El Salvador Vote Could Strengthen President’s Rule

Sunday’s legislative and local elections in El Salvador are seen as a referendum on whether to break the congressional deadlock that has tied the hands of upstart populist President Nayib Bukele.  El Salvador’s established political parties — the conservative National Republican Alliance party and the leftist Farabundo Marti Liberation Front — are trying to retain their hold on congress and other key positions, a continuation of their control since the end of the country’s civil war in 1992.Anger with the parties that ruled El Salvador for nearly three decades swept the youthful Bukele into office in 2019, and frustration remains.  “I’ve come to vote for a change, to get rid of the corrupt ones and so our president can make a new country,” said Estela Jiménez, who arrived early at a polling place wearing a T-shirt with an “N” for Nayib.Bukele, 39, has blamed congress for blocking his efforts in everything from controlling crime to managing the coronavirus pandemic. His New Ideas party was favored in polls to pick up congressional seats and municipal councils.While popular with voters tired of the scandals associated with the two old-guard parties, Bukele has shown an authoritarian streak. Two years ago, Bukele sent heavily armed soldiers to surround the congress during a standoff over security funding, earning rebukes internationally.Bukele’s party complained Sunday that the country’s electoral tribunal had not issued the ID cards needed for the party’s poll watchers to participate.”This always happens. Now they say there are problems because the Supreme Electoral Council hasn’t allowed the New Ideas people in. I hope they solve this so I can vote, I’m not going to leave here without voting,” said Esteban Castellón, who was among the first in line to vote at a polling place in San Salvador, the capital.A total of 5.3 million eligible voters were electing all 84 seats in the unicameral Legislative Assembly, along with 262 municipal councils. Most polling places opened at 7 a.m., though some were delayed by as much as an hour and will close at 5 p.m. (2300 GMT).The conservative party known as ARENA holds 37 of the 84 seats in congress and controls 138 of the 262 municipal councils, while the leftist FMLN holds 23 congressional seats and 64 townships.With a majority in the Legislative Assembly, Bukele’s party would not only be able to advance the president’s agenda, but also name justices to the Supreme Court — another Bukele obstacle — as well as magistrates to the Supreme Electoral Tribunal, the attorney general, the prosecutor for the defense of human rights and others. Essentially his party could replace his loudest critics.Eduardo Escobar, executive director of the nongovernmental organization Citizen Action, said that if New Ideas wins a congressional majority, El Salvador would lose “that brake on the exercise of power from the legislature when legality or constitutionality is exceeded, (and) that brakes any attempted abuse, any arbitrary act that the executive wants to commit.””It would deepen the authoritarianism of the government Bukele leads,” Escobar said, though he acknowledged that Bukele’s popularity remains at stratospheric levels and the rejection of the traditional parties is nearly as high.  New Ideas’ popularity is because “in the 30 years of government under these parties, the people have not seen improvements in their lives,” said Escobar.

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‘Not a Good Idea:’ Experts Concerned about Pope Trip to Iraq 

Infectious disease experts are expressing concern about Pope Francis’ upcoming trip to Iraq, given a sharp rise in coronavirus infections there, a fragile health care system and the unavoidable likelihood that Iraqis will crowd to see him.No one wants to tell Francis to call it off, and the Iraqi government has every interest in showing off its relative stability by welcoming the first pope to the birthplace of Abraham. The March 5-8 trip is expected to provide a sorely-needed spiritual boost to Iraq’s beleaguered Christians while furthering the Vatican’s bridge-building efforts with the Muslim world.But from a purely epidemiological standpoint, as well as the public health message it sends, a papal trip to Iraq amid a global pandemic is not advisable, health experts say.Their concerns were reinforced with the news Sunday that the Vatican ambassador to Iraq, the main point person for the trip who would have escorted Francis to all his appointments, tested positive for COVID-19 and was self-isolating.In an email to The Associated Press, the embassy said Archbishop Mitja Leskovar’s symptoms were mild and that he was continuing to prepare for Francis’ visit.Beyond his case, experts note that wars, economic crises and an exodus of Iraqi professionals have devastated the country’s hospital system, while studies show most of Iraq’s new COVID-19 infections are the highly-contagious variant first identified in Britain.“I just don’t think it’s a good idea,” said Dr. Navid Madani, virologist and founding director of the Center for Science Health Education in the Middle East and North Africa at Harvard Medical School’s Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.The Iranian-born Madani co-authored an article in The Lancet last year on the region’s uneven response to COVID-19, noting that Iraq, Syria and Yemen were poorly placed to cope, given they are still struggling with extremist insurgencies and have 40 million people who need humanitarian aid.Christians volunteers decorate streets with the pictures of Pope Francis, ahead of his planned visit to to Iraq, in Qaraqosh, Iraq, Feb. 22, 2021.In a telephone interview, Madani said Middle Easterners are known for their hospitality, and cautioned that the enthusiasm among Iraqis of welcoming a peace-maker like Francis to a neglected, war-torn part of the world might lead to inadvertent violations of virus control measures.“This could potentially lead to unsafe or superspreading risks,” she said.Dr. Bharat Pankhania, an infectious disease control expert at the University of Exeter College of Medicine, concurred.“It’s a perfect storm for generating lots of cases which you won’t be able to deal with,” he said.Organizers promise to enforce mask mandates, social distancing and crowd limits, as well as the possibility of increased testing sites, two Iraqi government officials said.The health care protocols are “critical but can be managed,” one government official told The Associated Press, speaking on condition of anonymity.And the Vatican has taken its own precautions, with the 84-year-old pope, his 20-member Vatican entourage and the 70-plus journalists on the papal plane all vaccinated.But the Iraqis gathering in the north, center and south of the country to attend Francis’ indoor and outdoor Masses, hear his speeches and participate in his prayer meetings are not vaccinated.And that, scientists say, is the problem.“We are in the middle of a global pandemic. And it is important to get the correct messages out,” Pankhania said. “The correct messages are: the less interactions with fellow human beings, the better.”He questioned the optics of the Vatican delegation being inoculated while the Iraqis are not, and noted that Iraqis would only take such risks to go to those events because the pope was there.In words addressed to Vatican officials and the media, he said: “You are all protected from severe disease. So if you get infected, you’re not going to die. But the people coming to see you may get infected and may die.”“Is it wise under that circumstance for you to just turn up? And because you turn up, people turn up to see you and they get infected?” he asked.The World Health Organization was diplomatic when asked about the wisdom of a papal trip to Iraq, saying countries should evaluate the risk of an event against the infection situation, and then decide if it should be postponed. “It’s all about managing that risk,” said Maria Van Kerkhove, WHO’s technical lead on COVID-19. “It’s about looking at the epidemiologic situation in the country and then making sure that if that event is to take place, that it can take place as safely as possible.”Francis has said he intends to go even if most Iraqis have to watch him on television to avoid infection. The important thing, he told Catholic News Service, is “they will see that the pope is there in their country.”Francis has frequently called for an equitable distribution of vaccines and respect for government health measures, though he tends to not wear face masks. Francis for months has eschewed even socially distanced public audiences at the Vatican to limit the chance of contagion.Dr. Michael Head, senior research fellow in global health at the University of Southampton’s Faculty of Medicine, said the number of new daily cases in Iraq is “increasing significantly at the moment” with the Health Ministry reporting around 4,000 a day, close to the height of its first wave in September.Head said for any trip to Iraq, there must be infection control practices in force, including mask-wearing, hand-washing, social distancing and good ventilation in indoor spaces.“Hopefully we will see proactive approaches to infection control in place during the pope’s visit to Baghdad,” he said.The Iraqi government imposed a modified lockdown and curfew in mid-February amid a new surge in cases, closing schools and mosques and leaving restaurants and cafes only open for takeout. But the government decided against a full shutdown because of the difficulty of enforcing it and the financial impact on Iraq’s battered economy, the Iraqi officials told AP.Many Iraqis remain lax in using masks and some doubt the severity of the virus.Madani, the Harvard virologist, urged trip organizers to let science and data guide their decision-making.A decision to reschedule or postpone the papal trip, or move it to a virtual format, would “be quite impactful from a global leadership standpoint” because “it would signal prioritizing the safety of Iraq’s public,” she said. 

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WWII Plane Flyby Honors Britain’s ‘Captain Tom’ at Funeral

Church bells rang and a World War II-era plane flew Saturday over the funeral for Captain Tom Moore, the veteran who single-handedly raised millions of pounds for Britain’s health workers by walking laps in his backyard.Soldiers performed ceremonial duties at the private service for Moore, who died February 2 at age 100 after testing positive for COVID-19. Captain Tom, as he became known, inspired the U.K. during the first months of the coronavirus pandemic with his humble endeavor that raised almost 33 million pounds ($46 million) for Britain’s National Health Service last year.The funeral cortege of Captain Tom Moore arrives at Bedford Crematorium, in Bedford, England, Feb. 27, 2021.The service was small, attended by eight members of the veteran’s immediate family. But soldiers carried his coffin, draped in the Union flag, and formed a ceremonial guard. Others performed a gun salute before a C-47 Dakota military transport plane flew past.A Dakota performs a flyby at the funeral of Captain Tom Moore, in Bedford, England, Feb. 27, 2021.”Daddy, you always told us, ‘Best foot forward,’ and true to your word, that’s what you did last year,” Moore’s daughter Lucy Teixeira said at the service. “I know you will be watching us, chuckling, saying, ‘Don’t be too sad as something has to get you in the end.’ “His other daughter, Hannah Ingram-Moore, said the world was “enthralled” by her father’s “spirit of hope, positivity and resilience.””They, too, saw your belief in kindness and the fundamental goodness of the human spirit,” she said.The service featured music that reflected the man being honored, opening with the rendition of You’ll Never Walk Alone that Moore recorded for charity with Michael Ball and the NHS Voices of Care Choir. The song topped the U.K. singles charts last April.Singer Michael Bublé recorded a version of Smile for the funeral, and as requested by Moore, Frank Sinatra’s My Way was played. A bugler sounded The Last Post to close the service.A church in Bedfordshire, England, where the family is based, rang its bell 100 times in Moore’s honor. A post on Moore’s Twitter account invited his admirers to remember him Saturday with a cup of tea and a slice of Victoria sponge cake.Moore, who served in India, Burma and Sumatra during World War II, set out to raise a modest 1,000 pounds for Britain’s NHS by walking 100 laps of his backyard by his 100th birthday last year. But donations poured in from across Britain and beyond as his quest went viral, catching the imagination of millions stuck at home during the first wave of the pandemic.FILE – In this July 17, 2020, photo, Captain Tom Moore poses for the media after receiving his knighthood from Britain’s Queen Elizabeth, during a ceremony at Windsor Castle in Windsor, England.His positive attitude — “Please remember, tomorrow will be a good day” became his trademark phrase — inspired the nation at a time of crisis. Prime Minister Boris Johnson described him as a “hero in the truest sense of the word.”He was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in July in a socially distanced ceremony at Windsor Castle, west of London. 

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Archaeologists Find Intact Ceremonial Chariot Near Pompeii 

Officials at the Pompeii archaeological site in Italy announced Saturday the discovery of an intact ceremonial chariot, one of several important discoveries made in the same area outside the park near Naples following an investigation into an illegal dig.The chariot, with its iron elements, bronze decorations and mineralized wooden remains, was found in the ruins of a settlement north of Pompeii, beyond the walls of the ancient city, parked in the portico of a stable where the remains of three horses previously were discovered.The Archaeological Park of Pompeii called the chariot “an exceptional discovery” and said “it represents a unique find — which has no parallel in Italy thus far — in an excellent state of preservation.”A detail of the decoration of a chariot that was found in Civita Giuliana, north of Pompeii. Officials at the Pompeii archaeological site near Naples announced its discovery Feb. 27, 2021.The eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD destroyed Pompeii. The chariot was spared when the walls and roof of the structure it was in collapsed, and also survived looting by modern-day antiquities thieves, who had dug tunnels through to the site, grazing but not damaging the four-wheeled cart, according to park officials.The chariot was found on the grounds of what is one of the most significant ancient villas in the area around Vesuvius, with a panoramic view of the Mediterranean Sea, on the outskirts of the ancient Roman city.Archaeologists last year found in the same area on the outskirts of Pompeii, Civita Giulian, the skeletal remains of what are believed to have been a wealthy man and his male slave, attempting to escape death.The chariot’s first iron element emerged January 7 from the blanket of volcanic material filling the two-story portico. Archaeologists believe the cart was used for festivities and parades, perhaps also to carry brides to their new homes.While chariots for daily life or the transport of agricultural products have been previously found at Pompeii, officials said the new find is the first ceremonial chariot unearthed in its entirety.The villa was discovered after police came across the illegal tunnels in 2017, officials said. Two people who live in the houses atop the site are on trial for allegedly digging more than 80 meters of tunnels at the site.  

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As Mexico’s Largest Migrant Camp Empties, New Tents Spring Up Along US Border

Mexican authorities hope most of the asylum seekers living in a major encampment on the border will be allowed to enter the United States by the end of next week, according to a Mexican government source.
 
The migrant camp in Matamoros, Mexico, just across the river from Brownsville, Texas, is currently home to just under 700 migrants, according to the U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR). The majority are asylum seekers who have been waiting in Mexico as their cases wind through U.S. courts under a program implemented by former President Donald Trump.  
 
One week ago, President Joe Biden’s administration began permitting members of the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP) program to enter the United States to pursue their court cases. UNHCR spokeswoman Silvia Garduno said 27 people crossed the border from Mexico Thursday and 100 did so Friday, and that the agency hopes to continue this pace in the coming days.
 
The agency, along with the International Organization for Migration, is in charge of the logistics of registering and transporting migrants from the camp to the United States.
 
The Mexican government source, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told Reuters the goal was for 500 migrants in the Matamoros camp to enter the United States by the end of next week.
 
Mexican authorities did not immediately respond to requests for comment. U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) referred Reuters to a Department of Homeland Security (DHS) statement that said the registration process “will be done as quickly as possible.”
 
In Matamoros, asylum seekers expressed optimism. “We’ve just received news that tomorrow we’re leaving!” said Honduran asylum seeker Josue Cornejo in a video recorded inside the camp Friday evening, which also shows his wife and daughters wiping away tears.
 
But as one tent city begins to empty in northeastern Mexico, another has sprung up on the other side of the country. In Tijuana, migrants encouraged by the news that some asylum seekers were being allowed to enter the United States have begun to camp out near the El Chaparral port of entry, across the border from San Diego, California.
 
Advocates say about 50 tents have been put up in recent days.  
 
Biden, a Democrat, is balancing pressure from immigration advocates to unwind the hardline immigration policies of his predecessor with concerns about rising numbers of migrants arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.
 
To handle an anticipated rise in crossings, CBP said in a statement on Friday that it planned to open a facility in Eagle Pass, Texas. Plans for the new facility come after CBP announced on February 9 the opening of another temporary facility in Donna, Texas, to handle border processing while the agency’s permanent center in McAllen is renovated.
 
Under U.S. law, children who arrive at the border without parents or legal guardians have to be transferred quickly out of border patrol facilities and into government-run shelters overseen by the Department of Health and Human Services.
 
Separately, HHS is also scrambling to cope with the influx of new arrivals by opening emergency shelters and trying to speed releases of migrant kids to sponsors in the United States.
 
“There are no good choices here,” Biden told reporters Friday. “The only other options are to send kids back, which is what the prior administration did.”
 
Most migrants caught at the border, including families and individual adult asylum seekers, are still being rapidly expelled at the border under a Trump-era health rule in place since last March.
 

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UN Rights Chief Cites Growing Human Rights Crisis in Nicaragua

The U.N. high commissioner for human rights, Michele Bachelet, is warning that new laws adopted by Nicaragua’s government are undermining fundamental freedoms and leading to a further erosion of the rule of law in the country.  
In a report submitted this week to the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva, Bachelet said damage caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and hurricanes Eta and Iota have worsened the socio-political and human rights crisis facing Nicaragua.  Furthermore, she said the passage of new restrictive laws is strangling peoples’ rights to freedom of association and expression.
Bachelet said the laws also are inhibiting political participation and due process, which is especially troubling as Nicaragua approaches general elections in November. She noted that earlier this month two prominent organizations promoting freedom of expression were forced to suspend operations because of a new “foreign agents” law.
“My Office has documented 117 cases of harassment, intimidation and threats by police officers or pro-government elements against students, peasants, political activists, human rights defenders and organizations of victims and of women,” Bachelet said.
The report also documents 34 cases of intimidation, threats, criminalization and campaigns to discredit media and journalists considered to represent the opposition.  Bachelet said arbitrary detentions of political opponents continue and Indigenous communities continue to face land invasions and violent attacks by settlers.
“Human rights violations perpetrated during the social protests of 2018 continue in all impunity. We have also received information as to a rise in femicides and high levels of pregnancy among young girls,” Bachelet said.
The high commissioner said the government must undertake necessary reforms to ensure free, fair and transparent elections. She urged the government to allow members of her staff to enter the country so they can monitor the human rights situation in the lead-up to November’s elections.  
Nicaragua’s Attorney General Wendy Carolina Morales Urbina rejected the high commissioner’s report, calling it a throwback to the interventionist policies of former colonial powers. She said the report was biased and lacking in objectivity.
Morales Urbina added that the government of Nicaragua denounces the report as yet another manifestation of imperial aggressions that have promoted crimes of hate, terrorism and destruction.    

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Armenian President Refuses to Fire Armed Forces Chief at Center of Political Crisis

Armenian President Armen Sarkissian has refused to fire the head of the general staff of the country’s armed forces after he was dismissed by Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, the presidential office said Saturday.
 
Pashinyan dismissed the head of the general staff, Onik Gasparyan, Thursday after what he had called an attempted coup to remove him, but the move had to be signed off by the president.
 
According to the president’s statement, posted on the presidential office website, the move to dismiss Gasparyan was unconstitutional.
 
The army has called for the resignation of Pashinyan and his government after what critics say was the disastrous handling of a bloody six-week conflict between Azerbaijan and ethnic Armenian forces over the region of Nagorno-Karabakh last year.
 

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Will COVID Vaccines Help China Increase its Influence in the Balkans?

As some countries struggle to get enough COVID-19 vaccine, China has intensified efforts to distribute its vaccine in the Balkans. Some experts say it’s an effort to increase the county’s influence in the region. Dino Jahic and Amer Jahic have the story, narrated by Anna Rice.
Camera: Dino Jahic

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Police Shoot and Kill Known Haitian Gang Leader After Jailbreak

Arnel Joseph, the notorious leader of the Village de Dieu gang, was killed in a gun battle with police Friday in the town of L’Estere, near Gonaives in Haiti’s north, officials said.”He opened fire on a police patrol who had stopped his motorbike at a checkpoint. The police returned fire and Arnel Joseph was killed,” Frantz Exantus, Haiti’s secretary of state for communication, told reporters during an afternoon press conference.Pressed on how sure he was that it was the gang leader who was killed, Exantus said several police “technical services” had confirmed the identity of the body at the scene.The gang leader’s prison break from the Croix des Bouquets civilian jail Thursday shocked Haitians worldwide. Fear spread throughout the nation as people took to social media for information and to react, sharing photos and videos on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.In a statement emailed to VOA on Friday morning, Exantus described the jailbreak as “deplorable.”Who is Arnel Joseph?Joseph, in his 20s, had been Prison Civile de la Croix-des-Bouquets, Port-au-Prince, HaitiThe Prison Civile de la Croix des Bouquets, about 13 kilometers northeast of Port-au-Prince, is one of Haiti’s most modern and secure facilities.”There are some details [of the mutiny] that are not yet available, but what we can tell you is that the goal was to empty the prison,” Exantus told reporters. “Thanks to the vigilance of the police, that did not happen. The cellblock where Arnel Joseph was held had the most activity so that is where the police focused their attention.”According to Exantus, there were 25 deaths as a result of the mutiny, including six prisoners, Joseph among them. The prison inspector general, Hector Paul Joseph, also was killed during the gunfight.Exantus said before the jailbreak, 1,542 prisoners were in detention and there are now 1,125. Two hundred prisoners remain at large, and a nationwide search continues, law enforcement officials said. Sixty of those who escaped have been caught and are back in custody.Exantus said 17 firearms were recovered and that multiple tear gas cannisters were recovered in the prison yard.Notorious historyThe Croix des Bouquets prison is no stranger to controversy. It holds some high-profile detainees such as former member of Haiti’s Chamber of Deputies Arnel Belizaire, who is accused of illegal possession of firearms and conspiring against national security. The alleged coup plotters involved in the attempt to overthrow President Jovenel Moise on Feb. 7 are also detained there.Despite being a maximum-security facility, there have been multiple publicized jailbreaks. Most recently in July 2020, when Joseph escaped his prison cell and spent hours on the rooftop before being caught by prison guards and returned to his cell.Reaction from President MoiseShortly before the press conference to announce the gang leader’s death, Moise tweeted condemnation.”We CONDEMN the CROIX DES BOUQUETS jailbreak and urge the population to remain calm. The #PNH is instructed to take all measures to bring the situation under control,” he tweeted.We CONDEMN the CROIX DES BOUQUETS jailbreak and urge the population to remain calm. The #PNH is instructed to take all measures to bring the situation under control.#Haïti— Président Jovenel Moïse (@moisejovenel) February 26, 2021Earlier this week, he was criticized by United Nations, U.S., French, Chinese, Russian and Mexican representatives at a U.N. Security Council meeting for not getting gang violence under control and bringing those responsible to justice.International reactionA U.S. State Department spokesperson expressed sorrow over lives lost and urged the Haitian government to address security failures.”We saw reports of Arnel Joseph’s escape from Croix des Bouquets prison yesterday and were saddened by reports of lives lost,” the spokesperson told VOA.”We have consistently urged the Haitian authorities to take steps to strengthen the rule of law and the justice sector. This event underscores the need for the Haitian government to invest further in the Haitian National Police (HNP), including the prison system,” the spokesperson said.”It also highlights the importance of ending prolonged pretrial detention so the prison system can focus on securely detaining dangerous convicted prisoners like Arnel Joseph,” the spokesperson added. “The U.S. government, through our INL (Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs) programs, has provided technical assistance, training and equipment, and funded construction to assist the HNP in improving the prison system.”The U.N. secretary-general’s special representative in Haiti, Helen La Lime, expressed concern.”I am deeply concerned with the mutiny and prison escape which occurred in Croix-des-Bouquets on 25 February 2021,” La Lime, who heads the U.N. Integrated Bureau for Haiti, told VOA.”While the prompt response of the Haitian National Police likely prevented the escape of more inmates, I encourage the police to speed up investigations on the circumstances surrounding this incident, redouble its efforts to reapprehend the escapees, and strengthen security around prisons throughout the country,” La Lime said.Democratic U.S. Congressman Andy Levin of Michigan slammed Moise for the jailbreak on Twitter.”This prison break massacre is a tragic sign of the rule of law collapsing in Haiti,” Levin tweeted. “Jovenel Moïse’s antidemocratic rule is costing Haitians their lives and eliminating any sense of safety.This prison break massacre is a tragic sign of the rule of law collapsing in Haiti. Jovenel Moïse’s antidemocratic rule is costing Haitians their lives and eliminating any sense of safety. https://t.co/nxPxlXyrJE— Rep. Andy Levin (@RepAndyLevin) February 26, 2021What’s next?Exantus said three commissions have been created to investigate the mutiny.One will be led by the inspector general of the national police, who will investigate administrative failures. A second judicial commission will be led by the Direction Centrale de la Police Judiciare, the investigative unit of the national police force, to determine who should be charged. A third commission will be led by the penitentiary administration and will investigate what conditions led to the jailbreak and determine who was involved.Exantus told VOA he did not think the jailbreak would affect plans to hold elections later this year.

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