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Japan votes in test for new PM Kishida, political stability

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October 31, 2021

By Irene Wang and Elaine Lies

TOKYO (Reuters) -Japanese voters went to the polls on Sunday to decide whether to endorse the conservative government of Prime Minister Fumio Kishida or weaken the new premier and possibly return the world’s third-largest economy to a period of political uncertainty.

The vote is a test https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/tightrope-election-may-spell-uncertain-future-japans-new-prime-minister-2021-10-28 for Kishida, who called the election soon after taking the top post early this month, and for his Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), which has been battered by its perceived mishandling of the coronavirus pandemic.

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Already, Kishida has struggled to advance policies to help poorer people https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/japan-confronts-rising-inequality-after-abenomics-2021-10-12, while securing a big boost in military https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/with-an-eye-china-japans-ruling-party-makes-unprecedented-defence-spending-2021-10-13 spending and taking a harder line on China https://www.reuters.com/business/cop/japans-okinawa-ruling-partys-tough-china-stance-helps-win-young-voters-2021-10-29.

With his lacklustre image failing to inspire voters, the LDP is on the brink of losing its sole majority in the lower house of parliament for the first time since 2009, opinion polls show, although its coalition with junior partner Komeito is forecast to remain in control.

Japan’s vaccination drive initially lagged other advanced nations. More than 70% of the population is now fully vaccinated and infections have dropped sharply, but some voters remain wary.

“It’s hard to say the pandemic is completely snuffed out and society is stable, so we shouldn’t have any big changes in coronavirus policy,” said Naoki Okura, a doctor, after voting in Tokyo.

“Rather than demanding a change in government, I think we should demand continuity.”

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TOUGH CONTESTS, REVOLVING DOOR?

Several key LDP lawmakers are also facing particularly tough contests, including Akira Amari, the party’s secretary general.

“Revolving-door prime ministers is a weakness that many outside of Japan fear,” Sheila A. Smith, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, wrote in a blog post. “Prime Minister Kishida will need a unified party and a strong electoral showing on Oct. 31 if he is to successfully tackle Japan’s difficult national agenda.”

Turnout will be crucial, since higher turnout tends to favour the opposition, but many are choosing to vote absentee.

The biggest opposition group, the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, is expected to gain seats but not come near toppling Kishida’s coalition.

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Still, a big loss of LDP seats could lead to party infighting, returning Japan to an era of short-lived administrations that diminished its global stature, until Shinzo Abe helmed the country for a record eight years to September 2020. The dovish Komeito could also gain more clout within the coalition.

Uncertainty is high, with the Nikkei newspaper estimating 40% of single-seat districts have close races and recent polls showing some 40% of voters undecided.

Voting ends at 8 p.m. (1100 GMT), with projected results likely to come soon afterward from media exit polls.

Kishida’s publicly stated goal is for his coalition to keep a majority, at least 233 seats https://www.reuters.com/article/japan-election/factbox-key-numbers-to-watch-in-japan-lower-house-election-idUSL4N2RI1CL, of the 465 in the lower house. Before the election, the coalition had a commanding two-thirds majority of 305, with the LDP holding 276.

Investors and political watchers are focussed on whether the LDP – in power for all but brief spells since it was formed in 1955 – can keep its majority as a single party. Losing that would erode Kishida’s power base in the factional LDP and the party’s standing against the Komeito.

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The usually splintered opposition is united, arranging for only one party – including the widely shunned Japanese Communist Party – to face off against the coalition in most districts, with analysts saying this is creating a number of neck-and-neck battles.

But the opposition has failed to capture the hearts of voters, with only 8% supporting the Constitutional Democrats while 39% back the LDP, according to a poll last week by public broadcaster NHK.

“The other political parties are all scattered, so I can’t leave it to them with confidence,” said Hiroki Kita, 49 and an advertising executive.

“There’s only the LDP, but it’s a negative choice.”

(Reporting by Sakura Murakami, Elaine Lies, Irene Wang and Daniel Leussink; Writing by Sakura Murakami and Elaine Lies; Editing by William Mallard)

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Blinken downbeat about nuclear talks as Iran floats proposals

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December 2, 2021

By Parisa Hafezi and Humeyra Pamuk

VIENNA/STOCKHOLM (Reuters) -The United States said on Thursday it had little cause for optimism about reviving the 2015 Iran nuclear deal and would know in a day or so if Iran would negotiate in good faith as Tehran put forward fresh proposals.

“I think, in the very near future, the next day or so, we’ll be in a position to judge whether Iran actually intends now to engage in good faith,” U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken told reporters in Stockholm.

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“I have to tell you, recent moves, recent rhetoric, don’t give us a lot of cause for … optimism. But even though the hour is getting very late, it is not too late for Iran to reverse course and engage meaningfully,” he added.

Iran has provided European powers who are shuttling between U.S. and Iranian officials with drafts on sanctions removal and nuclear commitments, Iran’s top nuclear negotiator said on Thursday, as world powers and Tehran try to reinstate the pact.

The announcement came on the fourth day of indirect talks in Vienna between Iran and the United States on bringing both fully back into the deal, under which Iran limited its nuclear program in return for relief from U.S., European Union and U.N. economic sanctions.

The talks resumed on Monday after a five-month hiatus prompted by Iran’s election of an anti-Western hardliner as president.

The U.N. nuclear watchdog on Wednesday said Iran has started producing enriched uranium with advanced centrifuges at its Fordow plant dug into a mountain, further eroding the nuclear deal during talks with the West on saving it.

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“What Iran can’t do is sustain the status quo of building their nuclear program while dragging their feet on talks. That will not happen,” Blinken told reporters in Stockholm in a possible reference to that development.

It was unclear whether Blinken had been briefed on the latest proposals by the Iranians when he made his comments.

“We have delivered two proposed drafts to them … Of course they need to check the texts that we have provided to them. If they are ready to continue the talks, we are in Vienna to continue the talks,” Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator Ali Bagheri Kani told reporters in the Austrian capital.

A European diplomat in Vienna confirmed draft documents had been handed over.

Under the pact, Tehran limited its uranium enrichment programme, a potential pathway to nuclear weapons though Iran says it seeks only civilian atomic energy, in exchange for relief from the economic sanctions.

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But in 2018, then-U.S. President Donald Trump abandoned the deal, calling it too soft on Iran, and reimposed harsh U.S. sanctions, spurring Tehran to breach nuclear limits in the pact.

“We want all sanctions to be lifted at once,” Bagheri told reporters. He said an Iranian proposal regarding how to verify the removal of sanctions – Tehran’s overriding priority in the talks – would be handed over to the European parties later.

A senior European diplomat estimated on Tuesday that 70-80% of a draft deal on salvaging the 2015 accord was completed when Iran and world powers last met in June, though it remained unclear if Tehran would resume talks where they left off.

(Reporting by Parisa Hafezi in Vienna and Humeyra Pamuk in Stockholm; Additional reporting by Doina Chiacu and Simon Lewis in Washington; Writing by Parisa Hafezi and Arshad Mohammed;Editing by Peter Graff, Mark Heinrich and Marguerita Choy)

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Jailed former paralympic athlete Pistorius moved closer to victim’s family

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December 2, 2021

CAPE TOWN (Reuters) – Former South Africa paralympic superstar, Oscar Pistorius, jailed in 2016 for killing his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp, has been moved closer to her family ahead of reconciliation talks that could help pave the way for his early release from prison.

Pistorius, known as “Blade Runner” for his carbon-fibre prosthetic legs, went from public hero to convicted murderer in a trial that drew worldwide interest. He becomes eligible for parole after serving half of his 13-year sentence.

Pistorius is set to speak to Steenkamp’s parents, June and Barry Steenkamp, in a process known as victim-offender dialogue – an integral part of South Africa’s restorative justice programme in its prison system that brings parties affected by a particular crime together in a bid to achieve closure.

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“They are participating in the process because they have committed themselves to being part of the victim-offender dialogue. They feel they have to do this for Reeva,” Tania Koen, lawyer for the Steenkamps, said of the family.

Pistorius’ lawyer did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

‘SENSITIVE PROCESS’

Gold medalist Pistorius, once the darling of the Paralympic movement for pushing for greater recognition and acceptance of disabled athletes, shot dead Steenkamp, a model and law student, in his bathroom in 2013.

Pistorius said he had believed she was an intruder but was jailed in 2016, initially for a six-year term. After an appeal by prosecutors who said this was too lenient the term was increased to 13 years.

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He has now been moved from a prison near Johannesburg to one on South Africa’s east coast, near where Steenkamp’s parents live.

Neither their lawyer Koen nor Singabakho Nxumalo, a spokesman for the department of correctional services, could provide Reuters with a timeline for the discussions.

“It is very sensitive process, highly emotional… and we do not force people to participate in it,” Nxumalo said.

“But we are saying at least it does lay a foundation where people can, if possible, forgive each other, find one another and then try to move forward in harmony,” he said.

(Reporting by Wendell Roelf and Siyabonga Sishi; editing by Gareth Jones)

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Omicron may soon cause over half of COVID infections in Europe -EU

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December 2, 2021

BRUSSELS (Reuters) – The European Union’s public health agency said on Thursday that the Omicron variant could be responsible for more than half of all COVID-19 infections in Europe within a few months.

The estimate could lend weight to preliminary information about the very high transmissibility of the Omicron variant, above that of the Delta variant, which before Omicron was considered the most contagious of the main coronavirus strains.

“Based on mathematical modelling conducted by ECDC, there are indications that Omicron could cause over half of all SARS-CoV-2 infections in the EU/EEA within the next few months,” the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control said in a statement.

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There is no conclusive evidence about Omicron’s transmissibility so far but the World Health Organization’s lead person on COVID-19, Maria van Kerkhove, said on Wednesday the agency expected to have data on this within days.

Europe has so far recorded a few dozens of infections with the Omicron variant, which was first detected in southern Africa last month.

The European Union and European Economic Area (EEA) include the 27 EU member states plus Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway.

Earlier on Thursday, the French government’s top scientific adviser Jean-Francois Delfraissy said that Omicron could take Delta’s place already by the end of January.

(Reporting by Francesco Guarascio; editing by Mark Heinrich)

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