Long lines, face masks in Wisconsin as voters head to polls despite coronavirus

By John Whitesides and Joseph Ax

(Reuters) – Wisconsin voters faced long lines at limited polling locations on Tuesday, as the state’s presidential primary and local elections moved ahead despite mounting fears about the coronavirus outbreak.

Outside Riverside High School in Milwaukee – where officials were forced to close 175 of 180 normal voting sites due to a lack of poll workers – masked voters stood several feet apart in a line that stretched for several blocks early on Tuesday, according to video taken by onlookers and local news media.

More than half of Wisconsin’s municipalities reported shortages of poll workers, prompting the Midwestern state to call up 2,400 National Guard troops to assist.

The election took place even though Wisconsin, like most U.S. states, has imposed a stay-at-home order on its residents. More than a dozen other states have postponed their elections in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has transformed Americans’ daily lives and plunged the economy into an apparent recession.

A flurry of 11th-hour legal wrangling failed to stop the balloting, as two late court rulings on Monday put the election, which will include Democratic and Republican presidential primaries and voting for thousands of state and local offices, back on track after days of uncertainty.

In deciding separate lawsuits brought by Republicans, the state Supreme Court blocked Democratic Governor Tony Evers’ order to delay the election until June and the U.S. Supreme Court overturned a federal judge’s decision extending absentee voting, instead ruling ballots must be postmarked by Tuesday to be counted.

“Now voters will be forced to choose between their health and their right to vote, an untenable choice that responsible public officials tried to avoid,” said Satya Rhodes-Conway, the Democratic mayor of Madison, Wisconsin.

The legal maneuvering overshadowed the Democratic presidential primary in Wisconsin, the first nominating contest held since March 17 in the race to pick a challenger to Republican President Donald Trump for the Nov. 3 election. The outbreak has pushed front-runner Joe Biden and rival Bernie Sanders off the campaign trail.

Former Vice President Biden has built a nearly insurmountable lead over Senator Sanders in the delegates who will pick the nominee at the national convention this summer. The convention, scheduled to be held in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, has been postponed to August from July by the pandemic.

After a late-night meeting on Monday, the Wisconsin Elections Commission said no results of Tuesday’s voting would be released until April 13, the deadline for absentee ballots postmarked by Tuesday to be received.

In Milwaukee, the health commissioner in Wisconsin’s biggest city, Jeanette Kowalik, asked voters to wear masks, avoid reusing pens and stand at least six feet apart.

“I’m sorry, I wish I had the authority to protect us from this,” she wrote on Twitter.

(Reporting by John Whitesides and Joseph Ax; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan and Jonathan Oatis)

Israeli challenger Gantz plays character card against Netanyahu

By Dan Williams and Stephen Farrell

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Former military chief Benny Gantz portrays himself as a straight-shooter who will restore simple values to Israel if he wins power in the country’s third election in less than a year.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the man Gantz wants to oust in Monday’s election, once praised him as “an officer and a gentleman” when his government appointed him Chief of Staff of the armed forces eight years ago.

The tone is very different now.

Gantz, who leads the centrist Blue and White party, has been attacking Netanyahu’s character, mainly over corruption charges facing Israel’s longest-serving leader, and the prime minister’s right-wing Likud party has branded Gantz a weak leftist.

Netanyahu’s trial is set to begin on March 17, just two weeks after the election. Netanyahu, who at 70 is a decade older than Gantz, denies any wrongdoing, calling the investigation a witch-hunt.

“The man charged with bribery, fraud and breach of trust has nothing to sell other than disseminated lies and slung mud,” Gantz tweeted about Netanyahu a week before the election. “Israel needs a full-time prime minister.”

But while Blue and White has talked up Gantz’s military background, Likud has sought to portray their opponent as soft on Iran and too conciliatory toward the Palestinians.

Gayil Talshir, a Hebrew University political scientist, said Israel still appeared to be split, reflecting the inconclusive outcome of elections in April and September last year in which neither party could form a ruling coalition.

Blue and White led Likud in opinion polls for weeks during this campaign but recent surveys have shown Likud pulling slightly ahead.

“The trial is super-important… the center and left in Israel is going against Netanyahu,” Talshir said. “But his (Netanyahu’s) own base is rallying around Netanyahu.”

‘PROPER CONDUCT’

Tall and athletic, with a fondness for folk singing and motorcycle riding, Gantz was a consensus figure for Israelis when chief of the conscript military between 2011 and 2015.

But what he would do in power is not entirely clear, as he has sent mixed messages.

He casts himself as more diplomatically accommodating than Netanyahu, urging redoubled efforts to restart peace talks.

But while Palestinians may prefer Gantz to Netanyahu, there is little fondness for him after two wars in the Gaza Strip, a self-governing Palestinian enclave, while Gantz was in charge of the Israeli military. About 2,300 Palestinians were killed in the fighting.

He has also publicly embraced U.S. President Donald Trump’s Middle East plan, which was rejected outright by the Palestinians for what they see as pro-Israel bias.

While Netanyahu holds rallies around the country exhorting his right-wing supporters to turn out, Gantz’s party believes some may be persuaded to peel away by a cross-partisan appeal to “proper conduct.”

“Our polls indicate that a considerable number of Likud supporters are unhappy with the situation and are wavering,” Yoaz Hendel, one of the party’s lawmakers, told Reuters. “They are part of our focus.”

Gantz’s “Mr Clean” image took a knock last week when police announced an investigation into the conduct of a now-defunct security consultancy that he chaired after he left the military.

Gantz is not a suspect in the case, but Netanyahu seized on it to try to undermine his less experienced opponent.

Gantz has also made occasional stumbles in campaign interviews, getting an interviewer’s name wrong and stammering slightly while collecting his thoughts.

Netanyahu has used these stumbles as ammunition to accuse Gantz as lacking the capacity for quick thinking.

“So I don’t speak like you. Big deal,” Gantz responded brusquely during a televised speech on Wednesday. “While you were taking acting classes in New York, I was defending this country.”

 

(Additional reporting by Maayan Lubell, Editing by Timothy Heritage)

‘From bad to worse’ – Dashed hopes may deter many Iranians from polls

By Babak Dehghanpisheh

DUBAI (Reuters) – Confrontation with America, economic hardship and an airline tragedy have battered Iranians’ confidence in their leaders, posing a potential problem for the authorities in a parliamentary election this week.

As the Feb. 21 vote nears, Iranians are in a gloomy mood, exhausted by a succession of crises that have helped to shred the hopes for a better life they harbored only four years ago.

That does not bode well for leaders seeking a big turnout at the ballot box: In their view, crowded polling stations would signal to arch-foe Washington that Iran is unbowed by sanctions and the killing of a prominent general in a U.S. strike.

Allies of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei have ensured hardliners dominate the field — meaning that, whatever the turnout, security hawks seeking a more confrontational approach with Washington may tighten their control of the legislature.

But a meager showing would still rattle Iran’s leaders and embolden critics both in the country and outside who argue the Islamic Republic needs to change domestic and foreign policy.

“I’m a person who has voted before. My hope was that things would get a little better when I voted in the past. Now, all the red lines have been crossed,” said a doctor in Tehran whose clinic is struggling to source specialized medicine.

“This time, I have no hope and I will definitely not vote,” she said by phone, asking not to be identified discussing political matters.

Four years ago, things looked very different. Rouhani and his allies won big gains in parliamentary elections, and many hoped a nuclear deal agreed with world powers in 2015 would pull Iran out of political isolation and boost the economy.

“WE HAVEN’T SEEN ANY PROGRESS”

Those aspirations crumbled after President Donald Trump quit the pact in 2018 and reimposed sanctions in an effort to put stricter limits on Iran’s nuclear work, curb its ballistic missile program and end its involvement in regional proxy wars.

“The main root of everything is the economy,” Ali, a mobile phone shop employee in the central city of Isfahan, said by telephone, asking not to reveal his surname.

“If an individual doesn’t have the money to take home bread to his wife and family then he’ll stop praying and even lose his beliefs,” said Ali, who works more hours since his boss kept the store open in traditional afternoon resting periods in the hope customers could wander in. Ali does not plan to vote next week.

“I voted for several years and it didn’t make any difference. We haven’t seen any progress to say we want this or that candidate to come forward,” he said.

The authorities have been under pressure since last year when protests over a fuel price hike were met with the bloodiest crackdown since the 1979 Islamic revolution, killing hundreds.

A U.S. drone strike that felled top commander Qassem Soleimani in January in Iraq rallied Iranians around a common cause. But the show of support was quickly replaced by angry protests over efforts to cover up the accidental shooting down of a Ukrainian airliner that killed all 176 aboard.

The elite Revolutionary Guards apologized for the calamity, but that did not appease thousands protesting in several cities.

“This year, things are going from bad to worse,” said a Tehran resident and homemaker, who does not plan to vote and also asked not to be named.

“After the plane crash, the government has lost a lot of their supporters,” said the resident, who added that the establishment needed the election to show the world “how many supporters they have” after the string of crises.

Even before the latest troubles, sanctions that cut Iran’s crude oil exports by more than 80 percent were placing a painful squeeze on living standards.

The rial has slumped, trading on the free market at about 140,000 against the dollar against its official rate of 42,000, according to foreign exchange website Bonbast.com

VOTING FOR “HARD REVENGE”

The currency plunge has disrupted Iran’s foreign trade and boosted inflation, which the IMF expects at 31% this year.

In the eastern city of Birjand, Hamed said he has no time for elections as he frets about his business filming and photographing weddings, with only one in 10 customers asking for albums after the cost of photo paper rose six-fold since 2018.

“We’re focused on prices and having to call customers and asking them to pay,” Hamed told Reuters by phone, also declining to give his surname due to sensitivities. “We have nothing to do with politicians and politics.”

Analysts expect a lower turnout than the 62% in the 2016 parliamentary elections, with smaller, more conservative cities where families pressure kin to vote seeing a larger showing.

But Khamenei, Iran’s highest authority, has tried to drum up nationalistic sentiment to secure a strong turnout.

“It’s possible that someone doesn’t like me but if they like Iran they must come to the ballot box,” he said in a speech.

Supporters echoed the call on social media.

“A better election can also be another #hard_revenge,” a Twitter user named Teiaaraa posted two weeks ago, referring to a phrase used by state media for the Iranian strikes on Iraq bases that left over 100 U.S. soldiers with traumatic brain injuries.

(Reporting By Babak Dehghanpisheh; additional reporting by Davide Barbuscia; Editing by Ghaida Ghantous, William Maclean)

China rattles saber – and offers friendship – days before Taiwan’s elections

By Ben Blanchard

BEIJING (Reuters) – With just days to go before Taiwan’s elections, its giant neighbor is trying a push-and-pull strategy on the island Beijing claims as Chinese territory, rattling its saber while trying to coax electors with outwardly friendlier policies.

Taiwan, which says it is an independent country, has long been wary of Chinese attempts to sway its elections in favor of candidates who may look more kindly upon Beijing.

Fear of China has become a major element in the campaign, boosted not only by the anti-government protests in Chinese-ruled Hong Kong but also by a speech Chinese President Xi Jinping gave in January outlining China’s “reunification” agenda, including threats of force.

Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen and her team are pressing home a message that people need to “protect” Taiwan from China when they vote in the Jan. 11 presidential and parliamentary election.

On Thursday, Taiwan’s Defence Ministry said China had sailed another carrier group through the Taiwan Strait just weeks after the last mission.

Taiwan Foreign Minister Joseph Wu quickly took to Twitter to denounce it.

“There it goes again!” he wrote. “Military threats like this only toughen Taiwan’s determination to defend itself and preserve regional peace and stability.”

A few days before that, retired but influential Chinese General Wang Hongguang outlined at a state-media organized forum in Beijing how China could bring Taiwan to its knees by invading its outlying islands and “terrifying” Taipei into submission.

At the same time, China has rolled out policies promising better treatment for the Taiwanese business community, which has invested billions in China, and on Saturday revised a law to give those promises a firmer legal basis.

China has also encouraged Taiwanese abroad, even in places where Taiwan has its own representative offices, to seek consular help from Chinese embassies.

Taiwan says China has sinister intentions, and it must defend its freedoms.

Taiwan only enjoys democracy now after decades of struggle, Tsai’s running mate, William Lai, told supporters on Saturday.

“How can we go backwards, and become a second Hong Kong or Tibet?” he said.

China has ramped up pressure on Tsai since she won office in 2016, cutting off talks and flying bombers around Taiwan, believing she wants to push for the island’s formal independence.

Tsai says Taiwan is already an independent country: the Republic of China, its official name.

China may have overreached recently, said one senior foreign envoy in Taipei, describing Xi’s January speech as effectively “Xi campaigning for Tsai” because of how badly it was received in Taiwan.

‘WE WOULD WIN’

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Beijing doesn’t see it that way.

Jin Canrong, Deputy Dean of the School of International Studies at Beijing’s elite Renmin University and a government adviser, said Xi’s speech marked a shift in policy away from preventing independence to actively promoting “reunification”.

China is confident that it could successfully use force against Taiwan, he added.

“China really does have the military ability, which is the say the armed ability, to resolve the Taiwan issue,” Jin said. “Although we would pay a price, in the end we would win.”

Any invasion would be bloody and difficult, as Taiwan’s military is well-armed, though the island could probably not hold out for long unless U.S. forces came quickly to their aid, military experts have said.

Opposition presidential candidate Han Kuo-yu of the Kuomintang (KMT) party, which favors close ties with China and who is trailing in the polls, says the best way to deal with China is to talk to Beijing and stop demonizing the Chinese for electoral gain.

Han adviser Su Chi, a former general secretary of Taiwan’s National Security Council, said he believed Xi was actually a “dove among the hawks” when it came to Taiwan and wanted a peaceful solution.

“There are loud voices in the mainland for using force to reunify Taiwan, especially in the People’s Liberation Army. I think he (Xi) doesn’t really want this,” Su said.

But Tsai’s returning to office would not necessarily mean relations with China would continue to worsen, as Beijing may realize it must talk to her, said senior legislator Lo Chih-cheng of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP).

“If our party or our president continues to be in power, eventually China has to come to terms with the incumbent government. They refuse to talk to the DPP because they believe the KMT had a chance to come back,” he told Reuters at his campaign office in a Taipei suburb.

“After seeing the probable defeat of the KMT, leaders in Beijing may believe that in the foreseeable future the KMT may not come back to power again,” he added. “So it might be reasonable or sensible for them to come to terms with the DPP government.”

(Reporting by Ben Blanchard; Additional reporting by Yimou Lee in Taipei and Gao Liangping in Beijing. Editing by Gerry Doyle)

Gaza rocket sends Netanyahu to shelter during campaign rally: TV

ASHKELON, Israel (Reuters) – A rocket launched from the Gaza Strip at a southern Israeli city on Wednesday as it hosted a campaign rally by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu prompted him to take shelter briefly before resuming the event, Israeli TV stations reported.

The Israeli military confirmed the launch against Ashkelon, which is 12 km (7.5 miles) from the coastal Palestinian enclave, and said the rocket was shot down by an Iron Dome air defense interceptor.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility in Gaza, which is under the control of Hamas Islamists and where a smaller armed faction, Islamic Jihad, exchanged fire with Israel during a two-day surge of violence last month.

Israeli TV stations showed Netanyahu, who is campaigning to keep the helm of the conservative Likud party in an internal election on Thursday, being escorted off a stage by bodyguards. The reports said he was taken to a shelter after sirens sounded.

It was the second such incident after a September appearance by Netanyahu in the nearby town of Ashdod was briefly disrupted by a rocket siren.

Israel sparked the November fighting in Gaza by assassinating Baha Abu Al-Atta, an Islamic Jihad commander it accused of ordering the launch against Ashdod.

“He (Al-Atta) is no longer around,” a video circulated on social media showed a smiling Netanyahu saying after he retook the stage in Ashkelon, to cheers from onlookers.

In a veiled threat to retaliate for Wednesday’s attack, he added: “Whoever tried to make an impression just now should pack his bags.”

While Netanyahu is widely expected to retain Likud’s leadership, he faces a tough battle ahead of a March general election in Israel – its third in a year, after he and his centrist rival Benny Gantz failed to secure majorities in two previous ballots. Netanyahu’s standing has been dented by an indictment on corruption charges that he denies.

Netanyahu’s failure to stem attacks from Gaza has been invoked by his political rivals.

“The situation in which Israeli citizens live at the mercy of terrorists and the prime minister of Israel is unable to tour parts of his country is a badge of shame on the security policy in the south – and a loss of deterrence that no sovereign country can accept,” Gantz, a former military chief, said in a statement on Wednesday.

(Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne and Dan Grebler)

Landslide democratic win puts pressure on leader of Chinese-ruled Hong Kong

Landslide democratic win puts pressure on leader of Chinese-ruled Hong Kong
By Twinnie Siu and Jessie Pang

HONG KONG (Reuters) – Hong Kong’s leader pledged to listen to public opinion on Monday and referred to deep-seated problems in society after a landslide election victory by opponents of Chinese rule amid months of sometimes violent pro-democracy unrest.

Democratic candidates secured almost 90% of 452 district council seats in Sunday’s poll, held during a rare weekend lull in clashes with police, despite a strongly resourced and mobilized pro-establishment opposition.

Hong Kong’s pro-Beijing chief executive, Carrie Lam, said the government respected the results and wished “the peaceful, safe and orderly situation to continue”.

“Quite a few are of the view that the results reflect people’s dissatisfaction with the current situation and the deep-seated problems in society,” Lam said.

The government would “listen to the opinions of members of the public humbly and seriously reflect”, her statement said.

The elections saw record turnout after six months of protests and brought upset wins for democrats against heavyweight pro-Beijing opponents, greeted in some voting centers by chants of “Liberate Hong Kong” and “Revolution Now”.

While district councils deal with local issues such as transport, their members also form part of the election committee for Hong Kong’s chief executive. This could give them some influence over the next vote in 2022, although they only account for 117 of its 1,200 members.

Democratic Party chairman Wu Chi-wai described the election as the first step in the long way to full democracy. “This district election shows that the central government needs to face the demands of a democratic system,” he said.

Along with universal suffrage, the protesters’ demands include an independent inquiry into perceived police brutality.

The voting ended with no major disruptions across the city of 7.4 million people on a day that saw massive, though orderly, queues form outside voting centers.

“This is the power of democracy. This is a democratic tsunami,” said Tommy Cheung, a former student protest leader who won a seat in the Yuen Long district close to China’s border.

FIRST STEP?

When asked if the chief executive should consider her position in light of the election results, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said Beijing “firmly supports” Lam’s leadership.

Hong Kong’s most urgent task was to restore order and stop the violence, Geng told a daily press briefing.

In self-ruled Taiwan, which China claims as its own, the Presidential Office expressed “great admiration and support” for the election result.

“The election fully demonstrates Hong Kong people’s absolute will to pursue freedom and democracy,” it said.

The number of seats held by the pro-democracy camp more than quadrupled and turnout, at 71%, was almost double the number in the previous polls four years ago.

Starry Lee, chairwoman of the city’s largest pro-Beijing party, the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong, apologized for her party’s performance.

“For this major defeat, we do not want to find any excuses and reasons,” said Lee. She said the party rejected her offer to resign earlier on Monday.

‘PATH OF STRUGGLE’

Former student leader Lester Shum, who won a seat, said district councils were just one path to democracy. “In future, we must find other paths of struggle to keep fighting,” he said.

China’s state-run Xinhua news agency announced the completion of the election, but did not say which side had won.

“Rioters, in concert with external forces, have continuously committed and escalated violence, resulting in social and political confrontation,” it said. “…Months of social unrest have seriously disrupted the electoral process.”

Demonstrators are angry at what they see as Chinese meddling in the freedoms promised to the former British colony when it returned to Chinese rule in 1997.

China denies interfering and says it is committed to the “one country, two systems” formula for the former British colony put in place when it returned to Chinese rule in 1997. Police say they have shown restraint in the face of potentially deadly attacks.

Britain said it welcomed Lam’s promise to “seriously reflect” on the result.

Jimmy Sham, a leader of the Civil Human Rights Front, which organized some of the anti-government rallies, won his electoral contest, while some pro-Beijing heavyweights, such as Junius Ho, a hate-figure among protesters for his abrasive comments, lost.

Ho described the outcome on Facebook as “an unusual result”.

Sham and other democrats entered the Polytechnic University to urge police to end a standoff and allow humanitarian assistance to those few protesters trapped inside in now filthy conditions, with fears rising about their physical and emotional health.

The university is guarded round the clock by riot police, after around 1,100 were arrested last week. Some were held during escape attempts that included trying to clamber down ropes to waiting motor-bikes, with protesters throwing petrol bombs and police responding with tear gas, rubber bullets and water cannon.

There was a small standoff between police and protesters outside the campus on Monday evening, with many shouting “come out” and hurling abuse at police.

The protests started over a now-withdrawn extradition bill that would have allowed people to be sent to mainland China for trial but rapidly evolved into calls for full democracy, posing the biggest populist challenge to Chinese President Xi Jinping since he came to power in 2012.

(Reporting by Clare Jim, Felix Tam, Twinnie Siu, Jessie Pang, Kate Lamb, Sarah Wu and Josh Smith in Hong Kong, Yimou Lee in Taipei and Vincent Lee and Gabriel Crossley in Beijing; Writing by James Pomfret, Marius Zaharia and Nick Macfie; Editing by Paul Tait, Simon Cameron-Moore and Philippa Fletcher)

Israel’s Netanyahu faces calls to quit but is defiant in crisis

By Stephen Farrell

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu faced calls to resign over a corruption scandal on Friday, as senior government colleagues publicly declared support after some signs of cracks in party loyalty.

Netanyahu said he would not quit after he was indicted on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust by Israel’s attorney general on Thursday night.

The 70-year-old right-wing Likud Party leader denies all wrongdoing and denounced the indictment – the first against a sitting Israeli prime minister – as an “attempted coup.”

But his ability to lead a country mired in political crisis, after two inconclusive elections this year that failed to produce a government, is being questioned.

The centrist Blue and White Party headed by Netanyahu’s main rival, Benny Gantz, issued a statement calling on him to “immediately resign from all ministerial positions in the government”.

The party – which has 33 of parliament’s 120 seats to Likud’s 32 – said its lawyers had formally approached the prime minister and attorney general’s offices saying it was “imperative” that Netanyahu step down.

Under Israeli law, as prime minister he is under no obligation to do so. But with Israel heading towards a likely third election in less than a year, Netanyahu could soon find himself in the difficult position of trying to win an election while preparing to be prosecuted.

The support of his Likud party colleagues is likely to be crucial to Netanyahu’s chances of staying in power.

Two Likud lawmakers publicly broached holding a party leadership contest on Thursday, but even such mild expressions of disloyalty upset loyalists.

Senior ministers issued public statements declaring their support, and Justice Minister Amir Ohana said he was proud of his fellow Likud parliamentarians for standing by Netanyahu, adding pointedly: “Except for two of them.”

Netanyahu’s ultra-nationalist coalition partner Bezalel Smotrich, the transport minister, also offered sympathy for Netanyahu over the charges against him, announced by Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit on Thursday.

Smotrich said in a tweet that planned street protests in support of the prime minister were aimed at preventing “a predatory, violent and dangerous judicial dictatorship”.

After a national televised address on Thursday night Netanyahu himself kept a low profile on Friday, posting a tweet with heart and an Israeli flag emojis saying: “Thank you for your support and love. Shabbat Shalom.”

ELECTION SCHEDULE

But Israel’s election schedule could work against Netanyahu, Israel’s longest serving prime minister after 10 successive years in power plus three years in office in the 1990s.

President Reuven Rivlin on Thursday set a three-week deadline for lawmakers to nominate a new candidate from their own ranks to try to form a new government after Netanyahu and Gantz both failed to do after April and September elections.

If that also fails to produce a government, an election will be triggered in three months.

A source close to Rivlin said he expected appeals to disqualify Netanyahu as a candidate because of the indictment. If the president does so, Netanyahu could be ejected by Likud.

“Netanyahu’s great fear is that, amid the extraordinary constitutional crisis has been created, and amid the political and legal synchronization, he will emerge as the only member of parliament who cannot do this (form a government),” wrote Tal Shalev, political commentator for Israel’s Walla news site.

Two of the three cases involve news media outlets whose bosses allegedly received inducements from Netanyahu in return for more favourable coverage on his policies and personal conduct.

(Additional reporting by Dan Williams, Tova Cohen and Nidal al-Mughrabi. Editing by XX)

Food shortages cripple Bolivia, new elections still uncertain

By Daniel Ramos

LA PAZ (Reuters) – Bolivians languished in long lines on the streets of La Paz on Sunday to secure chicken, eggs and cooking fuel as supporters of ousted President Evo Morales crippled the country’s highways, isolating population centers from lowland farms.

Presidency minister Jerjes Justiniano told reporters the government of interim President Jeanine Anez had established an “air bridge” to supply La Paz, using planes to bypass barricades on highways surrounding the highland capital. He said officials hoped to do the same with other cities cut off from supplies.

Bolivia remained in limbo one week after Morales, a charismatic leftist and former coca farmer, resigned over allegations of vote-tampering. Lawmakers have yet to agree on a date for new elections.

Morales fled to Mexico on Tuesday. But his supporters from largely coca-farming regions of the Andean nation have since taken to the streets, sometimes armed with homemade bazookas, handguns and grenades, barricading roads and skirmishing with security forces.

Some Morales supporters have demanded Anez, a former conservative lawmaker, resign. They have given her a deadline of midnight on Monday to step down, and have called for elections in 90 days.

As roadblocks take their toll, fuel has become scarce and many in the poorer neighborhoods of La Paz have been forced to cook over firewood.

“I hope things calm down,” said Josue Pillco, a construction worker from a working-class La Paz neighborhood. “We’re not getting any food or gasoline.”

Community leaders aligned with Morales in El Alto on Sunday were calling for a general strike Monday, raising the spectre of further supply shortfalls in the nearby capital.

POLICY RESET

Anez has agreed to new elections but also moved quickly to implement changes in policy at home and abroad.

On Friday, Bolivia asked Venezuelan officials under the country’s leftist leader Nicolas Maduro to leave the country. Anez’s government also accused Cuba, once a close ally, of stoking unrest following Morales’ resignation.

The Anez administration on Sunday renamed the state newspaper “Bolivia.” Morales called it “Change.”

Violent protests on Friday around Cochabamba, a coca-growing region and stronghold of Morales’ supporters, left at least nine people dead, officials said.

The local ombudsman in the Cochabamba region said police had used live ammunition against protesters, prompting allegations of human rights abuses by security forces under Anez.

Anez has blamed Morales for stoking violence from abroad, and has said her government wishes to hold elections and meet with the opposition to halt protests.

Morales, in exile in Mexico, has struck a more conciliatory tone in recent days, saying he would sit out the next election in an interview with Reuters on Friday.

U.N. envoy Jean Arnault said a team would hold meetings with politicians and social groups this week to end the violence and push for “free and transparent elections.”

The European Union ambassador to Bolivia Leon de la Torre also met with Anez Sunday.

He said the E.U. would provide support during the “transition period” and work to ensure “credible elections…under the most stringent international standards.”

The United States, Brazil, Colombia, Britain and Germany have also recognized Anez´s interim government.

(Reporting by Daniel Ramos and Gram Slattery in La Paz; Writing by Dave Sherwood; Editing by Lisa Shumaker and Daniel Wallis)

Domestic online interference mars global elections: report

Domestic online interference mars global elections: report
By Elizabeth Culliford

SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) – Domestic governments and local actors engaged in online interference in efforts to influence 26 of 30 national elections studied by a democracy watchdog over the past year, according to a report released on Monday.

Freedom House, which is partly funded by the U.S. government, said that internet-based election interference has become “an essential strategy” for those seeking to disrupt democracy.

Disinformation and propaganda were the most popular tools used, the group said in its annual report. Domestic state and partisan actors used online networks to spread conspiracy theories and misleading memes, often working in tandem with government-friendly media personalities and business figures, it said.

“Many governments are finding that on social media, propaganda works better than censorship,” said Mike Abramowitz, president of Freedom House.

“Authoritarians and populists around the globe are exploiting both human nature and computer algorithms to conquer the ballot box, running roughshod over rules designed to ensure free and fair elections.”

Some of those seeking to manipulate elections had evolved tactics to beat technology companies’ efforts to combat false and misleading news, the report said.

In the Philippines, for example, it said candidates paid social media “micro-influencers” to promote their campaigns on Facebook Inc, Twitter Inc.  and Instagram, where they peppered political endorsements among popular culture content.

Online disinformation was prevalent in the United States around major political events, such as the November 2018 midterm elections and the confirmation hearing for Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, the report said.

Freedom House also found a rise in the number of governments enlisting bots and fake accounts to surreptitiously shape online opinions and harass opponents, with such behavior found in 38 of the 65 countries covered in the report.

Social media was also being increasingly used for mass surveillance, with authorities in at least 40 countries instituting advanced social media monitoring programs.

China was ranked as the world’s worst abuser of internet freedom for a fourth consecutive year, after it enhanced information controls in the face of anti-government protests in Hong Kong and ahead of the 30th anniversary of Tiananmen Square.

For instance, Beijing blocked individual accounts on WeChat for “deviant” behavior, which encouraged self-censorship, the report said.

The Philippine and Chinese embassies in Washington, D.C., did not immediately respond to requests for comment outside of normal business hours.

(Reporting by Elizabeth Culliford; editing by Richard Pullin)

U.S. will not release Mideast peace plan before Israeli election

FILE PHOTO: Jason Greenblatt (C), U.S. President Donald Trump's Middle East envoy, arrives to visit Kibbutz Nahal Oz, just outside the Gaza Strip, in southern Israel August 30, 2017. REUTERS/Amir Cohen

By Steve Holland

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States will not release the long-delayed political portion of its Israeli-Palestinian peace plan before Israel’s elections, White House Middle East envoy Jason Greenblatt said on Wednesday.

The move, announced in a tweet by Greenblatt, appeared to be aimed at not interfering with September elections in which the leadership of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a close ally of U.S. President Donald Trump, is at stake.

“We have decided that we will not be releasing the peace vision (or parts of it) prior to the Israeli election,” Greenblatt said on Twitter.

Trump on Monday had said the plan might be revealed before the Israeli election.

Trump’s Middle East team, including senior adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner, had wanted to roll out the political plan during the summer but Netanyahu’s failure to put together a governing coalition after April elections prompted a delay.

Netanyahu now faces a fresh vote on Sept. 17 and if successful, will try again to form a coalition.

The White House in June announced the economic piece of the Trump peace plan and sought support for it at a conference of global finance ministers in Bahrain.

It proposes a $50 billion Middle East economic plan that would create a global investment fund to lift the Palestinian and neighboring Arab state economies, and fund a $5 billion transportation corridor to connect the West Bank and Gaza.

Gulf leaders, however, want to see details of the political plan, which is aimed at resolving some of the thorniest issues of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, before signing on to the economic plan.

(Additional reporting by Lisa Lambert; Writing by Arshad Mohammed and Steve Holland; Editing by Chris Reese)