Soros donation to halt Brexit causes storm in Britain

Business magnate George Soros arrives to speak at the Open Russia Club in London, Britain June 20, 2016.

By Guy Faulconbridge

LONDON (Reuters) – News that billionaire financier George Soros is a backer of a campaign group seeking to keep Britain in the EU added fire to Britain’s Brexit debate on Thursday, with supporters of quitting the bloc accusing opponents of plotting a “coup”.

The Best of Britain campaign group confirmed it had received 400,000 pounds from Soros. Soros, best known in Britain for earning billions betting against the pound in the early 1990s, is the target of a hostile media campaign by the nationalist government in his native Hungary and a hate figure for rightwing campaigners in eastern Europe and the United States.

Best of Britain said it had obeyed all rules on political funding in accepting the donation from Soros.

Prime Minister Theresa May’s office repeated its long-standing position that the decision to leave the EU in 2019 after a vote in 2016 was final and would not be reversed. It also defended the right of campaign groups to accept donations.

The Daily Telegraph newspaper, which first reported Soros’s involvement, said the 87-year-old former hedge fund manager was backing a “secret plot” to stop Brexit. The article was written by Nick Timothy, a former chief of staff to May.

Mark Malloch-Brown, a former British diplomat who is chair of the Best for Britain campaign group, said the group had never hidden its aims, which include staying in the EU.

“George Soros’s foundations have along with a number of other major donors also made significant contributions to our work,” Malloch-Brown said in a statement, confirming Soros had contributed 400,000 pounds through his charitable foundations.

May’s spokesman said: “There are many political and campaign groups in this country, that’s entirely right and as you would expect in a democracy.”

“The prime minister’s position on this matter is clear, the country voted to leave the European Union, that’s what we are going to deliver and there won’t be a second referendum.”

BREXIT REVERSED?

In the United Kingdom’s 2016 referendum, 51.9 percent, or 17.4 million people, voted to leave the EU while 48.1 percent, or 16.1 million people, voted to stay. Both sides accepted large donations from wealthy individuals.

Ever since the shock vote, supporters of EU membership have been exploring an array of different legal and political methods to prevent what they see as the biggest mistake in post-World War Two British history.

Brexiteers say such efforts threaten political stability as they go against the democratic will of 17.4 million people. They have vowed to fight any attempt to stop Brexit.

“The new Soros-led coalition is planning a coup in Britain, against the democratic will of the people,” Richard Tice, who chairs the Leave Means Leave campaign group, told Reuters. “They have been outed and will be defeated.”

May, whose government and party is divided over Brexit, has just eight months to strike a deal with the EU on the terms of Britain’s withdrawal.

Opponents of Brexit hope to focus their efforts on blocking British parliamentary approval for the exit deal, a step that if successful could sink May’s premiership. There is, though, little sign so far of a change in opinion among voters, and the supporters of EU membership lack a popular leader who could unite the disparate groups opposed to Brexit.

Brexiteers such as Nigel Farage say public opposition to Brexit from the likes of former Prime Minister Tony Blair and Goldman Sachs Group Inc <GS.N> Chief Executive Lloyd Blankfein are unlikely to sway British public opinion.

With no deal, Britain would face a disorderly Brexit that many investors fear would imperil Britain’s $2.7 trillion economy, disrupt trade across the world’s biggest trading bloc and undermine London’s position as the only financial centre to rival New York.

($1 = 0.7209 pounds)

(Reporting by Guy Faulconbridge; Editing by Peter Graff)

House to vote to renew NSA’s internet surveillance program

An illustration picture shows the logo of the U.S. National Security Agency on the display of an iPhone in Berlin, June 7, 2013.

By Dustin Volz

(Reuters) – The U.S. House of Representatives plans to vote on Thursday on whether to renew the National Security Agency’s warrantless internet surveillance program, which has been the target of privacy advocates who want to limit its impact on Americans.

The vote is the culmination of a yearslong debate in Congress on the proper scope of U.S. intelligence collection, one fueled by the 2013 disclosures of classified surveillance secrets by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.

The bill would extend the NSA’s spying program for six years with minimal changes. Most lawmakers expect it to become law if it prevails in the House, although it still would require Senate approval and President Donald Trump’s signature.

Trump appeared on Thursday to initially question the merits of the program, contradicting the official White House position and renewing unsubstantiated allegations that the previous administration of Barack Obama improperly surveilled his campaign during the 2016 election.

“This is the act that may have been used, with the help of the discredited and phony Dossier, to so badly surveil and abuse the Trump Campaign by the previous administration and others?” the president said in an early morning post on Twitter.

The White House did not immediately respond to a request to clarify Trump’s tweet but he posted a clarification less than two hours later.

“With that being said, I have personally directed the fix to the unmasking process since taking office and today’s vote is about foreign surveillance of foreign bad guys on foreign land. We need it! Get smart!” Trump tweeted.

Unmasking refers to the largely separate issue of how Americans’ names kept secret in intelligence reports can be revealed.

Asked by a Reuters reporter at a conference in New York about Trump’s tweets, Rob Joyce, the top White House cyber official, said there was no confusion within Oval Office about the value of the surveillance program and that there have been no cases of it being used improperly for political purposes.

Some conservative, libertarian-leaning Republicans and liberal Democrats were attempting to persuade colleagues to include more privacy protections. Those would include requiring a warrant before the NSA or other intelligence agencies could scrutinize communications belonging to Americans whose data is incidentally collected under the program.

The White House, U.S. intelligence agencies and Republican leaders in Congress have said they consider the tool indispensable and in need of little or no revision.

Without congressional action, legal support for Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which authorizes the program, will expire next week, although intelligence officials say it could continue through April.

Section 702 allows the NSA to eavesdrop on vast amounts of digital communications from foreigners living outside the United States through U.S. companies such as Facebook Inc, Verizon Communications Inc and Alphabet Inc’s Google.

The spying program also incidentally scoops up communications of Americans if they communicate with a foreign target living overseas, and can search those messages without a warrant.

(Reporting by Dustin Volz; Additional reporting by Doina Chiacu and Susan Heavey; Editing by Lisa Von Ahn and Bill Trott)

Catalan election to return hung parliament: poll

Catalan election to return hung parliament: poll

By Sonya Dowsett

MADRID (Reuters) – An election in Catalonia will fail to conclusively resolve a political crisis over an independence drive in the region, the final surveys before the Dec. 21 vote showed on Friday.

The ballot will result in a hung parliament, a Metroscopia poll showed, with parties favoring unity with Spain tipped to gain a maximum of 62 seats and pro-secession factions 63, both short of a majority in the region’s 135-seat legislature.

Spain’s worst political crisis since its transition to democracy four decades ago erupted in October, when Madrid cracked down on an independence referendum it had declared illegal and took control of the wealthy northeastern region.

The standoff has bitterly divided society, led to a business exodus and tarnished Spain’s rosy economic prospects, with the central bank on Friday blaming events in Catalonia for a cut in its growth forecasts for 2018 and 2019.

Both the Metroscopia poll, published in El Pais, and a second survey in another newspaper, La Razon, predicted a record turnout for a Catalan election.

But the vote looks likely to trigger weeks of haggling between different parties to try to form a government.

Former Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont is campaigning from Brussels, where he moved shortly after he was fired by Madrid following a unilateral declaration of independence by the region.

With Friday the last day polls were permitted before the ballot, the El Pais survey – which questioned 3,300 people in Catalonia between Dec. 4 and Dec. 13 – showed his party winning 22 seats.

Pro-unity party Ciudadanos, which has backed the minority central government of Mariano Rajoy’s People’s Party (PP) in parliamentary votes, will win most seats, closely followed by pro-independence ERC.

But at a maximum of 36 for Ciudadanos and 33 for ERC, both fall far short of the 68 seats needed for a majority.

The survey’s inconclusive split between pro-unity and pro-independence parties would leave the regional offshoot of left-wing party Podemos, which supports unity but wants a referendum on independence, as potential kingmaker.

Further muddying the waters, its leader Xavier Domenech favors a left-wing alliance across parties that both back and reject independence.

The La Razon poll, which surveyed 1,000 Catalans also between Dec. 4 and Dec. 13, showed parties in favor of independence winning 66 seats and unity supporters 60, leaving the Catalan Podemos arm with nine.

(Editing by Paul Day and John Stonestreet)

Federal Communications Commission set to reverse net neutrality rules

Federal Communications Commission set to reverse net neutrality rules

By David Shepardson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Federal Communications Commission is expected on Thursday to rescind net neutrality rules championed by Democratic former President Barack Obama that barred the blocking or slowing of internet traffic.

The 2015 rules barred broadband providers from blocking or slowing access to content or charging consumers more for certain content. They were intended to ensure a free and open internet, give consumers equal access to web content and prevent broadband service providers from favoring their own content. Chairman Ajit Pai proposes allowing those practices as long as they are disclosed.

Internet service providers clashed with Democrats and celebrities like “Star Wars” actor Mark Hamill ahead of a vote this week as the battle over net neutrality stretched from Hollywood to Washington.

Protesters including some members of Congress are expected to rally outside the FCC in Washington before the vote.

Pai’s proposal marks a victory for big internet service providers such as AT&T Inc, Comcast Corp and Verizon Communications Inc that opposed the rules and gives them sweeping powers to decide what web content consumers can get. It is a setback for Google parent Alphabet Inc and Facebook Inc, which had urged Pai not to rescind the rules.

Michael Powell, a former FCC chairman who heads a trade group representing major cable companies and broadcasters, told reporters that internet providers would not block content because it would not make economic sense and consumers would not stand for it.

“They make a lot of money on an open internet,” Powell said, adding it is “much more profitable” than a closed system. “This is not a pledge of good-heartedness, it’s a pledge in the shareholders’ interest.”

A University of Maryland poll released this week found that more than 80 percent of respondents opposed the proposal. The survey of 1,077 registered voters was conducted online by the Program for Public Consultation at the University of Maryland from Dec. 6-8.

Democrats have said the absence of rules would be unacceptable and that they would work to overturn the proposal if it is approved. Advocates of the net neutrality rules also plan a legal challenge.

Pai’s proposal is “like letting the bullies develop their own playground rules,” said Senator Ed Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat.

Many Republicans back Pai’s proposal but want Congress to write net neutrality rules. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said the FCC would “return the internet to a consumer-driven marketplace free of innovation-stifling regulations.”

A group of nearly 20 state attorneys general asked the FCC to delay the vote until the issue of fake comments is addressed.

(Reporting by David Shepardson; Editing by Chris Sanders and Lisa Shumaker)

Democrats win bitter Virginia governor’s race in setback for Trump

Democrats win bitter Virginia governor's race in setback for Trump

By John Whitesides

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Democrat Ralph Northam won a bitter race for Virginia governor on Tuesday, dealing a setback to President Donald Trump with a decisive victory over a Republican who had adopted some of the president’s combative tactics and issues.

Northam, the state’s lieutenant governor, overcame a barrage of attack ads by Republican Ed Gillespie that hit the soft-spoken Democrat on divisive issues such as immigration, gang crime and Confederate statues.

Trump, who endorsed Gillespie but did not campaign with him, had taken a break from his Asia trip to send tweets and record messages on Tuesday supporting the former chairman of the Republican National Committee.

But after the outcome, Trump quickly distanced himself from Gillespie.

“Ed Gillespie worked hard but did not embrace me or what I stand for,” Trump tweeted. “With the economy doing record numbers, we will continue to win, even bigger than before!”

At his victory party, Northam told supporters the sweeping Democratic win in Virginia sent a message to the country.

“Virginia has told us to end the divisiveness, that we will not condone hatred and bigotry, and to end the politics that have torn this country apart,” Northam said.

The Virginia race highlighted a slate of state and local elections that also included a governor’s race in New Jersey, where Democrat Phil Murphy, a former investment banker and ambassador to Germany, defeated Republican Kim Guadagno for the right to succeed Republican Chris Christie.

Murphy had promised to be a check on Trump in Democratic-leaning New Jersey. Guadagno, the lieutenant governor, was hampered by her association with the unpopular Christie.

BOOST FOR DEMOCRATS

Murphy’s win and the Northam victory in Virginia, a state Democrat Hillary Clinton won by 5 percentage points in the 2016 presidential election, provided a much-needed boost for national Democrats who were desperate to turn grassroots resistance to Trump into election victories.

Democrats had already lost four special congressional elections earlier this year.

But a strong turnout in the Democratic-leaning northern Virginia suburbs of Washington helped propel Northam, who in the end won relatively easily. With nearly all precincts reporting, he led by a 53 percent to 45 percent margin.

Exit polls in Virginia showed that one-third of the voters went to the polls to oppose Trump, and only 17 percent went to support him.

Democrats also swept the other top statewide Virginia races, winning the offices of lieutenant governor and attorney general, and gained seats in the Virginia House of Delegates. Democrat Danica Roem beat a long-time Republican incumbent to become the first transgender person to win a state legislative race.

“This is a comprehensive political victory from statehouse to courthouse. Thank you Donald Trump!” Democratic U.S. Representative Gerald Connolly of Virginia told Northam’s supporters at a victory party in northern Virginia.

In Virginia, Democrats had worried that if Gillespie won, Republicans would see it as a green light to emphasize divisive cultural issues in their campaigns for next year’s elections, when all 435 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives and 33 of the U.S. Senate’s 100 seats come up for election. Republicans now control both chambers.

Gillespie, speaking to crestfallen supporters in Richmond, Virginia, said he had run a “very policy-focused campaign.”

But voters in Arlington County – a suburban Democratic stronghold bordering Washington – said national politics were important to their votes.

“Trump talks about draining the swamp, but Gillespie kind of is the swamp,” said Nick Peacemaker, who works in marketing and considered himself a Republican until Trump won the party’s presidential nomination.

Peacemaker said Gillespie seemed to shift closer to Trump’s policies after securing the Republican gubernatorial nomination.

In local races across the country, Democratic Mayor Bill de Blasio in New York and Marty Walsh in Boston both easily won re-election. Voters were also picking mayors in Detroit, Atlanta, Seattle and Charlotte, North Carolina.

(Additional reporting by Ginger Gibson and Gary Robertson; Writing by John Whitesides; Editing by Peter Cooney and Himani Sarkar)

Maine governor will not expand Medicaid, ignoring voters

Maine governor will not expand Medicaid, ignoring voters

By Gina Cherelus

(Reuters) – Maine Republican Governor Paul LePage said on Wednesday he will not expand the state’s Medicaid program under Obamacare, ignoring a ballot initiative widely backed by voters, calling it “ruinous” for the state’s budget.

Maine looked set to become the first state in the nation to expand Medicaid by popular vote.

About 60 percent of voters in Maine approved the ballot proposal in Tuesday’s election, according to the Bangor Daily News newspaper.

Republicans in Washington have failed several times to pass legislation that would dismantle former President Barack Obama’s signature healthcare law.

LePage said he will not implement the expansion until it is fully funded by the Maine legislature.

“Credit agencies are predicting that this fiscally irresponsible Medicaid expansion will be ruinous to Maine’s budget,” LePage said in a statement. “I will not support increasing taxes on Maine families, raiding the rainy day fund or reducing services to our elderly or disabled.”

LePage said a previous Medicaid expansion in Maine in 2002 had created $750 million in debt to hospitals and took resources away from vulnerable people.

Maine has been prominent in the nation’s healthcare debate. U.S. Senator Susan Collins, a moderate Republican from Maine, helped block her party’s efforts to repeal Obamacare. Collins did not immediately respond to a request for comment on LePage’s decision.

Maine voters were asked to approve or reject a plan to provide healthcare coverage under Medicaid for adults under age 65 with incomes at or below 138 percent of the federal poverty level, which in 2017 is about $16,000 for a single person and about $22,000 for a family of two.

If implemented, about 70,000 additional state residents would be eligible for the Medicaid program, local media reported, in addition to the roughly 268,000 people who are currently eligible.

(Reporting by Gina Cherelus in New York; Editing by Daniel Wallis and Jeffrey Benkoe)

Voters in Maine approve expansion of Medicaid under Obamacare

Voters in Maine approve expansion of Medicaid under Obamacare

By Brendan O’Brien

(Reuters) – Voters in Maine on Tuesday approved a ballot initiative to expand the state’s Medicaid program under Obamacare, sending a clear signal of support for the federal healthcare law to lawmakers in the state and Washington D.C.

The approval of the ballot question in Maine comes after Republicans in Washington failed several times over the last few months to pass legislation that would dismantle the Affordable Care Act, former President Barack Obama’s signature healthcare law.

Maine has recently figured prominently in the nation’s debate on how to reform healthcare. U.S. Senator Susan Collins, a moderate Republican from Maine, helped block her party’s efforts to repeal Obamacare this year, which angered President Donald Trump.

Maine, which becomes the first U.S. state to approve Medicaid expansion by ballot initiative, is one of 19 states that has not expanded Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act.

About 60 percent of voters in Maine approved the ballot initiative, according to the Bangor Daily News newspaper.

Tuesday’s ballot asked Maine voters to approve or reject a plan to provide healthcare coverage under Medicaid for adults under the age of 65 with incomes at or below 138 percent of the federal poverty level, which in 2017 is about $16,000 for a single person and about $22,000 for a family of two.

The state’s Republican governor, Paul LePage, staunchly opposes expansion of federal health care insurance, vetoing legislation to do so on several occasions.

“I’ve said it before, “free” is very expensive to somebody,” LePage said in a radio address last week.

About 70,000 residents in Maine would be eligible for the state’s Medicaid program when and if state officials certify the results of the election. Lawmakers could vote to repeal or alter the referendum, much like they have recently for several citizen-initiated referendums, the Bangor Daily News reported.

“It is now the responsibility and the duty of the governor and the legislature to fully and faithfully implement this law,” the state’s Speaker of the House, Sara Gideon, said in a statement.

The Legislature’s Office of Fiscal and Program Review in Maine estimated that expansion of Medicaid would cost the state about $55 million and bring in about $525 million of federal money to the state each year, according to the Bangor Daily News.

(Reporting by Brendan O’Brien in Milwaukee; Editing by Nick Macfie)

Ousted Catalan leader accepts new election, says ‘long road’ to independence

Ousted Catalan leader accepts new election, says 'long road' to independence

By Robert-Jan Bartunek and Raquel Castillo

BRUSSELS/MADRID (Reuters) – Catalonia’s ousted leader Carles Puigdemont on Tuesday agreed to the snap election called by Spain’s central government when it took control of the region to stop it breaking away, but he said the fight for independence would go on.

Puigdemont, speaking at a news conference in Brussels, also said he was not seeking asylum in Belgium after Spain’s state prosecutor recommended charges for rebellion and sedition be brought against him. He would return to Catalonia when given “guarantees” by the Spanish government, he said.

Puigdemont’s announcement that he would accept the regional election on Dec. 21 signaled the Madrid government had for now at least gained the upper hand in the protracted struggle over Catalonia, a wealthy northeastern region that already had considerable autonomy.

Resistance to Madrid’s imposition of direct control on Catalonia failed to materialize at the start of the week and the secessionist leadership is in disarray.

But a poll released on Tuesday showed that support for the creation of an independent state of Catalonia rose to an almost three-year high in October.

Spain’s Constitutional Court on Tuesday blocked the unilateral declaration of independence made by the regional parliament on Friday – a largely symbolic move that gained no traction and led to the assembly’s dismissal by Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy less than an hour after it was made.

“I ask the Catalan people to prepare for a long road. Democracy will be the foundation of our victory,” Puigdemont said in Brussels, where he showed up after dropping out of sight over the weekend.

Rajoy, who has taken an uncompromising stance throughout the crisis, is gambling on anti-independence parties taking power in the regional parliament and putting the brakes on the independence drive. Puigdemont will hope a strong showing for the independence camp will reboot the secessionists after a tumultuous several weeks.

Puigdemont did not say when he would return to Spain and denied he was fleeing from justice, but he could be called to testify before the court on the rebellion and sedition charges as soon as the end of the week. He did not specify what guarantees he sought.

The Spanish government said at the weekend Puigdemont was welcome to stand in the election. The judicial process was a separate matter, it said.

The Supreme Court also began processing rebellion charges against Catalan parliament speaker Carme Forcadell and other senior leaders on Tuesday.

CATALONIA SPLIT

The political crisis, Spain’s gravest since the return of democracy in the late 1970s, was triggered by an independence referendum held in Catalonia on Oct. 1.

Though it was declared illegal by Spanish courts and less than half Catalonia’s eligible voters took part, the pro-secessionist regional government said the vote gave it a mandate for independence.

The United States, Britain, Germany and France have all backed Rajoy and rejected an independent Catalan state, although some have called for dialogue between the opposing sides.

Puigdemont, Vice President Oriol Junqueras and other Catalan leaders had said previously they would not accept their dismissal. But their respective parties, PdeCat and Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya, said on Monday they would take part in the election, a tacit acceptance of direct rule from Madrid.

The struggle has divided Catalonia itself and caused deep resentment across the rest of Spain, although separatist sentiment persists in the Basque Country and some other areas.

Two recent opinion polls showed support for independence may have started to wane.

But an official regional survey published on Tuesday showed some 48.7 percent of Catalans believe the region should be independent, up from 41.1 pct in June and the highest since December 2014.

Based on 1,338 interviews, the Centre d’Estudis d’Opinio poll was the first survey released since the independence declaration though the bulk of it was taken before then, between Oct. 16 and Oct. 29.

DIM HOPES

Despite his dash to the European Union’s power center, Puigdemont’s hopes of engaging the bloc in his cause seem forlorn. Member states have asserted their support for Spanish unity and EU institutions in Brussels say they will deal only with Madrid and that the dispute remains an internal matter.

“Our position remains unchanged,” EU Commission spokeswoman Mina Andreeva said in Brussels on Tuesday.

But some analysts say the dispute is not going to disappear anytime soon despite the present state of play.

“Spain is heading for a period of disruption, and like the UK and Brexit, having its policy agenda dominated by one political issue while other key challenges fade into the background,” said Raj Badiani, an economist at IHS Markit in London.

“A more tangible impact from the crisis could evolve from early 2018, with the uncertainty set to build as Catalans push harder for a legally binding referendum.”

Influential Catalan business lobbies have backed direct rule and called on firms to stay in the region. The crisis has prompted more than 1,000 businesses to switch their legal headquarters from Catalonia, which contributes about a fifth of Spain’s economy, the fourth-largest in the euro zone.

Spain’s IBEX fell slightly as Puigdemont began speaking in Brussels but then rose again.

For some in Barcelona, the overwhelming emotion appears to be exasperation.

“It’s a farcical and completely ridiculous situation,” said Ernesto Hernandez Busto, a 42-year-old editor. “This extreme nationalism, this separatism, has taken Catalonia to the most absurd situation and the worst inconvenience we have had in the last 40 years.”

(Additional reporting by Paul Day and Sonya Dowsett in Madrid, Writing by Angus MacSwan, Editing by Janet Lawrence and John Stonestreet)

Major Venezuelan opposition parties to boycott local polls

Major Venezuelan opposition parties to boycott local polls

By Andreina Aponte and Andrew Cawthorne

CARACAS (Reuters) – Three of Venezuela’s largest opposition parties vowed on Monday to boycott mayoral polls later this year in protest at an election system they say is biased in favor of President Nicolas Maduro’s ruling socialists.

The multi-party Democratic Unity coalition has had a tough 2017, first failing to bring down Maduro in four months of protests that led to 125 deaths, then losing surprisingly to the Socialist Party in a gubernatorial election earlier this month.

That has left the opposition weakened and divided, and Maduro strengthened, despite growing foreign pressure on his government over alleged rights abuses and corruption, and an unprecedented economic crisis that has millions skipping food.

Three heavyweight movements in the opposition – Justice First, Popular Will and Democratic Action – announced on Monday they did not trust the government-leaning election board sufficiently to participate in the municipal polls in December.

Justice First leader Julio Borges, who also heads the opposition-led congress, said authorities cheated in the 2013 presidential election, denied Venezuelans a recall referendum last year, and rigged the Oct. 15 gubernatorial vote.

So instead of going into another “manipulated” vote, the opposition should focus on demanding reforms to the election board in anticipation of next year’s presidential poll, he said.

“The objective remains getting Nicolas Maduro out of power, and in this struggle, the world is with us,” he told reporters.

To the surprise of some, the Democratic Action party also joined the boycott. Its candidates won four governorships in October’s vote and then infuriated many opposition supporters by swearing loyalty to a pro-Maduro legislative superbody.

MADURO: ‘BALLOTS, NOT BULLETS’

Opposition supporters have been split over participating in elections this year. Some say it is the only way to show they are a majority and undermine Maduro, while a growing number argue there is no point in fighting a “dictator” via a system rigged in his favor.

They are pinning their hopes on international action, including U.S. sanctions against Maduro’s government.

Maduro, whose personal popularity has plunged since his 2013 election due to food shortages and runaway inflation, said “sabotage” and “insurrection” were being planned against the mayoral votes.

“I declare myself in battle,” the 54-year-old successor to Hugo Chavez said in a meeting with governors on Monday.

“Those who attack the election system must pay.”

Opposition leaders say the government has long been rigging elections by gross abuse of state funds in favor of socialist candidates, and dirty tricks such the last-minute moving of vote centers in opposition areas for the October ballot.

They have also presented some allegations of ballot-rigging.

However, Maduro insists Venezuela’s system is entirely trustworthy and impossible to hack. It has received international praise in the past, although it was slammed over July’s vote for the Constituent Assembly superbody.

Maduro says the street protests earlier this year were a mask for a U.S.-backed coup plot, and accuses opponents of wanting to oust him by undemocratic means.

“Venezuelans want ballots, not bullets,” said Maduro.

(Writing by Andrew Cawthorne; Editing by Alexandra Ulmer and Rosalba O’Brien)

Spain awaits next move by ousted Catalan leader from Belgium

Spain awaits next move by ousted Catalan leader from Belgium

By Raquel Castillo and Angus MacSwan

MADRID (Reuters) – Spain’s foreign minister said on Tuesday he would be surprised if Belgium granted political asylum to Catalan secessionist leader Carles Puigdemont, who turned up there after Madrid’s dismissal and takeover of Catalonia’s regional government.

By Tuesday, the Madrid government had gained the upper hand in the protracted struggle over Catalonia’s independence drive.

Resistance to Madrid’s imposition of direct control on the autonomous region failed to materialize at the start of the week on Monday. The secessionist leadership is in disarray, and attention is now turning to a regional election called by Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy for Dec. 21 as a way out of the crisis.

But Puigdemont, whose parliament declared an independent Catalan republic on Friday before being removed by Rajoy, remains a thorn in Madrid’s side. He was due to make a statement later on Tuesday in Brussels, where he was seen by journalists on Tuesday after having dropped out of sight for 24 hours.

Spain’s prosecutor called for charges of rebellion and other crimes to be laid against him, which carry combined sentences of more than 30 years in prison. Spain’s Supreme Court also began proceedings for rebellion against the Catalan parliament speaker and other senior lawmakers, a court spokesman said on Tuesday.

Any request for asylum in Belgium could lead to a diplomatic dispute between the two European Union nations. But Spanish Foreign Minister Alfonso Dastis appeared to play down that prospect for now.

“We have no certainty of what he is doing,” he told Cadena Ser radio. “We would be a bit surprised, given the situation regarding the right of asylum in Europe, but the actions of ex-president Puigdemont are not easy to foresee.”

Any decision would be up to Belgian courts, not the government, Dastis said. “If Belgium grants asylum to Puigdemont, it will not be a normal situation. Let’s leave it there for now.”

In Belgium, Puigdemont’s lawyer Paul Bekaert, a veteran human rights advocate, told Reuters his client was considering seeking asylum but it was not certain.

“We have not yet decided. We have a lot of time to decide,” Bekaert said. “We will see in the coming weeks what we are doing.”

While Belgium has an unusual track record in refusing to extradite Europeans wanted by other EU states, the main reason Puigdemont had come was to address a wider audience for Catalonia’s grievances against Madrid, Bekaert said.

European nations including Britain, Germany and France have backed Rajoy and rejected an independent Catalan state, although some have called for dialogue between the opposing sides.

The Spanish government has also said Puigdemont was welcome to take his chances and stand in the Dec. 21 election.

UNCERTAINTY TO BUILD

The political crisis, Spain’s gravest in the four decades since the return of democracy in the late 1970s, was triggered by an independence referendum in Catalonia on Oct. 1.

Though it was declared illegal by Spanish courts and less than half Catalonia’s eligible voters took part, the pro-secessionist regional government said the vote gave it a mandate for independence.

Some prominent ousted Catalan leaders, including Puigdemont and Vice President Oriol Junqueras, had said they would not accept their dismissal. But their respective parties, PdeCat and Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya, said on Monday they would take part in the Dec. 21 election, a tacit acceptance of direct rule from Madrid.

Two opinion polls showed support for independence may have started to wane. A Sigma Dos survey published in El Mundo showed 33.5 percent of Catalans were in favor of independence, while a Metroscopia poll published by El Pais put that number at 29 percent. That compared with 41.1 percent in July, according to an official survey carried out by the Catalan government.

Opponents of secession say a majority of Catalans want to remain part of Spain and did not take part in the referendum.

But some analysts say the dispute is not going to disappear anytime soon despite the present state of play.

“Spain is heading for a period of disruption, and like the UK and Brexit, having its policy agenda dominated by one political issue while other key challenges fade into the background,” said Raj Badiani, an economist at IHS Markit in London.

“A more tangible impact from the crisis could evolve from early 2018, with the uncertainty set to build as Catalans push harder for a legally binding referendum.”

The government’s move to impose direct rule received the backing of several influential Catalan business lobbies, which called on firms to stay in the region. The chaos has prompted an exodus of businesses from Catalonia, which contributes about a fifth of Spain’s economy.

Credit rating agency Fitch late on Monday said the escalation of tensions in Catalonia significantly worsened the outlook for Spain’s economic growth and could prompt negative action on the country’s rating.

In Barcelona, some people displayed exasperation.

“It’s a farcical and completely ridiculous situation,” said Ernesto Hernandez Busto, a 42-year-old editor. “This extreme nationalism, this separatism, has taken Catalonia to the most absurd situation and the worst inconvenience we have had in the last 40 years.”

(Additional reporting by Paul Day and Sonya Dowsett in Madrid, Lucasta Bath and Clement Rossignol in Belgium; Editing by Janet Lawrence)