Nicolas Maduro sworn in for second term as Venezuela president

CARACAS (AFP) – Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro was sworn in on Thursday (Jan 10) for a controversial second term, posing a challenge to the United States and much of the international community that have branded his mandate illegitimate.

Maduro, 56, was sworn in by Supreme Court president Maikel Moreno, amid cheers and applause by a crowd of hundreds attending the inauguration in Caracas.

The ceremony was boycotted by the European Union, United States and Venezuela’s South American neighbours.

(This story is developing)

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Trump fires back after incoming US Senator Romney blasts President

WASHINGTON (REUTERS) – US President Donald Trump on Wednesday (Jan 2) cautioned fellow Republican Mitt Romney to be a “team player” after the former presidential candidate and incoming US senator from Utah sharply criticised the President’s actions and questioned his character.

In a Washington Post essay published late on Tuesday, Mr Romney suggested the US leader had “caused dismay around the world” and said his presidency had “made a deep descent in December”.

“On balance, his conduct over the past two years… is evidence that the President has not risen to the mantle of the office,” said Mr Romney, who takes up his new role in Washington on Thursday.

“The appointment of senior persons of lesser experience, the abandonment of allies who fight beside us, and the President’s thoughtless claim that America has long been a ‘sucker’ in world affairs all defined his presidency down,” he wrote.

The White House did not respond to a request for comment, but Mr Trump fired back in a tweet early on Wednesday morning that took aim at Mr Romney’s failed bid for the White House in 2012.

“Here we go with Mitt Romney, but so fast! Question will be, is he a Flake? I hope not. Would much prefer that Mitt focus on Border Security and so many other things where he can be helpful. I won big, and he didn’t. He should be happy for all Republicans. Be a TEAM player & WIN!” Mr Trump wrote on Twitter.

The President appeared to reference outgoing US Senator Jeff Flake, one of the few Republican lawmakers who publicly spoke out against Mr Trump and drew the President’s wrath.

Representatives for Mr Romney could not be immediately reached for comment to Mr Trump’s tweet.

Mr Romney had excoriated Mr Trump during the 2016 presidential campaign as a “fraud” who was “playing the American public for suckers”.

Mr Trump shot back at the time, criticising Romney’s 2012 loss to Democrat Barack Obama.

But the two appeared to bury their bitterness, with Mr Trump briefly considering Mr Romney for secretary of state after he won the 2016 presidential election and, in February 2018, endorsing Mr Romney’s run for the Senate.

It is unclear whether any other Republican lawmakers will feel emboldened to criticise Mr Trump ahead of his 2020 re-election bid or whether Mr Trump will face any serious challengers for the Republican Party’s presidential nomination.

But in his essay on Tuesday, Mr Romney sought to stake out a more independent position in his party and vowed to be a loud voice in Washington, which now includes a divided Congress as Democrats take control of the US House of Representatives following their November election gains.

“I will speak out against significant statements or actions that are divisive, racist, sexist, anti-immigrant, dishonest or destructive to democratic institutions,” he wrote.

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Former presidential candidate Tan Cheng Bock retiring from medicine after 50 years

SINGAPORE – Former presidential candidate and general practitioner Tan Cheng Bock is hanging up his stethoscope after 50 years in medicine.

“I always say that medicine is my love, but politics is my calling,” said Dr Tan in a Facebook post on Monday (Dec 31), adding that he looks forward to serving Singapore “in a new way”. He added: “The country and the peoples’ welfare are my top priority.”

In July, seven opposition parties met to discuss the possibility of forming a coalition to contest the next general election, which must be held by April 2021. They invited Dr Tan, a former People’s Action Party MP, to lead this coalition.

At the time, Dr Tan said: “I think I must help, but in what capacity, I have not decided.”

In his post, Dr Tan recounted how he opened his first clinic – Ama Keng Clinic – in 1971 in a village where houses were topped with attap and zinc roofs, and water came from wells and standpipes.

Most homes did not have electricity and villagers made do with kerosene lamps, said Dr Tan, recalling how he once delivered a baby by dim kerosene lamplight. To the villagers, Dr Tan said, he became “more than a doctor, by helping them in family feuds, land disputes and writing letters to government departments”.

Dr Tan said that the villagers were subsequently scattered across Singapore following a large-scale resettlement exercise, which was “extremely traumatic and painful for many” as their only life skill was farming.

“They suffered anxiety and depression settling into Housing Board (HDB) flats,” he said. “Now the village is no more and overgrown with secondary forest.”

Many of his old patients continued to seek him out after he moved his practice to the HDB heartlands, Dr Tan said, adding that some have asked him what he plans to do.

“I tell them that retirement is not an option for me – I am merely switching my role from serving patients to serving people,” he said.

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US expects Bolsonaro visit in early 2019

WASHINGTON (AFP) – Brazil’s incoming right-wing leader Jair Bolsonaro will visit Washington early next year as he finds common ground with President Donald Trump, a US official said on Friday (Dec 29).

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is set to attend Bolsonaro’s New Year’s Day inauguration in Brasilia and will discuss Trump’s invitation to Washington, the official said.

“We look forward to what will hopefully be his first official visit early in the year ahead,” the official told reporters on condition of anonymity.

The Trump administration sees a strong ally in Bolsonaro, who is following the lead of the United States in moving Brazil’s embassy in Israel to Jerusalem and has been critical of international efforts to fight climate change.

The US official noted that both Bolsonaro and Pompeo have warned of risks to Latin America from rising investment by China, whose financing of projects has turned into debt traps.

“It’s not always the case that when China shows up it is with good intention for the people they are showing up to ostensibly support,” the official said.

Bolsonaro, like Trump, has provoked outrage over the years with brash, swaggering statements, including telling a female lawmaker she was “not worth raping” and voicing nostalgia for the former military dictatorship’s use of torture.

The US official acknowledged “there has been some concern about older statements” but said Bolsonaro since the election has taken a “very strident and very forceful” approach to human rights in the region.

“The president-elect has been very forward-leaning on Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua in his defense of the human rights and the freedoms and democracy for the people in those countries,” she said.

Pompeo heads after Brazil to Colombia, where he will speak with President Ivan Duque about taking a firm line against Venezuelan strongman Nicolas Maduro.

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Anwar's daughter Nurul Izzah quits as PKR vice president

PETALING JAYA (THE STAR/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) – Nurul Izzah Anwar, the daughter of Malaysian political leader Anwar Ibrahim, has resigned as vice-president of PKR and relinquished her appointment as the chair of Penang PKR (Parti Keadilan Rakyat).

The Permatang Pauh MP said that she would remain a member of the parliamentary backbench committed to reforms. Her father won the party presidency uncontested in August.

In a statement issued on Monday (Dec 17), the 37-year-old said: “My only regret is that I should have made this announcement sooner, but it has not been an easy decision to arrive at.

“The pace of political developments has been relentless for the last nine months, with party elections following a gruelling general election campaign,” she said in the statement.

Below is her full statement:

The 9th of May has been a watershed for many reasons. A peaceful transition at federal power took place, and Malaysians saw the enlargement of their democratic space for reforms to be initiated.

To what end will come of the successful completion of the promised reform agenda by Pakatan Harapan remains to be seen – as such, it remains crucial that all stakeholders continue pressing for the fulfilment of the reforms, as well as the continuation of policies and programs of the previous government if proven to be beneficial for the rakyat.

My journey in politics began in 1998 – more as a political awakening, and eventually as part of the central leadership of the People’s Justice Party. I thank the members of KEADILAN for according me the opportunity to serve them all this while.

There are beliefs and ideals I hold dear and I feel that I can be most true to them by taking this course of action I am now announcing.

I am resigning as Vice President of the People’s Justice Party, and relinquish my appointment as the Chair of KEADILAN Penang. The leadership has been informed of my decision.

My work as elected representative for the people of Permatang Pauh and as a legislator will continue until my term expires. I will also remain as an ordinary member of KEADILAN.

I will also no longer serve the federal government in any capacity. I leave the decision as to my role in the Penang state level government linked companies to the party leadership.

I remain a member of the parliamentary backbench committed to reforms. I also leave to the leadership the decision as to my status as a member of the Public Accounts Committee (PAC). I had earlier relinquished my post as Chair of the Bills Committee in favour of the PAC.

But I will continue my advocacy work as an ordinary citizen and Member of Parliament for Permatang Pauh.

My only regret is that I should have made this announcement sooner, but it has not been an easy decision to arrive at. The pace of political developments has been relentless for the last nine months, with party elections following a gruelling general election campaign.

Now that I have had the chance to take stock of where I stand in relations to politics, I am resolved to doing the right thing.

I wish the leadership and the party the very best.

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Thailand's Pheu Thai confident despite electoral hurdles, says key leader

BANGKOK – Thailand’s biggest political party, hit by defections ahead of an election that will allow the kingdom to emerge from military rule, remains confident of its chances even as a new polling system threatens to confuse longtime supporters.

“This election has been designed for a return to democracy while keeping a dictatorial government. It’s like dictatorship under the veil of democracy,” said Dr Sudarat Keyuraphan, who leads the Pheu Thai Party’s election strategy committee.

The 57-year-old former agriculture minister sat out of politics for most of the past decade before being parachuted into what is arguably the party’s top position this year.

Shielded from Pheu Thai’s legal troubles by her exclusion from executive positions, she has been steering the mothership while several high-profile members moved to smaller, allied parties to maximise their chances of being elected under the new Constitution.

While Dr Sudarat doubts supporters will abandon Pheu Thai, she admits it is a tough job getting voters to understand what is at stake.

The ruling generals maintain a partial ban on political activity and explicitly outlaw electioneering, even while the country gears up for a poll tentatively set for Feb 24.

“Most of the people think the election system is the same as usual. But it’s not,” she said in an interview with The Straits Times last Friday (Dec 7).

New rules tighten the proportional representation system to the detriment of big parties like Pheu Thai. On ballot sheets, specific numbers will no longer be assigned to each party on a nationwide basis, making it harder for voters to identify the party that they want to vote for.

The future prime minister will be selected not solely by the 500-seat elected Lower House, but jointly with 250 appointed senators, within a transitional five-year period.

Analysts widely expect senators to work with pro-junta parties to prolong the premiership of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, who came to power after staging the 2014 coup.

Dr Sudarat, who last month pipped Mr Prayut to top a poll on who people wanted to see as prime minister, urged voters to be “strategic” at the ballot box.

“No matter whether you like or don’t like us, please vote for us. At the very least, if you vote for us and we don’t do a good job, you can kick us out.”

By her count, 28 Pheu Thai politicians have crossed over to pro-junta parties so far, something she attributes to strong-arm tactics.

“We saw this after the 2006 coup when more than 50 per cent of our members of parliament were pressured to go over to the other side,” she said, recalling the legislative upheavals after then prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra – leader of the Thai Rak Thai Party at the time – was ousted in 2006.

After the party was dissolved by a court order in 2007, its politicians and allies regrouped under the banner of People’s Power Party (PPP). The PPP won the most seats in the 2007 election, only to have its ruling coalition crumble under defections.

When the PPP was dissolved by a court ruling in 2008, its remaining politicians moved to the Pheu Thai Party, which won by a landslide in the 2011 general election. Then Pheu Thai was thrown out by the 2014 coup.

Dr Sudarat, as former deputy leader of Thai Rak Thai, served a five-year political ban that ended in 2012, after which she turned down an invitation to work in Pheu Thai.

This time, however, she could not say no. “It’s like the house has been rocked by several bombs. It needs to be restored,” she said.

Thaksin remains in the public eye despite living in self-exile for the past decade to avoid jail time for conflict of interest. Among the royalists and urban middle class, he is reviled as a corrupt politician whose populist policies that enticed the rural poor have challenged the established order.

Addressing the pervasive view that 69-year-old Thaksin continues to control Pheu Thai through proxies, Dr Sudarat said “those who took power” have demonised Thaksin to stoke fear.

Thaksin, she said, “is a Thai, an ageing one. His relatives are still in Thailand and his grandchildren were born and are growing up in Thailand. As a former prime minister, he of course hopes to see Thailand develop alongside neighbouring countries”.

Asked what she made of Thaksin’s only son, television station owner Panthongtae Shinawatra, joining Pheu Thai last month, she described the latter as only a “supporter”.

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Motion filed to impeach Somali president: Statement

MOGADISHU (REUTERS) – The top official of Somali’s parliament administration said on Sunday (Dec 9) he had filed a motion with the speaker of parliament to impeach the country’s president, Mohamed Abdullahi.

“We have filed an impeachment against the president of the federal republic of Somalia,” Abdikarim H. Abdi Buh said in a statement.

Constitutionally, 92 lawmakers have to sign such a motion for it to be submitted to the speaker. Parliament may debate the motion a week later.

Somalia’s parliament has 275 lawmakers in total. A successful impeachment vote requires the backing of two thirds of all MPs.

A copy of the motion, seen by Reuters, lists as grounds for the impeachment an allegation that the president secretly signed agreements with other countries including Ethiopia and Eritrea.

The agreements touched on the use of Somali ports and economic and security cooperation, it said.

He was also accused of illegally extraditing alleged criminals to other countries and violating Somalia’s federalism law and the rules and regulations of parliament.

Officials at the president’s office could not be reached for comment.

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Merkel's 'mini-me' with a twist

BERLIN • Best known to Germans as “AKK”, the even-tempered and unpretentious Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer is so used to being compared to her mentor Chancellor Angela Merkel that she is unfazed by her “mini-Merkel” nickname.

But the newly elected leader of the centre-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU), replacing Dr Merkel after 18 years, is the first to say she is no carbon copy of her famous predecessor.

Widely seen as the Chancellor’s chosen heir, Mrs Kramp-Karrenbauer has promised to stick closely to Dr Merkel’s centrist course, insisting that the weakened CDU needs to position itself as “the people’s party in the middle”.

Yet the devout Catholic and mother-of-three is more conservative on social issues like gay marriage, and has vowed to take a tougher line on migration as the CDU seeks to woo back voters lost to the far-right.

“I have my own mind and that has led to conflict with Angela Merkel,” the 56-year-old recently told the Frankfurter Allgemeine daily. “But I’m not about to artificially distance myself from her,” she added with trademark loyalty.

The protege’s win must come as a relief to Dr Merkel, whose chances of staying on as Chancellor until 2021 partly hinge on how well she gets on with the party’s new chair.

Born in Saarland, a tiny, hill-strewn state tucked against the French border, Mrs Kramp-Karrenbauer grew up in a large, Catholic family as a self-described nerd who adored reading and never dared to cut class. She married Mr Helmut Karrenbauer in 1984, the same year she started her studies in law and political science.

The couple have three children and she has paid tribute to her husband for being a stay-at-home father so she could climb the career ladder.

A popular figure in local politics, she held several state ministerial posts before becoming Saarland’s premier in 2011. She shot to nationwide attention when she scored a thumping re-election last year, a rare bright spot in a slew of regional election disappointments for the CDU.

It was Dr Merkel who handed the politician a bouquet of flowers after the win. Mrs Kramp-Karrenbauer then played a key role in the tortuous coalition talks that followed an inconclusive general election, winning plaudits for her determination and pragmatism in the marathon meetings.

In February, Dr Merkel rewarded her by tapping her to become the party’s No. 2 as general secretary, luring her from Saarland to Berlin.

As CDU leader, Mrs Kramp-Karrenbauer is now in pole position to be the party’s next candidate for chancellor – a job she admits she has her sights on.

Batting away criticism that she stands for more of the same at a time when the CDU needs to be reinvigorated, Mrs Kramp-Karrenbauer has said she sees no need “to undo” Dr Merkel’s legacy.

But she has made moves to carve out her own profile. While praising Dr Merkel’s divisive 2015 decision to allow in hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers, Mrs Kramp-Karrenbauer has said stronger action is needed to allay German fears about security and integration. Convicted asylum seekers should be expelled not just from Germany but Europe’s entire Schengen zone, she has argued.

And she has floated the idea of re-introducing military service or a year of national service to boost social cohesion. Perhaps most controversially, she opposed gay marriage which was legalised last year and supported by Dr Merkel.

A keen participant in her region’s annual carnival celebrations, Mrs Kramp-Karrenbauer has over the years endeared herself with the public by dressing up as “cleaning lady Gretel”. She reprised the role last year, taking to the stage complete with a smock and broom to poke fun at the political bigwigs in Berlin – about as un-Merkel as its gets.

Despite these differences, to most Germans, Mrs Kramp-Karrenbauer stands for continuity in a country readying for the post-Merkel era.

“There’s a desire for more inclusion and self-confidence in the party,” she has said. “But I don’t sense a desire to completely break with the current course.”

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

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Sri Lanka court set to rule on sacking of parliament

COLOMBO (AFP) – Security was stepped up outside Sri Lanka’s top court on Friday (Dec 7) ahead of an expected ruling on whether the president broke the law by sacking parliament last month, a decision that could potentially lead to impeachment proceedings.

President Maithripala Sirisena plunged the country into crisis on Oct 26 when he fired the prime minister and appointed the contentious Mahinda Rajapakse in his place. He then dissolved parliament on Nov 9.

Four days later, the Supreme Court issued an interim ruling suspending Sirisena’s decree and restoring parliament, which almost immediately passed a no-confidence motion against Rajapakse.

The court’s seven-judge bench was likely to deliver a final ruling on the constitutionality of Sirisena’s move on Friday.

“If the morning session is brief, we can expect a decision later today,” a court official said.

Sacked premier Ranil Wickremesinghe’s party and their allies, who command a majority in the 225-member assembly, have suggested that they could begin impeachment proceedings against Sirisena depending on the ruling.

Wickremesinghe’s party loyalists believe that the court decision will go in their favour, a view held by many independent lawyers.

Problems for Sirisena were compounded on Monday when the Court of Appeal suspended the entire cabinet and asked Rajapakse to explain on what authority he was holding office.

With parliamentary proceedings degenerating into brawls, the United States, the European Union and other powers have raised concerns over the crisis in the strategically important island nation of 21 million people.

Only China has recognised the appointment of Rajapakse, who during his decade as president until 2015 relied heavily on Beijing for diplomatic and financial support.

As president from 2005 until 2015, he ended Sri Lanka’s four-decade civil war in 2009 by crushing the rebel Tamil Tigers.

But 40,000 ethnic Tamils were allegedly massacred in the process. Rajapakse and his family are also alleged to have profited from his time in power through corrupt deals.

During an earlier stint as prime minister from 2001 until 2004, Wickremesinghe is credited with pulling Sri Lanka out of its first ever recession, in part with reforms that have endeared him to the West.

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