Czech Election Winner Babis to Seek Minority Government

Czech election winner Andrej Babis will attempt to form a minority government after being shunned by other parties, Babis said on Tuesday after meeting the president.

The country faces the possibility of months of political wrangling which could put approval of the 2018 budget approval at risk, potentially curbing investments that would help the economy keep growing at least at its current rapid pace.

Babis said he hoped to have a new government put together by the Christmas holiday.

His ANO party won a parliamentary election this month by a large margin, convincing voters it could deliver a more effective state, weed out corruption and distribute the fruits of economic expansion more fairly.

Other parties have refused to back a government that includes billionaire businessman Babis, who is facing fraud charges regarding a 2 million euro EU subsidy. Babis denies any wrongdoing, calling the charges politically motivated.

After meeting President Milos Zeman, Babis said he was “very sorry” the other parties had not given ANO a chance in coalition talks.

“We will try to form a minority government and will try to convince lawmakers … of other parties with our program,” he told a news conference alongside Zeman.

Zeman said he would give Babis a second attempt if his first try fails a confidence vote in the lower house.

Forming a minority government would require support from other parties as ANO’s 78 seats do not make up a majority in the 200-member lower chamber.

Only the Communists have said they could tolerate a minority government.


Babis can be appointed prime minister only after Nov. 20, when the newly elected lower chamber of parliament opens its session. It has to elect a speaker before current Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka can vacate the position for his successor.

This process could take long as some parties may try to prevent Babis’ appointment by blocking the speaker’s election.

In 2013, Zeman rejected a majority coalition in parliament after a center-right cabinet had collapsed, and appointed Jiri Rusnok, the current Governor of the Czech National Bank, as prime minister. His government ruled for half a year without winning a confidence vote.

Babis dismissed a suggestion by the head of the conservative TOP 09 party to block the speaker as “destructive and reckless.”

“The worst thing which could happen is that we would have a blocked parliament and a provisional budget,” he said.

If a budget is not approved by the end of the year, a provisional arrangement kicks in, meaning the state would run with the previous year’s budget, imposing severe limits on investments and other non-mandatory spending.

Czech markets have taken the political uncertainty in their stride, with the crown trading near multi-year highs as the central bank looks set to continue raising interest rates this week.

The country of 10.6 million has a history of shaky coalition governments. The outgoing center-left coalition, led by the Social Democrats and including ANO, is the first in 15 years to finish its four-year term.

Vietnam Tech Startups Seek Next Phase

There’s a short but not-so-simple question facing Vietnam’s technology startup fans: Now, what?

The communist country was not immune to the startup craze that swept the globe, but much of the early period was spent talking about tech and all the local potential. In what could be called the next phase of the craze, Vietnam now hopes to go beyond just talking. The focus now is on getting entrepreneurs to deliver on their pitches and meet concrete benchmarks, whether that’s to turn a profit, expand overseas, or find “exits” for their businesses, such as through acquisitions.

At a basic level, Vietnam has what’s needed to be a place prime for startups. Citizens have high literacy rates and math proficiency, which eases the path to creating an army of programmers for the economy. The country also has a balance that combines, on the one hand, a large consumer market on par with those of Thailand and the Philippines, and on the other hand, a lower level of development with high growth rates on par with those of Laos and Cambodia. And the low cost of things like wages and Internet plans allows people to establish companies at minimal expense.

But these are only ingredients, not, so far, action toward a modern culture of enterprise.

“Vietnam usually does copy-paste,” said Lam Tran, CEO of the startup WisePass, adding that locals should move past the model of copying a business idea from a foreign country and pasting it into the domestic market. “We don’t know how to internationalize.”

WisePass, an app that connects monthly subscribers to bar and restaurant deals, launched in Ho Chi Minh City with plans to cover seven countries in the near future.

Taking advantage of cross-border ties is one effective, increasingly popular strategy, startup aficionados say. For one thing, Vietnam has a huge postwar diaspora, known as Viet Kieu, who help connect the Southeast Asian country to investors, advisers, and developers abroad. For another, the tech scene inside the border is more cosmopolitan than ever.

To give one example, the Vietnam Innovative Startup Accelerator (VIISA) has invested in 11 companies for the second batch of what it calls “graduates.” All have domestic links, but have partners operating in locales as disparate as Ukraine, South Korea and France.

Sangyeop Kang, investment officer at VIISA partner Hanwha Investment, said he’s “delighted about the diversity” of this sophomore batch.

“The foreign teams were able to expand their business in Vietnam, while helping Vietnamese companies with global insights,” Kang said. “This is a step forward for the ecosystem.”

In a sign of official interest, the government has a carve-out for startups in its Law on Supporting Small and Medium-Sized Enterprises, which will take effect Jan. 1. The law offers young companies support with co-working spaces, technical equipment, intellectual property training, and low interest rates, among other things.

To do more than copy and paste, new businesses are contemplating how to outfit themselves for Vietnam. The startup But Chi Mau, for instance, makes games that tap into the unquenchable thirst for education, while MarketOi deploys motorbike drivers to let customers customize their food deliveries.

“The question is how to differentiate ourselves,” MarketOi founder Germain Blanchet said, before proceeding to answer that question: “This is with flexibility.”


DNA Lab in Netherlands to Help Find Missing People Worldwide

An organization that has been helping find people missing from the 1990s Balkan conflict has now expanded to tackle the cases of millions of missing people around the world. The International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP), based in the Netherlands, will use the latest DNA technology to identify bodies and provide closure to family members of the missing people. The laboratory findings also will be used to serve justice and support demands for reparations. VOA’s Zlatica Hoke has more.

Elon Musk Tweets Photo of Los Angeles-area Transport Tunnel

Billionaire Elon Musk has released a photograph of a tunnel he’s building under a Los Angeles suburb to test a novel transportation concept for a system that would move people underground in their personal cars rather than by subway trains.


The founder of SpaceX and Tesla tweeted during the weekend that the tunnel was 500 feet so far and should be 2 miles long in three or four months.


In August, the Hawthorne City Council granted a permit allowing an underground extension of approximately 2 miles from SpaceX property, crossing under a corner of the municipal airport and beneath city streets to a point about a mile east of Los Angeles International Airport.


Musk also tweeted that hopefully in a year or so the tunnel would stretch along the Interstate 405 corridor from LAX to U.S. Highway 101 in the San Fernando Valley, which would require approval from other governments. That span is about 17 miles.


Musk has complained about what he called “soul-destroying” Los Angeles traffic. He added The Boring Company to his ventures, acquired a tunnel-boring machine that had been used in a San Francisco Bay Area project and put it down a shaft in a SpaceX parking lot this year.


Hawthorne council document say the “Test Tunnel for Zero Emission Subterranean Transportation” has an exterior diameter of 13.5 feet (4.1 meters) and an interior diameter of approximately 12 feet (3.6 meters) and will run as deep as 44 feet (13.4 meters) beneath the surface.


“When the project is completed, the Test Tunnel would house a ‘skate’ system that would be tested to prove the viability for transporting pedestrians or personal vehicles. The concept is that a vehicle would be drive on to the skate, the engine would be turned off and the vehicle and its passenger would be transported from one end of the Test Tunnel to the other,” the August resolution said.


“The Test Tunnel project would involve SpaceX engineers repeatedly testing and experimenting with personal vehicle types suitable for placement on the skates; refinement of the design and technology; and general data collection on performance, durability, and application. No public use of the Test Tunnel would occur, and no people would be occupying vehicles located on the skates as the skates are tested within the tunnel,” it added.


Construction was expected to take about five months to complete, the resolution said. Musk has maintained that tunneling can be accomplished much more rapidly than occurs with current methods.


The plan allows the city to request that the tunnel be filled in when testing is complete.


Musk has also advocated another transportation concept called the “hyperloop,” a network of nearly airless tubes that would speed special capsules over long distances at up to 750 mph (1,207 kph), using a thin cushion of air, magnetism and solar power. SpaceX has recently hosted competitions by development teams on a test track built at its headquarters.


On Monday, SpaceX conducted its 16th Falcon 9 rocket launch of the year, carrying a South Korean satellite into space from Florida’s Kennedy Space Center. The rocket’s first-stage booster scored another successful landing aboard a floating platform in the Atlantic.

Argentina’s Macri Vows to Pursue Tax, Labor, Pension Reforms

Argentina’s President Mauricio Macri vowed to press ahead with reforms to the country’s tax, labor and retirement systems in a speech on Monday, a week after his “Let’s Change” coalition swept to victory at the polls in midterm elections.

The government will present a tax reform proposal this Tuesday or Wednesday, and an amnesty plan for companies that hired workers informally in the coming days, Macri said. He added that the government would convene a commission to propose changes to the retirement system in coming weeks.

The speech marked a roadmap for the second half of Macri’s four-year term, as he seeks to implement business-friendly reforms to attract investors who avoided the country during more than a decade of populist rule.

“We need lower taxes, more public works, and all this we need to achieve with fiscal balance,” Macri told a gathering of lawmakers, governors, union leaders, judges and others.

Investors have been encouraged by the reforms Macri has implemented since taking office in December 2015, including lifting foreign exchange controls, settling with holdout creditors, and lowering export taxes.

But significant investment has not arrived. Companies have demanded lower costs, while credit agencies are concerned about a deep fiscal deficit.

Macri’s coalition swept the five most populous areas in midterm elections, giving him a broader mandate to pass reforms, though it still lacks majorities in both chambers of Congress.

Macri said his government had reduced the country’s tax burden, and wanted to make the system “simpler, clearer, and fairer.”

He reiterated the government’s aim of slashing Argentina’s fiscal deficit by one percentage point of gross domestic product per year.

And he also vowed to reform the country’s retirement system, a large driver of government spending.

“We need to start a mature and honest conversation about our retirement and pension system,” Macri said. “Our retirement system hides serious inequities, and it is not sustainable.”

While Macri has said he does not plan major changes to the country’s labor code, he has said the government plans to provide incentives to companies to formalize undeclared workers and work with unions in specific sectors to lower costs.

Macri also pledged reforms to the country’s justice system to combat corruption. Cabinet Chief Marcos Pena told journalists that the resignation on Monday of chief prosecutor Alejandra Gils Carbo, appointed during the former administration of President Cristina Fernandez, was a step towards making the judiciary more independent.

Key Opposition Parties Boycott Venezuela Mayoral Elections

Two of Venezuela’s leading opposition parties will boycott upcoming political races to protest recent gubernatorial elections that they say were rigged to favor President Nicolas Maduro’s ruling party.


National Assembly President Julio Borges announced Monday that his Justice First party will run no candidates in mayoral elections across the country in December.


The Popular Will party also announced a boycott.


They are among nearly 30 parties that make up Venezuela’s fractured opposition.


Borges says that instead they will fight for elections free of fraud and deceptive tactics.


Maduro’s socialist party unexpectedly won nearly all the gubernatorial elections earlier this month in voting that the opposition disputed as rigged.


Building on its momentum, the pro-government constitutional assembly next called for the mayoral races to be held by year’s end.

Chile’s Pinera Says Spending Plan Would Cost $14 Billion

Chile’s frontrunning center-right presidential candidate, Sebastian Pinera, on Monday unveiled a $14 billion, four-year spending plan focused on proposed reforms to the country’s tax and pension systems and new investments in infrastructure and hospitals.

The former president, who governed from 2010 to 2014, said he would pay for his proposals by cutting “unnecessary” government spending and simplifying the tax code to encourage investment and boost growth and the country’s coffers.

Recent opinion polls show Pinera, 67, with a wide lead over his seven rivals in the Nov. 19 first-round election. Pinera would also beat his two closest contenders, leftists Alejandro Guillier and Beatriz Sanchez, in a runoff if no candidate receives at least 50 percent of the vote, according to pollster CEP last week.

Guillier, the frontrunner on the left, has yet to put a price tag on his proposals, which track the policies of outgoing center-left President Michelle Bachelet. Sanchez has proposed a $13.4 billion plan of deeper social and economic reforms, paid for in part by a tax on the “super-rich.”

The 67-year-old Pinera, a billionaire who has campaigned on a program of fiscal austerity, is benefiting from disenchantment with Bachelet, whose program of progressive reforms coincided with a downturn in the price of copper, which can account for as much as 15 percent of gross domestic product in Chile, the world’s top producer.

“Half of the financing for my program will come from reallocations drawn from ineffective government programs … and a reduction of unnecessary spending in the public sector,” Pinera said in a 124-page paper detailing his proposals.

Pinera’s plan to reform the pension system would cost about $3 billion and include new subsidies to raise pensions for women and the middle class, as well as incentives to encourage workers to retire later, Pinera said in the document.

The current retirement system, introduced in the 1980s during Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship, was historically seen as a model by many economists, but it has been criticized in recent years on a number of fronts, including what many see as insufficient payouts.

Pinera, a businessman-turned-politician, has also called for a $2.7 billion overhaul of Bachelet’s tax reform, to provide “more certainty and incentives for saving and investment,” as well as $3 billion of investment in hospitals and infrastructure.

Azerbaijan, Georgia, Turkey Launch ‘Silk Road’ Rail Link

The leaders of Azerbaijan, Turkey and Georgia launched an 826-km (500-mile) rail link connecting the three countries on Monday, establishing a freight and passenger link between Europe and China that bypasses Russia.

The line, which includes 105 km of new track, will have the capacity to transport one million passengers and 5 million tons of freight.

The three countries are linked by the BP-led Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline and the Baku-Tbilisi-Erzurum gas line, but trade links between Turkey and the Caucasus region are limited. The new Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway (BTK) promises to provide an economic boost to the region.

“Baku-Tbilisi-Kars is part of a big Silk Road and it’s important that we have implemented this project using our own funds,” Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said at the railway’s inauguration ceremony attended by Azeri President Ilham Aliyev and Georgian Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili.

Starting in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, trains will stop in the Georgian capital Tbilisi, pass through gauge-changing facilities in the Georgian town of Akhalkalaki and end their journey in the Turkish town of Kars.

The project’s total cost rose to more than $1 billion from an initial estimate of about $400 million. The bulk of that financing came from Azerbaijan’s state oil fund.

The rail link between Azerbaijan and Georgia was modernized under the project, which was launched in 2007. Its completion had been postponed several times since 2011.

“Several European countries have expressed an interest in this project and Azerbaijan is in talks with them,” Aliyev said, adding Kazakhstan and other countries in Central Asia were interested in transporting their goods via the BTK.

The new link will reduce journey times between China and Europe to around 15 days, which is more than twice as fast as the sea route at less than half the price of flying.

Trains can depart from cities in China, cross into Kazakhstan at the Khorgos Gateway, be transported across the Caspian Sea by ferry to the New Port of Baku and then be loaded directly onto the BTK and head to Europe.

Brazil Hopes to Reward Landowners for Preserving Amazon Forest

The best way to further reduce deforestation in the Amazon rainforest is paying owners to preserve their land, and Brazil plans to discuss how to fund such a program at a climate summit next month, the country’s environmental minister said on Monday.

Brazil wants to switch from stick to carrot in its fight against deforestation, with Minister Jose Sarney Filho telling reporters that enforcement and penalties used to decrease the clearance of forest will not be enough.

The Amazon rainforest, the world’s largest tropical one, soaks up vast amounts of carbon and its preservation is seen as vital in the fight against climate change.

Sarney Filho told reporters that payments for so-called “environmental services” to landowners who maintain a minimum percentage of their land in its natural state, is the next step.

“Command and control has already reached its limit. If we don’t immediately start to demonstrate that forest services will be fairly paid, we will have serious problems,” Sarney Filho said.

In the Amazon, landowners generally must maintain 80 percent of their land in their natural state while being allowed to develop the other 20 percent with the rate varying for different biomes.

“We need to start discussing the reward to those that preserve their land,” Sarney Filho said.

The matter of how to value and fund this preservation will be featured at next month’s U.N. climate change conference in Bonn, Germany, on guidelines related to the Paris climate accord.

It will be the first meeting of the group since U.S. President Donald Trump announced plans to pull the United States out of the Paris Accord, which seeks to limit the rise in temperatures to “well below” 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial times.

While programs like the Amazon Fund, which is sponsored by Norway and Germany, pay for efforts to stop deforestation, they do not pay these types of rewards to landowners, Sarney Filho said.

He did not offer specifics on how to pay for them.

Brazil is drawing up a national plan for implementing the Paris Accord after seeking opinions from companies, environmentalists, indigenous groups and others.

Sarney Filho said he expects carbon emissions to fall in Brazil this year, corresponding to a 16 percent drop in deforestation between August 2016 and July 2017 from the year-earlier period.