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International FRIDAY, MARCH 21, 2014

Election losses could strain Dutch coalition Rightist populist makes ‘fewer Moroccans’ offer AMSTERDAM: The parties of the Dutch ruling coalition received a stinging rebuke in local elections on Wednesday, after years of sluggish growth turned voters away from the two parties, which have stuck grimly to austerity since taking national office in 2012. Labor, junior partner to the pro-business Liberals, lost their position as largest party in Amsterdam after more than 60 years to the progressive liberal D66 party. In The Hague, seat of the Dutch government, Labor was pushed into third place, behind D66 and Geert Wilders’ populist Freedom Party. It also lost the industrial and maritime powerhouse of Rotterdam to Liveable Rotterdam, a rightist local party. “The government parties are being punished for austerity and for tax increases,” said Andre Krouwel, a political scientist at Amsterdam’s VU University, adding that the centre-left Labor Party’s losses in the country’s largest cities were “historic”. Long seen as a member of the euro zone core, its economy tightly bound to Europe’s German economic heartlands, the Netherlands has seen years of sluggish growth since the start of the financial crisis in 2008, lingering in recession even as, further up the Rhine river, Germany’s recovery gathered pace. The country lost one of three coveted triple A sovereign credit ratings in November, and dissatisfaction at continued high unemployment and depressed consumer confidence have turned voters in a country that once prided itself on its liberalism towards populist parties on the left and the right. A nascent economic recovery may have come too late for Labor, whose voters were always more grudging in their support for the coalition’s program of tax hikes and cuts in social spending in particular. Labor’s drubbing could fuel dissatisfaction within the party over the course to which it has signed up. “The results of our policies are coming in too slowly,” said party leader Diderik Samsom. But Mark Rutte, the Liberal prime minister, promised the coalition would not change course. “We must now make sure that there is growth in jobs,

and carry on with reforms to the labor and housing markets to make sure we emerge stronger from the economic crisis,” he told Dutch public television. National elections must be held before March 2017, by which time the two parties hope an improving economy will have lifted them in the polls. The local polls in some 400 municipalities have greater import than in previous years because key areas of social spending, including the politically sensitive fields of healthcare and benefits, are set to be decentralized, giving municipalities more power than they have ever had before. Wilders had been widely expected to top the poll in The Hague, but his advance in the polls will still boost his party’s morale ahead of European Parliament elections in late May. Fewer Moroccans While votes were being counted, Wilders, who claims Muslim immigrants are disproportionately responsible for crime and benefit fraud, rallied his supporters in The Hague, asking them if they wanted to see “more or fewer Moroccans in this city.” “Fewer, fewer, fewer,” the crowd chanted in reply to a smiling Wilders, who had told the audience he was exercising the “great good” of freedom of expression. “We’ll arrange that,” he replied. According to polls, the Freedom Party, which wants to quit the 28-member EU bloc, will become the largest Dutch party in the Brussels assembly. Elected in September 2012 on a platform of fiscal rectitude, the governing coalition has seen its popularity melt away as it pushed through successive rounds of cuts in a bid to bring the budget deficit below the EU’s 3 percent ceiling. If a national election were held today, the two parties would win just 35 seats in the 150member parliament, compared to the 79 they hold now, according to pollster Maurice De Hond, while Wilders’ breed of anti-EU populism would make the Freedom Party the largest single party, with 27 seats. — Reuters

BANGKOK: This file picture shows an anti-government protester shooting into a crowd of pro-government supporters with an automatic weapon hidden in a bag in the Lak Si area of Bangkok. — AFP

‘Popcorn gunman’ hired by Thailand’s protesters BANGKOK: A Thai gunman who gained national notoriety after opening fire at a political clash with an assault rifle in a popcorn bag said yesterday he had been hired by anti-government protesters. Images of the man, nicknamed the “popcorn gunman”, went viral after he was seen during a dramatic gunfight with government supporters in Bangkok on February 1 wearing a balaclava and bulletproof vest. He was hailed by some within the anti-government movement as a hero. Wiwat Yodprasit, who was arrested Wednesday and faces charges of attempted murder and possession of a gun, told reporters he had been trained to use the M16 rifle by the protesters’ private security guards. The 24-year-old said he was paid $9 a day to act as a guard for the movement, which is backed by the Bangkok-based establishment and wants to oust Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra. “The head of protest security gave me a M16 to use... I fired 20 bullets. I used the popcorn bag to keep the bullet casings from falling to the ground,” Wiwat told a press conference. The daytime clash broke out in the district of Lak Si after opposition demonstrators blocked ballot boxes from being delivered for a general election. Protest leaders have repeatedly denied that their guards or supporters carry weapons. Wiwat was arrested at a temple in the southern town of Surat Thani-the home town of firebrand protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban. His image has been widely used

by protesters as a symbol of defiance against the authorities and the rival pro-government “Red Shirts” movement. He was identified after police released a picture of him later removing his balaclava. Protest spokesman Akanat Promphan said Wiwat was being used by police as a “scapegoat”, without confirming whether he was a security guard for the movement. “He did not intend to hurt anyone but to protect innocent people,” Akanat said, adding the protesters will support his legal case. Authorities seized on Wiwat’s confession as further proof that anti-government demonstrators are armed. “Suthep has repeatedly said that his protest is peaceful. That is absolutely not true,” said Labor Minister Chalerm Yubumrung, who heads the government’s security response to the months-long crisis. Political violence, often targeting protesters with gunfire and grenade blasts, has left 23 people dead and hundreds wounded in recent months. The bloodshed has abated since protesters scaled down their rallies at the start of March and converged in a city centre park. On Tuesday Thailand ended a near two-month state of emergency in Bangkok and surrounding areas, reflecting the improved security situation. Yingluck’s government, in a caretaker role following an incomplete February election, still faces a series of legal challenges that could lead to her removal from office. — AFP

Refugees in Nepal condemned to ‘hilly prison’ by visa fines KATHMANDU: Amir Hussain, a Rohingya Muslim, lost a dozen members of his family to sectarian violence in Myanmar last year. He fled to Nepal where the country’s policy on refugees has left him among hundreds trapped, jobless and mired in debt. He lives with his family in a tiny room in a house where walls have collapsed, water drips through holes in the roof and an open concrete stairwell is a potential deathtrap for his two young children. “If I go back to Burma (Myanmar), I will be killed,” he said. “When I came to Nepal, I felt safe but we found many problems.” Hundreds of desperate refugees are trapped in Nepal, told they must pay fines as high as $100,000 before they can be resettled to the West. Barred from working, many have spent years waiting for the government to let them leave. The biggest problem: that despite being offered new lives in the West by the UN’s refugee agency, most refugees-who number around 400 in the capital Kathmandu-have been trapped here for years by Nepal’s rules, which are decried by rights groups. Nepal is neither a signatory to the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, nor has it established a clear legal framework to deal with asylum-seekers or refugees. The refugees are fined $5 for every day they overstay their 30-day tourist visa and the debt must be cleared before they leave. Many families have amassed tens of thousands of dollars in fines. The government does not waive the visa overstay fee even after the UNHCR has organized resettlement, which is usually to the United States or Canada. And since the government does not recognize their refugee status, they must find the money while being barred from working, leaving them in a perpetual limbo. ‘A hilly prison’ Nawid Ahmad, 42, from Lahore in Pakistan, has a fine of over $100,000 hanging over him and his family. He is a member of the Ahmadi sect of Islam, which is officially heretical in Pakistan. Ahmadis can face three years in jail just for saying the traditional Islamic greeting of “As-Salaam-Alaikum”. Their mosque in Lahore was bombed in 2010, killing around 80 people. Ahmad decided to leave in 2004 after he was shot four times-in the leg, chest and hip-in an unprovoked attack while out shopping. “I miss everything. My heart and soul is in Pakistan, but we could not stay,” he told AFP at his home in Kathmandu. He came with five younger brothers and they added wives and children. Most have already been granted asylum in the United States, but to leave they must find the enormous visa fee which is an impossible task. “This place is beautiful,” he added, gesturing towards the snowcapped Himalayas that lined the horizon. “But for us, it has become a hilly prison. We just wait and wait and wait.” Even more tragic is the case of the Somali community. Many came in 2007 when smugglers promised them a new life in the Italian city of “Naples”. “When we arrived here, the smuggler said it was just a stop-over. In the morning, he had disappeared,” said “Khalid”, who fled Mogadishu after his father, brother and sister were all killed by a rival clan. He requested that his real name not be used. He has been offered relocation to the US, and is looking for a loan shark to pay the $19,000 in visa fines he owes for his family, a tactic employed by many refugees desperate to leave. The loan could mean a long period of indentured servitude for Khalid, but he says: “I won’t hesitate. My children will get a better education and better life.” ‘Life is like a pendulum’ All are grateful for the peace and religious tolerance of Nepal. Although there is occasional discrimination-particularly against dark-skinned Somalis it is nothing compared to the brutal violence they faced at home. But the threat to life and limb has been replaced by a new, psychological torment that results from the long, idle days. “I have lost my golden years to this place,” said Asif Muneer, 42, who ran a furniture business in Lahore before coming here in 2004. Friday prayers have just finished and he sits with a group of Ahmadis in the rented home they have turned into a mosque. “Sometimes I lose my mind-I can’t sleep, can’t eat. Our life is like a pendulum, just swinging back and forth and never going anywhere,” he said. His fine has climbed to $39,000. The refugees survive on a meagre allowance from the UNHCR, which has lobbied the government for years over the visa fee issue. The government says it has twice waived overstay fees for “some four dozen” urban refugees. “However, we consider these people to be illegal immigrants, not refugees. —AFP

21 Mar  

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