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Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Saudi voters elect 20 women candidates for the first time

December 13, 2015

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia (AP) — Saudi voters elected 20 women for local government seats, according to results released to The Associated Press on Sunday, a day after women voted and ran in elections for the first time in the country's history.

The women who won hail from vastly different parts of the country, ranging from Saudi Arabia's largest city to a small village near Islam's holiest site. The 20 female candidates represent just one percent of the roughly 2,100 municipal council seats up for grabs, but even limited gains are seen as a step forward for women who had previously been completely shut out of elections. Women are still not allowed to drive and are governed by guardianship laws that give men final say over aspects of their lives like marriage, travel and higher education.

Though there are no quotas for female council members, an additional 1,050 seats are appointed with approval by the king who could use his powers to ensure more women are represented. Around 7,000 candidates, among them 979 women, competed in the election for a seat on the municipal councils, which are the only government body elected by Saudi citizens. The two previous rounds of voting for the councils, in 2005 and 2011, were open to men only.

The conservative capital of Riyadh saw the most women candidates win, with four elected. The Eastern Province, where minority Shiites are concentrated, saw two women elected, said Hamad Al-Omar, who heads the General Election Commission's media council.

Saudi Arabia's second largest and most cosmopolitan city, Jiddah, also elected two women, as did one of the most conservative regions, Qassim. The mayor of the city of Mecca, Osama al-Bar, told the AP that a woman won in a village called Madrakah, about 93 miles (150 kilometers) north of the city which houses the cube-shaped Kaaba to which Muslims around the world pray.

Another woman won in Medina, where the Prophet Muhammad's first mosque was built. Other women hailing from the kingdom's northernmost areas won, with two elected in Tabuk, one in al-Jawf and another in Hail. Additionally, a woman won in Saudi Arabia's southern border area of Jizan, another in Asir and two won in al-Ahsa.

Many women candidates ran on platforms that promised more nurseries to offer longer daycare hours for working mothers, the creation of youth community centers with sports and cultural activities, improved roads, better garbage collection and overall greener cities.

In October, the Saudi Gazette reported that harsh road conditions and long distances to the nearest hospital had forced some women in the village of Madrakah, where one female candidate was elected, to give birth in cars. The local newspaper reported that the closest hospital and the nearest university were in Mecca, prompting some students to forgo attending classes. The article said residents were also frustrated with the lack of parks in the village.

It is precisely these kinds of community issues that female candidates hope to address once elected to the municipal councils. The councils do not have legislative powers, but advise authorities and help oversee local budgets.

Most ran their campaigns online, using social media to get the word out, due to strict gender segregation rules that ban men and women from mixing in public. This meant candidates could not directly address voters of the opposite sex.

In an effort to create a more level playing field for women who wear the traditional full-face veil, the General Election Committee banned both male and female candidates from showing their faces in promotional flyers, billboards or online. They were also not allowed to appear on television.

Still, al-Omar said the historic election drew a staggering 106,000 female voters out of some 130,000 who'd registered. Out of 1.35 million men registered, almost 600,000 cast ballots. In total, some 47 percent of registered voters took part in Saturday's election.

In Jiddah, three generations of women from the same family voted for the first time. The oldest woman in the family was 94-year-old Naela Mohammad Nasief. Her daughter, Sahar Hassan Nasief, said the experience marked "the beginning" of greater rights for women in Saudi Arabia.

"I walked in and said 'I've have never seen this before. Only in the movies'," the daughter said, referring to the ballot box. "It was a thrilling experience."

Saudi Arabia to host Syrian opposition ahead of peace talks

December 04, 2015

BEIRUT (AP) — Saudi Arabia is hosting Syrian opposition groups and many of the main rebel factions next week in an effort to come up with a unified front ahead of peace talks with representatives of the government in Damascus, scheduled to begin early next year.

The meeting is the first of its kind in the Sunni kingdom, which is a main backer of the Syrian opposition, underscoring how the internationally backed effort is the most serious yet in attempts to end the nearly five-year civil war. The conflict has killed more than a quarter of a million people and triggered a refugee crisis of massive proportions.

The rebel factions' participation points to the evolution in the position of many of them that long rejected any negotiations with Damascus as long President Bashar Assad was in power. Now they are on board to attempt a process that the United States and its allies say must eventually lead to Assad's removal — but with no timetable for it.

At the three-day gathering that starts next Tuesday in the Saudi capital, Riyadh, the factions will try to form a unified opposition delegation and a platform regarding what is meant to be a transitional period in Syria, officials who were invited said.

"We will be negotiating Assad's departure," said Mustafa Osso, the vice president of the Syrian National Coalition, the main Western-backed opposition group. "If this regime stays, violence will continue in Syria and there will be no stability," he said, speaking from Turkey. Osso will be part of what he said will be a 20-member delegation from the coalition at the Riyadh meeting.

A peace plan agreed to last month by 20 nations meeting in Vienna sets a Jan. 1 deadline for the start of negotiations between Assad's government and opposition groups. The plan says nothing about Assad's future, but states that "free and fair elections would be held pursuant to the new constitution within 18 months."

Among the nations that took part in the Vienna meeting were the United States, Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey. Russia and Iran have been Assad's strongest supporters since the crisis began in March 2011 while Saudi Arabia and Turkey have backed factions trying to remove the Syrian president from power.

In Tehran, Iran's deputy foreign minister denounced the planned gathering in Saudi Arabia, the official IRNA news agency reported. "The action will divert Vienna political efforts on Syria from its natural path and will drive the Vienna talks toward failure," Hossein Amir Abdollahian was quoted as saying.

Most of the main rebel factions have been invited to the Riyadh talks, including the Western-backed Free Syrian Army. Also among the invited are two of the biggest — Jaysh al-Islam and the ultraconservative Ahrar al-Sham group that has been for months trying to improve its image and market itself as a moderate faction, said Ibrahim Hamidi, a journalist who covers Syrian affairs for the Saudi-owned newspaper Al Hayat.

Spokesmen for Jaysh al-Islam and Ahrar al-Sham did not respond to requests for comment on whether the groups would attend. "The time for serious negotiations to find a solution has begun," Hamidi said.

But in a sign of the splits within Assad's opponents, no Kurdish factions have been invited, including the main Kurdish militia known as the YPG. The YPG has been the most successful group fighting the Islamic State group and captured scores of towns and villages from the extremists over the past year.

Saleh Muslim, the president of the largest Kurdish group, the Democratic Union Party or PYD, said his group has also not been invited. He said Turkey, which has broad fears of Kurdish ambitions, likely pressured Saudi Arabia not to invite them or the YPG.

"We would love to participate. The conference is related to Syria's future and we are a main part of Syria and its future," Muslim said. Kurds are the largest ethnic minority in Syria, making up more than 10 percent of the country's pre-war population of 23 million people. There are Kurds, including Osso, in some other factions that will attend.

Among those invited is Hassan Abdul-Azim, a veteran opposition figure in Syria who leads the Syria-based National Coordination Body for Democratic Change. He said that his group will enter talks with the Syrian government "without pre-conditions."

"The fate of the Syrian president will be decided during the negotiations," Abdul-Azim said. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said last month that the Syrian government has already put forward to the U.N. special envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, the makeup of its delegation to the upcoming negotiations. Lavrov last week said peace talks cannot go ahead until all parties involved agree on which groups should be listed as terrorist and which as Syria's legitimate opposition.

Also ahead of the peace talks, Jordan is to oversee a process identifying which militant groups in Syria should be considered as terrorists and thus should be prevented from participating in any negotiations. That is to be completed by the time the political process between the government and opposition begins in January.

Separately, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said Thursday that the world body is working to launch talks between Syria's warring parties and start a nationwide cease-fire in the country in early January. He also said he expects the third round of talks on the "Vienna process" to take place in New York but wouldn't confirm a Dec. 18 date, though that date is being considered, according to U.N. diplomats.

Also Thursday, Iyad Ameen Madani, the secretary general of the world's largest body of Muslim nations, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, appealed to the Syrian opposition leaders to "close ranks and make the legitimate demands of the Syrian people for change, reform and reconstruction of institutions.

Associated Press writers Nasser Karimi in Tehran, Aya Batrawy in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, and Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations contributed to this report.

Spain thrust into governing void after splintered vote

December 21, 2015

MADRID (AP) — Spain entered a governing void Monday, facing weeks or months of uncertainty over what political party or parties will lead the country following a national election that fragmented the status quo. The result was so blurred that a German government spokeswoman said it was impossible to determine who deserved congratulations.

Although the ruling right-of-center Popular Party won the most votes, it failed to retain its parliamentary majority and will try to cobble together a coalition or minority government. But that's unlikely, analysts say, because the party wouldn't get enough seats in the lower house of parliament even by allying itself with the new business-friendly Ciudadanos party that came in fourth place and is seen as the most likely ideological partner.

The ambiguous outcome pushed Spain's benchmark stock index down 3.6 percent in Madrid as investors fretted over the possibility of a governing alliance between the Socialist Party and the country's new far-left Podemos party, led by pony-tailed political science professor Pablo Iglesias.

That sort of combination could lead to a government that would try to roll back highly unpopular austerity measures imposed over the last four years by Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy. He vowed after the vote to try to form a government, but gave few details on how he would do so after winning just 123 seats in the 350-member lower house of parliament.

Rajoy tweeted he would try to "form a stable government in the general interest of all Spaniards." He then told reporters Monday night he would initiate talks soon to do so, without naming which parties he would seek support from.

German government spokeswoman Cristiane Wirtz told reporters Monday that Spaniards deserve congratulations for voter participation of 73.2 percent, up from the 68.9 percent turnout in 2011 that gave Rajoy a 189-seat parliamentary majority.

"But otherwise, I don't yet see so clearly who one can congratulate in this situation," Wirtz said, adding that no one from Germany's government had contacted Spanish officials about the formation of a new government.

If forced from power, Rajoy and the Popular Party would become the third European victims this year of a voter backlash against austerity — following elections in Greece and Portugal seen as ballot box rebellions against unpopular tax hikes and spending cuts invoked during the eurozone's debt crisis.

In past Spanish elections, the Popular Party and the main opposition Socialists were the established powerhouses and only needed support from tiny parties to get a majority in parliament when they didn't win one from voters.

But Podemos came in a strong third place and Ciudadanos took fourth in their first election fielding national candidates. The Socialists and Podemos on Monday ruled out voting in favor of Rajoy. Ciudadanos, which has repeatedly said it will never vote for Rajoy, said that at most it would abstain so the Popular Party could try to form a minority government — given that it was the most voted.

"Even if a stable coalition partnership emerges, the negotiations are unlikely to be swift, which implies that both consumers and businesses face a prolonged period of uncertainty," RBC Capital Markets said in a note to clients.

That could hurt business investment "precisely at a time when the Spanish economy is becoming increasingly reliant on domestic demand to fuel the recovery," RBC added. Spaniards who cast ballots for Podemos and Ciudadanos said they weren't worried at all about the uncertainty their country could go through — or the prospect of another national election in the spring if no parties manage to cobble together a viable coalition or minority government that would rely on other parties to support it in passing legislation.

Instead, the voters who picked the upstart parties were elated at making history by upending the traditional two-party system. They blame the Socialists for plunging Spain into an extended economic crisis that began in 2008, and the Popular Party for an economic recovery accompanied by an unemployment rate of 21 percent and more than double that for workers under age 25.

Diplomat Ainara Gomez said the new panorama with four political parties forced into negotiations to find a way that Spain can be governed "will open a new scenario that is expected in all real democracies."

"Now it's up to the agreements between them so they can form a new government," she said. "We have to wait. Nothing is clear." Former bank employee Eugenio Garcia said the Popular Party and the Socialists are to blame for "disappointment among the people."

"I'm happy with the situation and it forces the parties to negotiate to make a pact and discuss their politics, and I think this is a good thing," he said. But school teacher Maribel Martinez, who voted for the Popular Party, was petrified that Spain could descend into political chaos with no stable government for months or an administration run by left-of-center and left-wing parties bent on reversing what Rajoy spent four years accomplishing.

"My worst fear is a union of all of the leftists," she said. "I don't think that these kind of alliances would be looked on well from abroad because they would be economically disastrous for the country."

For now, Rajoy stays on as the caretaker prime minister until parliament convenes on Jan. 13 and King Felipe VI proposes a candidate for prime minister, which could be Rajoy or the leader of another party.

Felipe must consider which party has a real possibility of winning a parliamentary confidence vote and forming a stable government, and will presumably find that out during talks with the parties. It would be unprecedented but not be illegal or unconstitutional for an alliance of the second- and third-placed parties to get the nod. That has often happened in Spanish regional and local elections, but never following a general election.

In a first confidence vote, the candidate must get more than 50 percent of the full 350 votes in order to form a government. If he falls short, he must get more votes for him than against him in a second ballot 48 hours later. That's a lower bar which allows parties to abstain, letting a rival into power in return for concessions.

If there is still deadlock after two months, the monarch calls a new election — probably in April or May.

Associated Press writers Ciaran Giles and Ana Martinez contributed to this report.

Spain ruling party could be out with big vote for upstarts

December 21, 2015

MADRID (AP) — A strong showing Sunday by a pair of upstart parties in Spain's general election upended the country's traditional two-party system, with the ruling Popular Party winning the most votes but falling far short of a parliamentary majority and at risk of being booted from power.

Days or weeks of negotiations will be needed to determine who will govern Spain, with the new far-left Podemos and business-friendly Ciudadanos parties producing shockwaves because of strong support from voters weary of high unemployment, a seemingly endless string of official corruption cases and disgust over the country's political status quo.

If forced out of government, Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy and his Popular Party would become the third European victims this year of a voter backlash against austerity — following elections in Greece and Portugal seen as ballot box rebellions against unpopular tax hikes and spending cuts invoked during the eurozone's debt crisis.

In past Spanish elections, the Popular Party and the main opposition Socialists were the established powerhouses and only needed support from tiny parties to get a majority in parliament when they didn't win one from voters.

But Podemos came in a strong third place and Ciudadanos took fourth in their first election fielding national candidates — setting up a period of uncertainty as parties negotiate with each other to see which ones may be able to form a governing alliance.

"Spain is not going to be the same anymore and we are very happy," said a jubilant Pablo Iglesias, the pony-tailed leader of Podemos. With 99.9 percent of the vote counted, the Popular Party won 123 seats in the 350-member lower house of Parliament — far below the 186-seat majority it won four years ago after beating the Socialists in a landslide.

The Socialist Party received 90 seats, while Podemos and allies won 69 and Ciudadanos got 40. Analysts said the outcome will make it extremely difficult for the Popular Party to form a coalition or get voted into parliament as a minority government because it does not get enough seats by allying only with Ciudadanos, its closest possible ideological partner.

The Popular Party would also need support from parties that won 17 seats in the northeastern Catalonia region and are seeking independence from Spain or want more regional financial power and feel alienated by Rajoy's firm rejection of their causes.

And Spain has never had a so called "grand coalition" that would bring the Popular Party and the Socialists together. Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy told cheering supporters shortly after midnight Monday that he would try to form a government but didn't provide any details of how he might accomplish that goal.

"This party is still the No. 1 force in Spain," Rajoy declared. But Socialist leader Pedro Sanchez said the result clearly shows "Spain wants a move to the left," adding that he and his party are ready for talks that could lead to a governing accord.

The Socialists could try to team up with Podemos and Ciudadanos in a three-way "coalition of losers" similar to an electoral outcome that happened in neighboring Portugal last month. Also possible for the Socialists is a deal with Podemos plus smaller regional parties that won just a few seats each — not requiring the support of Ciudadanos.

"It looks like a Socialist government," said Federico Santi, a London-based analyst with the Eurasia Group political risk consultancy. "Reaching a deal between the Socialists, Ciudadanos and Podemos is not going to be straightforward. ... But if the alternative is leaving the country without a government, the pressure will be on the parties."

Podemos and Ciudadanos both gained strength by portraying the Popular Party and the Socialists as out-of-touch behemoths run by politicians who care more about maintaining their own power than citizens' needs.

Miguel Redondo, a 19-year-old Madrid university student, said he voted for Podemos because "it's the party that best understands the difficulties that young people are going through" in a nation where joblessness for people under 25 is more than double the country's overall 21 percent unemployment rate.

Spain's 36.5 million registered voters elected representatives to the lower house of parliament and to the Senate, which has less legislative power. Voting was brisk with lines outside some polling stations and voter participation of 73.2 percent, up from 68.9 percent in the 2011 election.

Francisco Herrera, a 43-year-old porter in Madrid, said he was disappointed with Rajoy's leadership, but voted for the Popular Party because it "defends the economy and the type of government that suits us right now."

The nation's devastating economic crisis, non-stop corruption scandals and a separatist drive in the northeastern region of Catalonia have dominated Spanish politics over the past four years. Rajoy has boasted about his handling of the economy, done his best to skirt the corruption minefield and has vowed to halt the independence push.

His administration's biggest success has been in pulling Spain back from an economic abyss in 2012 and returning the economy to steady growth, but the jobless rate has come down slowly and salaries for people entering the workforce are 30 percent lower than they were in 2008. This fueled claims by Ciudadanos and Podemos that the Socialists plunged Spain into an economic crisis and the Popular Party failed to fix the problem.

Rajoy's party adopted unpopular austerity measures and labor and financial reforms that are credited with creating jobs but blamed for damaging the country's social welfare system. Although Spain's economy is now one of the fastest-growing in the 28-nation European Union, its unemployment rate is the second-highest in the EU after Greece.

Rajoy's administration has also been hurt by his U-turn on a promise not to raise taxes and by cuts to national health care and public education. And many Spaniards are angry about what they perceive as the impunity of politicians and business leaders amid incessant corruption cases.

The question of independence for economically and politically powerful Catalonia has divided that region and soured political ties with the rest of Spain. Rajoy vowed to quash what is seen as the biggest threat to Spanish unity in recent decades. Other parties favor negotiations to devolve more power to Catalonia, and Podemos wants to let Catalan separatists hold a secession referendum.

Rajoy, 60, championed conservative social policies, siding with the Roman Catholic Church against abortion. But he raised questions about his future as the Popular Party leader by including his deputy, 44-year-old Soraya Saenz de Santamaria, on campaign posters.

Sanchez, a 43-year-old former university economics professor, was unknown to most Spaniards until he was elected leader last year of the Socialists. Iglesias, 37, and his party want to break the mold of Spanish politics. Podemos, or We Can in English, was born from massive Madrid street protests in 2011 that drew mainly young Spaniards weary of corruption.

Ciudadanos, which means Citizens, has the media-savvy Albert Rivera as its leader. At 36, he was the youngest candidate, and his party featured moderate, business-friendly policies plus a pledge to crack down on corruption.

After voting in a Barcelona suburb, Rivera said the election marks the start of a new era — especially for young Spaniards like himself, born after the nation's 1939-1975 dictatorship. "Those of us who didn't experience the first democratic transition are experiencing a second one," Rivera said.

Associated Press writer Cristina Fuentes-Cantillana contributed to this report.

Young, charismatic candidates spice up Spanish election

December 17, 2015

MADRID (AP) — Spain's next prime minister could be a young pony-tailed university professor, or perhaps a leather-jacketed lawyer who once posed nude in campaign posters.

They demonstrate just how much Spanish politics has changed in the four years since the last general election. A severe economic crisis, crushing unemployment and incessant corruption cases have turned many Spaniards away from the staid, career politicians who head the mainstream right and left parties that have alternated in office for decades.

Here's a look at the four politicians vying to become Spain's next prime minister:


At 60, the incumbent is the oldest candidate and the only one with time spent in government.

Chosen to take over the ruling right-of-center Popular Party in 2003 by then-premier Jose Maria Aznar, the tall, bespectacled and gray-bearded Rajoy has had his leadership abilities regularly questioned. He lost two elections to the Socialists, but his perseverance paid off when he won the last one, in 2011, with a whopping majority.

The son of a provincial judge, Rajoy studied law and became the country's youngest property registrar at the age of 24. A cycling and football fan, Rajoy acknowledges he reads little and prefers light sports publications to serious newspapers or literature.

As prime minister his main success has been pulling Spain back from an economic abyss and returning it to growth. But the austerity measures and labor and financial reforms that helped him to do that, together with his failure to create anywhere near the 3 million jobs he promised, have eroded his popularity. So has his decision to raise taxes after taking office in 2012, despite repeated promises during his 2011 campaign that he wouldn't.

The involvement of many current and former party members in corruption scandals has also tarnished his image.

A staunch proponent of law and order, Rajoy is the party leader most opposed to any negotiations with the pro-independence movement in the northeastern Catalonia, a stance many see as contributing greatly to the growth of a secessionist movement.

A close ally of the Roman Catholic Church, Rajoy has sided with church stands on abortion, euthanasia and religious education in public schools. He has also campaigned for tighter immigration controls and stirred criticism in 2007 when he dismissed the threat of climate change as exaggerated.

He is married with two sons.


Sanchez, 43, was unknown to most Spaniards until he was elected secretary general of the main opposition Socialist party in 2014. A former university economics professor, he joined the party in 1993, becoming a Madrid city councilor in 2004 and then a member of parliament in 2009. He worked as a party aide in the European Parliament and at the office of the U.N. High Representative for Bosnia during the war in Kosovo.

The former basketball player towers above most of his colleagues. He also stands out for being fluent in English and French, something of a rarity among Spanish party leaders frequently criticized for their inability to speak foreign languages.

Although Sanchez has helped unite his party since it was ousted as the ruling party in a 2011 landslide, he spends much of his time fending off criticism of his predecessors' policies. But while his decent guy image has definitely helped the Socialists, he often lacks luster and political punch, which probably explains why his party was second-placed but trailed the ruling conservatives by 8 percentage points in a recent well-trusted government-run poll.

Sanchez also has few outright enemies, making him a good option to receive outside support if needed to form a government.

He has promised to roll back several Popular Party laws, including a labor law that made it easier to hire and fire people, and a so-called "Gag Law" that sets stiff fines for some protests and allows authorities to fine those distributing unauthorized images of police.

He also favors negotiations to reform Spain's regional government structure to try to convince Catalan nationalists to abandon their campaign to break away from Spain.

Sanchez is married with two daughters.


Rivera, 36, is the rising star of Spanish politics and the one tipped with the best chance of edging both Rajoy and Sanchez to take office. A native of Barcelona, his popularity soared in the region surrounding Catalonia mainly due to his Ciudadanos party's ability to galvanize opposition to the surging Catalan independence push.

He entered the national race only a year ago and his mix of centrist, business-friendly policies, along with his pledged crusade against corruption, have struck a chord among many, especially young professionals.

The trusted government-run CIS final pre-election opinion poll placed him as Spain's most respected party leader.

A national debating champion in college, the telegenic and media savvy Rivera answers questions on every possible topic with ease and determination. A republican, although he respects the monarchy, he claims to represent a new pro-center generation tired of left and right ideologies.

However, some fear that his vagueness on some issues — such as economic policy, regional devolution, immigration and domestic violence — hide a right-leaning wolf in sheep's clothing.

Handsome and slickly dressed, he was probably best known for posing nude in some of his first election posters several years ago.

He helped found Ciudadanos after gaining his doctorate in constitutional law. He has been a lawmaker in the regional Catalan parliament since 2006.

Rivera is divorced with one child.


Podemos leader Iglesias is a political science professor and the person who has caused the biggest stir in the Spanish political scene in recent years. He was something of a household name prior to the party's formation chiefly due to his calm but piercing rhetorical skills on one of Spain's most popular TV political chat shows, in which he lambasted the conservative government's policies and upstaged right-wing political and media opponents.

Hailing from the Madrid working class neighborhood of Vallecas, Iglesias, 37, sports a ponytail and prefers jeans and rolled-up shirt sleeves to his opponents' suits and ties. He champions slogans such as Spain is "run by the butlers of the rich."

A friend and supporter of Greece's leftist Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, he also backed policies by left-wing governments in Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador.

Podemos has its roots in the 2011 Madrid street protests, in which people fed up with business and political corruption demanded a better, fairer democracy. The party surprised Spain's political establishment when it won five seats in the European Parliament elections in May 2014, just four months after its formation.

Some opinion polls last year suggested Iglesias could win the upcoming elections, but his allure has waned chiefly due to what some see as the repetitiveness and even softening of his anti-establishment political message, as well as his perceived attempts to impose views on party members.

Iglesias is single.

Spain: 2 upstart parties set to rock Spain's political boat

December 15, 2015

MADRID (AP) — The biggest difference between this weekend's crucial Spanish elections and ballots past: It's no longer a two-horse race.

In less than two years, the business-friendly centrist group, Ciudadanos, and the hard left anti-austerity Podemos party have sprung up, gathered force and now pose a serious challenge to the ruling center-right Popular Party and the leading opposition Socialists — who have alternated in office for nearly four decades.

The newcomers have nothing in common except striking a chord among millions of Spaniards, especially those under 35, who are angry and disillusioned over soaring unemployment, harsh austerity measures and the impunity that politicians and business representatives seem to enjoy amid incessant corruption cases.

Here's a looks at the upstart parties and their mainstream foes:


Podemos has provided the biggest wake-up call in the new political landscape. Led by a pony-tailed political science professor, the party was founded only last year and has taken Spain's youth vote by storm. It has roots in the March 15, 2011 sit-down protest movement launched in Madrid by people angry over political and financial corruption.

It won five seats in the European Parliament in 2014 in its first election, just four months after being formed.

But while it was briefly seen as rivaling the ruling Popular Party and the opposition Socialists in popularity, much of Podemos' glitter has worn off, and it's now regularly placed fourth in opinion polls.

The party talks of rolling back health and education cuts, reducing the working week and re-nationalizing formerly state-owned large companies. It has also suggested restructuring debt held by ordinary people and small businesses, as well as Spain's public debt.

Podemos has supported some of the policies of left-wing governments in Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador, making many mainstream politicians at home bristle. In Europe, it openly backed the anti-austerity challenge to creditors by Greece's far-left governing party, Syriza.

The party also openly opposes the bombing campaign against the Islamic State group.

It is the only national group supporting a self-determination referendum in the economically powerful northeastern region of Catalonia, where independence parties threaten to break away from Spain in 2017.

The party is seen as chiefly robbing votes from the Socialists and the small United Left coalition.


Since presenting itself on the national stage a year ago, Ciudadanos has rocketed in popularity and is now the party with the best chance of breaking the mainstream parties' grip on power.

Headed by the dapper Albert Rivera, Ciudadanos grew out of a gathering of intellectuals in Catalonia opposed to the region's drift toward independence — and who felt Spain, in Rivera's words, was "rotten with corruption."

Since then the party has spread across the country, making inroads in local and regional elections. Like Podemos, Ciudadanos owes much of its success to the oratory prowess of its leader. His clean-as-a-whistle image, promise of transparency and zero tolerance for graft has clicked with many, especially those born under democracy, restored in 1978 after the death of dictator Gen. Francisco Franco. These voters are also tired of the established leftist-or-rightist party split that has dominated Spanish politics since the 1936-1939 civil war.

The party promises to maintain the country's strong social welfare system while cutting taxes, reducing bureaucracy, investing in research and development and luring back well-educated Spaniards who left the country during the nation's 2008-2013 downturn.

It advocates merging small town councils and eliminating the Senate, a separate a parliamentary chamber chiefly representing Spain's provinces, but which is seen having little or no necessary legislative function.

Ciudadanos is the only Spanish party that favors sending troops to help fight the Islamic State group.

It is seen as chiefly taking votes from the ruling conservatives.


Headed by Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, the center-right party won an absolute majority of 186 seats in 2011 but its handling of the severe economic crisis — including tough austerity measures — and myriad corruption cases have whittled away its support. Most polls tip it to win again but it is likely to need a pact if it wants to stay in office. No party has shown any willingness to lend it support.

Although the country is still suffering 21.2 percent unemployment, the party claims the economic recovery of the past two years is due to its policies and reforms, and hopes this will help it gain re-election.

The party's legalistic stance in dealing with the Catalan separatist drive, and its introduction of legislation seen by some as violating civic rights, have also alienated many supporters.

Founded in 1989 by revamping a previous party called the Popular Alliance, the party has always been linked to the Catholic Church and is regarded as having roots in the Franco dictatorship. It has won three of the 11 elections held since Spain returned to democracy.


Headed by Pedro Sanchez, the Spanish Socialist Workers Party, or PSOE as it is known in Spain, was founded in 1879, making it Spain's oldest party and one of Europe's first socialist parties.

The party went into exile during the dictatorship. It has won six of the 11 elections held since Spain returned to democracy and is generally credited with transforming the country from a backward authoritarian state into a dynamic European Union democracy.

Under former prime ministers Felipe Gonzalez and Jose Luis Zapatero, it gained EU membership, stayed in NATO and introduced many modernizing infrastructure projects and social reforms, such as widening the abortion law and legalizing gay marriage.

The party's popularity plunged during its last spell in office, between 2004 and 2011, chiefly because of Zapatero's blindness to the looming economic crisis that pushed unemployment sky-high and the economy close to a meltdown.

Spain wants to retake lead in renewable energy

By Laure Fillon
Madrid (AFP)
Dec 13, 2015

A former global champion of renewable energy, Spain wants to make up the ground it lost during the economic crisis when it reversed its policy slashing subsidies and decimating the sector.

With roughly 300 days of sunshine per year and regions that receive strong winds, Spain was a world leader in 2007-08 in solar and wind power production, helped by generous state subsidies.

But the sharp economic downturn that followed the collapse of a decade-long property bubble in 2008 put the brakes on the development of renewable energy as the government scaled back support.

Jorge Puebla, a 41-year-old firefighter, suffered the fallout from his energy investment.

"They ruined my life," the father of two told AFP.

He and his wife had invested a million euros ($1.1 million dollars) in 2007 in a solar energy farm in the northeastern region of Castile and Leon.

They borrowed 800,000 euros from a bank with Puebla's parents acting as the loan guarantors.

Solar investors like Puebla were lured by a law passed under the Socialist government in power in 2007. It guaranteed producers a so-called solar tariff of as much as 44 cents per kilowatt-hour for their electricity for 25 years.

At that rate the couple thought they could easily make their monthly loan repayments of 8,400 euros.

But the government did not keep its promise. Faced with a ballooning budget deficit, in 2011 it cut the subsidies that were intended to stimulate the growth of the renewable energy.

The conservative Popular Party that swept to power at the end of 2011 made further cuts to the state aid.

"Everything that existed disappeared from one day to the other," said Puebla.

He now relies on help from his sister and three brothers to pay his loan.

- Low energy -

Solar power farms have seen their revenues drop 15-50 percent due to the change in government policy, said Jose Donoso, the head of Spain's solar lobby group UNEF.

The solar power sector has shed 35,000 jobs since 2008 and now employs just 5,000 people, he added.

The government U-turn has been especially hard on the roughly 62,000 private investors like Puebla and it essentially stopped the solar power sector from expanding.

Spain added just 22 megawatts of photovoltaics capacity last year, compared with 2,270 megawatts in Britain.

Wind power has also stalled. The sector has lost half of its jobs in eight years and no new wind power capacity was added in 2015.

"The change in regulations since 2008 was negative for the entire industry," said Carlos Garcia, a renewable energy specialist at the IE Business School in Madrid.

He points the finger at "pressure" from traditional energy producers that rely on coal, gas, oil and nuclear power to "stop the development of renewables".

It is not just small and medium-sized businesses that are suffering.

Spain's flagship renewable energy giant Abengoa which employs more than 27,000 people worldwide is teetering on the edge of bankruptcy. While the loss of subsidies is not the main cause of its troubles, experts say it has not helped.

- 'Make up lost time' -

"2015 marks the lowest point in the development of renewables in the past 20 years in Spain," said Spanish Wind Energy Association policy director Heikki Willstedt.

"Spain must make up for lost time and fulfill its goals for 2020," she added.

Willstedt recalled that Spain is committed to meeting 20 percent of its energy needs through renewables by 2020, compared to the current 15 percent.

The government which emerges following the general election on December 20 must change Spain's renewable energy policies, added Garcia.

Spain's ruling conservative Popular Party has presented proposals to restart the wind power sector but has not yet outlined its plans for solar energy.

Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy vowed at the World Climate Change Conference 2015 (COP21) in Paris on November 30 to table a "law on climate change" if he is re-elected, after having complained for a long time that renewable energy is too expensive.

Spain has maintained companies "with significant know how" in the area such as Gamesa which survived the economic downturn by expanding abroad, mainly in Latin America, said Garcia.

The country is still the fifth largest producer in the world of wind power and the third biggest exporter.

Source: Solar Daily.
Link: http://www.solardaily.com/reports/Spain_wants_to_retake_lead_in_renewable_energy_999.html.

South Korea offers to participate in Czech nuclear program

Moscow (Sputnik)
Dec 09, 2015

South Korean President Park Geun-hye offered Wednesday to help Prague complete construction of some new units at a Czech nuclear power plant, Czech President Milos Zeman's press secretary confirmed Wednesday.

Park met with her Czech counterpart on Wednesday, as part of a four-day official visit to the republic.

According to the Ceske Noviny newspaper, Park offered the assistance of Korean firms in the completion of new units at the local nuclear power plant, as well as the supply of helicopters for the Czech Air Force. In turn, the Czech side proposed that the two countries cooperate in the development of new technologies, particularly in the field of nanotechnology.

"Exactly these issues of economic cooperation, including the energy sector, will dominate within the framework of the official visit of the Korean president," presidential press secretary Jiri Ovcacek told reporters.

The Czech Republic is heavily reliant on nuclear energy for its energy needs. As part of a governmental plan to increase nuclear power production, the Czech government wants to build one more reactor at the Temelin nuclear plant and another at the Dukovany plant, with the option of building another reactor at each site.

Source: Nuclear Power Daily.
Link: http://www.nuclearpowerdaily.com/reports/South_Korea_offers_to_participate_in_Czech_nuclear_program_999.html.

Polish lawmakers pass contested law on constitutional court

December 23, 2015

WARSAW, Poland (AP) — Poland's parliament passed contested new legislation on Tuesday that regulates the Constitutional Tribunal, something critics say will paralyze the court and make it unable to act as a check on the power of the country's new right-wing government.

The vote, which took place late in the evening after a heated debate, came as Poland comes under increasing criticism internationally and at home for its attempts to neutralize the court. Large street protests supporting both sides have taken place in past weeks, with opponents saying the move to take control of the nation's top legislative court is an attack on the country's democratic foundations.

After the conservative Law and Justice took power last month it found itself in control of both houses of parliament in addition to the presidency. That left the Constitutional Tribunal as one of the only state organs that could check its power. The party tried to quickly stack the court with party loyalties before it moved onto the disputed legislation, which opponents see an attack on an independent judiciary.

The ruling party says it wants to reform a court that is filled with appointees made by the past government. It claims its victory in October elections is a mandate by voters to make deep changes to the country. The ruling party and its supporters also point out that the last government made two premature and illegal appointments to the court.

After eight years of rule by a pro-market and pro-European Union party, those changes involve greater state spending on the economically disadvantaged and pushing for other deep change consistent with Law and Justice's Catholic, nationalistic and anti-migrant agenda.

Stanislaw Piotrowicz, a lawmaker for Law and Justice and a key backer of the new laws, denounced those opponents who say they are fighting for democracy. "The defense of democracy is just a smoke screen. You are defending dark interests," he told opposition lawmakers.

That elicited an uproar in the assembly and chants of "down with communism!" The communist accusation was an apparent allusion both to the alleged anti-democratic nature of the laws and to Piotrowicz's own past as a communist-era prosecutor.

The laws then passed easily, 235 to 181, thanks to the Law and Justice's majority control of the lower house. The package of bills goes next to the Senate, where it is expected to get a quick OK. It can also expect the support of President Andrzej Duda, a party loyalist.

Andrzej Zoll, a former head of the tribunal, denounced the legislation ahead of the vote, saying it "will lead to the end of the functioning" of "one of the most important organs of the state." One provision requires that cases be adjudicated by a panel of at least 13 of the court's 15 judges. That is a change from the current practice, which allows a much smaller number of judges to rule on each case. Civil rights groups say that will allow the court — which already faces a backlog of some 200 cases — to take up far fewer cases, slowing down its work considerably.

Another provision will require a two-thirds majority for rulings to be valid, rather than the current simple majority. Critics say that it will be make it extremely difficult for the court to reach valid rulings on controversial issues — and essentially unable to block some disputed legislation.

"We lawyers and citizens watching this believe the main idea is to tie the hands of the judges so they cannot react in a timely manner," said Katarzyna Szymielewicz, an activist with the pro-democracy We Are Watching You initiative.

Opponents also criticize the speed with which the legislation was put through, with very little time left for public consultations. One lawmaker said that made the government appear shady. "Rushing is an inherent part of a banana republic," Killion Munyama, a Zambian-born lawmaker with the Civic Platform party, said to laughter and applause.

Greek Parliament calls on country to recognize Palestinians

December 22, 2015

ATHENS, Greece (AP) — Greek lawmakers have unanimously approved a resolution calling on the country's left-led government to formally recognize Palestinian statehood.

Tuesday's vote, which has no binding effect on the government, was held in the presence of visiting Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who later addressed Parliament. Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras has declined to say when Greece could adopt the parliamentary resolution.

Tsipras' government is trying to balance improved relations with Israel with his party's longstanding support for a Palestinian state. Tsipras visited Israel last month, meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He also met with Abbas in Ramallah, West Bank.

Israeli missile interceptor passes final test

Jerusalem (AFP)
Dec 21, 2015

Israel's David's Sling missile defense system has passed final tests and should be ready for deployment next year as part of the country's efforts to defend against regional threats, officials said Monday.

The medium-range interceptor, developed with United States backing, is due to be handed to the Israeli air force "at the end of the first quarter of 2016," said Yair Ramati, head of the Israel Missile Defense Organization.

David's Sling is designed to fill the gap between the longer-range Arrow missile defense system and the shorter-range Iron Dome interceptor.

It was developed by Israel's Rafael Advanced Defense Systems and US company Raytheon.

Earlier this month, Israel also announced that it successfully tested the Arrow 3 interceptor, designed to shoot down missiles above the atmosphere.

The tests come with Israel saying it faces threats from regional enemies including Iran and Hezbollah.

Monday's announcement also followed the killing of a Lebanese militant in Syria at the weekend in what Hezbollah described as an Israeli air strike. Israel has not claimed responsibility.

In an apparent response, at least two rockets were fired into Israel from Hezbollah's south Lebanon heartland, with no casualties reported. The Israeli military said it responded with "targeted artillery fire".

Officials stressed that Monday's David's Sling announcement was not linked to the weekend incidents, with the program long in development.

Source: Space War.
Link: http://www.spacewar.com/reports/Israeli_missile_interceptor_passes_final_test_999.html.

SpaceX sticks landing of rocket in landmark recycle bid

By Kerry Sheridan
Miami (AFP)
Dec 22, 2015

SpaceX stuck the landing of its powerful Falcon 9 rocket Monday, in what the company hailed as a landmark success toward one day making rockets as reusable as airplanes.

Its engines burning bright orange against the dark night sky, the Falcon 9 made a graceful arc back to Earth and touched down upright at Cape Canaveral, Florida, minutes after launching a payload of satellites to orbit, video images showed.

"The Falcon has landed," a commentator said above the screams and cheers of people gathered at SpaceX headquarters in Hawthorne, California.

The event marked the first time an orbital rocket successfully achieved a controlled landing on Earth.

SpaceX, headed by Internet tycoon Elon Musk, is striving to revolutionize the rocket industry, which currently loses many millions of dollars in jettisoned machinery and sophisticated rocket components after each launch.

Several attempts to land the Falcon 9's first stage on a floating ocean platform have failed -- with the rocket either colliding with the autonomous drone ship or tipping over.

But this time, video images on SpaceX's live webcast showed the tall, white portion of the rocket -- known as the first stage -- appearing to settle down firmly and stick the landing.

The rocket reached a height of 125 miles (200 kilometers) before heading back to Earth and touching down at a former US Air Force rocket and missile testing range that was last used in 1978.

Video images were cut off within seconds of the landing, and the SpaceX live webcast returned to its commentators, who described the successful deployment of the rocket's payload of 11 satellites for ORBCOMM, a global communications company.

"The Falcon first stage landing is confirmed," SpaceX wrote on Twitter.

"All 11 ORBCOMM satellites have been deployed in nominal orbits."

The US space agency NASA also applauded the feat.

"Congratulations @SpaceX on your successful vertical landing of the first stage back on Earth!" NASA said in a tweet.

- High stakes -

The stakes were high for SpaceX, which has a $1.6 billion contract with NASA to supply the astronauts living at the International Space Station over numerous back-and-forth trips with its Dragon cargo ship.

Adding to the competitive nature of the commercial space industry, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos's rocket company Blue Origin announced last month it had successfully landed its New Shepard rocket after a suborbital flight.

Analysts said SpaceX's feat would be harder to accomplish because the Falcon 9 flies higher in altitude.

SpaceX is also competing with Boeing to build crew spaceships to ferry astronauts to low-Earth orbit as early as 2017, a capacity the United States has not had since the retirement of the space shuttle program in 2011.

In the interim, the world's astronauts have paid Russia millions for rides aboard its Soyuz spacecraft.

The successful launch and landing came six months after a devastating explosion when a faulty strut -- a piece of support hardware -- was blamed for exploding the Falcon 9 about two minutes after launch, destroying hundreds of millions of dollars in cargo and equipment.

The company fixed that problem and also made the newest version of the Falcon 9 about 30 percent more powerful than previous iterations, Musk has said.

Source: Space Daily.
Link: http://www.spacedaily.com/reports/SpaceX_sticks_landing_of_rocket_in_landmark_recycle_bid_999.html.

Winter heat wave, of a sort, envelops usually frigid Moscow

December 22, 2015

MOSCOW (AP) — It's usually the cold that's bitter in Moscow in December, but this year it's the humor that bites during an unusual warm spell.

As temperatures climbed as high as 7 degrees Celsius (45 degrees Fahrenheit) in the Russian capital in recent days, a joke began circulating on the Internet: This was nature's compensation for Russians being unable to take vacations in Egypt and Turkey this year — two top destinations for Russian winter holidays.

Russia banned all its airlines from flying to Egypt after one of its airliners was bombed there in October, killing all 224 people on board, and Russian charter trips to Turkey were suspended following the Nov. 24 shooting down of a Russian warplane.

The weather is blamed on cyclones in the Atlantic, spreading warmth and rain over most of western Russia. Although 7 C isn't a heat wave by most standards, it's an unsettling change for a city where temperatures average minus 6 C (21 F) in December — and it has broken records set in 1936.

Worse yet, it just seems so un-Russian. So much so that a top Russian politician found it necessary to promise that a real winter is on the way. "There necessarily will be snow, I assure you. There will be snow on the 30th," Sergei Naryshkin, speaker of the lower house of the Russian parliament, declared Monday.

"People are telling me this is a European winter, that's good, that's how it's supposed to be. And I tell them 'No, this is not a Russian winter,'" complained Maria Arbuzova, a retiree shopping Tuesday at a holiday market near Moscow's Red Square.

Moscow is a city that chooses to embrace winter rather than endure it. Good ski trails can be reached on the subway, a ski jump plunges down a hill at the edge of the city center and outdoor skating rinks dot the city. Gorky Park floods many of its sidewalks to create a maze of skating paths and the VDNKh complex, an extravaganza of Soviet Gothic buildings and fountains, hosts the world's largest refrigerated outdoor rink, a massive 20,000 square meters (about five acres).

Those rinks, and others in the city, have been closed so far this year. A 100-meter (320-foot) ice slide erected near the Kremlin is also out of business, its iceless wooden structure a sad reminder of the fun that's being missed.

"The weather is not making me very happy," said a man dressed as Ded Moroz, the Russian analogue of Santa Claus, who gave his name only as Anton. But relief may come by the time Ded Moroz makes his gift-giving rounds on New Year's Eve.

Forecasters expect temperatures in Moscow to return to a seasonable below-freezing level on Saturday or Sunday.

Vitnija Saldava in Moscow contributed to this story.

Russia hosts meetings of ex-Soviet alliance

December 21, 2015

MOSCOW (AP) — Russian President Vladimir Putin is meeting with leaders of five other ex-Soviet nations which are part of a Moscow-dominated security pact.

Speaking at the start of Monday's meeting of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, Putin said they will discuss changes in the group's internal structure and future joint action. Along with Russia, the CSTO includes Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. In the past, it also included several other ex-Soviet nations which have since opted out.

Members of the pact have created a joint rapid reaction force that held sporadic military exercises, but its numbers were small. Later in the day, Putin will also host a separate meeting of the Eurasian Economic Union, an alliance that includes the same nations with the exception of Tajikistan.

New NATO UAV completes flight test

Palmdale, Calif. (UPI)
Dec 21, 2015

Northrop Grumman and NATO officials conducted and completed a flight test for the first NATO Alliance Ground Surveillance Aircraft.

The unmanned aerial vehicle is a derivative of the Global Hawk, and is able to fly for up to 30 hours at high altitudes. The aircraft is designed to provide intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities to support a variety of NATO missions, including ground troop and civilian protection, border control, maritime patrol, and humanitarian aid.

"The NATO AGS aircraft is part of a system that will allow NATO to meet the requirements of emerging situations around the world. The program will provide unprecedented flexibility and intelligence to the Alliance," NAGSMA general manager Jim Edge said in a statement. "I couldn't be prouder of the multi-national team's hard work and dedication coming to fruition with today's first flight."

The AGS is equipped with a Multi-Platform Radar Technology insertion Program sensor, assisting the aircraft with providing close to real-time surveillance data to commanders during operations. NATO operators will be able to use the system to fuse sensor data to be able to continuously detect and track moving targets.

Northrop Grumman officials called the first flight test of the NATO Alliance Ground Surveillance aircraft a success, hailing the event as an important milestone in the program.

"NATO AGS's successful initial flight kicks off the program's flight test program and represents Northrop Grumman's commitment to advanced airworthy systems for the Alliance," Northrop Grumman NATO AGS deputy program manager Rob Sheehan said.

Once operational, NATO AGS will be based in Sigonella, Italy. 15 NATO nations have plans to procure the aircraft once completed.

Source: Space War.
Link: http://www.spacewar.com/reports/New_NATO_UAV_completes_flight_test_999.html.