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Philippines votes; son of late dictator tipped to win presidency

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© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: Philippine presidential candidate Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr., son of late dictator Ferdinand Marcos, delivers a speech during a campaign rally in Lipa, Batangas province, Philippines, April 20, 2022. REUTERS/Eloisa Lopez

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By Enrico Dela Cruz and Karen Lema

MANILA, (Reuters) -Philippine voters streamed to polling stations on Monday, with prospects high of a once-unthinkable return to power for the Marcos family, 36 years after strongman Ferdinand Marcos was ousted in a “people power” uprising.

The presidential election pits Vice President Leni Robredo against former senator and congressman Ferdinand Marcos Jr., the son and namesake of the dictator whose two decade rule ended in a public revolt and his family’s humiliating retreat into exile.

Around 18,000 posts, from the vice presidency, seats in the Senate and the House of Representatives to mayors, governors and councillors are also up for grabs.

Opinion polls put Marcos, popularly known as “Bongbong”, leading his rival by over 30 percentage points in the presidential race, having topped every poll this year. That means Robredo will need a late surge or low turnout if she is to win.

Turnout appeared high, election officials said, which would favour Marcos. The officials said they saw no major disruptions, although police were investigating the killing of three people near a polling station.

Voting started at 6 a.m. (2200 GMT Sunday) and is scheduled to close at 7 p.m. (1100 GMT), with polling stations operating longer than usual because of COVID-19 precautions.

An unofficial vote count could give an indication of the winner within hours of the close.

Marcos, 64, cast his ballot in his home province of Ilocos Norte, surrounded by bodyguards and accompanied by family members, including his son who is running for congress.

Asked by a reporter how voting was going, he said: “It was fine”, before leaving the polling station.

Marcos has presented no real policy platform but his presidency is expected to provide continuity from outgoing leader Rodrigo Duterte, whose ruthless, strongman approach proved popular and helped him to consolidate power rapidly.

His daughter, Sara Duterte-Carpio, is tipped to win the vice presidency. Although the president and vice president are elected separately, Marcos and Duterte-Carpio are aligned.

VOTERS FLOCK TO VOTE

Election Commissioner George Erwin Garcia said he was “overwhelmed’ by the number of voters flocking to polling centres despite the pandemic threat.

The elections commission noted minor voting delays in some precincts, but said these were isolated.

Separately, police were investigating the killing of three members of a local peacekeeping force who were shot by unidentified assailants near a polling station in Maguindanao province in the restive southern region of Mindanao. No motive has been established.

In some instances, long queues were due to malfunctioning vote-counting machines, according to media reports.

Robredo, who voted in her home province of Camarines Sur, expressed concern after the reports.

“I hope the authorities will show they are on top of everything,” she told reporters.

Retired boxing superstar Manny Pacquiao, who is running a distant third in polls for the presidency, said the surveys did not capture his support among the poor and said he was “confident” he could cause a surprise.

Voter Thelma Manansala said she hoped her compatriots will be discerning in choosing the next leaders.

“We Filipinos are facing a lot of hardships and we really need a change of leadership,” said Manansala, 58.

MARCOS DENIES MISINFORMATION

Marcos is buoyed by the support of many younger Filipinos born after the 1986 revolution, having launched a massive social media offensive in an upbeat campaign that has carried undertones of historical revisionism.

His supporters have dismissed narratives of plunder, cronyism and brutality under the martial law of his late father as lies peddled by opponents, presenting what his critics say is a different version of history. The Marcos camp has denied running misinformation campaigns.

Despite its fall from grace, the Marcos family returned from exile in the 1990s and has since been a powerful force in politics, retaining its influence with vast wealth and far-reaching connections.

The vote also presents an opportunity for Marcos to avenge his loss to Robredo in the 2016 vice presidential election, a narrow defeat by just 200,000 votes that he sought unsuccessfully to overturn.

Marcos has steered clear of debates and has campaigned on a message of optimism and unity.

Robredo, 57, a former human rights lawyer and staunch liberal, has pledged to improve education and welfare, fight poverty and improve market competition if elected.

World

Analysis: Erdogan’s vow to expand Syria operations raises stakes in Turkey-NATO row

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© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: A Turkish soldier waves a flag on Mount Barsaya, northeast of Afrin, Syria January 28 ,2018. REUTERS/ Khalil Ashawi/File Photo

By Daren Butler, Jonathan Spicer and Maya Gebeily

ISTANBUL (Reuters) – President Tayyip Erdogan’s pledge to launch military operations soon to expand safe zones already set up across Turkey’s southern borders has raised the stakes in his row with NATO partners over Finland and Sweden joining the alliance.

Analysts said Erdogan’s surprise announcement on Monday reflected his belief that the West would not oppose such operations at a time when it needs Ankara’s support for the Nordic countries’ bid to join NATO.

Turkey accuses Sweden and Finland of harbouring people linked to the outlawed militant Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). All 30 NATO countries must agree the Nordic states’ application to join. The United States said on Tuesday it was confident that Sweden and Finland could overcome Turkey’s concerns.

Analysts said Erdogan’s announcement was also aimed at bolstering Turkish nationalist support for his two-decade rule as he gears up for difficult elections next year. Cross-border military operations have boosted his poll ratings in the past.

Turkey has conducted three incursions into northern Syria since 2016, seizing hundreds of kilometres of land and pushing some 30 km (20 miles) deep into the country, in operations targeting mainly the U.S.-backed Syrian Kurdish YPG militia.

It has also stepped up military operations against PKK militants in northern Iraq in recent years.

Turkey views both groups as a single terrorist entity. Its NATO allies only view the PKK as a terrorist group, not the YPG.

Asli Aydintasbas, Istanbul-based senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, said Erdogan’s move was about testing Turkey’s NATO allies.

“President Erdogan’s style of meeting international challenges is upping the ante – and it almost always works in causing NATO allies to blink,” she said.

“It worked in the eastern Mediterranean and in Syria in the past – why not try again.”

Erdogan said operations to combat threats from across the border would start once Turkey’s armed forces and intelligence had completed their preparations, with decisions set to be made at a National Security Council meeting on Thursday.

KURDISH FACTOR

The YPG, or People’s Defence Units, are a key element of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the Kurdish-led coalition which the United States has largely relied on to fight Islamic State militants since 2014.

Commenting on Erdogan’s announcement, the SDF accused Turkey of attempting to “destabilise the region” by threatening military action in northern Syria.

The SDF also said it had shot down a Turkish drone on Sunday which it said Ankara has used for surveillance of SDF-held areas ahead of planned shelling.

“In case of any attack, of course we will resist and fight back. The international community now faces an important test: will it effectively rein in Turkey?” said Ciwan Mulla Ibrahim, spokesperson for the SDF-controlled autonomous administration in northeast Syria.

Syria’s foreign ministry in Damascus did not immediately respond to requests for comment. There was also no immediate comment from Washington.

Erdogan said the planned military operation would reveal which countries respected Turkey’s security concerns and which did not – an issue that cuts to the heart of the current NATO row.

Dareen Khalifa, analyst on Syria at the International Crisis Group, said a Turkish military move against the YPG was always possible despite the relative calm along Turkey’s border with YPG-held areas in northern Syria since 2019.

While mediators including the United States have managed to calm tensions in recent years, “the crux of the issue – Turkish-PKK relations – hasn’t been addressed”, she said.

ELECTIONS LOOM

Erdogan hopes to leverage the issue of Swedish and Finnish membership of NATO into an opportunity to achieve his long-held goal of creating a buffer zone free of Kurdish fighters along Turkey’s entire border with Syria, analysts said.

His move comes as opinion polls show support for Erdogan and his ruling AK Party sagging amid deepening economic woes. Turkey holds presidential and parliamentary elections in 2023.

Aydintasbas said Turkey had previously staged cross-border operations ahead of elections. But mounting a large-scale military incursion brings risks too.

As well as the YPG presence, Russia has forces deployed in the area to support Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

U.S. troops, Turkey-backed insurgents, Iran-backed fighters, jihadists and Syrian government forces also operate across the patchwork of territories in northern Syria.

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Russian and Chinese jets conduct patrol in East Asia, capping Biden trip

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© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: Flags of China and Russia are displayed in this illustration picture taken March 24, 2022. REUTERS/Florence Lo/Illustration

By Nobuhiro Kubo, Michael Martina and Hyonhee Shin

(Reuters) -Russian and Chinese military planes conducted joint exercises to patrol the Asia-Pacific region, Russia’s defense ministry said on Tuesday, in a pointed farewell to U.S. President Joe Biden as he concluded an Asia trip that rankled Beijing.

The joint patrol lasted 13 hours over the Japanese and East China seas and involved Russian Tu-95 strategic bombers and Chinese Xian H-6 jets, the defense ministry said in a statement.

Japan’s defense minister called the exercise a provocation, while a U.S. official said it revealed the depth of the two countries’ cooperation.

Planes from the Japanese and South Korean air force shadowed the Russian and Chinese jets for part of the exercise, the Russian ministry said.

Japan scrambled jets after Russian and Chinese warplanes neared its airspace while Tokyo was hosting the leaders of the Quad grouping of countries that includes the United States, Defence Minister Nobuo Kishi said.

Tokyo conveyed “grave concerns” to both Russia and China through diplomatic channels, Kishi said at a news conference.

He characterised the incident as a likely provocation by both Beijing and Moscow on a day when Biden, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Australia’s newly elected leader, Anthony Albanese, were meeting in Tokyo.

“We believe the fact that this action was taken during the Quad summit makes it more provocative than in the past,” he said, adding it was the fourth such incident since November.

China’s defense ministry confirmed the joint aerial patrol over the Sea of Japan, East China Sea and the Western Pacific and called it part of an annual military exercise.

The move marks the first joint military exercise by China and Russia since Moscow invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, according to a U.S. official, and it came at the tail end of Biden’s trip.

A joint strategic bomber exercise shows the depth of the two countries’ alignment, a senior U.S. administration official said.

“We think it shows that China continues to be willing to closely align themselves with Russia, including through military cooperation,” the official said, adding that such actions must be planned well in advance.

“China is not walking away from Russia. Instead, the exercise shows that China is ready to help Russia defend its east while Russia fights in its west,” the official said.

On Monday, Biden angered China by saying he would be willing to use force to defend Taiwan, but he said later U.S. policy toward the self-ruled democratic island had not changed. China considers Taiwan an inalienable part of its territory that should be reunited with the mainland.

Tuesday’s incursion was the first reported since new South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol took office on May 10. On Sunday, Yoon wrapped up his summit with Biden, where the two leaders pledged support for measures seen as countering China’s influence in the region, and criticized Russia’s war in Ukraine.

South Korea’s military said it scrambled fighter jets after at least four Chinese and four Russian warplanes entered its air defense zone.

The Russian and Chinese aircraft entered and left the Korea Air Defence Identification Zone (Korea ADIZ) in the Sea of Japan, known in Korea as the East Sea, several times through the day, according to South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff.

The aircraft, which included fighter jets and bombers from each side, did not violate South Korea’s airspace, it said.

South Korea had no warning of the apparent drills, a military source in Seoul said. When Seoul saw that the aircraft appeared to be headed toward the defense zone, it used hotlines to warn Chinese and Russian counterparts, the source said.

China responded that it was a regular exercise, the source added, while there was no response from Russia.

Unlike airspace, an air defense identification zone is usually an area where countries may unilaterally demand that foreign aircraft take special steps to identify themselves, with no international laws governing ADIZs.

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China and Russia hold first military exercise since Ukraine invasion

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© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: Flags of China and Russia are displayed in this illustration picture taken March 24, 2022. REUTERS/Florence Lo/Illustration

(Reuters) – China and Russia’s air forces conducted a joint aerial patrol on Tuesday over the Sea of Japan, East China Sea and the Western Pacific, China’s defence ministry said.

The patrol, the first since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, was part of an annual military exercise, the ministry said on its official website.

The two countries had previously held such patrols in 2019, 2020 and 2021 but in the latter half of the year.

Russia has faced a barrage of sanctions from Western countries over its Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine, which it calls a “special military operation”. Beijing has not condemned Russia’s attack and does not call it an invasion, but has urged a negotiated solution.

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