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Fierce contest for power as Samoa prepares for general election | Elections News



A fierce contest for power is playing out in the small Polynesian nation of Samoa ahead of its next general election on April 9.

Election outcomes in the central Pacific Island nation of about 199,000 people, located northeast of Fiji, have, for more than 20 years, been predictable.  With little opposition, Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi has led the Human Rights Protection Party (HRPP) to victory at every five-year vote since 1998. The party itself has been in government for nearly 40 years.

Malielegaoi, now 75 years old, has held power for 23 years and is one of the longest-serving leaders in the region and the world.

But this time, impassioned opposition has emerged with new parties and candidates who are intent on change at the top.

“Thinking back to 2011 and 2016, it’s a different mood this time around,” said Renate Rivers, an editor at the local newspaper, Samoa Observer.

“We’re finding that a lot more people are feeling emboldened to speak openly about policies or candidates they do or don’t support. Samoa also hasn’t had an official opposition party for five years, so it has definitely felt like an awakening for many people who have realised that they actually do have other options for the upcoming election,” she told Al Jazeera.

The biggest challenge comes from the newly formed FAST coalition of three parties, namely the Fa’atuatua i le Atua Samoa ua Tasi (FAST) Party, the Samoa National Democratic Party and the Tumua ma Puleono Party.

The leader of FAST is former Deputy Prime Minister Fiame Naomi Mata’afa who resigned from the government and HRPP, of which she was a member for more than 30 years, last September.

A senior politician, clan chief and daughter of the country’s first post-Independence Prime Minister Fiame Mata’afa Faumuina Mulinu’u II, she became Samoa’s first female cabinet minister in 1991 and deputy prime minister in 2016.

Her defection, following her rejection of controversial new legislation which she believes will worsen corruption, preceded a heated public exchange with Malielegaoi, in which he accused her of treason and she denounced the ruling party for abuses of power.

‘Not getting any better’

“HRPP has had its time for the past 40 years. With a population of less than 200,000 people, we should have at least a decent way of living, given we have a foreign debt of $1.2bn, but the country is not getting any better under HRPP’s watch,” a spokesperson for FAST told Al Jazeera. We’ve had 100 people die due to the government’s carelessness and ineptitude in handling the measles epidemic in 2019. Corruption is rife with major contracts awarded to companies closely related to cabinet ministers, and nepotism, as we have a prime minister and his son as the head of finance and his son-in-law as the chief auditor.”

Samoa, a former German colony, was occupied and then administered by New Zealand from 1914 until it achieved independence in 1962.

It is a parliamentary democracy, although modern political leadership is firmly linked to the “matais”, the country’s Indigenous clan chiefs who wield immense power over the realms of family welfare, land, property, religion and politics. Until 1990, only matais could vote and stand as electoral candidates. Candidates for the majority of the 51 seat Legislative Assembly must still hold a matai title, but, late last century, voting was extended to all citizens aged 21 years and over.

On Friday, 128,848 voters go to the polls to choose from a field of 189 candidates, of which more than 20 are women. The HRPP, which holds the majority of parliamentary seats, has the most candidates at 105. The FAST coalition is next with 52, while other parties, such as the Tatua Samoa Party and Samoa First Party have 14 and 5 respectively.

The ruling party’s promises include more infrastructure development and it is competing with the FAST coalition on pledges to improve educational outcomes and hospital services. Malielegaoi is convinced of his victory again this year but Rivers, the journalist, believes the party is relying on “the voting public’s gratitude for the work done since they came into power”.

This includes changing road use in the island state from right to left in 2009 and shifting the international date line in 2011 to boost the economy and trade with Australasia and Asia. In the same year, it was instrumental in increasing sub-regional cooperation with the founding of the Polynesian Leaders Group.

The HRPP was approached for comment on the election but did not respond.

Important issues for voters are likely to include employment and the pandemic.

“Samoa is struggling economically because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The country is now in a recession and border closures have put a stop to tourism earnings, and also slowed down our seasonal employment arrangements. On the ground, many small businesses are struggling to stay afloat,” Rivers said.

Samoa has a gross domestic product or GDP of $4,324 per capita, a rate that is relatively high for the region. But prior to the pandemic, an estimated 20.3 percent of the population lived below the national poverty line and the unemployment rate was about 14.5 percent, according to the World Bank.

Personal connections

Another hot issue is likely to be the government’s controversial passing last year of the new Land and Titles Court, Constitution Amendment and Judicature Bills. Critics claim these laws grant too much power to the executive and by elevating the power of a new Land and Titles Court, which prioritises customary law, weakens the Supreme Court’s ability to challenge abuses of power.

Mata’afa, acting in accordance with the views of her electorate, Lotofaga, rejected all three last year.

The FAST Party is now making a promise “to restore and uphold the rule of law as the previous government and HRPP had dismantled the justice system by establishing two separate courts that undermine the role of the Supreme Court and the independence of the judiciary,” according to its spokesperson.

Voter turnout is likely to be high, given the stakes but other factors will influence behaviour at the ballot box, such as family allegiances and support of the diaspora.

“In Samoan politics, you have generally pretty small constituencies where voters know candidates because they’re family members, or part of the same church or village, so these personal connections tend to be a lot more important than party policy,” said Kerryn Baker, a fellow in Pacific politics at the Australian National University’s Department of Pacific Affairs.

The very large diaspora, which is estimated at more than half the country’s resident population, could exert considerable pressure too.

Rivers said that many Samoans living in Australia, New Zealand and the United States are opposition supporters. “They have financed much of the opposition’s campaign and unleashed a social media campaign that has been very successful in countering the ruling party’s rhetoric,” she said.

The return of writs for the next 17th Parliament of Samoa are due on the April 23.

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‘Almost 180-degree turnaround’: More Black Americans open to jabs | Coronavirus pandemic News




More Black people in the United States say they are open to receiving coronavirus vaccines, a new survey shows, an encouraging sign that one community leader described as “almost a 180-degree turnaround” from earlier in the pandemic.

According to the late March poll by the Associated Press news agency and NORC Center for Public Affairs Research, about 24 percent of Black people said they would probably or definitely not get vaccinated.

That is down from 41 percent in January, and is similar to the proportion of white people (26 percent) and Hispanic Americans (22 percent) who also say they do not plan to get jabs.

The findings come as US President Joe Biden’s administration works to speed up inoculations to try to outpace a recent rise in infections, after he promised that all adults would be eligible for a jab by April 19.

Public health experts had raised concerns about the need to ensure that Black and other communities of colour in the US, which have been particularly hard hit by the pandemic, had equitable access to vaccines.

Local leaders said vaccine hesitancy was fuelled in part by decades of institutional discrimination in healthcare and other public services.

Dr Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association, told AP that attitudes among Black people have taken “almost a 180-degree turnaround” as outreach campaigns have worked to combat misinformation.

Benjamin said Black physicians, faith leaders and other organisers have helped get targeted messaging to the community “in a way that wasn’t preachy”.

“They didn’t tell people, ‘You need to get vaccinated because it’s your duty.’ They basically said, ‘Listen, you need to get vaccinated to protect yourself and your family,’” he said.

Mattie Pringle, a 57-year-old Black woman from South Carolina who previously had doubts about taking the vaccine, said she changed her mind after a member of her church urged her to reconsider. She got her first jab last week.

“I had to pray about it, and I felt better after that,” Pringle told AP.

Medical and public health experts have continued to urge people in the US to get vaccinated in an effort to slow the spread of the disease, which has killed more than 561,000 people across the country – the highest death rate in the world.

The US, which has reported over 31 million cases to date, has authorised three vaccines for emergency use: the Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson jabs.

So far, more than 178.8 million vaccine doses have been administered countrywide, while 68.2 million people are considered fully vaccinated, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Recent surveys have shown that more Americans in general say they intend to get vaccinated than previously did.

The Pew Research Center reported in early March that 19 percent of US adults said they had already received at least one dose, while another 50 percent said they probably or definitely would get vaccinated.

“Taken together, 69 percent of the public intends to get a vaccine – or already has – up significantly from 60 percent who said they planned to get vaccinated in November,” it said.

Other recent surveys show that attitudes towards vaccines are split along political lines. A survey at Monmouth University released last month found that 36 percent of Republicans said they would avoid the vaccine compared with just six percent of Democrats.

That prompted top US infectious disease expert, Dr Anthony Fauci, to call on former President Donald Trump to encourage his supporters to get vaccinated.

Meanwhile, experts are urging Americans to take whichever vaccine is available to protect themselves and avoid delays.

“When people come in, I always advise them to get the vaccine that’s available because you never know what vaccine is going to be available the next time,” Reham Awad, a pharmacy intern in the Chicago area, told Al Jazeera this week.

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Erdogan urges end to Ukraine tension, offers Turkey’s support | Conflict News




Turkish president says tensions between Kyiv and Moscow over Donbass conflict have to be resolved through dialogue.

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has called for the “worrying” developments in eastern Ukraine’s Donbass region to come to an end after meeting his Ukrainian counterpart in Istanbul, adding Turkey was ready to provide any necessary support.

Erdogan and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy held talks in Istanbul on Saturday amid tensions between Kyiv and Moscow over the long-running conflict in Donbass.

Speaking at a news conference alongside Zelenskyy, Erdogan said he hoped the conflict would be resolved peacefully, through dialogue based on diplomatic customs, in line with international laws and Ukraine’s territorial integrity.

“Our main goal is that the Black Sea continues to be a sea of peace, tranquility and cooperation,” Erdogan said.

Zelenskyy said the views of Kyiv and Ankara coincided regarding the threats in the region and as well as responses to those threats.

Erdogan stressed that Turkey’s cooperation with Ukraine in the defence industry, which was the main item on the meeting’s agenda, was not a move against any third countries.

Al Jazeera’s Sinem Koseoglu, reporting from Istanbul, said Ukraine was purchasing Turkey’s military drones.

She also said that “new generation drones will be equipped with the Ukrainian engines”.

Regional tensions

Zelenskyy’s visit to Turkey comes amid renewed tensions in eastern Ukraine, where Ukrainian forces and Russia-backed separatists have been fighting since 2014.

In a visit to troops there this week, Zelenskyy said breaches of a July truce were increasing.

Separatist authorities have also accused Ukrainian forces of violating the ceasefire.

Russia has reinforced its troops along the border and warned Ukraine against trying to retake control of the separatist-controlled territory.

Kyiv rejects that it is preparing for an offensive. The Russian military buildup has raised concerns in the United States and Europe.

The Turkish and Russian presidents spoke on the phone on Friday. Among the issues discussed was Ukraine.

The Kremlin said President Vladimir Putin expressed concern that Ukraine “recently resumed dangerous provocations on the contact line”.

Turkey is a NATO member. But Erdogan and Putin have forged a close personal relationship, sealing energy and trade deals.

They have also negotiated for opposing sides in conflicts, including Syria, Libya and Nagorno-Karabakh.

Erdogan’s office also said he would discuss with Zelenskyy the living conditions of Crimean Tatars, who have ethnic links to Turks. Moscow annexed the Crimean Peninsula in 2014.

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Libya kicks off delayed COVID-19 vaccination drive | Coronavirus pandemic News




Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibah receives shot on live television, urges Libyans to register online for their own vaccinations.

Libya has launched its delayed COVID-19 vaccination drive, with Abdul Hamid Dbeibah, prime minister of the country’s new unity government, getting his shot on live television.

Officially, Libya has registered a total of about 167,000 coronavirus cases, including more than 2,800 deaths, out of a population of seven million. Its healthcare system has struggled to cope during the pandemic, strained by years of political turmoil and violence.

After the vaccination of Dbeibah on Saturday at the headquarters of Libya’s Centre for Disease Control on the outskirts of the capital, Tripoli, Health Minister Ali al-Zenati was next to receive a jab.

Libya has so far received 200,000 doses of Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine, alongside more than 57,600 AstraZeneca shots, the latter delivered through the COVAX programme for lower and middle-income countries.

Dbeibah urged fellow citizens to register online for their own vaccinations. He has earmarked the vaccination campaign as a policy priority, alleging that the delivery of the shots was hindered by outgoing authorities.

“The arrival of vaccines has been delayed by political, not financial, considerations,” he said.

Dbeibah’s interim Government of National Unity was sworn in last month [Mahmud Turkia/AFP]

Dbeibah was selected earlier this year through a United Nations-sponsored Libyan dialogue to lead the country to national elections in December.

His government replaces two warring administrations based in Tripoli and the country’s east, the latter loyal to renegade military commander Khalifa Hafar. The rival authorities have given their backing to the new administration, adding to tentative hopes that Libya can exit a decade of crisis.

‘Better late than never’

The World Health Organization said on Thursday that two new variants of the coronavirus are present in Libya, which has lately been detecting about 1,000 new daily infections.

No lockdown measures are currently in place, and while masks are obligatory in public places, the measure is widely flouted.

“I feel sorry that the vaccine arrived late in Libya after thousands were infected. But better late than never,” shop owner Ali al-Hadi told Reuters news agency, adding that his wife had been sick with COVID-19 and recovered.

Many Libyans fear the vaccination campaign could be marred by political infighting or favouritism after years of unrest.

“We hope the health ministry will steer away from political conflicts so that services can reach patients,” said housewife Khawla Muhammad, 33.

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