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Bolivia votes in high-stakes presidential election amid pandemic

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Polls have opened in Bolivia’s high-stakes presidential election meant to end a year of political turmoil – a vote that could bring a return of socialism at a time when it is struggling with a raging pandemic and protests over last year’s annulled ballot.

Bolivia, once one of the most politically volatile countries in Latin America, experienced a rare period of stability under former President Evo Morales, the country’s first Indigenous president who resigned and fled the country late last year after his claimed election win was annulled amid allegations of fraud.

Protests over the vote and later his removal set off a period of unrest that caused at least 36 deaths. Morales called his removal a coup and a non-elected conservative government has ruled ever since.

Political reset

Sunday’s vote is an attempt to reset Bolivia’s democracy.

“Bolivia’s new executive and legislative leaders will face daunting challenges in a polarised country, ravaged by COVID-19, and hampered by endemically weak institutions,” said the Washington Office on Latin America, a Washington-based human rights advocacy organisation.

Voters wear protective masks, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, as they line up to cast their ballots [Manuel Claure/Reuters]

Initial voting appeared to be peaceful on Sunday, with long lines at some polling places but little of the hustle and bustle of past election days. Voters appeared to be wearing masks and following physical distancing restrictions.

But it may be days before Bolivians have a good idea of who won. While some independent groups will operate selective quick-count surveys, the country’s Supreme Electoral Court announced late on Saturday it had decided unanimously against reporting running preliminary vote totals as ballots are counted.

It said it wanted to avoid the uncertainty that fed unrest when there was a long halt in reporting preliminary results during last year’s election.

Council President Salvador Romero promised a safe and transparent official count, which could take five days.

To win in the first round, a candidate needs more than 50 percent of the vote or 40 percent with a lead of at least 10 percentage points over the second-place candidate. A runoff vote, if necessary, would be held on November 28.

Bolivia’s entire 136-member Legislative Assembly will also be voted in.

The election was postponed twice because of the coronavirus pandemic. On a per-capita basis, few countries have been hit harder than impoverished, landlocked Bolivia: Nearly 8,400 of its 11.6 million people have died of COVID-19.

The election will occur with physical distancing required between masked voters.

Morales absent

The leading contenders are former Economy Minister Luis Arce, who led an extended boom under Morales, and former President Carlos Mesa, a centrist historian and journalist who was second to Morales in the disputed returns released after last year’s vote. Trailing in all the polls has been Luis Fernando Camacho, a conservative businessman who helped lead last year’s uprising, as well as a Korean-born evangelist.

Overshadowing the vote is the absence of Morales, who led Bolivia from 2006 until 2019 and was a key figure in the bloc of leftist leaders who held power across much of South America. Morales, now exiled in Argentina, was barred from running for the presidency or even the Senate by electoral authorities following his removal.

He chose Arce as his stand-in for the Movement Toward Socialism party, and a win by the party would be seen as a victory for Latin America’s left.

Luis Arce, who is running with the Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) party, was chosen as a stand-in by Morales [Juan Karita/AP Photo]

A boyhood llama herder who became prominent leading a coca grower’s union, Morales had been immensely popular while overseeing an export-led economic surge that reduced poverty during most of his term. But support was eroding due to his reluctance to leave power, increasing authoritarian impulses and a series of corruption scandals.

He shrugged aside a public vote that had set term limits and competed in the October 2019 presidential vote, which he claimed to have narrowly won outright. But a lengthy pause in reporting results fed suspicions of fraud and nationwide protests broke out.

When police and military leaders suggested he leave, Morales resigned and fled the country.

Presidential candidate Carlos Mesa of Citizen Community alliance (CC) came second in the previous disputed election [David Mercado/Reuters]

Conservative Senator Jeanine Anez proclaimed herself president and was accepted by the courts. Her administration, despite lacking a majority in congress, set about trying to prosecute Morales and key aides while undoing his policies, helping prompt more unrest and polarisation.

She dropped out as a candidate for Sunday’s presidential election while trailing badly in polls.

Most polls have shown Arce with a lead, though likely not enough to avoid a runoff.

There is a strong chance the next president will struggle with a divided congress – and perhaps worse, an opposition that refuses to recognise defeat.

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When it comes to the pandemic, Obama says Trump ‘isn’t going to suddenly protect all of us’

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Voters line up to cast their ballots in Dallas on October 15.
Voters line up to cast their ballots in Dallas on October 15. LM Otero/AP

More than 6.8 million people have cast their vote in Texas, including the first 11 days of early voting, according to data posted on the Texas Secretary of State website Saturday morning.

On Friday, 450,533 people voted in person, bringing the total in-person votes to 6,040,431. Cumulative ballots-by-mail so far this cycle were 816,828.

Some context: Comparing early voting data from 2016 can be complicated for multiple reasons, in addition to the pandemic.

Texas has three weeks of in-person early voting this cycle compared to two weeks in 2016. The state is also tracking early voting data from all 254 counties this cycle, but it only collected data from the top 15 most populous counties in 2016.

Still, when looking at the data from the first 11 days of early voting in the top five most populous counties in both cycles, turnout has increased by 360,989, an increase of about 14%. It’s worth noting that those counties represent 42% of all registered voters.

The last day of early voting in Texas is Oct. 30.

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‘Got ’em’: US authorities destroy ‘murder hornet’ nest

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The nest of Asian giant hornets, an invasive species, was the first ever found in the United States.

The first Asian giant hornet nest found in the United States has been dismantled, authorities in Washington State said on Saturday, a day after the nest was discovered.

“Got ’em,” the Washington State Department of Agriculture (WSDA) said in a statement posted to Facebook, alongside a video that showed dozens of the insects trapped inside a clear, one-metre cylinder.

The hornets’ removal came a day after authorities announced the discovery of the nest in a tree cavity in the town of Blaine, near the US border with Canada.

The two-inch insects, dubbed “murder hornets” because their sting can be fatal to some humans, especially following multiple stings, had been sighted several times throughout the state, but a nest had not been found until this week.

“Today’s Asian giant hornet nest removal appears to have been successful,” the agency said in its Facebook post, adding that pest control workers “vacuumed numerous specimens” out of the nest.

The agency said further details would be announced at a news conference on Monday.

Hunt for the nest

In September, the WSDA said it hoped to find and eradicate the hornets’ nest by mid-month before new queens emerged and mated, which would help it “prevent the spread” of the invasive species.

The hornets are predatory to honey bees and other important insects.

The department said it had captured four live hornets in two separate traps on October 21 and October 22 and entomologists were able to attach radio trackers to three of those hornets. One of them led them to the nest.

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Asian giant hornets, which have also been sighted in the Canadian province of British Columbia, just north of the Washington state border, can sting through most beekeeper suits, The Associated Press news agency reported.

They deliver nearly seven times the amount of venom as a honey bee and can sting multiple times, AP news agency said.

The department of agriculture in Washington state has cautioned that while the hornets are not generally aggressive towards humans, they can pose a health threat.

“Their string is more dangerous than that of local bees and wasps and can cause severe pain, swelling, necrosis, and, in rare cases, even death,” it says on its website.

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Erdogan says Macron ‘needs treatment’ over attitude to Muslims

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France is recalling its envoy to Turkey after Erdogan said his French counterpart needed ‘mental checks’.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has launched a fresh attack on his French counterpart Emmanuel Macron, saying he needed treatment and “mental checks” over his attitude towards Muslims and Islam.

Earlier this month, Macron pledged to fight “Islamist separatism”, which he said was threatening to take control in some Muslim communities around France, drawing a sharp rebuke from Erdogan.

France has since been shaken by the beheading of a history teacher earlier this month. The assailant had wanted to avenge the teacher’s use of cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad in a class on freedom of expression.

“What is the problem of this person called Macron with Muslims and Islam? Macron needs treatment on a mental level,” Erdogan said in a speech at a provincial congress of his AK Party in the central Turkish city of Kayseri on Saturday.

“What else can be said to a head of state who does not understand freedom of belief and who behaves in this way to millions of people living in his country who are members of a different faith?” Erdogan said. “First of all, have mental checks.”

France said it was recalling its envoy to Turkey for consultations after “unacceptable” comments by Erdogan questioning Macron’s mental health.

“President Erdogan’s comments are unacceptable. Excess and rudeness are not a method. We demand that Erdogan change the course of his policy because it is dangerous in every respect,” a French presidential official told the AFP news agency.

The Elysee official, who asked not to be named, also said France had noted “the absence of messages of condolence and support” from the Turkish president after the beheading of teacher Samuel Paty outside Paris.

Erdogan’s Islamist-rooted AK Party first came to power in 2002. He has sought to shift Islam into the mainstream of politics in Turkey, an overwhelmingly Muslim but secular country.

The Turkish president said on October 6 after Macron’s initial comments on “Islamist separatism”, that the remarks were “a clear provocation” and showed the French leader’s “impertinence”.

Macron this month also described Islam as a religion “in crisis” worldwide and said the government would present a bill in December to strengthen a 1905 law that officially separated church and state in France.

France and its NATO ally are at loggerheads over a range of issues including maritime rights in the eastern Mediterranean, Libya, Syria and most recently the escalating conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh.

Erdogan and Macron discussed their disagreements in a phone call last month and agreed to improve ties and keep communication channels open.

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