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AFP

NEW DELHI — The list of charges against Indian politician Kameshwar Baitha is long and startling: 16 counts of murder, 25 of attempted murder, six of assault with a dangerous weapon, three of extortion... and so on.
In many democratic countries, such severe criminal allegations would be catastrophic to a politician’s chances of winning a seat in the nation’s parliament.
But Baitha says the 109 charges, wracked up during his time as a Maoist insurgent in his home state of eastern Jharkhand, will not dent his chances at the ballot box as he seeks re-election in the mammoth elections underway in India.
“The kind of work I’ve done, and particularly my focus on the weakest social groups in my constituency, is what makes me popular,” Baitha told AFP, dismissing the charges as false.
“Everyone knows that I am the man to beat.”
Fighting corruption and cleaning up Indian politics are major issues at this election, particularly for middle-class and urban voters. The five-week voting process ends on May 12 with results due four days later.
Baitha, who first won his seat in 2009, said voters in the impoverished and mainly tribal forest belt of northeastern Jharkhand see him as a Robin Hood-type figure.
“You are sitting in distant Delhi — come to the region and you’ll know what the people have to say about it, what they think of these cases,” Baitha said, becoming angry on the phone.
Almost a fifth of candidates standing for the 543-seat parliament face criminal charges, according to an analysis by the Association for Democratic Reform, a Delhi-based think-tank.
And they are not only in remote and poor areas like Jharkhand, but at the centre of power in India. Five of the seven candidates contesting for the election frontrunner Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in Delhi face charges, albeit relatively minor ones.
A key aide of BJP leader Narendra Modi, who is tipped to become prime minister on a platform of clean governance and strong leadership, is being investigated for alleged murder and extortion.
Traditionally, voters have not been troubled by criminal charges in a country where millions still vote strictly along caste and regional lines.
They also often believe false allegations are leveled by political opponents, with police and the Judiciary — who has a reputation for corruption — obliging by laying charges.
“There is a lot of truth to this. Some of the charges are politically motivated and trumped up,” said Satish Misra, an analyst with the Delhi-based Observer Research Foundation.
“But there are also a lot of serious criminals in politics,” said Misra, who has analyzed elections in India for three decades.
Misra blames India’s traditional feudal culture. Even after the country’s democratic system was introduced, politicians still used so-called muscle-men and later money-men to “influence” voters and shoehorn them into power.
“The nexus between crime and politics is very strong,” he told AFP.
Even when pressure grows on politicians to quit over allegations, they can often find a way around it. Lalu Prasad Yadav — a longtime head of Bihar, one of India’s most populous states — simply installed his wife when he was forced to step down in 1997 over long-running corruption charges.
Between the two of them, the couple ruled the state uninterrupted from 1990 to 2005 and Yadav went on to be a member of the national parliament and railways minister.
Under new rules set by the Supreme Court, he was stripped of his parliamentary seat last September after being convicted over a scam involving the misuse of funds for animal fodder in the 1990s.
The new rules make it illegal for politicians found guilty of serious crimes to stay in office, although convictions can take decades.
But the electorate is increasingly demanding a clean-up of politics with momentum growing thanks to anti-corruption campaigner Arvind Kejriwal, who has tapped into seething public anger over graft.
After making a stunning debut at state polls in Delhi late last year, Kejriwal’s party is tipped to win a handful of seats at these elections.
The former tax inspector’s message has resonated with many voters and forced the scandal-plagued Congress party, in power since 2004, and the BJP to take up the pledge of cleaner government.
“They (voters) know that if corrupt elements win the election, you will get corrupt governance,” the Association for Democratic Reform’s Trilochan Sastry said.
Baitha, a candidate for a regional party who has told media he was only an ideological not a militant leader of a banned insurgent group, seems unphased by the shifting mood.
Voters would continue to dismiss the charges as false and irrelevant, he said.
“Poverty and development are the key issues for me and my people.”                      

Ukraine leader signals support for referendum

Tuesday, 15 April 2014 00:00 Published in Headlines

KIEV — Ukraine’s interim president yesterday signaled support for a national referendum on turning the former Soviet republic into a federation with broader rights for its heavily Russified east.
Pro-Kremlin militias who have seized government buildings in regions such as Donetsk are demanding local referendums on either broader local rights or an option to join the Russian Federation.
Acting President Oleksandr Turchynov stopped well short of giving in to these demands by signaling support for a national referendum on Ukraine’s future status — a vote whose outcome is far less certain because most in Kiev and the Ukrainian speaking west reject the idea of federalization. Turchynov suggested that the national vote could coincide with snap presidential polls that Ukraine is set to hold on May 25 following the February ouster of Russian-backed President Viktor Yanukovych.
“In recent days, there has been a lot of talk about a national referendum,” Turchynov told leading lawmakers in nationally televised remarks.
“We are not against holding a national referendum that — if parliament adopts the corresponding decision — could be held together with the presidential elections,” he added.
“I am certain that a majority of Ukrainians will support an indivisible, independent, democratic and united Ukraine,” he added. “This is my conviction, and I think that all those present share my view.”
Pro-Kremlin protesters in the region fear a loss of their rights to speak Russian and the collapse of an already depressed economy if their government cuts ties with their close and historical ally Moscow.
Ukraine’s new leaders have already struck a political partnership deal with the European Union and are expected to sign an economic relations and trade agreement later this year.
In Slavyansk, the UN Security Council yesterday held emergency talks after Ukraine declared a “full-scale” military operation against pro-Russia forces, amid deadly clashes in its restive east.
Russia and the West locked horns over the escalating crisis in Ukraine with Russian ambassador Vitaly Churkin saying “there has already been bloodshed and a further escalation must be swiftly stopped.”
US ambassador Samantha Power accused Russia of waging propaganda and bombarding Ukraine with incitement and violence.
“This is the saddest kind of instability. It is completely man made. It was written and choreographed in and by Russia,” Power told the 15-member council.
The latest clashes broke out a day after masked gunmen stormed police and security service buildings in coordinated raids, specially unsettling for Kiev and Western leaders because of their similarity to events leading up to Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula.
Ukraine’s Interior Minister Arsen Avakov announced the launch of a counterstrike against the armed separatists in the eastern Donetsk region early yesterday morning.
“There are dead and wounded on both sides. On our side — an SBU officer. The head of the SBU’s anti-terrorist center has been wounded, as have four others,” Avakov wrote on his Facebook page.
“On side of the separatists — an unidentified number. The separatists have started to protect themselves using human shields.”
Ukraine’s acting President Oleksandr Turchynov later declared the launch of a “full-scale anti-terrorist operation”.
Turchynov told the nation in a televised address that “we will not allow Russia to repeat the Crimean scenario in the east of Ukraine.”
“Blood has been spilled in a war that is being waged against Ukraine by Russia,” said Turchynov.
“The national security and defense council has decided to launch a full-scale anti-terrorist operation involving the armed forces of Ukraine,” he announced
Kiev gave the pro-Russian forces a deadline of 0600 GMT Monday to give up their weapons to escape prosecution.
The Russian foreign ministry immediately responded by accusing Ukraine’s leaders of “waging war against their own people.”
Power urged Russia to explain why 40,000 of its forces are massed on the Ukrainian border and find constructive ideas to stop armed attacks on government buildings in eastern Ukraine.
Moscow has denied playing a role in the latest wave of violence and previously told Kiev that its armed response could ruin the chances of the two sides sitting down for US-EU mediated talks in Geneva on Thursday.
The latest unrest began last weekend when protesters seized the seat of government in Donetsk after similar actions in the eastern cities of Lugansk and Kharkiv.
The Donetsk protesters heavily fortified the building and announced the independence of the “Donetsk People’s Republic” — the flag of which has gone up over newly seized security buildings across the region.
But many of the pro-Russian protests have only drawn crowds of a few hundred and local polls showed the majority of citizens in the Russian-speaking east preferred to remain part of Ukraine.                                 

Afghan voters turn to social media to fight fraud

Tuesday, 15 April 2014 00:00 Published in Commentary

KABUL — Fed-up with the massive rigging that took place in previous elections, Afghan voters have been using social media to highlight alleged fraud, and officials are starting to take notice.
Smartphone videos of ballots being stuffed at breakneck speed, voter harassment outside polling booths, and papers scattered in the street would raise serious questions about a vote’s viability in the West.
In Afghanistan, bringing such episodes to light is also seen as a major step in overcoming the corruption that has dogged every election since the fall of the Taliban.
“Most of the videos going around (social media) have been recorded in places where the government have had no access, we will review all of them,” Nader Mohseni, spokesman for the Election Complaints Commission, told reporters Sunday.
First partial results in the poll for a successor to President Hamid Karzai show former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah leading with 41.9 percent of around 500,000 votes counted so far, with Ashraf Ghani closely behind on 37.6 percent.
A second round is scheduled for May 28 if no single candidate is able to garner more than 50 percent of the seven million votes cast.
In one video (on.fb.me/1exWdEG) three young men and a boy who speak a dialect of Pashto associated with the city of Kandahar frantically stamp ballot paper after paper, mostly for Ghani but with some stamps for Abdullah.
The footage has been shared on Facebook more than 1,300 times.
Supporters and detractors of Ghani trade insults in the comment section, while one user called Kamal Naser Faqiryar notes dryly: “I waited for four hours to cast my one and only vote, and look these four men tick hundreds of votes for one candidate.”
In another widely circulated clip (on.fb.me/RgaJXr), a woman is asked on camera why she is cajoling other women in line to vote for her candidate on the polling day itself, in violation of election law.
“Don’t bring the law into this! I want to do this and I do it, these are my people ... and I am persuading them to do what I want them to do,” she replies angrily.
Later, other women are interviewed, saying they were punched and beaten by the alleged harasser.
Still, according to Mohseni from the ECC, the rate of fraud appears to be lower than when Karzai was re-elected in 2009 in a poll widely discredited both at home and abroad.
As of Sunday, the commission said it had received 1,892 complaints of fraud. Around 870 of these fall into the most serious category, classed as those that could affect results.
Analyst Abdul Waheed Wafa cautioned that in some cases footage could be faked in order to discredit candidates. But he said the very fact the cases were being brought to light was positive.
“The good thing about social media is that it turns everything into a debate, it has in fact created a platform for things to be shared and discussed and debated about.
“I believe social media will have its positive impact until the end of the process and thereafter,” he added.
Around two million people, less than 10 percent of Afghanistan’s population, have computer access to the Internet, officials say, but the figure is rising and many more have access through the increasing use of smart phones.
The Taliban, who ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001 and forbade the use of the Internet, deeming it a Western propaganda tool, now regularly use Twitter to promote their ideas and boast about attacks on North Atlantic Treaty Organization forces.      

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