LIMA, Peru — Vicenta Escobar, 62, sells fruit from a stand on the streets in Peru’s capital, Lima. In every presidential election over the last four decades, she has chosen a candidate she believed in, in the hope that he or she would deliver change.
Not this time, though. This Sunday, she plans to arrive at her polling station to vote — as is required by Peruvian law. But she will cast her ballot without making a single mark.
“I’m planning on leaving it blank,” she said on Thursday afternoon. She was fed up, she said, with “all the lies and robberies.”
Peruvians are voting on Sunday at a moment many are calling one of the lowest points in the country’s young democracy. Eighteen candidates are on the ballot, but about 15 percent of voters are expected to cast a blank vote, according to several recent polls, and no candidate has been able to garner much more than 10 percent support. The leading two candidates will advance to a runoff if no one captures more than half the vote.
of the highest coronavirus death rates in the world, and daily deaths climbed to new highs this month as the Brazilian variant of the virus spread through the country. Many Covid patients have died amid lack of access to oxygen or ventilators, working-class families are struggling to secure enough food, and school closures have pushed children into the labor force.
The economy shrank 12 percent last year in the country’s worst recession in three decades — the second-worst downturn in Latin America, after Venezuela’s.
Voters interviewed this month in Lima, the capital, appeared to coalesce around their shared frustration with the system.
he had been secretly vaccinated last year with extra doses from a clinical trial in Peru that researchers distributed among political elites.
according to a 2018-2019 survey by the Latin American Public Opinion Project, with the military seen as the most trustworthy institution.
Since the last general election produced a divided government five years ago, Peru has seen constant clashes between the legislative and executive branches, as opposition lawmakers have sought to impeach two presidents and Mr. Vizcarra dissolved Congress, calling new legislative elections to push through reforms.
Three former presidents have spent time in jail during bribery investigations, including one candidate in this year’s election; a fourth killed himself to avoid arrest; and a fifth, Mr. Vizcarra, one of the most popular recent leaders, was impeached in November.
His replacement, who lasted less than a week in office, is under investigation in connection with the fatal shootings of two young men at protests, which led to his resignation.
One reason for the country’s endemic corruption is that political parties often barter their loyalties to presidential candidates in back-room deals, and are often captive to special interests.
“Political parties are no longer a vehicle for representation of the citizenry,” said Adriana Urrutia, a political scientist who leads the pro-democracy organization Transparencia.
“There are parties in the current Parliament that represent the interests of private universities facing penalties for failing to fulfill minimum requirements,” she added. “There are parties that represent the interests of illegal economies, like illegal logging and illegal mining.”
Some candidates are tailoring their messages to appeal to the growing skepticism about democracy.
Mr. Castillo, the union activist, has promised to replace the Constitutional Tribunal with a court elected “by popular mandate,” and said he would dissolve Congress if it blocked a proposal to replace the Constitution. Rafael López Aliaga, a businessman and a member of the ultraconservative Catholic group Opus Dei, has said Peru must stop a leftist “dictatorship” from consolidating power and has promised to jail corrupt officials for life.
Ms. Fujimori has abandoned efforts to moderate her platform in her third presidential bid. She has promised to pardon her father, who is serving a sentence for human rights abuses and graft.
The constant political turmoil has analysts worried for the country’s future.
“I think the scenario that’s coming is really frightening,” said Patricia Zárate, the lead researcher for the Institute of Peruvian Studies, a polling organization. “Congress knows they can impeach the president easily and it’s also easy for the president to close Congress. Now it will be easier to do again. It’s dispiriting.”
Reporting was contributed byJulie Turkewitz in Bogotá.
KABUL, Afghanistan — He attends international conferences, meets with diplomats, recently inaugurated a dam and delivers patriotic speeches vowing to defend his country against the Taliban.
But how much control President Ashraf Ghani of Afghanistan has over his imperiled country’s future and his own has become a matter of debate among politicians, analysts and citizens. Or rather, the question has been largely resolved: not much.
From most vantage points, Mr. Ghani — well qualified for his job and deeply credentialed, with Johns Hopkins, Berkeley, Columbia, the World Bank and the United Nations in his background — is thoroughly isolated. A serious author with a first-class intellect, he is dependent on the counsel of a handful, unwilling to even watch television news, those who know him say, and losing allies fast.
That spells trouble for a country where a hard-line Islamist insurgency has the upper hand militarily, where nearly half the population faces hunger at crisis levels, according to the United Nations, where the overwhelming balance of government money comes from abroad and where weak governance and widespread corruption are endemic.
recent letter to him from Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken was so harsh that even Afghans critical of Mr. Ghani found it insulting.
In language more likely to be used with an unruly schoolboy than a head of state, the letter repeated the phrase “I urge you” three times. “I must also make clear to you, Mr. President,” Mr. Blinken continued, “that as our policy process continues in Washington, the United States has not ruled out any option.” The unspoken subtext was clear: Your influence is minimal.
“As an Afghan, a sense of humiliation comes over you,” said Hekmat Khalil Karzai, the head of an Afghan think tank and a cousin of the former president, Hamid Karzai. “But I also feel Ghani deserves it,” Mr. Karzai said. “He’s dealing with the kiss of death from his own closest partner.”
The Biden administration is banking on multinational talks, tentatively set for later this month in Istanbul, to establish a plan for moving forward. At the heart of the U.S. proposal is a temporary government to hold power until elections can be held.
In this interim body, the Taliban and the current government would share power, according to a leaked draft. Such a setup could require Mr. Ghani to step down, a move he has repeatedly refused to consider.
Mr. Ghani has come up with a counterproposal that he plans to release soon, which calls for a cease-fire, a temporary “government of peace” whose potential makeup remains unclear, and then early elections in which he promises not to run.
Both the American plan and Mr. Ghani’s could be non-starters, as the Taliban have never said they would agree to elections, nor have they indicated that they would go along with any sort of government plan or be content with power-sharing.
“From what we’re seeing, they want absolute power, and they are waiting to take power by force,” Mr. Ghani’s national security adviser, Hamdullah Mohib, said in an interview.
While Mr. Ghani is steadily losing political capital in Kabul and with international partners, the country’s military position is deteriorating. Each day brings news of security force members blown up or gunned down.
“They can’t keep doing that,” said a senior Western diplomat in Kabul, commenting on the steady attrition. “The toll on the government, and the credibility and legitimacy it has, it’s not sustainable.”
Visions of September 1996, when the Taliban rolled into Kabul virtually unopposed and proceeded to establish their harsh regime, haunt the capital.
Deep inside the presidential palace compound, an 83-acre parklike campus protected by seven layers of security, Mr. Ghani’s inner circle of close aides is small and shrinking. He fired his respected interior minister, an army general, after a military helicopter was shot down by one of the country’s numerous militias last month. His attorney general, who had a rare reputation for integrity, stepped down. He pushed out his short-tenured finance minister.
One senior former official argued that he was cut off from reality and what is going on on the ground.
Mr. Mohib, however, pushed back on this assessment. “This criticism comes from a political elite which thinks it has been marginalized,” he said.
Some former officials characterized Mr. Ghani as being compelled to micromanage, including involving himself in the details of military matters and personnel decisions even down to the local police chief level. “He likes that, because he feels he’s the only one,” said Mr. Karzai, meaning the only one competent to make serious decisions.
Mr. Mohib called the micromanagement accusation “a huge exaggeration,” saying that the president had not attended a security meeting “in weeks,” adding that “he is aware of the strategic picture.”
Mr. Ghani’s communications office did not agree to a request for an interview with the president. A senior aide did not respond to an interview request.
The consequences of Mr. Ghani’s isolation appear to be unfolding in real time. The president has a potent vision for the country, but selling it and making it work politically is not his strong suit, and it shows up in the nation’s divisions, said the senior Western diplomat in Kabul. That’s not good for Afghan unity, the diplomat argued.
These divisions echo out from Kabul into the country’s fractious regions, where independent militias and other longstanding power-brokers have either rearmed themselves or are preparing to do so.
In the center of the country, a low-intensity fight between government forces and the militia of a minority Shiite warlord has been smoldering for months, fueled by the downing of an Afghan forces helicopter in March. Mr. Ghani and his aides have taken an active role in managing the conflict, to the dismay of the Afghan military.
“This is what we wanted to avoid. We are already stretched,” said a senior Afghan security official. “And here, you want to start another war?”
The upcoming talks in Turkey could well end up like the recent ones in Moscow and Dushanbe, Tajikistan — with bland communiqués deploring violence and hoping for peace. The American idea — to substitute new talks in a new locale for the old talks in Qatar that have gone nowhere — is not necessarily a winning bet. Indeed, the early signs are not promising, with Mr. Ghani once again rejecting preliminary American proposals, and the Taliban aggressively noncommittal about the ideas currently on the table.
“If the U.S. pulls out, and there is no political agreement, then we are in deep trouble,” said the senior Afghan security official.
“Militarily, we don’t have much hope,” he said. “If we don’t get something, the Taliban are going to march. It’s going to be a severe battle.”
In recent years, Prince Hamzah has spoken out against high-level corruption, an issue the public associates with privatization. And he has visited tribal leaders and attended tribal events, perceived as a provocative attempt to foment tribal frustration and social discontent.
“He didn’t create these grievances,” said Mr. Ramadan, the former lawmaker. “He tapped into them.”
But before Prince Hamzah reinvented himself as a government critic, he was the epitome of a palace insider. After King Abdullah inherited the crown in 1999 from their father, King Hussein, he appointed Prince Hamzah as his own crown prince and successor.
King Abdullah, 59, is the eldest son of Hussein’s British-born second wife, Princess Muna. Prince Hamzah, 41, is the eldest son of Hussein’s American-born fourth wife, Queen Noor.
Both men were educated at Harrow, an elite British school, and Sandhurst, the British officer-training academy.
But their paths diverged in 2004, when King Abdullah removed his half brother as crown prince — later replacing him with his own son, Prince Hussein, now 26.
The decision devastated Prince Hamzah, according to Jordanian officials. He had been considered a favorite of King Hussein’s, a more polished orator with a more academic mind than King Abdullah, and had been groomed as a teenager for the throne. Suddenly he was ejected from the circle of influence, and cast around for a new role.
At one point he asked his half brother to be commander in chief of the armed forces, a request that King Abdullah declined, according to a person briefed on the conversation.
JERUSALEM — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel was tasked by the president on Tuesday with trying to form a new coalition government, offering a possible new path for him to stay in office even as he stands trial on charges of corruption.
A political survivor and Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, Mr. Netanyahu has spent the last 12 years in office. But after four inconclusive elections in two years, he and his allies have failed to win enough support to ensure a parliamentary majority that could end the country’s political deadlock.
Mr. Netanyahu now has 28 days to try to cobble together a coalition that could command a majority of 61 in the 120-seat Parliament, with the possibility of an additional 14-day extension. If he fails, the president, Reuven Rivlin, could task another candidate or refer the matter of choosing a candidate to Parliament.
In last month’s election, Mr. Netanyahu’s conservative Likud party emerged as the largest, with 30 seats. Together with his allies in the right-wing and religious camps, he has 52 seats. That falls short of a majority, but it is still more than any of his opponents managed to muster.
become a linchpin.
So far, Mr. Netanyahu’s partners on the far right have rejected that proposition. The other option is for Mr. Netanyahu to woo some defectors from the opposite camp.
“We will have to be creative,” said Danny Danon, a former Likud minister who served as Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations. “Everything will be on the table. People will have to be flexible,” he said, “including Netanyahu.”
Mr. Netanyahu has been charged with bribery, fraud and breach of trust. He has denied all wrongdoing.
JERUSALEM — It was a split-screen spectacle that encapsulated the confounding condition of Israel and its democracy.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appeared in a Jerusalem court on Monday for the opening of the key, evidentiary phase of his corruption trial. Simultaneously, just two miles across town, representatives of his party were entreating the country’s president to task him with forming Israel’s next government.
For many here, the extraordinary convergence of events was an illustration of a political and constitutional malaise afflicting the nation that gets worse from year to year.
After four inconclusive elections in two years, Mr. Netanyahu, Israel’s longest serving prime minister, who is charged with bribery, fraud and breach of trust, and who denies wrongdoing, remains the most polarizing figure on the political stage. But he is also the leader of Israel’s largest party, which took the most seats in national elections last month.
a viable parliamentary majority, Israel appears stuck, unable to fully condone him or to remove him from the scene.
Now, experts said, the country’s democratic system is in the dock.
“Netanyahu and his supporters are not claiming his innocence but are attacking the very legitimacy of the trial and of the judicial system,” said Shlomo Avineri, professor emeritus of political science at Hebrew University.
“It is the right of the prime minister to come to court and plead not guilty,” he said. “But his defense is an attack on the legitimacy of the constitutional order.”
Israel was nearing an unprecedented constitutional crisis, he said, its depth underlined by the symbolism of the two processes unfolding in parallel.
The law gives President Reuven Rivlin a lot of leeway in whom he nominates to form a government. Mr. Rivlin, an old rival of Mr. Netanyahu, said he would act as all former presidents did and task whomever had the best chance of forming a government that would gain the confidence of the new Parliament.
The divisions were playing out noisily on Monday in the street outside the Jerusalem District Court, where dozens of protesters for and against Mr. Netanyahu had gathered at opposite sides of the courthouse.
Anti-corruption protesters held up placards listing the charges against the prime minister and chanted through megaphones. On a small stage, lawmakers from his conservative Likud party claimed that the legal process was being used to unseat Mr. Netanyahu after his opponents failed to do so through the ballot box.
“In the justice system, our choice of ballots is being assassinated,” declared Galit Distel Etebaryan, a newly elected Likud lawmaker.
The drama of the State of Israel v. Benjamin Netanyahu revolves around three cases in which Mr. Netanyahu stands accused of trading official favors in exchange for gifts from wealthy tycoons. The gifts ranged from deliveries of expensive cigars and Champagne to the less tangible one of flattering coverage in leading news outlets.
The first case being tried, known as Case 4000, is the weightiest and the only one in which he has been charged with bribery.
According to the indictment, Mr. Netanyahu used his power as prime minister and communications minister at the time to aid Shaul Elovitch, a media tycoon and friend, in a business merger that profited Mr. Elovitch to the tune of tens of millions of dollars. In return, Walla, a leading Hebrew news site owned by Mr. Elovitch’s telecommunications company, provided the Netanyahu family with favorable coverage, particularly around election time.
The long-anticipated court session opened Monday with a lengthy speech by the chief prosecutor, Liat Ben-Ari. Mr. Netanyahu, who was required to be present, sat at the back of the courtroom.
Describing the case as “significant and grave,” Ms. Ben-Ari said that according to the indictment, Mr. Netanyahu, listed as “Defendant No. 1,” had “made improper use of the great governmental power entrusted to him,” to demand favors from the owners of media outlets to advance his personal affairs, including “his desire to be re-elected.”
Mr. Netanyahu left the court before the first witness, Ilan Yeshua, the former chief executive of Walla, took the stand. With more than 330 witnesses expected to appear, the trial could go on for years.
Mr. Yeshua described how he would receive instructions from go-betweens to post or highlight positive stories about Mr. Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, as well as items that cast his political rivals in a negative light.
He said he relayed the requests to the newsroom and described his daily and hourly struggles with editors as a “nightmare.”
While many Israelis viewed the trial as a triumph for the rule of law, critics said it was a distortion of justice, arguing that all politicians seek positive media coverage.
“Even if, after several years and tens of millions of shekels, the trial ends, as it should, with an acquittal for all parties, the country will bear the costs of this politicization of criminal law for many years to come,” Avi Bell, a professor of law and a senior fellow at the Kohelet Policy Forum, a conservative leaning, Jerusalem-based think tank, said in a statement
The parallel political process underway at Mr. Rivlin’s official residence did little to dispel the sense that Israel remained trapped in a loop of political uncertainty and instability.
One after the other, delegations of the 13 parties elected to the Knesset came Monday to announce which candidate they endorsed to form the next government.
Mr. Netanyahu, whose Likud party won 30 seats in the 120-seat Parliament, was assured of 52 recommendations from his right-wing and ultra-Orthodox allies, well short of a majority of 61 but still more than any one of his opponents would likely muster.
The remaining 90 parliamentary seats are split between a dozen other parties. Yair Lapid’s centrist Yesh Atid party came in second, with 17 seats. All the others resulted in wins of single digits.
The political stalemate has been compounded by Mr. Netanyahu’s refusal to step aside while on trial and by the incoherence of the anti-Netanyahu camp, made up of parties with clashing agendas. Some have ruled out sitting in a government with others.
Many analysts believe the deadlock will lead to a fifth election, though some small parties that now hold a lot of power would risk elimination in any speedy return to the ballot box.
The sheer number of parties is a sign that “Israeli cohesion is unraveling,” said Yedidia Stern, president of the Jewish People Policy Institute in Jerusalem.
“Israeli society is very fragmented,” he said. “The lack of cohesiveness in Israeli society will not disappear just because an election goes this way or that.”
JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — For nearly three years, South African investigators have been unearthing a web of corruption around the former president, Jacob Zuma, in a public inquiry that has captivated the country.
There were bribes paid in top-shelf whiskey, luxury cars and a cash-stuffed Louis Vuitton bag. High-ranking officials distributed lucrative government contracts in exchange for monthly handouts. That era of graft drained tens of billions of dollars from state coffers and has become one of the most infamous chapters of South Africa’s post-apartheid history.
Now, the country’s highest court will determine whether Mr. Zuma can be held accountable for contempt of court, and for an era of consequence-free corruption, in a hearing that represents one of the greatest tests for South Africa’s democratic institutions in recent years.
“This is an absolutely critical moment: The principle that all people will be equal before the law is being challenged and the constitutional system itself is being challenged,” said William Gumede, chairman of the Democracy Works Foundation, a South African nonprofit group. “Essentially, the former president is saying he is above the law of the country, he is above the Constitution, he is untouchable.”
Mr. Zuma defied a court order to appear before corruption investigators,a move that challenged the legitimacy of South Africa’s legal system and prompted the chief investigator to seek a two-year prison sentence for Mr. Zuma for contempt of court.
The Constitutional Court is unlikely to impose such a harsh sentence when the verdict is announced in the coming weeks. Doing so could trigger mass protests by supporters of Mr. Zuma and destabilize the country as it reels from the worst coronavirus outbreak on the continent, an economy battered by the pandemic and record-high unemployment.
Nonetheless, the hearing itself is seen as an important moment for South Africa, which has been plagued with corruption over the last decade, with few officials held accountable.
The case has also underscored the challenges facing the African National Congress, the party of Nelson Mandela that has governed the country since the end of apartheid in 1994. During Mr. Zuma’s nine-year tenure, the party became consumed by corruption scandals that tarnished its image and sparked public outrage over mismanagement.
Mr. Zuma was ousted from the presidency in 2018, the A.N.C. became increasingly polarized between loyalists of the former president and supporters of his successor, Cyril Ramaphosa, who vowed to crack down on corruption and restore the public’s confidence.
allegations that he took bribes from arms dealers in the 1990s.
“For 15 years or more, Jacob Zuma has been using the strength of the South African court system to put off his day in court” by appealing cases against him, said Richard Calland, a constitutional law professor at the University of Cape Town. “But he is now running out of legal runway. This is the moment where he finally meets his Waterloo legally.”
Mr. Zuma has denied all allegations from both cases. In recent months, he has also accused the corruption inquiry’s leader, Deputy Chief Justice Raymond Zondo, of harboring a personal vendetta against him, and attacked the investigation itself.
Established in 2018, the investigation is known as the Commission on State Capture, a term that has become a buzzword in South Africa and refers to corruption at such a high level that private groups effectively purchased the power to divert state resources into their own hands.
So far the commission has interviewed more than 250 witnesses in televised hearings that have become a telenovela of sorts about the country’s deep-seated corruption. It is expected to end in June, and deliver a report to South African officials that could include suggestions for prosecution.
siphoned from state coffers during his tenure, which ended in 2018 amid public outrage over graft and bitter infighting within the governing party.
He received briefcases stuffed with cash. He held clandestine meetings with drug traffickers in a rice factory. He sought to invest in a cocaine lab. He vowed to flood the United States with drugs. And he did all of this while pursuing the highest office in Honduras.
These were some of the accusations made about President Juan Orlando Hernández of Honduras in a federal courtroom in New York this month.
Mr. Hernández, who has repeatedly denied any association with drug traffickers, was not standing trial in the case and has not been charged with any crimes. Rather, Geovanny Fuentes Ramírez, a Honduran citizen, was the defendant; he was convicted on Monday on all counts, including conspiracy to traffic cocaine and arms possession.
most trying to reach the United States.
The trial added to the growing mound of evidence gathered by federal prosecutors in recent years that casts Mr. Hernández as a key player in Honduras’ drug-trafficking industry. The proceedings led analysts to believe that formal charges against Mr. Hernández himself may not be far away.
“It’s yet another nail in his coffin,” said Eric L. Olson, director of policy at the Seattle International Foundation and an expert on Latin America. “But more than what this means for Juan Orlando, this sends another message to the people of Honduras that there’s no future for them, and what’s the point of hanging around?”
The swirl of corruption allegations around Mr. Hernández has been building for years.
In 2017, international observers documented many irregularities in his election to a second term, prompting weeks of violent protests around the country. The opposition said he should not have been on the ballot in the first place, arguing that Mr. Hernández had unfairly stacked the Supreme Court with his supporters, who then lifted the nation’s constitutional ban on re-election.
More recently, federal prosecutors in the United States have sought to show that the president built a symbiotic relationship with drug traffickers who provided financial support for his political ascent in return for protection from prosecution.
was convicted in federal court in New York on drug trafficking charges and is scheduled to be sentenced next week.
The accusations made by American government lawyers over the years have made for a jarring contrast with the United States’ continued political support for Mr. Hernández, who has cast himselfas a willing partner in the effort to stem the flow of migrants to the U.S.-Mexico border.
In testimony during the trial this month, Devis Leonel Rivera Maradiaga, who once ran a violent drug gang called Los Cachiros, testified that in 2012 he gave $250,000 in cash to Mr. Hernández — transferring it by way of the president’s sister, Hilda Hernández — in exchange for the promise that he would not be arrested and extradited to the United States. Mr. Hernández, at the time, was running for his party’s presidential nomination.
Another witness, a Honduran accountant who testified under the pseudonym José Sánchez, said he witnessed Mr. Hernández accepting bribes from Mr. Fuentes and negotiating access to the drug trafficker’s cocaine lab during meetings at the offices of Graneros Nacionales, the biggest rice producer in Honduras.
“I couldn’t believe what I was watching,” Mr. Sánchez said of an encounter in 2013, when Mr. Hernández was running for president on his party’s ticket. “I was looking at the presidential candidate meeting with a drug trafficker.”
Mr. Sánchez said that in those meetings, Mr. Hernández was twice given bribes of cash stuffed into briefcases, one with $15,000 and the other with $10,000. The accountant said he was personally responsible for counting the cash: $20 bills wrapped in rubber bands.
Daniel Richman, a professor at Columbia Law School.
Mr. Hernández has denied the allegations of corruption and has argued that the testimony in the Fuentes case, as in the trial of his brother, came from unreliable witnesses who were trying to punish him for his efforts to clean Honduras of drug trafficking. Moments after the jury returned its verdict on Monday, he took to Twitter to defend himself, citing what he called an “unprecedented 95 percent reduction” in drug trafficking across Honduras.
The trial played out in Honduras against the backdrop of presidential and congressional campaigns that have further underscored the degree to which corruption riddles the political system.
Charles Call, an associate professor of peace and conflict resolution at American University in Washington.
Following the verdict this week, Hondurans expressed a sense of fatigue, and widespread cynicism that anything would change.
“We do not live in a state of law,” said Edwin Kelly, 35, a data analyst from La Ceiba who lamented “the power of the narco-president.”
The latest revelations might, though, drive even more migrants to head north.
There are many reasons more Honduras have been leaving in recent years, among them insecurity and poverty, said Mr. Olson, of the Seattle International Foundation.
“But there’s a meta-story, which is the failure of government,” he said “We need to give the people of Central America a sense of hope. And that starts with fighting corruption and ending this ridiculous theft of Hondurans’ future.”
SEOUL — The 10 people bought $8.8 million worth of land in an undeveloped area southwest of Seoul, registering it for farming and planting numerous trees. It’s a common trick used by shady real estate speculators in South Korea: Once the area is taken over for housing development, the developers must pay not only for the land, but the trees, too.
A national outrage erupted this month when South Koreans learned that the 10 people were officials from the Korea Land and Housing Corporation (LH) — the government agency in charge of building new towns and housing — suspected of using privileged information to cash in on government housing development programs.
The incident has thrown President Moon Jae-in’s government into crisis mode just weeks before key mayoral elections that are largely seen as a referendum on him and his party ahead of next year’s presidential race. Young South Koreans are saying they are fed up with corruption and the president’s failed policies on runaway housing prices. The LH scandal is now set to become a critical voter issue in Mr. Moon’s final year in office.
“When my girlfriend and I discuss how we are going to find a house in Seoul for the family we are going to start, we can’t find an answer,” said Park Young-sik, 29, an office worker. “The LH scandal shows how some people in South Korea make a quick fortune through real-estate foul play, while the rest of us can barely buy a house even if we toil and save for a lifetime.”
Seoul and Busan — go to the polls on April 7 to choose their mayors, and many observers said the elections could reflect poorly on Mr. Moon’s performance. Survey results showed that the LH news was dragging down approval ratings for both him and his party, most sharply among South Koreans in their 20s.
“I am sorry for worrying the people greatly, and for deeply disappointing those people who have lived honestly,” Mr. Moon said last week, vowing to eliminate “real estate corruption widespread in our society” as a priority of his last year in power.
Apartment prices in Seoul have soared by 58 percent during Mr. Moon’s tenure, according to data from the government-run Korea Real Estate Board. Some of the units in popular residential districts in Seoul have nearly doubled in price in the same period.
Rising housing costs have been blamed for creating a vicious cycle in which families believe real estate investments are foolproof, despite being warned otherwise by the authorities. Experts believe the soaring housing costs have also contributed to the country’s declining fertility rate, one of the lowest in the world, by discouraging young Koreans from starting a family.
The insidious divide among young people in South Korea has become a popular topic in K-dramas and films, including Bong Joon Ho’s “Parasite.” The “dirt-spoons” struggle to manage an ever-expanding income gap while the “gold-spoons,” the children of the elites, glide through a life of privilege. The problem also featured prominently in the real-life downfall of the former president, Park Geun-hye, and the jailing of the Samsung Electronics vice chairman, Lee Jae-yong.
When Mr. Moon took office in 2017, he promised a “fair and just” society. His government has introduced dozens of regulatory steps to curb housing prices, including raising capital-gains taxes on house flipping and property taxes on multiple-home owners.
None of these measures have worked.
Last month, the Moon administration announced plans to supply more than 836,000 new housing units in the next four years, including 70,000 homes to be built in the area southwest of Seoul at the center of the LH scandal. Two civic groups were the first to report that 10 LH officials bought land there months before the highly secretive development plan was announced, accusing the officials of capitalizing on insider information for personal gain, a crime in South Korea.
The government has identified 20 LH officials who are suspected of using privileged information to buy land in various areas before projects were slated to begin there. The investigation has been expanded to target government employees outside of LH, including members of Mr. Moon’s staff. As the dragnet grew larger, two LH officials were found dead this month in apparent suicides. One of them left a note confessing to an “inappropriate deed,” according to the local media.
“LH officials had more access to information on public housing projects than any other, but sadly, we also learned through our investigation that they were ahead of others in real estate speculation,” said Lee Kang-hoon, a lawyer at the People’s Solidarity for Participatory Democracy, one of the two civic groups that uncovered the corruption among the LH officials.
Mr. Moon’s political enemies have been quick to fan the flames among angry voters.
“Stealing public data for real estate speculation is a crime that ruins the country,” the former prosecutor-general, Yoon Seok-youl, told the conservative daily Chosun Ilbo this month while criticizing the government’s handling of the situation.
Mr. Yoon has become a darling among the conservative opposition, and recent surveys showed him to be one of the most popular potential candidates in next year’s presidential election. He recently clashed with Mr. Moon over the president’s effort to curtail the power of prosecutors, and resigned early this month.
Lee Jae-myung, the governor of Gyeonggi Province, is another potential candidate in next year’s race. The liberal governor hopes to represent Mr. Moon’s party in the election and has promoted a “basic housing” policy in which the government would provide cheap and long-term rentals for South Koreans.
He recently urged Parliament to enact a comprehensive law banning conflicts of interest among public servants. “If you want to clean the house, you must first clean the mop,” he said. “If you want to make South Korea a fair society, you must first ensure that those who make and implement policies act fairly.”
The council member reacted angrily and told colleagues he blamed Mr. Aymaq for the entire investigation, according to officials and journalists.
Two weeks after the reporter was killed, Mr. Bik was dead, too.
He died of wounds suffered during a shootout on Jan. 14 with National Directorate of Security agents who went to arrest him at his home in connection with Mr. Aymaq’s death, the police said. Three of Mr. Bik’s bodyguards were wounded in the clash, said Fazlulhaq Ehsan, head of Ghor’s provincial council.
The National Directorate of Security office in Ghor declined to comment.
Then came the targeted killings on Feb. 25 of the slain reporter’s relatives in what the police said was a revenge attack.
Provincial officials blamed the Taliban. Ehsanullah Bik, Mr. Bik’s brother, is a commander for the insurgent group, said Amirdad Parsa, the police spokesman for Ghor Province.
This type of vendetta killing is a pattern, said Abdul Basir Qadiri, a member of the Ghor provincial council. “When people see a rival tribe become powerful, they join the Taliban or kill the leader of the rival tribe so they can remain the only powerful family in that area,” he said.
Mr. Aymaq’s brother, Sebghatullah, 28 — a police officer — and his cousin, Gol-Ahmad, 35, were shot and killed during the attack on Sebghatullah’s home in the village of Tigha-e-Timor, the police said. Also killed was Mr. Aymaq’s 13-year-old niece Arefa.
Five other relatives, including a 3-year-old niece, were shot and wounded. The gunmen abducted three male relatives, including Mr. Aymaq’s 11-year-old nephew, police said. They have not been heard from since.
ASUNCIÓN, Paraguay — For nearly a year, Paraguay was a leader in keeping the pandemic at bay, and despite its persistent troubles, the country remained fairly calm. Not any more.
Paraguay’s coronavirus infection rate has soared, becoming one of the worst in the Americas, and its already shaky health system has been stretched to the breaking point. In the last few days, demonstrators by the thousands have filled streets, demanding the ouster of President Mario Abdo Benítez, and in a few instances there have been bloody clashes with the police.
For many Paraguayans, corruption and elite entitlement that were once just unpleasant facts of life have become intolerable in the face of the pandemic. There is a shortage of basic drugs that doctors and nurses blame on graft; nonemergency surgery has been suspended because of a shortfall in medical supplies, and there are few vaccines to be had.
The crisis has spilled into the streets with a level of rage the county’s leaders have not faced in years. Daily protests started last Friday with medical workers, who were quickly joined by other frustrated people. Most have been peaceful, but in some cases security forces have met the demonstrators with rubber bullets, tear gas and water cannons.
“Paraguay is determined to obtain vaccines from anywhere, by any means,” he said Tuesday in an interview. “Here everyone needs to get vaccinated, and for free, that’s the government’s intention.”
But many young demonstrators say they have waited long enough for decent governance.
“We won’t stop until Marito resigns,” protester Melisa Riveros said.
Santi Carnieri reported from Asunción, Paraguay. Daniel Politi reported from Buenos Aires. Ernesto Londoño contributed reporting from Rio de Janeiro.