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Thai election panel disqualifies princess as PM candidate

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BANGKOK (Reuters) – Thailand’s election panel on Monday disqualified the sister of the king from running for prime minister, putting an end to a stunning, short-lived candidacy by echoing King Maha Vajiralongkorn’s words that royalty should be “above politics”.

The Election Commission released the official list of parties’ candidates for prime minister without the name of Princess Ubolratana Rajakanya Sirivadhana Barnavadi, 67, the king’s elder sister.

The list excluded Ubolratana “because every member of the royal family comes within the application of the same rule requiring the monarch to be above politics and to be politically neutral,” the panel said in a statement after a meeting.

The princess had accepted the nomination of the Thai Raksa Chart party, a populist movement drawn from supporters of ousted ex-premier Thaksin Shinawatra, who has been at the center of more than a decade of turmoil in Thai politics.

The March 24 elections are the first since a 2014 military coup toppled a pro-Thaksin government. Among the candidates for prime minister is the current junta leader Prayuth Chan-ocha, who as army chief led the coup.

The panel did not mention a separate petition seeking to ban Thai Raksa Chart on the grounds that it violated election laws against using the monarchy in campaigning.

Party leaders were not immediately available for comment and canceled a press conference planned for Monday.

Ubolratana’s surprise nomination broke with a tradition that members of the royal family stay out of politics.

Thailand has been a constitutional monarchy since 1932, but the royal family wields great influence and commands the devotion of millions of Thais, with the king considered to be semi-divine.

In a statement read on all Thai television stations within hours of Ubolratana’s announcement as a candidate, King Vajiralongkorn said it was “inappropriate” and unconstitutional for members of the royal family to enter politics.

FILE PHOTO: Ubolratana Rajaka, Princess of Thailand, attends “Thailand Hub of Entertainment”, a film and entertainment industry event for investors, in Hong Kong March 24, 2010. Picture taken March 24, 2010. REUTERS/Bobby Yip

ON EDGE

The dramatic events since Friday have put Thais on edge. Riot police units were on high alert in Pichit province, north of Bangkok, where the princess was due to visit later this week, according to Matichon newspaper.

Bangkok has been locked in political conflict for more than a decade – with street protests sometimes paralyzing the capital for months at a time – between supporters of Thaksin’s populist brand of politics and the mostly-middle class and urban establishment who identify with the monarchy and the military.

Parties loyal to Thaksin, a former telecommunications tycoon, have defeated pro-establishment parties to win every election since 2001. Each of their governments has been removed by court rulings or coups since 2006.

The hashtag ‘#coup’ was trending on Thai-language Twitter on Monday and a fake document also circulated online claiming that the junta had sacked commanders in the army, navy and air force.

The rumors were false and intended to destabilize Thailand, the spokesman for the ruling junta, Colonel Winthai Suvaree, told reporters.

Application form of candidate for Prime Minister, Thailand’s Princess Ubolratana Rajakanya Sirivadhana Barnavadi, is seen at the election commission office in Bangkok, Thailand February 8, 2019. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha

“This is organized behavior with hope to gain something, particularly to disturb the peace of the country during this important moment,” he said.

The pro-Thaksin camp’s bid to nominate a member of the royal family electrified the election race, but it could backfire on Thai Raksa Chart, said Titipol Phakdeewanich, a political science professor at Ubon Ratchathani University.

Dissolving Thai Raksa Chart could hand more seats to military-affiliated parties or other established parties, as well as a separate youth-oriented populist party.

Additional reporting by Patpicha Tanakasempipat and Chayut Setboonsarng; Editing by Paul Tait and Clarence Fernandez

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Indonesian presidential hopefuls vow energy self-sufficiency via palm

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JAKARTA (Reuters) – Indonesia’s two presidential candidates pledged to achieve energy self-sufficiency by boosting the use of bioenergy, particularly fueled by palm oil, to cut costly oil imports by Southeast Asia’s biggest economy.

Indonesia’s presidential candidate Joko Widodo (L) shakes hands with his opponent Prabowo Subianto after the second debate between presidential candidates ahead of the next general election in Jakarta, Indonesia, February 17, 2019. REUTERS/Willy Kurniawan

Indonesia, the world’s biggest palm oil producer, has been pushing for all diesel fuel used in the country to contain biodiesel to boost palm consumption, slash fuel imports, and narrow a yawning current account gap.

In a televised election debate, President Joko Widodo said if he won a second term the government planned to implement a B100 program, referring to fuel made entirely from palm oil, after last year making it mandatory to use biodiesel containing 20 percent bio-content (B20).

“We hope 30 percent of total palm production will go to biofuel. The plan is clear, so we will not rely on imported oil,” Widodo said, adding that Indonesia’s crude palm oil production had reached 46 million tonnes a year.

Agreeing on the importance of bioenergy for self-sufficiency, his opponent Prabowo Subianto said if elected he would also “boost the use of palm oil, palm sugar, cassava and ethanol from sugar (cane)”.

The challenger did not elaborate on his bioenergy plan, but his campaign team has proposed using millions of hectares of degraded land to cultivate palm sugar to produce energy.

Widodo’s government has previously said it would offer incentives for developers of B100, which the net oil importer hopes can replace fuel imports within three years.

Oil imports have contributed to Indonesia’s widening current account deficit and the volatility of the rupiah currency. The government claimed that its biodiesel program would save billions of dollars in diesel fuel imports.

Although retired general Prabowo agreed with Widodo on several points during the debate, he said Indonesia’s “land and water, and the resources within” must be controlled by the government.

“We are of the view that the government must be present in detail, thoroughly, firmly and actively to correct inequalities in wealth,” he said.

The challenger said the proportion of small farmers’ holdings in the country’s palm plantations should also be larger. Smallholders currently account for roughly 40 percent of Indonesia’s 12 million hectares of palm oil plantations.

Farmers currently do not require larger plots of land, but instead, they need a program to boost yield from their current farm, Mansuetus Darto of Palm Farmers Union said.

He added that farmers wanted more clarity on Widodo’s B100 program and have asked to ensure that small holders play a greater role in the biodiesel supply chain.

“This is an important task for Jokowi on how to prevent big palm companies to be the only main suppliers and not farmers,” Darto said, referring to the president’s nickname.

Meanwhile, environmental group Greenpeace criticized both candidates for failing to ensure that the biofuel programs they promised will not cause further erosion of forests, peatlands and mangrove, due to potentially higher demand for palm oil that is mixed with the fuel.

Slideshow (2 Images)

By 2030, the global demand for biofuels would reach 67 million tonnes from the current 10.7 million tonnes, which could potentially result in 4.5 million hectares of deforestation and 2.9 million hectares of mangrove disappearance, Greenpeace said.

Both candidates expressed support for greater control of Indonesian natural resources.

President Widodo highlighted Pertamina’s takeover of stewardship of major oil and gas blocks from foreign operators, and an agreement for a state company to purchase a 51 percent stake in the giant Grasberg copper mine from Freeport McMoRan.

Reporting by Fransiska Nangoy and Tabita Diela,; Additional reporting Bernadette Christina Munthe,; Editing by Ed Davies, Jan Harvey and Sherry Jacob-Phillips

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Indonesian presidential hopefuls vow energy self-sufficiency through palm

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JAKARTA (Reuters) – Indonesia’s two presidential candidates pledged on Sunday to achieve energy self-sufficiency by boosting the use of bioenergy, particularly fueled by palm oil, to cut costly oil imports by Southeast Asia’s biggest economy.

Indonesia’s presidential candidate Joko Widodo (L) shakes hands with his opponent Prabowo Subianto after the second debate between presidential candidates ahead of the next general election in Jakarta, Indonesia, February 17, 2019. REUTERS/Willy Kurniawan

Indonesia, the world’s biggest palm oil producer, has been pushing for all diesel fuel used in the country to contain biodiesel to boost palm consumption, slash fuel imports, and narrow a yawning current account gap.

In a televised election debate, President Joko Widodo said if he won a second term the government planned to implement a B100 program, referring to fuel made entirely from palm oil, after last year making it mandatory to use biodiesel containing 20 percent bio-content (B20).

“We hope 30 percent of total palm production will go to biofuel. The plan is clear, so we will not rely on imported oil,” Widodo said, adding that Indonesia’s crude palm oil production had reached 46 million tonnes a year.

Agreeing on the importance of bioenergy for self-sufficiency, his opponent Prabowo Subianto said if elected he would also “boost the use of palm oil, palm sugar, cassava and ethanol from sugar (cane)”.

The challenger did not elaborate on his bioenergy plan, but his campaign team has proposed using millions of hectares of degraded land to cultivate palm sugar to produce energy.

Widodo’s government has previously said it would offer incentives for developers of B100, which the net oil importer hopes can replace fuel imports within three years.

Indonesia’s state energy company PT Pertamina has signed an agreement with Italian oil company Eni to develop a refinery in Indonesia that would produce fuel completely derived from crude palm oil (CPO).

Oil imports have contributed to Indonesia’s widening current account deficit and the volatility of the rupiah currency. The government claimed that its biodiesel program would save billions of dollars in diesel fuel imports.

Although retired general Prabowo agreed with Widodo on several points during the debate, he said Indonesia’s “land and water, and the resources within” must be controlled by the government.

“We are of the view that the government must be present in detail, thoroughly, firmly and actively to correct inequalities in wealth,” he said.

The challenger said the proportion of small farmers’ holdings in the country’s palm plantations should also be larger. Smallholders currently account for roughly 40 percent of Indonesia’s 12 million hectares of palm oil plantations.

Farmers currently do not require larger plots of land, but instead, they need a program to boost yield from their current farm, Mansuetus Darto of Palm Farmers Union said.

He added that farmers wanted more clarity on Widodo’s B100 program and have asked to ensure that small holders play a greater role in the biodiesel supply chain.

Slideshow (2 Images)

“This is an important task for Jokowi on how to prevent big palm companies to be the only main suppliers and not farmers,” Darto said, referring to the president’s nickname.

Both candidates expressed support for greater control of Indonesian natural resources.

President Widodo highlighted Pertamina’s takeover of stewardship of major oil and gas blocks from foreign operators, and an agreement for a state company to purchase a 51 percent stake in the giant Grasberg copper mine from Freeport McMoRan.

Reporting by Fransiska Nangoy and Tabita Diela,; Additional reporting Bernadette Christina Munthe,; Editing by Ed Davies, Jan Harvey and Sherry Jacob-Phillips

Our Standards:The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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Asia shares bounce on trade talk, stimulus wagers

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SYDNEY (Reuters) – Asian share markets bounced broadly on Monday as investors dared to hope for both progress at Sino-U.S. trade talks in Washington this week and more policy stimulus from major central banks.

A man looks on in front of an electronic board showing stock information at a brokerage house in Nanjing, Jiangsu province, China February 13, 2019. REUTERS/Stringer ATTENTION EDITORS – THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. CHINA OUT.

MSCI’s broadest index of Asia-Pacific shares outside Japan rose 0.9 percent, largely recovering from a sharp fall last Friday.

Japan’s Nikkei climbed 1.8 percent to its highest level of the year so far, while Shanghai blue chips rallied 2.1 percent.

E-Mini futures for the S&P 500 were flat as trade was thinned by a holiday in U.S. markets, while spreadbetters pointed to a firmer opening for European bourses.

The Dow and the Nasdaq had boasted their eighth consecutive weekly gains on wagers the United States and China would hammer out an agreement resolving their protracted trade war.[.N]

The two sides will resume negotiations this week, with U.S. President Donald Trump saying he may extend a March 1 deadline for a deal. Both reported progress in five days of talks in Beijing last week.

“That does not rule out a setback or two between now and the start of March,” said analysts at CBA in a note.

“Even so, we still think that both sides have good reasons to want to get to an agreement. And, so motivated, it makes an agreement more likely than not.”

There are also growing expectations of more reflationary policies from some of the world’s more powerful central banks.

The need for stimulus was highlighted on Monday by data showing a sharp slide in Singapore exports and a big drop in foreign orders for Japanese machinery goods.

Beijing is already taking action with China’s banks making the most new loans on record in January in an attempt to jumpstart sluggish investment.

Minutes of the Federal Reserve’s last policy meeting are due on Wednesday and should provide more guidance on the likelihood or not for rate hikes this year. There is also talk the bank will keep a much larger balance sheet than previously planned.

“Given the range of speakers since the January meeting who support “patience,” the Fed minutes should reiterate a dovish message overall,” said analysts at TD Securities in a note.

A roll call of Fed officials are speaking at various events this week including a round table on Friday covering the future of its balance sheet. [FED/DIARY]

EYEING THE ECB

The European Central Bank’s Olli Rehn told a German newspaper on Sunday that recent data point to a weakening euro zone economy and interest rates would remain at the current level until monetary policy goals have been met.

That came amid much speculation the ECB would launch another round of Targeted Long-Term Refinancing Operations (TLTRO) to support bank lending.

The risk of an easy ECB saw the euro touch a three-month low on Friday before then bouncing on dovish comments from Fed officials.

The single currency edged up 0.2 percent on Monday to $1.1312, though that was still well within the $1.1213/1.1570 trading range that has held since mid-October.

The dollar was steady on the yen at 110.53, having backed away from a two-month top of 111.12.

Sterling was a shade firmer at $1.2913 ahead of Brexit talks between British Prime Minister Theresa May and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker this week.

All of which left the dollar down at 96.765 on a basket of currencies and away from last week’s top of 97.368.

In commodity markets, the drift in the dollar helped spot gold firm 0.2 percent to $1,323.56 per ounce.

Oil prices reached their highest for the year so far, buoyed by OPEC-led supply cuts and U.S. sanctions on Iran and Venezuela. [O/R]

U.S. crude was last up 25 cents at $55.84 a barrel, while Brent crude futures rose 5 cents to $66.30.

Editing by Sam Holmes & Kim Coghill

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