Turkey’s Ruling Party Suffers Heavy Losses in Key Local Polls

VOA’s Turkish and Kurdish services contributed to this report.

ISTANBUL — Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s party suffered heavy losses in Sunday’s local elections, losing critical cities across the country, while the main opposition party is on course to win the capital Ankara.

In Istanbul, election results remain too close to call, with opposition claims of voter manipulation.

Erdogan, speaking in Istanbul to reporters, acknowledged his Justice and Development Party (AKP) had suffered setbacks and vowed to learn “lessons” from the poll.

“We had some wins; we had some losses,” he said.  Erdogan went on to promise to introduce measures to boost the economy, which is mired in recession.

Possible defeat in Ankara

Some analysts see Erdogan’s avoidance of his traditional fiery rhetoric against the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) as a sign of accepting defeat in the capital Ankara.

Ankara’s CHP candidate, Mansor Yavas, appears set for a historic but narrow victory for the opposition.

In addressing thousands of supporters gathered in the heart of the capital, Yavas gave a conciliatory speech, promising to focus on services, adding there would be no purge of workers with ties to the AKP.

In Istanbul, the contest remains mired in controversy. AKP candidate Binali Yildirim claimed victory in a short speech. However, CHP candidate Ekrem Imamoglu immediately shot back, saying it was shameful to claim success, given that only a few thousand votes separate the candidates and some ballots remain uncounted.

Imamoglu called on his supporters not to sleep for the next 48 hours, warning their victory was being stolen from them.

Earlier Sunday evening, Imamoglu challenged the integrity of the counting of the vote, claiming there were disparities in results in the announced elections.

With 98.5% of votes counted in Istanbul, results appeared frozen with no update for several hours. Most of the outstanding uncounted ballots are in CHP strongholds.

Recent elections in Turkey have been marred by controversy over voter manipulation and outright fraud allegations by the opposition, a charge denied by the governing AKP. Critics, however, claim the Supreme Electoral Board, which administers elections, is run by the government and presidential appointees.

Sunday evening, the electoral board stopped sending results to the opposition parties for 40 minutes, claiming it was upgrading its system. Leading members of the opposition party went to the electoral board headquarters, demanding an explanation.

Beyond Ankara and Istanbul, the AKP lost several key provincial cities, while narrowly avoiding defeat in many others. Several other important results remain in the balance.

Recession, inflation

The AKP appears to be paying a heavy price for an economy in recession and soaring inflation.

“Our economy is getting worse and worse because of their (government) bad management,” said Erdem, an engineer, speaking before voting in Istanbul. “Most of my friends are now looking for a job and some my friends lose their job because of economic crisis.”

Voters in Ankara spoke about the country’s economic problems.

“The youth in this country are unemployed. We know the hardships of people who don’t have a job. The only solution to this is creating jobs,” Orhan Kurubacak told VOA.

“I don’t think things are going well. There is nothing more else to say. There are a lot of economic factors,” Hakan Akyürek said.

Diyarbakir AKP candidate, Cumali Attila, told VOA’s Kurdish service, “I hope these elections would end with gumption. It is our responsibility to claim democracy.”

The pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) heavily defeated Attila. However, the AKP scored some crucial victories in the predominantly Kurdish southeast, winning key provinces. In Sirnak, the AKP won with a 30 percent swing to the party from the HDP.

Such success will likely do little to soften the blow Erdogan has suffered in the Sunday polls. Even though Erdogan was not on the ballot, he took personal control of the local election campaign. In the last few days held more than a dozen rallies across Istanbul in a bid to consolidate his party’s support.

Realities in country

Despite such efforts, analysts say Erdogan could not escape the economic realities facing the county.

“I think that the most powerful and effective opposition parties are not the classical parties, like the Republican People’s Party or the Good Party. However, the key issue for the elections is the increasing prices of vegetables. Let’s say the prices of cucumbers or tomatoes. These are the most effective oppositions of Turkey,” Doster added.

The loss of Ankara and possibly Istanbul is the worst electoral defeat for Erdogan, who has enjoyed unparalleled success. Analysts say  Erdogan’s reputation of electoral invincibility has received a significant blow.

Meanwhile, HDP co-chair Pervin Buldan said votes cast Sunday for her party “will contribute to peace, freedom and equality.”

Buldan said, however, obstacles their party faced, such as receiving no television coverage during the election, might not be enough to win.

“Every day we tried to clear and explain the truths told our people about the lies, slanders, threats and the perception that created against us. We did our duty today. I believe that our people will do their duty at the polls, too,” she said.

Pope Defends Decision to Reject Convicted French Cardinal’s Resignation

Pope Francis on Sunday defended his decision to  refuse to accept the resignation earlier this month of French Cardinal Philippe Barbarin, who was convicted of failing to report sexual abuse allegations to police.

Francis, who spoke with reporters on his return from a two-day trip to Morocco, said a final decision wouldn’t be made until Barbarin’s appeal process was completed.

“I can’t accept it (resignation) because in juridical terms, in classic world jurisprudence, there is the presumption of innocence as long as the case is open, and he has appealed,” the pope said.

Barbarin offered his resignation on March 18. He said at the time the pope “spoke of the presumption of innocence and did not accept” it.

Francis instead asked Barbarin, the most senior French cleric involved in the Catholic Church’s worldwide pedophilia scandal, to do what Barbarin believes is best for the Lyon archdiocese. The 68-year-old cardinal has decided to take a leave of absence and has asked his assistant to assume leadership of the archdiocese until the appeal process is over.

Barbarin was sentenced to a six-month suspended sentence earlier this month for failing to report a predator priest to authorities. The priest, Benard Preynat, allegedly sexually abused boy scouts in the 1980s and 1990s.

The pope has previously defended Barbarin, saying in 2016 that his resignation before a trial would be “an error, imprudent.”

One of Russia’s Richest Women Dies in Plane Crash in Germany

One of Russia’s richest women, S7 Group co-owner Natalia Fileva, has died in a small plane crash in Germany, the Russian airline operator said Sunday.

Fileva, 55, was aboard a single-engine, six-seat Epic LT aircraft that crashed and burned in a field as it approached the small airport at Egelsbach, a town in southwestern Germany, about 3:30 p.m. Sunday, the airline’s press service said in an email.

German police said there appeared to be three people aboard the plane, including the pilot of the flight, which originated in France. They said the two passengers were believed to be Russian citizens but that positive identification of the occupants would require further investigation.

German aviation authorities were probing the cause of the crash. Egelsbach is about 10 kilometers (6 miles) south of Frankfurt.

The business publication Forbes.ru estimated Fileva’s fortune at $600 million.

“S7 Group team extends sincere and heartfelt condolences to Mrs. Fileva’s family and loved ones,” the company said in a statement. “The memory of her as an inspiring and sympathetic leader and a wonderful person will forever stay in the hearts of all S7 Group employees. It is an irreparable loss. ”

Based at Moscow’s Domodedovo Airport, S7 is part of the Oneworld alliance and flies to 150 destinations in 35 countries.

The crash was also linked to other deaths in Germany.

The dpa news agency, citing police, reported that two people died Sunday and three others were seriously hurt when a police vehicle that was responding to the plane crash with flashing lights and sirens was struck head-on by another vehicle several kilometers (miles) from the crash site.

Citing police, dpa reported that three injured were in the police vehicle and the two dead were in the other car.

White House Not Backing Down on Trump’s Threat to Close US-Mexico Border

Washington is focused yet again on immigration and border security after President Donald Trump threatened to close America’s southern border with Mexico and declared he wants U.S. aid terminated to three Central American nations. VOA’s Michael Bowman reports, Trump’s moves come amid a continuing surge of undocumented migrant arrivals that have strained federal resources and personnel along the U.S.-Mexico border.

Zelenskiy Leads Poroshenko in First Round of Ukraine’s Elections

Comedian and political novice Volodymyr Zelensky was the top vote getter, ahead of incumbent president Petro Poroshenko, in Ukraine’s first round of presidential elections, according to exit polls Sunday, leading the two candidates into a run-off election.

Zelensky, a comedian who plays the role of the president in a television comedy series, was projected to win 30.4 percent of the vote, easily beating Poroshenko, in power since 2014, who earned 17.8 percent, according to the Central Election Commission’s report as of 6pm.

If no candidate wins more than half of the votes, the election will proceed to a run-off to be held on April 21.

“This is only the first step toward a great victory,” Zelensky told reporters after the initial results were released.

Zelenskiy is seeking to prove life can indeed imitate art. He in the protagonist of a long-running popular series called the “Servant of the People,” in which he plays a teacher who unexpectedly finds himself president after a student posts on YouTube one of his rants denouncing the elite.

President Petro Poroshenko had the support of just 13.7 percent of the voters, according to a pre-election poll by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology.

The 53-year-old billionaire dubbed the chocolate king because of his confectionery business has been accused by opponents of running schemes to buy votes, especially in small towns where the pull of political paternalism is strong.

Center in Havana Opens to Preserve Hemingway’s Legacy

U.S. donors and Cuban builders have completed one of the longest-running joint projects between the two countries at a low point in bilateral relations.

Officials from the Boston-based Finca Vigia Foundation and Cuba’s National Cultural Heritage Council cut the ribbon Saturday evening on a state-of-the-art, $1.2 million conservation center on the grounds of Ernest Hemingway’s stately home on a hill overlooking Havana.

 

The center, which has been under construction since 2016, contains modern technology for cleaning and preserving a multitude of artifacts from the home where Hemingway lived in the 1940s and 1950s.

 

When he died in 1961, the author left approximately 5,000 photos, 10,000 letters and perhaps thousands of margin notes in roughly 9,000 books at the property.

 

“The laboratory we’re inaugurating today is the only one in Cuba with this capacity and it will allow us to contribute to safeguarding the legacy of Ernest Hemingway in Cuba,” said Grisell Fraga, director of the Ernest Hemingway Museum.

U.S. Rep. Jim McGovern, a Democrat from Massachusetts, spoke at the ceremony and called it a sign of the potential for U.S.-Cuban cooperation despite rising tensions between the Communist government and the Trump administration.

 

McGovern, who met with President Miguel Diaz-Canel and other Cuban officials during his visit, said that despite tensions over Venezuela, a Cuban ally, he still believed respectful dialogue was the most productive way of dealing with Cuba’s government.

 

The Trump administration has said it is trying to get rid of socialism in Latin America.

 

 

White House Demands Mexico, 3 Central American Countries Curb Migrant Surge

The Trump administration on Sunday demanded that Mexico and three Central American countries curb the surge of thousands of undocumented migrants heading to the United States, noting that the homeland security chief for former President Barack Obama agrees there is an immigration crisis at the southern U.S. border.

“We need your help,” acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney told Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador in an interview on ABC News. He said Mexico needs to solidify its southern border with Guatemala to prevent the caravans from heading north through Mexico to the U.S. and that the three Central American counties need to curb migrants from leaving their countries.

He left open the distinct possibility that President Donald Trump would close the U.S. border with Mexico in the coming days, even as he says he intends to cut off about $500 million in U.S. aid to the three Northern Triangle countries.

“Jeh Johnson admits we were right” about a crisis on the southern U.S. border, Mulvaney said, referring to the Obama homeland security secretary. “We hate to say we told you so, but we told you so.”

On Saturday, Johnson told Fox News, “By anyone’s definition, by any measure, right now we have a crisis at our southern border.”

There were 4,000 apprehensions of migrants at the border one day last week and the U.S. is on pace for 100,000 for all of March.

“That is by far a greater number than anything I saw on my watch in my three years as secretary of Homeland Security,” Johnson said.

Mulvaney said if the three Central American countries do not curb migration to the U.S., “there’s little reason to continue sending them money.”

Current Homeland Security chief Kirstjen Nielsen last week signed a regional border security compact with Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador to curb the illegal migrant surge and interdict the flow of drugs into the U.S.

But Mulvaney said the three countries’ “actions will speak louder than words.”

Blaming Democrats

The White House official said, “Congress can fix this” with tougher immigration controls along the U.S., but that “it’s clear the Democrats are not going to help us. So we’re looking to cutting off aid and closing the border.”

Trump said on Twitter Saturday, “It would be so easy to fix our weak and very stupid Democrat inspired immigration laws. In less than one hour, and then a vote, the problem would be solved. But the Dems don’t care about the crime, they don’t want any victory for Trump and the Republicans, even if good for USA!”

He added, “Mexico must use its very strong immigration laws to stop the many thousands of people trying to get into the USA. Our detention areas are maxed out & we will take no more illegals. Next step is to close the Border! This will also help us with stopping the Drug flow from Mexico!”

After Congress earlier this year refused to fund Trump’s request for money to build a border wall, he declared a national emergency to tap money allocated for other programs to build the wall. Both houses of Congress passed legislation to overturn Trump’s national emergency declaration, but he vetoed it and the House of Representatives last week failed to override the veto.

‘Reckless’ policy?

Congressional action would be needed to cut off aid to the three countries. New Jersey Senator Bob Menendez, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, called Trump’s order a “reckless announcement” and urged Democrats and Republicans alike to reject it.

 

Rep. Joaquin Castro, a Texas Democrat and chairman of the Hispanic Caucus, warned in a statement released Saturday that cutting off aid will further destabilize the Northern Triangle countries.

 

“By cutting off desperately needed aid, the administration will deprive El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras of critical funds that help stabilize these countries by curbing migration push factors such as violence, gangs, poverty and insecurity. Ultimately, this short-sighted and flawed decision lays the groundwork for the humanitarian crisis at our border to escalate further,” he said.

 

Michael Clemens, a senior fellow at The Center for Global Development, says the administration’s strategy to shape migration through aid needs to be done right.

 

“If what the United States wants to do is prevent irregular child migration in a way that works and is cost-effective, it should not do what it has traditionally done — spend 10 times as much on border enforcement trying to keep child migrants out as it spends on security assistance to the region,” he said. “In fact, smartly packaged security assistance” is the only thing that has been “shown to reduce violence effectively and cost effectively.”

Thousands March in Spain to Demand More Help for Rural Areas

Thousands of Spaniards gathered in Madrid on Sunday to demand that the government take steps to curb the depopulation of rural areas.

Sunday’s march under the slogan “The Revolt of the Emptied Spain” was organized by grassroots groups from rural areas in the southern European Union nation.

 

In Spain, 90 percent of the population is now concentrated in 30 percent of the country’s territory, namely in Madrid and the coastal areas. That leaves 10 percent of its people spread over large swaths of the interior.

 

On Friday, the government announced measures to improve internet networks in the countryside.

 

The march comes before Spain’s April 28 general election, when rural areas could play a key role in deciding if the Socialists stay in power. Spanish election law gives more weight to underpopulated areas.

 

 

Netanyahu Warmly Welcomes Brazil’s Bolsonaro in Israel

Israel’s prime minister warmly received President Jair Bolsonaro Sunday, on the Brazilian leader’s first state visit to Israel.

Benjamin Netanyahu’s red carpet welcome for Bolsonaro comes days ahead of a tough re-election bid for the long-time Israeli premier on April 9.

 

The Brazilian president is widely expected during his three-day trip to decide whether to follow President Donald Trump’s lead and move the Brazilian Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, a move he has repeatedly promised.

 

The Palestinians claim east Jerusalem, which Israel captured in the 1967 Mideast war, as the capital of a future state. Israel claims all of Jerusalem as its capital, including the eastern sector.

 

The two leaders, wearing matching blue ties as they surveyed an Israeli color guard, touted the forging of closer ties. Netanyahu addressed Bolsonaro as a “good friend” and said Israel and Brazil have entered “a new era” of relations.

 

The Brazilian leader opened his speech after landing with the words “I love Israel” in Hebrew.

 

“My government is firmly decided to strengthen the partnership between Brazil and Israel,” Bolsonaro added.

 

Netanyahu has faced criticism for courting the friendship of authoritarian leaders, such as Hungary’s Victor Orban, Russia’s Vladimir Putin and the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte, in his push for closer ties around the globe.

 

Bolsonaro has drawn criticism for making disparaging remarks about gays, women, indigenous groups and blacks during his 28-year career as a Brazilian congressman. Rights groups have expressed concern about the new administration’s hardline approach to security and protection for police officers who commit crimes.

 

Israeli activists protested outside the airport after Bolsonaro landed, raising a rainbow flag with the words “The Holy Land doesn’t want homophobes here” in Portuguese.

 

Polls Open in Ukraine’s Presidential Election

The polls have opened and voters in Ukraine are casting their ballots Sunday in the first round of the country’s presidential election.

The top three of the 39 candidates are: a comedian who plays the role of the president in a television comedy series, the incumbent president, and a former prime minister, who is running for president for the third time.

Volodymyr Zelenskiy is seeking to prove life can indeed imitate art. He is the protagonist of a long-running popular series called the “Servant of the People” in which he plays a teacher who unexpectedly finds himself president after a student posts on YouTube one of his rants denouncing the elite.

President Petro Poroshenko has the support of just 13.7 percent of the voters, according to a recent poll by the Kiev International Institute of Sociology. The 53-year-old billionaire dubbed the chocolate king because of his confectionery business has been accused by opponents of running schemes to buy votes, especially in small towns where the pull of political paternalism is strong.

Yulia Tymoshenko became Ukraine’s prime minister after the 2004 Orange Revolution. She was arrested in 2011, charged with abusing power in a natural gas deal. She was released in 2014 and ran for president, but lost to Poroshenko.

None of the candidates is expected to win a majority of the vote in the first round. The top two winners in Sunday’s vote will face off in a second round of voting.