News & Current Affairs

January 31, 2009

Iraqis vote in landmark elections

Iraqis vote in landmark elections

A man casts his vote in Baghdad, Iraq (31/01/2009)

Voters had to pass through strict security to cast their ballots

Iraqis are electing new provincial councils in the first nationwide vote in four years, with the Sunni minority expected to turn out in strength.

Sunnis largely boycotted the last ballot. Correspondents in Baghdad, where there has been a total ban on vehicles, said voting started slowly.

The vote is seen as a test of Iraq’s stability ahead of the next general election later this year.

Security is tight and thousands of observers are monitoring the polls.

Up to 15 million Iraqis are eligible to cast votes.

“This is a great chance for us, a great day, to be able to vote freely without any pressure or interference,” a Baghdad voter identified as Hamid told Reuters news agency.

Another voter said he had not slept in order to be first at the polling station.

“I want this experience to be a success, and that there will no fraud,” said Adnan al-Janabi.

Security tight

Voters had to pass through stringent security checks to reach the polling stations, which were mostly set up in schools.

As voting got underway, several mortar rounds landed near polling stations in Tikrit, hometown of late ruler Saddam Hussein, but no casualties were reported.

Hundreds of international observers are monitoring the vote, as well as thousands of local observers from the various political parties.

We didn’t vote and we saw the result – sectarian violence
Khaled al-Azemi
Sunni speaking about 2005 boycott

At least eight of the 14,000 candidates have been killed in the run up to the election.

Three of the candidates – all Sunni Muslims – were killed on Thursday, in Baghdad, Mosul and Diyala province.

While the recent level of violence around Iraq is significantly lower than in past years, Iraq’s international borders have been shut, traffic bans are in place across Baghdad and major cities, and curfews have been introduced.

Hundreds of women, including teachers and civic workers, have also been recruited to help search women voters after a rise in female suicide bombers last year, according to the Associated Press.

Iraqi and US military commanders have in recent days warned that al-Qaeda poses a threat to the elections.

Setting the stage

Sunnis largely boycotted the last ballot, a general election which resulted in Shia and Kurdish parties taking control of parliament.

Despite intimidation, many Sunni voters say they will vote this time.

PROVINCIAL ELECTIONS
Baghdad prepares for Saturday's election

Some, like Khaled al-Azemi, said the boycott last time had been a mistake.

“We lost a lot because we didn’t vote and we saw the result – sectarian violence” he told the News.

“That’s why we want to vote now to avoid the mistakes of the past.”

The drawing of alienated Sunnis back into the political arena is one of the big changes these elections will crystallise.

On the Shia side, the results will also be closely watched amid signs that many voters intend to turn away from the big religious factions and towards nationalist or secular ones.

If they pass off relatively peacefully, these elections will set the stage for general polls at the end of the year and for further coalition troop withdrawals, our correspondent says.

The election is also being seen as a quasi-referendum on the leadership of Prime Minister Nouri Maliki.

Saturday’s elections are being held in 14 of the country’s 18 provinces, with more than 14,000 candidates competing for just 440 seats.

There is no vote in the three provinces of the semi-autonomous Kurdish region of the north and the ballot has been postponed in oil-rich Kirkuk province.

Iraq’s provincial councils are responsible for nominating the governors who lead the administration and oversee finance and reconstruction projects.

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January 24, 2009

India PM undergoes heart surgery

India PM undergoes heart surgery

Manmohan Singh

Mr Singh’s surgery comes just months before a general election in India

Doctors have begun heart bypass surgery on Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh after he was admitted to hospital in Delhi, Indian media report.

A team of six to eight surgeons was expected to operate on the 76-year-old leader, after two blockages were found in his arteries, officials said.

Mr Singh previously had bypass surgery in 1990 and an angioplasty in 2004.

The ruling Congress Party says he will still lead the party in the forthcoming general election which is due by May.

Mr Singh underwent tests earlier this week after he complained of chest pains.

He will have “coronary artery bypass graft surgery” performed by doctors from the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, India’s top state-run hospital, and the Asian Heart Institute in Mumbai.

Doctors say that there is “very little risk” associated with Mr Singh’s surgery and that the prime minister should be fit to resume normal duties in three to four weeks.

Succession speculation

This is not a good time for the prime minister to be removed from the political fray, given the tense relations with Pakistan in the wake of the Mumbai attacks.

Rahul Gandhi

Will Rahul Gandhi emerge as a successor to Mr Singh?

Congress has so far dismissed concerns that Mr Singh’s health would interfere with its current election campaign.

But there has been widespread speculation that party chief Sonia Gandhi has been lining up her son, Rahul Gandhi, heir to India’s powerful Gandhi dynasty, as the country’s next prime minister.

Mr Singh has largely been in good health since he was sworn in as prime minister in May 2004, but he recently underwent prostate surgery and has also had cataract treatment.

Mr Singh, who studied economics at Cambridge and Oxford, became India’s finance minister in 1991 when the country was plunging into bankruptcy, and is widely regarded as the architect of the country’s economic reform programme.

The quietly spoken economist-politician is also seen as the cleanest politician in India, a subject dear to voters’ hearts.

Government officials said that Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee will take charge of cabinet meetings during the prime minister’s absence.

September 17, 2008

Hopes ride high on Zimbabwe deal

Hopes ride high on Zimbabwe deal

Woman carries shopping in Harare

Morgan Tsvangirai may have persuaded Robert Mugabe to sign over some of his executive powers but Zimbabwe’s prime minister-designate now has a very short honeymoon period to prove himself.

The BBC is still operating under restrictions in Zimbabwe, but what reactions we have been able to gather show that large numbers of people believe Mr Tsvangarai can deliver and start the process of re-building a shattered economy.

It stands in stark contrast to the more sceptical assessment of many in the diplomatic community.

We want to see people no longer afraid to walk down the street with an MDC T-shirt – no longer afraid to look a policeman in the eye
James McGee
US ambassador to Zimbabwe

They want this deal to work, but the “vintage Mugabe” who blamed his country’s ills on former colonial powers during his post-deal speech, suggests a man locked in the past and unwilling to face up to the future.

As one diplomat said, the challenge will be to “turn what could be a trap for Morgan into an ambush for Mugabe” – a sentiment revealing deep concerns about just how committed the man who has run Zimbabwe for nearly three decades is to power-sharing.

‘We have to believe’

In a squatter camp on the edge of Harare, a man in his 20s who lost his job as a gardener when the money to pay him ran out, said they had no other choice but to have faith in this new beginning.

Hospital in Harare

Zimbabwe’s hospitals are suffering because of the economic crisis

He is pinning his hopes on the new unity government delivering food, and a stable economic environment which would improve his chances of getting a job and restoring his dignity.

And young professionals, who spoke in secret locations away from the prying eyes of intelligence operatives, said they believed Mr Tsvangirai had the capacity to hold his ground against his former political foe.

Articulate and measured, young men from Zimbabwe’s Christian Student Association said Zimbabweans need the watchful eyes of the international community to monitor events in the coming months.

One implored potential donors to “believe in a deal which we have to believe in” if there is to be any hope of rehabilitating this once prosperous nation.

Culture of intimidation

We’ve only gleaned a partial picture.

With the security situation still precarious, it has been hard to gauge reaction in rural areas where Mr Mugabe has drawn much of his support.

MDC supporters in Harare

MDC supporters believe their leader can deliver a stable economy

But there are without doubt people who are smarting. People who were in the pay of the party, whose lifestyle of political patronage is now under threat.

Intelligence and security chiefs were absent from Monday’s historic signing in ceremony.

Whether their boycott signals plans to undermine the deal is impossible to know at this early stage, but diplomats are monitoring the environment carefully.

Tangible signs that the culture of intimidation is being reversed will be one of the benchmarks they will use to determine if, and when, to deliver billions of dollars of life-saving aid.

As James McGee, the US ambassador to Zimbabwe, put it: “When we talk about respect for human rights we want to see people no longer afraid to walk down the street with an MDC T-shirt – no longer afraid to look a policeman in the eye… those are the little things that show there has been a change in attitude.”

Expectations high

Driving around the streets of Harare gives the impression of a benign capital, a place where the streets are paved and the buildings stand tall. But it is a facade.

Inside the hospitals there are shortages of medicine – many people have died from cholera recently, deprived of drugs.

Zimbabwe's capital Harare

Behind the facade of modern Harare there are acute shortages

And the banks are stuffed with worthless cash. It is not unusual to see plastic bags stuffed with notes that have no value, discarded on the street.

Expectations that this deal will begin to reverse some of this economic chaos are riding high.

Mr Tsvangirai’s first test will be his ability to secure key cabinet posts.

In particular in the finance portfolio, giving the MDC greater leverage over the economy, allowing the government to shape policies that restore property rights and market mechanisms back to Zimbabwe.

The next test will be getting food out to the desperate people who need it and clearing the red tape that prevents humanitarian agencies from distributing aid.

Food has been used by Mr Mugabe’s Zanu-PF party as a political cattle-prod – they’ve ensured it reaches friends, but withheld it from foes.

If the new prime minister can make real headway in distributing food to a country facing the threat of starvation, then he could reap a huge moral dividend which the international community may be willing to reward.

Like the power sharing deal in Kenya, this is a huge political experiment dependent on the personalities of the key players and the political will to change.

There is the potential for the whole thing to combust, a scenario which would see the end of Morgan Tsvangirai’s political career.

But optimists believe that Zimbabwe’s landmark pact, will be the catalyst that breathes new life into a broken country.

August 9, 2008

Fannie Mae unveils loss of $2.3bn

Fannie Mae unveils loss of $2.3bn

Courtesy BBC

Problems in the US housing market have pushed mortgage finance company Fannie Mae into the red.

The group sank to a net loss of $2.3bn in the three months to 30 June, against a profit of $1.97bn last year.

It comes days after its sister company Freddie Mac posted worse-than-expected results and its top executive warned house price falls are not over yet.

Both government sponsored firms own, or guarantee, nearly half of the nation’s mortgage debt.

Shares in Fannie Mae sank in the wake of the announcement, falling 9.8% to $8.98.

Difficult market

As mortgage guarantors, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, must pay out when people default on their loans.

But as a result of recent woes in the US housing market and subsequent sub-prime crisis the pair have run into severe difficulty.

Fannie Mae says it has the capital to weather the storm, but its looking more and more stormy by the day
John Raines,
Exclusive Analysis

Fannie Mae said that the current housing crisis had added to its woes to the tune of $5.3bn in credit expenses.

The latest losses at the firm – which came in at more than three times analysts’ estimates – followed a $2.2bn loss for the first three months of the year.

“Our second-quarter results reflect challenging conditions in the housing and mortgage markets that began in 2006 and have deepened through 2007 and 2008,” said Daniel H Mudd, president and chief executive officer of Fannie Mae.

Cost cutting

He added that the firm had also taken steps to raise an additional $7bn to help it tackle the “most difficult US housing market in more than 70 years”.

As part of the plan Fannie Mae is slashing its dividend by more than 85% to 0.05 cents, raising its fees and has taken steps to cut its costs by 10%.

The group also said it would stop purchasing ‘Alt-A’ loans – loans made to borrowers with good credit but little proof of their income, or people who either put down a small deposit, or no deposit, for their loan.

But there was little to offer hope in near-term future with Fannie Mae warning that increased volatility in capital markets and deteriorating credit conditions meant that it would face more losses.

Bail-out

Last month, the federal government offered a financial lifeline to the two beleaguered companies offering to extend their line of credit.

However, the financial aid may leave the taxpayer facing a bill of $25bn over the next two years.

“The taxpayer is stuck if they have to be bailed out,” John Raines, deputy director of political risk for Exclusive Analysis told the BBC.

He added that reports had suggested the actual cost could end up being anywhere in the region of between $10bn to $100bn.

“Right now, Fannie Mae says it has the capital to weather the storm, but its looking more and more stormy by the day.”

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