Bangkok, Apr 2 (AP/UNB) — Thailand's junta leader looks set to return as prime minister after a general election stacked heavily in his favor, but the process reveals that more than a decade's polarization in Thai politics is as strong as ever.
Rather than ensuring stability, the sharply divided vote almost guarantees new struggles over power, which could involve parliament, street protests or even fresh military intervention.
A self-declared "democratic front" of seven political parties says a preliminary vote count from the March 24 election shows it will be able to put together a majority in the House of Representatives.
But the junta-appointed Senate also takes part in the vote for prime minister, meaning junta leader and Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha will likely need to win only one-quarter of the elected representatives in the lower house to get his job back.
Prayuth as army commander led the 2014 coup that toppled an elected government, and many people would see his taking power again through a carefully manipulated process as just the latest instance of Thai voters having their choices overruled by legal or extralegal means.
It would still be far from smooth sailing even if Prayuth and his allies in the Palang Pracharath party form a government, while the anti-junta coalition led by the Pheu Thai party holds a majority in the House of Representatives.
A Prayuth-led government "won't be able to pass laws and pass budgets," said Pornson Liengboonlertchai, a professor of political science at Bangkok's Thammasat University. "There's a likelihood that they will become an ineffective government because there could be a no confidence vote which relies on majority votes, and there's a likelihood that Prayuth will face that, a vote of no confidence."
With the final election results not being certified until May 9, there's a good chance the numbers — perhaps whittled down by disqualifications — will not give the anti-junta coalition a majority.
But this runs the risk of appearing that the junta-friendly Election Commission is helping to steal the election, creating a public backlash and the possibility of street protests.
"If they go the nuclear option and get rid of one of the parties, entirely dissolve them, then I think you may see people getting really, really, really upset," said Kevin Hewison, a professor emeritus at the University of North Carolina and veteran Thai studies scholar.
In the worst-case scenario, the failure to establish a working government could invite new intervention by the military.
"My big fear is that there's going to be another coup," Hewison said. "They'll say, 'Look, this hasn't worked, we'll set them straight again.'"
The army's excuse for staging its coup in 2014 was to end political strife that deadlocked the country's administration.
Aside from the maneuvering to form a new government, the vote showed that what Thailand's people want is not uniform and perhaps not even clear after nearly half a decade in which political activities were banned and freedoms of speech and assembly were severely restricted.
The preliminary results of the election, though marred by alleged irregularities, paint the picture of a nation deeply divided between those for and against military rule.
Of course divisions are nothing new in Thailand. The country's politics have been defined by them since the rise of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, a telecommunications tycoon who came to power in a populist political revolution nearly two decades ago.
Thaksin was beloved by many in the countryside for policies such as universal health care and farm subsidies, but was loathed by many in the country's conservative establishment who saw him as corrupt and a threat to the traditional role of the monarchy at the center of Thai society. He was ousted by a 2006 coup and is now in exile.
"The election seems above all to have made clear the depth of continuing divisions," said Michael Montesano, coordinator of the Thailand Studies Program at Singapore's ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute. "At the same time, the rhetoric used by some on the Thai right in support of the Palang Pracharath party may have inflamed the concerns of voters worried about former Prime Minister Thaksin's continued influence on Thai politics and broader threats to the old status quo."
But the dominating factor of Thaksin as boogeyman may be fading, with the rise of what some analysts see as a third force, the Future Forward Party, which starting from scratch without the benefit of old-school politicians in its leadership managed to pull off a third-place finish in the polls, both in terms of popular vote and likely seat total.
The party has a youth-oriented appeal but also a frank anti-military stance, and as more or less amateurs, stands apart from the other major contenders.
Part of the party's appeal is that it has given those opposed to both military rule and Thaksin a path to express themselves.
Party leader Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit has said he would join a coalition and support a Pheu Thai prime minister. Yet in a recent interview, when a reporter asked him to say the first word that popped in his head when he heard the name Thaksin, his answer was telling: "History."
The anti-Thaksin forces may still see the battle as one against the former prime minister and his political machine, but others such as the Future Forward Party and Pheu Thai are trying to move it toward a pro-democracy versus anti-democracy dialogue, said Jacob Ricks, a political scientist at Singapore Management University.
"Thaksin is appearing less important in their discussion, while he remains front and center for the military and their allies," he said.
Montesano said one of the upsides of the election is that divides in Thailand are no longer so much about Thaksin.
"The downside may be that voter sympathy for or patience with a continuing authoritarian orientation toward politics has become evident," he said.
He said it was unlikely these divisions can be overcome in the foreseeable future, especially if "Palang Pracharath continues to push to install either Gen. Prayuth or an outsider into the premiership, if Future Forward stays true to its electoral platform, and if meaningful progress in addressing inequality in Thai society does not occur."
Mandan, Apr 2 (AP/UNB) — Four people were found dead Monday in what police called a "multiple homicide" at a North Dakota property-management business.
The bodies of three men and a woman were discovered inside RJR Maintenance and Management in Mandan, a city of about 22,000 just across the Missouri River west of Bismarck, Police Chief Jason Ziegler said. The victims weren't immediately identified and police didn't say how they died.
"It's quite a large crime scene, so it's not something that's going to be easy for us to get in and do quickly," Ziegler said of the pace of the investigation.
Officers were combing through the building, which includes an office area in the front and a large warehouse area in the back, and planned to be there "as long as it takes us to get everything that we need," the chief said.
Ziegler said someone other than the four people who were found dead is responsible for the killings. However, police have not yet identified a suspect and have no motive.
"The crime scene is contained to where it's at, and there is no evidence based upon what we see that the public at large is in any danger from what happened there," Ziegler said. "It looks like an isolated incident."
He said he was not aware of officers responding to any other recent incidents at the business that might have been connected to the killings.
The building has many surveillance cameras, Ziegler said. He asked other businesses in the area that might have video footage they consider relevant to come forward.
Police announced in a brief statement Monday morning that they had found "several" bodies while responding to a "medical call" to RJR. As hours passed without additional information, people with friends or loved ones who work at RJR gathered beyond a police line, anxious for news about those inside.
Judy Praus, 70, said she was a longtime friend of the owner's family and had just seen them at a restaurant Saturday. She said she also knew a lot of employees, and had no details on any of them.
"When I was notified, I shattered. Unbelievable," she said.
Gina Kessel, 52, of Mandan, showed up at the business Monday to pick up her son, Mitchell Kessel, an employee there. She said Mitchell "called me, said something is going on." She said he didn't tell her what.
She and her son hugged, with both of them crying. The son declined comment before going back behind a police line.
A statement posted on the company's website said the business was closed Monday. No one answered the phone at RJR, which is somewhat isolated despite its location in a business district near a busy main road known as The Strip. A large empty lot sits in the front, a golf course in back and a soccer complex to one side.
Darin Helbling, a manager at a nearby bowling alley, said police asked to see his business' surveillance video. Helbling said the video showed only a couple of vehicles on the road that separates the businesses since 10 p.m. Sunday.
RJR's website identified it as a family-owned company that has been handling commercial and residential properties in Bismarck and Mandan for more than 20 years. Its services include collecting rent for landlords, paying mortgages, re-renting apartments, building and grounds maintenance, lawn care, and snow removal. It also rents out storage units.
A "Meet Our Team" feature on the website pictured 22 employees.
Natasha Towne said her brother, Adam Fuehrer, has worked at the business for about eight years. She said she didn't know his status and was frustrated at the lack of news. She declined to talk further.
Caracas, Apr 2 (AP/UNB) — Venezuela's chief justice on Monday asked lawmakers to strip opposition leader Juan Guaido of immunity, taking a step toward prosecuting him for alleged crimes as he seeks to oust President Nicolas Maduro.
Supreme Court Justice Maikel Moreno said Guaido should be prosecuted for violating a ban on leaving the country when he went on a tour of Latin American nations that back a change in Venezuela's government. The opposition leader is also accused of inciting violence linked to street protests and receiving illicit funds from abroad.
It's unclear when the pro-Maduro National Constituent Assembly will consider whether to remove Guaido's immunity from prosecution as head of the National Assembly.
Guaido dismissed the Maduro-stacked high court and Constituent Assembly as illegitimate and continued his calls for Maduro to step down.
"We must unite now more than ever," said Guaido at a Caracas university earlier Monday. "We must mount the biggest demonstration so far to reject what's happening."
Venezuelan security forces have detained Guaido's chief of staff, but had yet to move directly against the opposition leader, whose claim to be interim president is backed by dozens of countries that say Maduro's re-election last year was rigged.
Since a massive power failure struck March 7, the nation has experienced near-daily blackouts and a breakdown in critical services such as running water and public transportation. Classes have been suspended for nearly a week.
At the same time, frustrated residents are increasingly unable to find water, make phone calls or access the internet. Millions of Venezuelans struggle to understand an announcement by Maduro a day earlier that the nation's electricity is being rationed to combat daily blackouts.
Maduro said late Sunday that he was instituting a 30-day plan that would balance generation and transmission with consumption. He also called on Venezuelans to stay calm, but provided few details.
Maduro appeared on state TV Monday to announce that an engineer with 25 years of experience, Igor Gaviria, will serve as the next electricity minister, heading the state-run Corpoelec. He's replacing a military general, Luis Motta Dominguez.
"I've lost him to a period of rest," Maduro said, adding that students will return to class Wednesday.
Expressing her confusion, office worker Raquel Mayorca said she didn't know if her lights were off because of another power failure — or whether it was part of the government's plan.
"We are worse off now more than ever," she said, adding that the power was out on one side of the street, but working on the other. "We do not know if the light went out due to a blackout, or whether they took it away because of the rationing."
Maduro blames the blackouts on U.S.-directed sabotage, an allegation that Guaido routinely dismisses as the desperate talk of a government that has presided over the collapse of infrastructure in a country which was once among the wealthiest in Latin America.
As the lack of electricity became the latest sticking point in an ongoing political standoff, many Venezuelans simply found themselves wondering what the newly announced rationing plan would entail.
With few details, it was difficult to assess how effective the plan would be in restoring a consistent supply of power in the long term. Some electricity experts have also said there are no quick fixes to Venezuela's fragile power grid, presenting the prospect that electricity could be shaky and unreliable for the foreseeable future.
On Sunday, a mass of protesters took to the streets only to be threatened by contingents of alleged government supporters known as "colectivos" who appeared on motorbikes and quickly dispersed them. Videos posted on social media showed armed men opening fire to drive residents inside.
Many Venezuelans had resigned themselves to a bleak reality.
"I haven't had water at home for 15 days," said Maria Rojas, a 57-year-old homemaker looking for a source to fill her jugs. "You try to find water in the street that is more or less safe to drink."
Meanwhile, U.S. officials in Washington said Monday they will do "everything possible" so that a Guaido representative can fill Venezuela's seat in the Organization of American States, a body that promotes economic, military and cultural cooperation among its members.
U.S. Ambassador Carlos Trujillo was optimistic about the possibility that Gustavo Tarre will take Venezuela's seat by gaining enough votes.
"We have many friends who are very interested in the Venezuela issue," Trujillo told reporters after a brief ceremony in which he assumed the rotating presidency of the OAS Permanent Council. "There are some who have not recognized Guaido but know that what happens in Venezuela is unacceptable."
Washington, Apr 2 (AP/UNB) — As he threatens to shut down the southern border, President Donald Trump is considering bringing on a "border" or "immigration czar" to coordinate immigration policy across various federal agencies, according to four people familiar with the discussions.
Trump is weighing at least two potential candidates for the post: former Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach and former Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, according to the people, who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the conversations publicly.
Kobach and Cuccinelli are far-right conservatives with strong views on immigration. Cuccinelli was seen at the White House on Monday.
The planning comes as Trump is threatening anew to close the U.S.-Mexico border as soon as this week if Mexico does not completely halt illegal immigration into the U.S. And it serves as the latest sign that the president plans to continue to hammer his hardline immigration rhetoric and policies as he moves past the special counsel's Russia investigation and works to rally his base heading into his 2020 re-election campaign.
Aides hope the potential appointment, which they caution is still in the planning stages, would serve as the "face" of the administration on immigration issues and would placate both the president and his supporters, showing he is serious and taking action.
White House press aides, Kobach and Cuccinelli did not immediately respond Monday to requests for comment. Kobach previously served as vice chair of the president's short-lived election fraud commission, which was disbanded after finding little evidence of widespread abuse.
A Department of Homeland Security official noted that White House czars have been appointed in the past when there has been an "urgent need" for sustained, inter-agency policy coordination. While Homeland Security often plays a leading role when it comes to immigration policy and enforcement, the department is not in charge of officials at the departments of Health and Human Services, State, Defense and Justice, which often play key roles.
Trump has often complained, both publicly and privately, about how he has not been able to do more to stop the tide of illegal immigration, which he has likened to an "invasion" and described as a national security crisis. Arrests along the southern border have skyrocketed in recent months and border agents were on track to make 100,000 arrests or denials of entry in March. More than half of those are families with children.
Still, Trump has been pushing. He has deployed National Guard troops to the border, forced a government shutdown to try to pressure Congress to provide more money for his long-promised border wall, and eventually signed an emergency declaration to circumvent lawmakers. He also moved Saturday to cut direct aid to El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, where citizens are fleeing north and overwhelming U.S. resources at the southern border.
Those moves have involved a swath of government agencies. The Justice Department manages the immigration courts that decide whether a migrant is deported; Health and Human Services manages the care of migrant children apprehended at the border; agencies within Homeland Security manage the allocation of legal status, immigration enforcement and asylum requests; and the Pentagon and the Army Corps of Engineers manage facets of border wall construction.
But not all are always on the same page.
Earlier this year, for example, Health and Human Services closed down a temporary facility being used to house migrant children in Tornillo, Texas, creating a problem for border agents who ran out of bed space when the number of unaccompanied children crossing the border spiked. Homeland Security is not allowed to hold children in detention facilities for longer than 20 days.
And last year, former Attorney General Jeff Sessions instituted a "zero tolerance" policy at the border without consulting others, causing a spike in the number of migrant children separated from their families.
The separated children were placed in HHS custody, but there was no tracking system in place to link parents with their children until a federal judge ordered one, causing widespread fear and concern about whether families would ever see each other again.
It has yet to be decided whether the czar position would be housed within Homeland Security or within the White House, which would not require Senate confirmation.
A person positioned within the White House could coordinate immigration policy across various agencies, working closely with aides who are deeply involved in the issue, including senior advisers Stephen Miller and Jared Kushner, national security adviser John Bolton and Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, who supports the idea.
Appointing a person based within Homeland Security could be trickier because the department's agency heads are all Senate-confirmed positions and, in the case of Immigration and Customs Enforcement and U.S. Customs and Border Protection, are longtime immigration officials with decades of experience dealing with the border.
While immigration officials would welcome an adviser focused specifically on policy across the varying agencies, the names being floated are likely to spark backlash and criticism.
Kobach, an immigration hardliner, ran a failed bid for governor promising to drive immigrants living in the U.S. illegally out of the country. He has recently been working for a nonprofit corporation, WeBuildtheWall Inc., which has been raising private money to build Trump's wall.
Cuccinelli has advocated for denying citizenship to American-born children of parents living in the U.S. illegally, limiting in-state tuition at public universities only to those who are citizens or legal residents, and allowing workers to file lawsuits when an employer knowingly hires someone living in the country illegally for taking a job from a "law abiding competitor."
Thomas Homan, the former acting ICE director, has also been mentioned as a potential pick, according to one of the people familiar with the talks.
London, Apr 2 (AP/UNB) — Britain is running out of time and options for Brexit.
U.K. lawmakers have thrice rejected the divorce deal struck between Prime Minister Theresa May's government and the European Union. Facing an April 12 deadline to present the EU with a new Brexit proposal or crash out of the bloc, lawmakers met for new votes Monday to try to agree on a plan — and rejected all the options.
With May clinging to hope of persuading Parliament to back her Brexit deal if she asks a fourth time, a look at the most likely options:
Most politicians, economists and business groups think leaving the world's largest trading bloc without an agreement would be disastrous. It would impose tariffs on trade between Britain and the EU, bring customs checks that could cause gridlock at ports, and could spark shortages of essential goods.
Brexiteer lawmakers in May's Conservative Party dismiss this as "Project Fear" and argue for what they call a "clean Brexit." They have urged her not to compromise and to ramp up preparations to leave the bloc without an agreement on April 12.
Parliament has voted repeatedly to rule out a no-deal Brexit, but that remains the default position unless a deal is approved, Brexit is canceled or the EU grants Britain another extension.
May says the only way to guarantee Britain does not leave the EU without a deal is for Parliament to back her deal — which lawmakers have already rejected three times.
MAY'S UNDEAD DEAL
After almost two years of negotiations, Britain and the EU struck a divorce deal in November, laying out the terms of the departure from the bloc and giving a rough outline of future relations.
But it has been roundly rejected by lawmakers on both sides of the Brexit divide. Pro-Brexit lawmakers think it keeps Britain too closely tied to EU rules. Pro-EU legislators argue it is worse than the U.K.'s current status as an EU member.
Parliament has thrown it out three times, although the latest defeat, by 58 votes, was the narrowest yet. It was rejected even after May won over some pro-Brexit lawmakers by promising to quit if it was approved.
May is considering one last push this week, arguing that Parliament's failure to back any other deal means her agreement is the best option available.
On Monday, Parliament voted on four alternative proposals to May's rejected deal after lawmakers seized control of the schedule from the government.
None got a majority, but the votes revealed a solid block of support for a "soft Brexit" that would maintain close economic ties between Britain and the EU. A plan to keep the U.K. in an EU customs union, ensuring seamless trade in goods, was defeated by just three votes.
May has ruled those options out, because sticking to EU trade rules would limit Britain's ability to forge new trade deals around the world.
But tweaking her deal to adopt a customs union could gain May valuable votes in Parliament. It also would likely be welcomed by the EU and would allow Britain to leave the bloc in an orderly fashion in the next few months.
NEW BREXIT REFERENDUM
Parliament also narrowly rejected a proposal for a new referendum on whether to leave the EU or remain.
The proposal for any Brexit deal to be put to public vote in a "confirmatory referendum" was defeated by 12 votes. It was backed by opposition parties, plus some of May's Conservatives — mainly those who want to stay in the bloc.
Her government has ruled out holding another referendum on Britain's EU membership, saying voters in 2016 made their decision to leave.
But with divisions in both Parliament and in May's Cabinet, handing the decision back to the people in a new plebiscite could be seen as the only way forward.
The alternative to a "no-deal" departure is to delay Brexit for at least several months, and possibly more than a year, to sort out the mess. The EU is frustrated with the impasse and has said it will only grant another postponement if Britain comes up with a whole new Brexit plan.
The bloc is reluctant to have a departing Britain participate in the May 23-26 European parliament elections, but that would have to be done if Brexit is delayed. Still, EU Council President Donald Tusk has urged the bloc to give Britain a Brexit extension if it plans to change course.
A long delay raises the chances of an early British election, which could rearrange Parliament and break the deadlock.