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A look at the 2 candidates for North Macedonia’s presidency

May 04, 2019

SKOPJE, North Macedonia (AP) — Newly renamed North Macedonia heads to the polls on Sunday for runoff presidential elections. Two candidates, both university professors, are competing for the post after the third candidate was knocked in last month’s first round.

Although the president has a largely ceremonial position, with some powers to veto legislation, the outcome of the vote could trigger early parliamentary elections in a country deeply polarized between the governing Social Democrats and the opposition VMRO-DPMNE conservatives. Turnout will be crucial, with 40% needed for the election to be valid. The first round barely made it past that point, with a turnout of 41.8%.

Campaigning in the first round centered on a recent deal the Balkan country reached with neighboring Greece to rename itself North Macedonia in exchange for Athens dropping objections to it joining NATO and the European Union. This time round, the candidates have focused more on the issues of corruption, crime, poverty and brain drain.

Here is a look at the two contenders for North Macedonia’s presidency.

Gordana Siljanovska Davkova, 63 — The first woman to run for president since the country declared independence from Yugoslavia in 1991. Known for her love of yoga and rock ‘n’ roll, Siljanovska, a constitutional law professor, first emerged as a non-partisan candidate promoted by her university. Her nomination is now supported by the main conservative opposition VMRO-DPMNE party.

Siljanovska campaigned under the slogan “Justice for Macedonia, fatherland calls.” She has been a vocal opponent of the deal with Greece that changed the country’s name to North Macedonia and had hinted she would challenge the name agreement in the International Court of Justice in The Hague. But last week, Siljanovska said during a debate on national television MTV she will not “spend the whole mandate in reviewing the name agreement with Greece.”

“I will fight for democratization of the undemocratic Macedonian political system,” she added.

During a campaign speech, Siljanovska said her country needs a “radical reversal,” and described it as being “in many elements a failed state.”

Siljanovska served as minister without portfolio in 1992-1994 in the first government after independence and participated in writing the country’s first constitution.

Stevo Pendarovski, 56 — A former national security adviser for two previous presidents and until recently national coordinator for NATO, this is Pendarovski’s second bid for the presidency after being defeated by Gjorge Ivanov in 2014.

Pendarovski is running as the joint candidate for the governing social democrats and the junior governing coalition partner, the ethnic Albanian Democratic Union for Integration party. His candidacy is also supported by 29 smaller political parties.

He has defended the name deal with Greece, arguing it paved the way for the country to nearly finalize its NATO accession and led to hopes EU membership talks will begin in June.

His slogan “Forward Together” reflects his main campaign platform of unity, and he has made NATO and EU membership a key strategic goal, saying they will bring foreign investment, jobs and higher wages and prevent young people leaving the country.

“People should know what is at stake, they should not stay passive,” he said during the television debate. “They have to go out and choose between two concepts – the one that is for progress, cohesion and integration in the strongest international organizations, (and) the other that draws the country back in time.”

Lithuanian economist wins presidential election

May 26, 2019

VILNIUS, Lithuania (AP) — Prominent economist Gitanas Nauseda won Lithuania’s presidential election after his opponent conceded defeat Sunday. “I am grateful to the people who voted today and I can promise that politics will be different now in Lithuania. Everybody deserves a better life in our beautiful country,” Nauseda told a cheering crowd of supporters.

With 1,521 of the country’s 1,972 voting districts counted late Sunday, data provided by Lithuania’s Central Electoral Commission showed 55-year-old Gitanas Nauseda had taken 70% of the votes. His opponent, Ingrida Simonyte, a former finance minister, congratulated Nauseda.

“That is our people’s will and I respect it. I already called Mr. Nauseda and congratulated him with this victory wishing him to be a good president for all the people of Lithuania,” Simonyte told reporters.

The president’s main task is to oversee Lithuania’s foreign and security policy including acting as the supreme commander of the armed forces.

Lithuanians choose a president to take over from ‘Iron Lady’

May 12, 2019

VILNIUS, Lithuania (AP) — Voters are going to the polls in Lithuania to elect a president to succeed Dalia Grybauskaite, who has completed her maximum two terms in office. Nine candidates are taking part in Sunday’s vote, which could require a runoff in two weeks’ time.

The leading candidates include Prime Minister Saulius Skvernelis, former banking economist Gitanas Nauseda and former Finance Minister Ingrida Simonyte. The campaign has focused on domestic issues such as the economy, corruption and social welfare, even though foreign policy and defense are two of the presidency’s main purviews.

Grybauskaite’s anti-Russia views, no-nonsense style and karate black belt earned her the “Iron Lady” label previously applied to Margaret Thatcher when she was British prime minister. Voters are also having their say in a referendum on a constitutional amendment to allow dual citizenship for hundreds of thousands of Lithuanians living abroad.

Voters to pick successor of Lithuania’s popular ‘Iron Lady’

May 10, 2019

VILNIUS, Lithuania (AP) — Nine candidates are vying in an election Sunday to become Lithuania’s next president, including a well-known economist, a former finance minister and the incumbent prime minister.

Term limits require the Baltic country’s current head of state, President Dalia Grybauskaite, to step down after two five-year terms. The election to choose the popular Grybauskaite’s successor could go to a second-round vote.

The campaign has focused on domestic issues such as the economy, corruption and social welfare, even though foreign policy and defense are two of the presidency’s main purviews. The leading candidates include Prime Minister Saulius Skvernelis, 48; former banking economist Gitanas Nauseda, 54; and former Finance Minister Ingrida Simonyte, 44.

In recent public opinion polls, Simonyte has been in front with support from more than 26% of likely voters, but Nauseda and Skvernelis aren’t far behind. Along with picking their president, voters on Sunday face a referendum on a constitutional amendment to allow dual citizenship for hundreds of thousands of Lithuanians living abroad.

A presidential runoff would be held May 26, the same day Lithuanians vote for their EU parliament representatives and another referendum on reducing the number of lawmakers in the 141-seat Seimas assembly.

Skvernelis, who was a police officer before he entered politics, has suggested opening a dialogue with Russia, a departure from the recent governments in Vilnius, and floated the idea of moving the Lithuanian Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

If the prime minister wins, it would be seen as “a concentration of political powers” for his ruling Peasant Greens Union party, said Tomas Janeliunas, a professor at the Institute of International Relations and Political Science at Vilnius University.

Grybauskaite’s anti-Russia views, no-nonsense style and karate black belt earned her the “Iron Lady” label previously applied to Margaret Thatcher when she was British prime minister. Lithuania today is very different from the one Grybauskaite became president of in 2009.

“Ten years ago, our country was severely affected by the financial crisis and fully dependent on Russian gas, with no real existing NATO defense plans,” she told The Associated Press. Now Lithuania is a “strong and prosperous state” that has diversified its energy supply and like its Baltic neighbors, joined NATO as well as the European Union, Grybauskaite said.

A vital job of successor will be staying alert to Russia’s military activity in the Baltic Sea region, she said. “The geopolitical situation will remain tense,” the outgoing leader said. “Therefore, further measures to increase military security, defense, and deterrence capabilities, fight aggressive propaganda, cyber and other hybrid threats will remain among the top priorities.”

Italy’s president to pols: make solid deal or elections soon

August 22, 2019

ROME (AP) — Italy’s president gave party leaders a few more days to try to forge a solid, durable governing coalition but served notice they must convince him soon they have found a formula for a new majority in Parliament or else he’ll call early elections.

President Sergio Mattarella made clear that only a government solid enough to win the required confidence vote in Parliament would be considered an acceptable way out of the knotty, weeks-long political crisis.

Otherwise, said Mattarella, “the path is that of elections.” Fast-rising nationalist leader Matteo Salvini yanked support for the governing 14-month-old populist coalition in a bid to come to power himself in fresh elections.

Mattarella, who is head of state, said he’ll start a fresh round of talks with party leaders on Tuesday so he can “reach my conclusions and take the necessary decisions.” He urged swiftness. “Political and economic uncertainties, on an international level, require it,” he said, also citing the European Union’s new leadership taking the helm this fall.

Mattarella didn’t say which parties had told him they were trying to reach a coalition deal. But Italian news reports said the negotiations involved arch-rivals: the opposition Democrats and the 5-Star Movement, which was the main partner in the now-caretaker government.

The Democrats confirmed that negotiations between the heads of the two parties were indeed underway, even though the 5-Stars were shying away from confirming that. Any such deal, if successful, could foil Deputy Premier Salvini, the euroskeptic leader of the right-wing League, in his bid to force early elections and become premier.

He wants to capitalize on his soaring popularity, including in May’s European Parliament vote. Premier Giuseppe Conte resigned on Tuesday after Salvini withdrew political support earlier this month. Since then, at Mattarella’s request, Conte is serving in a caretaker role.

To call new elections “is a decision not to be taken lightly, after more than a year of the legislature’s life,” Mattarella said. Parliament’s full term is five years, but in the volatile world of Italian politics rarely lasts that.

In rapid-fire order, the three main political parties pitched possible deals to rivals earlier Thursday. Parliament’s largest opposition party, the Democrats, signaled a willingness to work with the 5-Stars to attempt to cobble together a pro-Europe coalition to counter Salvini and avoid an early election.

Salvini, who also serves as Italy’s anti-migrant interior minister, kept up his press for early elections. But as a backstop against any deal between the Democrats and 5-Stars, Salvini dangled the possibility of a Cabinet overhaul that keeps his League party in a ruling coalition with the 5-Stars.

“If someone tells me ‘Let’s improve the team, let’s improve the aim,’ I’m a concrete man. I don’t hold grudges,” Salvini said. Barely an hour later, 5-Star leader Luigi Di Maio, like Salvini a deputy premier, said that while “the most convenient path is to head to a vote,” he’d be open to a political deal to keep the current legislature alive. But he didn’t say with whom.

Earlier, Nicola Zingaretti, who leads the center-left Democrats, lobbied for the same solution as Di Maio: a coalition that could nail down durable, broad backing in Parliament. “Not a government at any cost,” Zingaretti told reporters at the palace. “We need a government that changes direction, an alternative to the right.”

Creating a viable replacement for Conte’s collapsed government will prove a Herculean task for anyone. Both the Democrats and the 5-Stars have been weakened by infighting — and over a year ago they failed to agree to a coalition deal after the 2018 election that ultimately brought Conte’s now-caretaker government to power.

Zingaretti said any new government must pledge to protect the “pro-European vocation” of Italy. The 5-Stars, however, frequently depict European Union policies as infringing on Italy’s autonomy. Mammoth state spending under Conte’s tenure, reflecting populist promises to voters by both the 5-Stars and the League, means whoever governs Italy for the rest of this year must slash tens of billions of euros from the proposed 2020 budget to avoid triggering higher sales taxes and other painful measures which could alienate voters.

Salvini with his “Italians first” agenda has openly challenged the EU’s financial rules for the 19 nations including Italy who use the shared euro currency. Former center-right leader Premier Silvio Berlusconi warned against any “improvised majority that exists only in Parliament and not in the country.”

The media mogul described his Forza Italia party — should it return to power in a right-wing government — as Italy’s best guarantee of having leaders that would back pro-European policies and make sure Italy does not abandon the euro currency.

Italian premier’s resignation could bring elections in fall

August 21, 2019

ROME (AP) — Italian Premier Giuseppe Conte resigned Tuesday amid the collapse of the 14-month-old populist government, raising the possibility of new elections in the fall that could bring to power the anti-migrant interior minister who engineered Conte’s downfall.

Addressing the Senate, Conte blasted Matteo Salvini for setting in motion a “dizzying spiral of political and financial instability” by essentially pulling the plug on the government. Salvini’s right-wing League party sought a no-confidence vote against Conte earlier this month, a stunningly bold move for the government’s junior coalition partner.

Conte blamed Salvini for sacrificing the government’s survival in favor of his eagerness to become premier himself. A lawyer with no political experience who was tapped to break a postelection stalemate last year, Conte struggled to hold together his often ideologically opposed coalition’s forces — Salvini’s right-wing League and the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement. He handed his resignation to President Sergio Mattarella at the presidential palace Tuesday night.

Mattarella, who is head of state, asked Conte and the rest of the government to stay on in a caretaker role. The president could test if there’s enough support for a new government. Failing that, he might try to build a consensus to back a “neutral” figure to head a government whose main goal would be to lead the country through year’s end, enough time to make painful budget cuts to meet European Union parameters.

If no other path is feasible, Mattarella would have to dissolve Parliament. Elections could then be held as soon as late October — 3 ½ years ahead of schedule. Salvini, who sat next to Conte during his speech, smirking at times, declared, “I’d do it all again.” He repeatedly kissed a rosary he slipped out of his pocket right after Conte rebuked him for associating “political slogans with religious symbols.”

Pressing for elections as soon as possible, Salvini said: “I don’t fear Italians’ judgment.” Salvini’s party is soaring in opinion polls and triumphed in European Parliament elections in May. He’s intent on capitalizing on this popularity with national elections.

His crackdown on migrants, whom the party’s voter base largely blames for crime, appears to be a huge factor in Salvini’s climbing popularity. The interior minister has adopted especially harsh measures against private rescue boats, which he contends essentially facilitate human trafficking of migrants across the Mediterranean from smugglers’ bases in Libya to European shores.

Salvini insists that citizens are also behind his call for less influence by the European Union on everyday Italian life. Supporters at his rallies cheer his “Italians first” policies. Should any early elections sweep Salvini into power, financial markets could be rattled by his Euro-skepticism.

Depicting himself in counterpoint to Salvini’s often-derogatory depiction of European Union rules, Conte said he had “tried in these 14 months to guide Italy’s policy along the path of a critical pro-Europe line, but always oriented constructively.”

Analysts will be focused on prospects that any Salvini-led government could further fray Italy’s relation with Brussels. A League-led government would have a “stronger Euro-skeptic stand — fighting with Brussels on everything that is politically salient in Italy,” Wolfango Piccoli, co-president of London-based Teneo analyst firm, told The Associated Press.

The outgoing government enacted some populist measures, including the 5-Star Movement’s guaranteed minimum income to the jobless. Whoever holds the helm of government this fall, will have to slash spending, likely displeasing constituencies. Failure to do so would trigger another highly unpopular measure — an automatic increase of the sales tax.

Salvini is already campaigning for a slashed income tax, raising concerns about where a League-led government would find the money to deliver on that promise. While lawmakers argued, hundreds of kilometers (miles) to the south, the latest migrant standoff played out near a tiny Italian island. For weeks, more than 100 migrants had been stuck aboard a Spanish rescue ship and not allowed by Salvini to disembark at Lampedusa as part of his crusade against humanitarian rescue groups.

But hours after Conte resigned, the migrants finally set foot on Lampedusa. The Italian news agency ANSA said a Sicilian prosecutor ordered the seizure of the Open Arms rescue vessel and the migrants’ evacuation. Prosecutors are investigating the humanitarian group’s complaint against Salvini for alleged kidnapping for refusing to open the ports.

Former Premier Matteo Renzi, a leader of the Democrats, Parliament’s largest opposition party, seized on Salvini’s rosary display to blast the migrant crackdown. “Minister Salvini, I respect your religious faith,” Renzi said, launching into a barb that played off their common first name, Matteo. “But if you believe in Chapter 25 of the Gospel, naturally by Matthew, ‘I was hungry and you gave me to eat, I was naked and you dressed me,'” if you have these values, unblock those persons held hostage by your policies.”

Salvini has taken to dangling a rosary and invoking the protection of the Virgin Mary in political rallies around the country.

Associated Press Writer Giada Zampano contributed to this report.

Hundreds of Brexit Party candidates will run in UK election

November 04, 2019

LONDON (AP) — Nigel Farage unveiled hundreds of Brexit Party candidates for Britain’s general election on Monday, and warned the governing Conservatives that the U.K. will never leave the European Union without his party’s backing.

All seats in the 650-seat House of Commons are up for grabs in the Dec. 12 election. Farage says his party will run in almost every constituency unless Prime Minister Boris Johnson scraps his EU divorce deal.

Johnson hopes to win a Conservative majority so that he can break the country’s Brexit deadlock and get his EU divorce deal through Parliament. Farage, who has run for Parliament seven times without success, says he won’t be a candidate himself.

Farage’s party, which was founded earlier this year, rejects Johnson’s Brexit deal, preferring to leave the bloc with no agreement on future relations in what it calls a “clean-break” Brexit. The party says leaving with a deal, as Johnson wants, would mean continuing to follow some EU rules and holding years of negotiations on future relations.

Farage told a crowd of supporters at a rally in London that Johnson’s deal “is not Brexit. It is a sell-out.” Farage called the Conservatives are arrogant for not joining him in a “leave alliance.” “There will be no Brexit without the Brexit Party,” he said. “Of that I am certain.”

U.S. President Donald Trump, a friend of Farage, also urged the two politicians to form an electoral pact, saying last week that Farage and Johnson together would be “an unstoppable force.” But Johnson has ruled out doing a deal with Farage. And Brexit-supporting Conservatives have criticized Farage, saying he could split the pro-Brexit vote and allow the left-of-center opposition Labor Party win power.

Conservative lawmaker Jacob Rees-Mogg said that “it would be a great shame if he carries on fighting after he has already won to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. “I understand why Nigel Farage would want to carry on campaigning because he has been campaigning for the best part of 30 years and it must be hard to retire from the field. But that is what he ought to do,” Rees-Mogg told LBC radio.

Britain’s unpredictable election taking place more than two years early, and after three years of political wrangling over Brexit. The Labor Party is trying to shift the campaign’s focus from Brexit to domestic political issues such as schools, health care and Britain’s social inequities.

The centrist Liberal Democrats, who want to cancel Brexit, are wooing pro-EU supporters from both the Conservatives and Labor in Britain’s big cities and liberal university towns. Liberal Democrat leader Jo Swinson demanded to know Monday why she wasn’t invited to take part alongside Johnson and Corbyn in the only televised debate of the campaign announced so far.

She said leaving her out of the Nov. 19 debate on broadcaster ITV would exclude “the voice of the millions of people who voted to remain, who want to stop Brexit.” “It looks like they are sexist, or they are scared, or possibly both,” she said.

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