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Jabs for votes: Lebanon’s oligarchs turn to Covid bribery

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Jabs for votes: Lebanon’s oligarchs turn to Covid bribery. Lebanon’s desperate leaders are bribing their base with free Covid-19 jabs ahead of next year’s elections, in what observers say is the latest variant on an old corruption trick.

The “vaccine for vote” system builds on decades-old patronage practices that have seen leaders buy their way into office by offering voters money or public sector employment.

But with state resources stretched to their limit by a severe economic crisis and international aid lessening because of a failure to deliver promised reforms, politicians are turning to Covid jabs to stock up on political capital.

“Political forces are trying to directly or indirectly make themselves a part of the equation with regards to the vaccine campaign, principally because it is a profitable investment,” said a member of the state-run National Vaccination Committee who talked on condition of anonymity.

Prime minister-designate Saad Hariri, a leading figure in Lebanon’s Sunni community, organized a countrywide vaccination campaign with the assistance of his Future Movement toward the beginning of May.

More than 7,000 people received at least one portion of the Russian Sputnik V vaccine, said spokesperson Abdel Salam Moussa. Tens of thousands of new jabs are expected to show up in the coming weeks, he told AFP.

The Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), founded by President Michel Aoun, and its Christian rival the Lebanese Forces, have also distributed jabs through private initiatives organized by members or affiliates.

Elias Bou Saab, a lawmaker close to the FPM, rented out a private hospital outside Beirut until March next year for vaccination purposes.

Last month, he said he would provide “20,000 portions of the Pfizer vaccine to be distributed free of charge”.

Antoine Habchi of the Lebanese Forces provided jabs for 1,600 people in the eastern region of Baalbek. “The funds were raised from the diaspora,” he told AFP.

Vax pact

The Lebanese government, with the assistance of international agencies, provides free jabs of the Pfizer or AstraZeneca vaccine on a priority basis.

It started its vaccination campaign in February, but the rollout was initially slow, forcing many, including political leaders, to turn to private suppliers providing Sputnik dosages.

With more than half the population living below the poverty line and the Lebanese pound sliding rapidly against the dollar on the black market, vaccines are an extravagance for many.

Two Sputnik dosages are sold to companies and associations for $38, which amounts to 500,000 Lebanese pounds at the black market rate, or around three quarters of the lowest pay permitted by law.

Firas, a former protection broker, had registered along with his wife for state-sponsored vaccination.

But when a political party offered him free jabs, he decided not to wait for the government.

“I have been unemployed for six months. How might I have afforded vaccines for two people?” said the 52-year-old, who declined to name the party that sponsored his Sputnik portion.

Out of almost 900,000 people who have received vaccines in Lebanon, almost 60,000 benefited from party handouts, said Mohamad Haidar, a health ministry adviser.

The powerful Hezbollah movement, an Iran-backed party that boasts significant welfare institutions, including several hospitals, says it isn’t distributing vaccines.

With health minister Hamad Hassan hailing from its positions, Hezbollah can rely solely on the state, said political scientist Hilal Khashan of the American University of Beirut.

Impoverished followers

According to a 2019 report by Transparency International, almost one out of two people in Lebanon is offered a bribe in return for their vote, while more than one out of four receives threats on the off chance that they don’t comply.

With traditional party leaders going up against a revitalized opposition in elections next year, vaccine handouts could be “exploited for political ends,” said Julien Courson, the director of the Lebanese Transparency Association.

But vaccines aren’t the only honey pot.

Food prices in Lebanon have soared by up to 400 percent as of December and medicines are fast disappearing from pharmacy racks.

Political patrons are stepping in to facilitate the blow.

The FPM will launch a platform for medicine exchange that will basically benefit party supporters, said Marwan Zoghbi of the party’s coronavirus committee.

People with a surplus of a certain medicine will be matched with those who are in need, he said.

Hezbollah, which has long offered a wide cluster of social services, said in April that it is boosting the number of supporters who benefit from assistance.

Services include a shopping card for discounted food items sold at select discount stores.

But with Lebanon’s burdens accumulating quickly, political parties across the board will struggle to keep up.

“Lebanese clientelism is failing because the political system doesn’t have material resources to administer to sectarian leaders,” said Khashan.

“The pervasive poverty attests to the failure of the system and the inability of confessional leaders to provide for their impoverished followers.”

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With 9,056 fresh infections, Moscow Covid cases soar to pandemic high

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New coronavirus infections hit a pandemic high in Moscow on Monday, tripling in just weeks and forcing Russia’s capital to close its Euro fan zone and extend other curbs.

Some 9,056 new cases were recorded in the megapolis of 12 million in the past 24 hours, up from 3,000 fourteen days ago and another every day record since the Covid-19 pandemic began in mid 2020, according to official statistics.

Faced with the spike, Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin, who has been rolling out restrictions for almost seven days, said that the city would limit gatherings and close the Euro 2020 fan zone outside of the Luzhniki stadium.

“I didn’t want to do this, but we have to,” Sergei Sobyanin wrote on his website.

“Starting today, we will limit mass events to a maximum of 1,000 people.”

“We are temporarily stopping all mass entertainment events and we’ll also have to close ballrooms and fan zones,” he wrote.

The move came a day after he warned that the city was facing another wave of infections, likely because of new Covid variants.

“It’s tripling, there’s an enormous powerful that we have not seen during the previous waves,” he said, adding that cases jumped from 3,000 to 7,000 in just days and predicting they would pass the 9,000 mark on Friday.

Over the past week, the mayor has introduced a progression of new restrictions in an effort to contain the wave of infections, including declaring a “work-free” week, shutting settings, and ordering mandatory vaccinations of people working in the service industry in the city.

Also on Friday, Sobyanin extended until June 29 a few measures that were announced last weekend, similar to the closure of food corridors in shopping centers, zoos, playgrounds, and the closure of bars and restaurants between 11:00 pm and 6:00 am.

Curbs tightened in Euro host St Pete –

Russia’s second city of Saint Petersburg, the country’s worst Covid hotspot after Moscow, is hosting seven Euro 2020 matches – including a quarter-final – and is expected to see thousands of football fans from Europe.

On Monday, Saint Petersburg also announced a tightening of restrictions, including no food deals in its fan zones.

The increase in cases in Russia comes as the country struggles to encourage Russians to get vaccinated, despite the fact that the country launched a mass campaign of free jabs in December and has developed and approved four vaccines – Sputnik V, EpiVacCorona, CoviVac and the one-portion Sputnik Light.

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Chinese, Indian workers among 11 killed in Nepal floods; 25 missing

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Landslides and flash floods triggered by heavy downpour across Nepal this week killed 11 people including one Indian and two Chinese workers at a development project, while 25 people were missing elsewhere, officials said on Friday.

The bodies of the three workers were recovered close to the town of Melamchi in Sindhupalchowk district, northeast of Kathmandu, which was hit by flash floods on Wednesday that also forced many people from their homes, district administrators said in a statement.

“The foreign nationals were working for a Chinese organization that is building a drinking water project,” district official Baburam Khanal told Reuters.

The Home Ministry said late on Thursday that 25 people were missing in floods in Sindhupalchowk, a mountainous district bordering the Tibet region of China, and other parts of the country.

The monsoon downpours, which normally begin in June and last until September, kill hundreds of people in mostly mountainous Nepal every year.

Heavy downpour since Tuesday have damaged roads, destroyed bridges, washed away fish ranches and livestock, and wrecked homes.

Hundreds of people have been forced to move to community shelters, including schools, sheds and tents, authorities said.

Aid agencies said the crisis this year could add to the social and economic troubles of a country hard hit by COVID-19. Nepal has been reporting among the highest coronavirus test positivity rates in the world.

“Those who have lost homes are resting in community centers,” said John Jordan of the U.S.- based charity World Neighbors.

“This forced density raises risks for a community that has been recovering from COVID-19.”

Israel to send 1 million Covid vaccine dosages to Palestinians

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Courts cannot appoint PM, says Nepal PM KP Oli as he defends dissolution of House of Representatives

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Nepal Prime Minister K P Sharma Oli on Thursday defended his government’s controversial decision to dissolve the House of Representatives and told the Supreme Court that it isn’t up to the legal executive to appoint a premier as it cannot undertake the legislative and the executive functions of the state, according to a media report.

President Bidya Devi Bhandari, at the recommendation of Prime Minister KP Oli, dissolved the House for the second time in five months on May 22 and announced snap elections on November 12 and November 19.

Prime Minister Oli is heading a minority government after losing a trust vote in the House.

In his written response to the Supreme Court, Oli said that it isn’t up to the legal executive to appoint a Prime Minister as it cannot undertake the legislative and the executive functions of the state.

The Supreme Court on June 9 issued a show-cause notice to the Office of the Prime Minister and the President’s Office to outfit a written response within 15 days.

The Apex Court received Oli’s response by means of the Office of the Attorney General on Thursday, The Himalayan Times reported.

“The Court’s duty is to interpret the Constitution and the existing laws, it cannot assume the part of the legislative or the executive bodies,” Oli said.

“Appointment of a Prime Minister is absolutely a political and an executive process,” the 69-year-old embattled leader underlined.

The Prime Minister also defended the involvement of the President in this entire issue, saying that Article 76 of the Constitution grants the sole right to appoint a Prime Minister to the President only.

“According to Article 76 (5), there is no such provision of a person acquiring or losing a vote of confidence in the House being examined by the legislative or the legal executive,” he said.

Upwards of 30 writ petitions, including by the Opposition partnership, have been filed in the Supreme Court against the dissolution of the House, which they said was “unconstitutional”.

The Supreme Court has started hearing on the case. Regular hearings on the case will resume from June 23.

Nepal plunged into a political crisis on December 20 last year after President Bhandari dissolved the House and announced fresh elections on April 30 and May 10 at the recommendation of Prime Minister Oli, amidst a tussle for power within the decision Nepal Communist Party (NCP).

In February, the pinnacle court reinstated the dissolved House of Representatives, in a setback to embattled Prime Minister Oli who was preparing for snap polls.

Oli repeatedly defended his transition to dissolve the House of Representatives, saying some leaders of his party were attempting to form a “equal government”.

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