misshapen governing coalitions, more political deadlock and less predictability. That is likely to be the fate of Spain come Sunday, with some analysts forecasting another snap election may have to be called later in the year.

The election will confirm the fragmentation of politics, according to Ivan Llamazares, a political scientist at Universidad de Salamanca. He says it will “be very difficult to form stable legislative majorities in the coming years” in Spain thanks to a breakdown in centrist, consensual politics.

The Socialists, led by Pedro Sanchez, the current prime minister, are expected to attract the largest share of the vote in an ill-natured general election on April 28, which has seen tempers fray and accusations of treason being hurled with abandon. The rise of the ultra-nationalist Vox party, which last December won 12 seats in the regional parliament in Andalusia, has added a sharpness and volatility to the election.

Socialists more united under Sanchez

Coming out on top of the polls Sunday will be a remarkable achievement in itself for Sanchez — until last year the Socialists were mired in vicious splits and appeared out for the count following two bruising electoral defeats. Pollsters suggest Sanchez’s party will secure 30 percent of the vote.

But, despite their revival, the Spanish Socialist Party (PSOE) will likely be denied an overall majority. It will be best positioned, though, to try to form a formal coalition government, the first at the national level since the restoration of democracy in 1977, predict pollsters and analysts.

Sanchez began the Socialist comeback last May when he seized on a string of corruption scandals to unseat the Conservative government of Mariano Rajoy with a surprise no-confidence motion that attracted the support of lawmakers in the the leftist Podemos party as well as Catalan and Basque nationalists.

Since then as the prime minister of a minority government, Sanchez has been astute in rebuilding the PSOE’s base with a series of progressive actions. They have included hiking the minimum wage, appointing a female-dominated Cabinet and starting the legal process to move the embalmed body of the late military dictator, Gen. Francisco Franco, from a huge mausoleum near Madrid, which has become a shrine for far-right activists.

Those moves have helped the PSOE shoot ahead in the opinion polls of the Conservative Popular Party (PP). Until 2015, the PSOE and the PP alternated in power, sometimes relying on Catalan or Basque nationalists to make up the numbers to secure a working parliamentary majority. But with newer populist-based parties vying for votes, including the right-of-center Ciudadanos, leftist Podemos as well as the far-right Vox, the ease of what was in essence a two-party political system has long disappeared.

Vox party: ‘Make Spain great again’

One factor that has helped Sanchez the most, according to Anna Rosenberg, a global investment adviser, has been the emergence of Vox, which promises “to make Spain great again” and crack down on immigration. “People are really scared of the rise of the right-wing parties and that will mobilize voters that might not have been expected to vote before,” she forecast.

Vox, an ultra-nationalist party led by Santiago Abascal, has risen from nowhere to become a serious electoral force. Last December it won 12 seats in regional elections in Andalusia, overturning a post-1977 article of political faith in Spain that an avowedly far-right party couldn’t establish itself because of memories of Spain’s long-running dictatorship. Franco ruled Spain from 1939 to his death in 1975.

Ivan Llamazares says Vox, which is attracting Conservative voters angry with Catalan efforts to separate from Spain, “has fragmented the right and pulled its two main parties, the conservative PP and center-right Ciudadanos, to more extreme ideological positions.”

Vox leaders say pollsters are getting it wrong. They maintain they will be able to form a right wing coalition after Sunday’s vote with the PP and Ciudadanos. “I don’t expect the socialists to be able to form a government,” says party official Ivan Espinosa de los Monteros.

Last week Sanchez told supporters at an election rally in his hometown outside Seville that he hadn’t been able in his short stint as prime minister to take on the more ambitious structural reforms he believes the country needs, from overhauling a moribund education system to shaking up labor market regulations. “But we have managed to change its course,” he said.

Sunday’s election will determine whether that is true or not. Or if Spain is heading for greater, paralyzing deadlock.

 

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Prince Harry Attends Pubic Event as Royal Baby Wait Goes On

Prince Harry has attended a service commemorating war dead from Australia and New Zealand as he and his wife Meghan await the birth of their first child.

 

Meghan is due to give birth soon, though the couple hasn’t revealed the due date or their birth plans.

 

Harry was a last-minute addition to Thursday’s Anzac Day service at Westminster Abbey, attending alongside his sister-in-law Kate, the Duchess of Cambridge.

Prince William is visiting New Zealand, where he has met survivors of the Christchurch mosque attacks.

 

Harry’s attendance led bookies to shorten the odds on the baby being born in May.

 

Rupert Adams of William Hill said bookmakers “were as surprised as everyone else that Harry decided to attend a public event as we assumed the baby was imminent.”

 

 

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Irish Regulator Opens Inquiry Into Facebook Over Password Storage

Facebook’s lead regulator in the European Union, Ireland’s Data Protection Commissioner, on Thursday said it had launched an inquiry into whether the company violated EU data rules by saving user passwords in plain text format on internal servers.

The probe is the latest to be launched out of Dublin into the social network giant. The Irish regulator in February said it had seven statutory inquiries into Facebook and three more into Facebook-owned Instagram and WhatsApp.

Facebook in March announced that it has resolved a glitch that exposed passwords of millions of users stored in readable format within its internal systems to its employees.

The passwords were accessible to as many as 20,000 Facebook employees and dated back as early as 2012, cyber security blog KrebsOnSecurity, which first reported the issue, said in its report.

“The Data Protection Commission (DPC) was notified by Facebook that it had discovered that hundreds of millions of user passwords, relating to users of Facebook, Facebook Lite and Instagram, were stored by Facebook in plain text format in its internal servers,” the DPC said in a statement.

“We have this week commenced a statutory inquiry in relation to this issue to determine whether Facebook has complied with its obligations under relevant provisions of the GDPR,” it added.

The DPC said in February that it expected to conclude the first of its investigations into Facebook’s use of personal data this summer and the remainder by the end of the year.

Ireland hosts the European headquarters of a number of U.S. technology firms. Under the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation’s (GDPR) “One Stop Shop”, the Irish commissioner is also the lead regulator for Twitter, LinkedIn Apple and Microsoft.

As part of regulations introduced last year, a firm found to have broken data processing and handling rules can be fined up to 4 percent of their global revenue of the prior financial year, or 20 million euros, whichever is higher.

Canada’s federal privacy commissioner on Thursday announced the results of a probe that found Facebook had committed serious contraventions of privacy law and failed to take responsibility for protecting the personal information of citizens.

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Turkey Furious at France, US Over Armenian Remembrance

France on Wednesday observed it first “national day of commemoration of the Armenian genocide” provoking a furious reaction from Turkey. 

April 24, 1915, is considered the start of the World War I-era massacres of ten of thousands of Armenians by Ottoman Turks. 

France was the first major European country to recognize the massacres as genocide in 2001.  Turkey disputes the description, saying the toll has been inflated and considers those killed to be victims of a civil war.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan says nations who accuse Turkey of genocide should look at their own “bloody past.”  Erdogan has previously accused France of of being responsible for the genocide in Rwanda in 1994. Rwanda’s government has also accused France of being complicit in the mass killings of minority Tutsi community by majority Hutus. 

The Turkish Foreign Ministry also strongly criticized a statement issued by the White House on the Armenian killings. 

“Today, we commemorate the Meds Yeghern and honor the memory of those who suffered in one of the worst mass atrocities of the 20th century.  Beginning in 1915, one-and-a-half million Armenians were deported, massacred, or marched to their deaths in the final years of the Ottoman Empire,” the White House statement said. 

Turkey objected to the Trump administration’s use of the Armenian term, Meds Yeghern, which means “the great calamity.” 

“We reject the statement by U.S. President Trump on the 1915 incidents on April 24, 2019,” the Turkish statement said. “Based on the subjective narrative fictionalized by the Armenians, this statement has no value at all. The distortion of history for political objectives is unacceptable.”

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Conservatives Reject Move to Topple PM Theresa May, for Now

British Prime Minister Theresa May’s job is safe, for now, after Conservative lawmakers decided against enabling a new challenge to her leadership.

Graham Brady, chairman of a powerful party rules committee, said Wednesday the body had decided not to change the rule that a party leader can only face one no-confidence vote in a year.

Pro-Brexit Conservatives are angry with May’s failure to take Britain out of the European Union, almost three years after voters backed leaving. They want her replaced with a more staunchly pro-Brexit leader.

But May survived a Conservative no-confidence vote in December, leaving her safe for 12 months.

May says she’ll step down once Parliament has approved a Brexit deal.

Brady said, however, that May must provide more clarity about her departure and provide “a clear roadmap forward.”

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NYT: Potential Russian Meddling in 2020 US Election Sensitive Issue for Trump

Special Counsel Robert Mueller concluded that Russia engaged in “sweeping and systematic” interference in the 2016 U.S. election  to help Donald Trump become president, but a new account says the issue is still too sensitive to discuss in front of Trump as it relates to what Moscow might do when he runs for re-election in 2020.

Former Homeland Security chief Kirstjen Nielsen tried to focus the attention of top U.S. officials on combating Russian influence in next year’s election in the months before Trump forced her to resign in early April after protracted conflict over immigration policies, The New York Times reported Wednesday.

But the newspaper quoted an unnamed senior Trump administration official as saying that acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney warned Nielsen against raising the issue in front of Trump, who has equated discussion of Russian meddling in the 2016 election with questions of whether his election victory was legitimate.

The Times quoted a senior administration official as saying Mulvaney told Nielsen that Russian meddling in the upcoming presidential election “wasn’t a great subject and should be kept below his level.”

Mulvaney disputed the account, saying, “I don’t recall anything along those lines happening in any meeting.”

He blamed Trump’s predecessor, former president Barack Obama, for not forcefully confronting Russia about its ongoing election interference, although Obama and others raised the issue with Moscow in the lead-up to the 2016 election.

“Unlike the Obama administration, who knew about Russian actions in 2014 and did nothing, the Trump administration will not tolerate foreign interference in our elections, and we’ve already taken many steps to prevent it in the future,” Mulvaney said.

“In fact, for the first time in history, state, local and federal governments have coordinated in all 50 states to share intelligence. We’ve broadened our efforts to combat meddling by engaging the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Justice, and the FBI, among others, and we have even conducted security breach training drills to ensure preparedness,” Mulvaney said.

Mueller concluded that Russian meddling in the 2016 election was widespread, including fake postings on U.S. social media accounts aimed at helping Trump defeat his Democratic challenger, Hillary Clinton, and hacking and disclosing emails written by Democratic officials that reflected poorly on Clinton.

But the prosecutor also concluded that while there were numerous contacts between Trump campaign aides and Russians, neither Trump nor his campaign conspired with Russia. In Trump’s frequent refrain, there was “no collusion.”

Jared Kushner, a White House adviser and Trump’s son-in-law, said Tuesday that Mueller’s 22-month investigation was “more harmful” to the U.S. than Russia’s 2016 election interference.

“You look at what Russia did, buying some Facebook ads and trying to sow dissent. It’s a terrible thing,” Kushner said. “But I think the investigations and all of the speculation that’s happened for the last two years has a much harsher impact on our democracy than a couple Facebook ads.”

“I think they said they spent $160,000,” Kushner said. “I spent $160,000 on Facebook every three hours during the campaign. If you look at the magnitude of what they did, the ensuing investigations have been way more harmful.”

 

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Leading Conservative Candidate Warns Populists to Back a United Europe

The leading conservative candidate in next month’s European Parliament elections says he would like to see Britain stay in the European Union and warned populist parties in Europe that they would have no place in the EU’s largest political bloc unless they shared its vision of an “integrated and more ambitious Europe.”

 

Manfred Weber, the center-right European People’s Party candidate and front-runner to replace Jean-Claude Juncker as president of the European Commission, visited Greece on Tuesday to launch his campaign for the May 23-26 elections across the bloc.

 

His priorities include having tough controls on migration, creating an EU crime-fighting agency modeled on the FBI and ending EU accession talks with Turkey. He spoke in an interview with The Associated Press.

 

WHAT ABOUT BREXIT?

 

Weber said he respected the result of Britain’s 2016 referendum to leave the EU. But he added “I personally would really enjoy and really would welcome if Great Britain would decide to stay.”

 

The EU has given Britain until Oct. 31 to ratify an agreement or leave the 28-nation EU without a deal — granting an extension after U.K. lawmakers repeatedly rejected British Prime Minister Theresa May’s divorce deal with the EU.

 

Several prominent European politicians have said they hoped Britain would eventually stay in the union, including European Council President Donald Tusk and Weber’s main opponent in the May election, Social Democrat candidate Frans Timmermans.

 

Weber stressed, however, the final decision on Brexit remained with British people.

 

“What we ask at the moment is simply to speed up (and) give us a clear indication what their plan for the future is, because we respect the outcome — we regret it — but we respect the outcome,” Weber said.

 

HOW SHOULD EUROPE HANDLE THE POPULIST THREAT?

 

Weber said the European People’s Party, which groups many conservative national parties under its umbrella at the European Parliament, remains willing to part ways with member parties that do not share its vision for deepening European integration.

 

“The EPP is … a party of values of common ideas,” he said. “That means for all of us who don’t believe anymore in the idea of a more integrated and more ambitious Europe for the future — they are not any more our parties.”

 

In March, the EPP suspended Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s Fidesz party over the nationalist government’s rejection of EU policies, but the party’s European lawmakers were allowed to remain in the conservative parliamentary group.

 

Weber spoke after a visit to an ancient temple at Nemea in southern Greece.

 

Speaking later at his campaign launch in Athens, Weber argued that European conservatives were the true founders of the EU and would fight those who undermined it.

 

“In the year 2019, we will fight against those who want to destroy our Europe. The nationalists will be our enemies,” he said.

MIGRATION STILL A PRIORITY IN EUROPE

 

Weber on Wednesday is traveling to Spain’s autonomous cities of Ceuta and Melilla on the tip of North Africa, to underscore the party’s commitment to maintaining tough controls on immigration.

 

Although the number of migrants and asylum-seekers trying to get into Europe has dropped sharply since the large influx in 2015, Weber said the issue remains a priority for the bloc.

 

He wants to speed up the increased deployment of EU border guards, creating standing force of 10,000 border guards by 2022, or five years earlier than planned.

 

“My experience, when I speak with people all over Europe, is that the migration debate — especially illegal migration — is still the dominant political issue,” he said.

WEBER HELPS OTHER EUROPEAN CONSERVATIVES

 

The 46-year-old Weber, a relatively unknown politician outside his native Germany, focused the early stages of his campaign on countries where conservative allies are also facing national elections.

 

He began with Greece to voice support for Kyriakos Mitsotakis, the 51-year-old leader of the center-right New Democracy party, who is leading polls in an election year. In Spain, he will join the struggling 38-year-old conservative leader Pablo Casado in a country that is holding a general election on Sunday.

 

With Spain’s conservatives splintering into three factions, Casado is trailing in opinion polls behind the Socialist incumbent, Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez. Weber’s office said he is also planning campaign stops in Lithuania and Malta over the next week.

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Austrian Far-right Politician Resigns over ‘Rat’ Poem

The vice mayor of the Austrian town where Adolf Hitler was born resigned from his post and the far-right Freedom Party on Tuesday after provoking strong criticism with a poem in which he compared migrants with rats.

Christian Schilcher left the Freedom Party (FPO) to avoid damaging the junior partner in a national coalition with Chancellor Sebastian Kurz’s conservatives, FPO chief Heinz Christian Strache told a news conference in Vienna. 

Schilcher’s poem in a party newspaper was written under his pseudonym “the city rat” and told from the perspective of a rodent.

“Just as we live down here, so must other rats, who as guests or migrants… share with us the way of life! Or (they must) hurry away quickly,” it says.

One verse adds that if two cultures were mixed it was as if they were destroyed.

“Such misconduct is incompatible with the principles of the Freedom Party,” said Strache, who is vice-chancellor in Austria’s coalition government.

Freedom Party members have repeatedly stumbled over Nazi scandals and made headlines in local media for alleged links with the far-right Identitarian movement.

Schilcher’s resignation was “the only logical consequence” after publishing that “horrible and racist poem”, Kurz told news agency APA.

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Japan’s PM Vows to Help France in Rebuilding Notre Dame

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is pledging to help France rebuild the fire-ravaged Notre Dame Cathedral.

Abe stopped in France Tuesday as part of his tour of Europe and North America.

Speaking alongside French president Emmanuel Macron, Abe said through a translator he “was deeply saddened by the damage inflicted to the World Heritage” building.

He said the Japanese government “will spare no effort to bring its cooperation” in the reconstruction.

Macron and Abe will discuss the agenda for the upcoming Group of Seven and Group of 20 leaders’ summits that France and Japan will respectively host this year.

In their statement at the Elysee palace, they said they will also talk about boosting economic growth through free trade, and address issues including North Korea and plastic waste in ocean.

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Ukraine: A Fresh Start?

Sunday’s landslide runoff election win in Ukraine by TV comic Volodymyr Zelenskiy over incumbent President Petro Poroshenko is being hailed by the entertainer’s supporters as a fresh start for Europe’s poorest country.

But the 41-year-old’s critics, who dubbed him the “hologram candidate” during the campaign, say it remains unclear how he’ll end the war against Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine, something he’s promised to do, and fear the last laugh could be on Ukrainians for entrusting the presidency to a man without government experience.

Nor is it clear how he’ll guide Ukraine to prosperity and free it of endemic corruption.  The entertainment-based campaign of the savvy showman-turned-candidate, which relied on his popular weekly TV show, Servant of the People, and Instagram to reach voters, provided few clues.  

All Zelenskiy has said when it comes to the long-running conflict in the east is that he won’t cede the territory seized by Moscow-directed separatists but is prepared to negotiate directly with Russia’s vastly more experienced leader, Vladimir Putin, who has been determined to keep Ukraine within Moscow’s sphere of influence.

A fresh face

Five years after the Euro-Maidan protests led to the ouster of a corrupt pro-Russian president who turned his back on Europe, Ukrainians yearned for a fresh face, say pollsters, hence Zelenskiy’s emphatic win. And they were willing to discount the risk of backing a political newbie with alleged ties to an oligarch, Igor Kolomoisky, to get something new.  

“They had five years of Poroshenko, and want something (anything) different to that – and are willing to take a risk with Zelenskiy, and even with Kolomoisky potentially in tow. But it’s the fact that Zelenskiy himself is neither an oligarch nor a politician, which offers the prospect of something different,” noted academic and writer Timothy Ash on the eve of voting.

Zelenskiy, best known for his role in a TV series about a schoolteacher who vaults to the presidency on the wave of anti-corruption disgust, is untarnished (so far) by Ukrainian politics. And that was sufficient for many voters disillusioned with the oligarch-politician Poroshenko, who on Friday was jeered during a face-to-face debate with the comic, especially when Poroshenko warned his opponent wouldn’t be able to stand up to Putin. Zelenskiy attracted cheers for saying, “I am the result of your mistakes. I am a verdict on you.”

Zelenskiy launched his candidacy with a surprise New Year’s Eve announcement and soon gained a strong following of hopeful voters. Unusually, he attracted support from all of Ukraine’s regions, but his strongest backing came from eastern and southern Ukraine, where many speak Russian. Zelenskiy was born in the southeast and speaks Russian. Poroshenko tried to use those facts to cast his challenger as a Putin pawn.

But fatigued by the war in the east that has left so far more than 13,000 people dead, most Ukrainians cared more about their daily economic struggle to make ends meet than foreign policy. They also felt let down, say analysts, by what they saw as the slow pace of change and reform under Poroshenko, especially in the effort to rid Ukraine of endemic corruption. Maidan had prompted high hopes, which for many Ukrainians remain frustratingly unfulfilled.

Focus of hopes

Now Zelenskiy is the focus of hopes, but playing the president on TV will be very different from doing the job for real and blurring make-believe and reality could prove dangerous. His mantra has been,“No promises, no disappointment.” His opponents say he has turned ignorance into a virtue.

Last week, he said, “I will do everything I can,” adding, “If I fail, I will leave.” But to do what exactly? His side-stepping of questions during the campaign and lack of detailed policy has meant that people voted for him for contradictory reasons. Some of his Russian-speaking supporters see him as the man who will restore ties with neighboring Russia; those voters more oriented to the West believe he will be the one who takes the country into NATO, advancing the aims of the Maidan revolt.

Some of his voters inevitably are going to be disappointed.

Zelinskiy’s election left many blinking in the Western diplomatic community. While voicing frustration with Poroshenko, and criticism of his efforts to move fast enough to curtail large-scale corruption, they say at least he was a known quantity. Western diplomats based in Kyiv have told VOA they don’t worry Zelinskiy has a secret anti-Western agenda.

And they argue the debate about whether Ukraine should look west or east toward Moscow appears to be over, at least for now. It is the first, they say, since the Soviet era that has not been dominated by fierce debate about whether Ukraine’s best prospects rest with the West or Russia. The inexperienced Zelinskiy, however, “could be tripped up by the shrewd guys running the Kremlin,” a French diplomat told VOA.

From the perspective of Moscow, Zelinskiy must have been preferable to the hardline Poroshenko, according to many analysts. But Vladimir Frolov, a Russian political analyst, though, argues the Kremlin may have wished for a Poroshenko win but one that left the incumbent battered and diminished and ill-equipped to block pro-Russian Ukrainian politicians from securing control of Ukraine’s parliament in elections scheduled for later this year.

In an op-ed in the magazine Republic, Frolov says Zelinskiy’s election could well turn out to be a “mixed bag” for Moscow — and he predicts it won’t usher in any breakthroughs when it comes to the conflict in the east.

Spurning closer ties with Brussels in favor of Moscow sparked the street protests that ultimately led to the Maidan ouster of President Viktor Yanukovych in 2014. It seems unlikely that Zelinskiy will want to go down that path, especially as he needs greater integration with the West, and greater assistance from the United States and western European states, to kickstart Ukraine’s economy.