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Congo Polls Open in Historic Transfer of Power; Bangladeshi Prime Minister Expected to Win Third Consecutive Term; Trump Cancels Pay Raise to Government Workers, Blames Dems for Shutdown; Meghan Markle under Fire in British Media. Aired 3-3:30a ET

Aired December 30, 2018 - 03:00   ET




NATALIE ALLEN, CNN ANCHOR (voice-over): The polls are open in the long delayed presidential election in the Democratic Republic of Congo. We'll have a report.

Voters in Bangladesh also have their say as voting gets underway following weeks of deadly campaign violence.

And the U.S. government shutdown marches on. President Trump says he's just waiting for the Democrats to make a deal on his border wall.

These stories are all ahead here. We're live from CNN Center in Atlanta. Hello, everyone. I'm Natalie Allen. Thanks for being with us. This is CNN NEWSROOM.


ALLEN: It's been a long wait but voters are now going to the polls in the Democratic Republic of Congo. They're choosing who will succeed the current president, Joseph Kabila. He was scheduled to step down two years ago and more than 1 million people will have to wait even longer to vote. They'll have to wait until March. That is because of the Ebola crisis and terrorism fears.

There have been many challenges ahead of this election, not the least of which rampant protests on the streets. For more about it, here's CNN's Eleni Giokos.


ELENI GIOKOS, CNNMONEY CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Firing tear gas and live rounds into the air, security forces try to disperse protesters. These are the scenes of recent violence ahead of a long overdue presidential election in the Democratic Republic of Congo, supposed to bring the first democratic transfer of power to a country that's been waiting more than two years to choose a new leader.

The outgoing president, Joseph Kabila, was scheduled to step down back in 2016 after holding office since 2001. But the vote was repeatedly postponed, sparking deadly protests. Earlier this month, a massive fire at an election commission warehouse

destroyed thousands of voting machines, which delayed the vote once again.

Then this week, the commission postponed the vote in three opposition strongholds, citing the Ebola outbreak and terror threats. More than 1 million voters won't be able to cast their ballots on Sunday. The opposition says it's all a pretext to take away their votes.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): They need to get us another president. And if that doesn't happen, we will create chaos starting from today until a solution is found. If it calls for us to die, then so be it.

GIOKOS (voice-over): Crises on several fronts are fueling resentment. Ongoing ethnic and regional conflicts have displaced millions and a long battle with Ebola continues. The country is confronting the world's second deadliest outbreak in history.

Extreme poverty also plagues the country, where six out of seven live on less than a dollar a day. President Kabila, on the other hand, has been enriched by the Congo's wealth of natural resources, including one that powers most of the world's cellphones and electric cars: cobalt.

And the Congo is at the epicenter of its skyrocketing demand. Its mines make up a large majority of global cobalt production. But these mines have a dirty secret. Uncovered in a CNN investigation in May, the cobalt supply chain uses child labor.

NIMA ELBAGIR, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: And we've seen the product of that child labor loaded onto a variety of different vehicles.

GIOKOS (voice-over): Despite threats and attempts to block their investigation, CNN's Nima Elbagir traveled to some of the Congo's cobalt facilities, where she and her team witnessed children forced to work.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): How old is he?


GIOKOS (voice-over): As the home of a resource used to power the world's devices, Congo's election is one to watch. Although the results are likely to be contested and the election commission has banned international observers, there is still hope by some that it can bring about real change to the Congo -- Eleni Giokos, CNN.


ALLEN: Joining me now is Sasha Lezhnev, the deputy director of policy at the Enough Project, where he focuses on peace, conflict and corporate accountability issues in Central Africa.

Thanks so much for coming in. SASHA LEZHNEV, ENOUGH PROJECT: Thanks for having me, Natalie.

ALLEN: Yes. Let's start with the complexities that are facing Congo. It's trying to hold a presidential election. That election long overdue. But violence, now protests and the growing Ebola crisis are causing huge problems. Let's start with Ebola.

How is it affecting people, aid workers and the election itself?


LESHNEV: Well, I think the most important issue here is that this election really represents, if it's run well, a lot of hope and possibility for Congo to have its first ever democratic transition.

And, yes, there is Ebola in a couple different areas of the country and hundreds of people have died from that.

But it really doesn't provide an excuse for not holding these elections. And the government has now announced that several Ebola- affected areas will be delayed for holding elections. And yet they want to inaugurate the president in any case, which is very unacceptable to very many Congolese people and should be rescinded and those areas should be allowed to vote.

ALLEN: Right. There are some areas not being allowed to vote because of the Ebola epidemic. Some people aren't being allowed to vote.

Without outside monitoring outside of Congo, which they have refused, what are the chances this election will be fair and just?

LEZHNEV: I think slim to none, unfortunately. There have been many red flags as part of this electoral process. There have been hundreds of civil society and opposition members arrested.

The electoral commission has moved ahead with very controversial voting machines that technical experts have shown can be hacked and have major other security vulnerabilities. There's been a lack of transparency in electoral commission finances. The voter roll has nearly 17 percent people who did not register fingerprints.

There's been a ban on opposition in civil society, demonstrations until recently and many other red flags. So two of the opposition candidates were not even allowed to participate. So I think it's very, very slim that the election will be free and fair.

That said, the two major opposition candidates are polling well ahead of the government candidate. And so I think that a lot of Congolese people still have hope that there could be a real change come tomorrow.

ALLEN: And they have taken to the streets in protest.

What do you think -- how do you think that has made a difference in this election? LEZHNEV: Well, I think that throughout this process of the last two years, really, these elections are being held two years late. There's been a combination between Congolese civil society and opposition figures protesting and international pressure from the outside.

And that has led to some pretty increased pressure on the government. I mean, I think it's a major telltale sign that President Kabila is not standing in these elections. I think we all expect him to at least attempt very hard to rule behind the scenes.

But I think that those Congolese protesters really are very courageous. They've been arrested. Many have died. Some have been tortured in secret service facilities. And so those people are on the front lines, fighting for democracy right now in Congo.

ALLEN: So when this election is over, when there's an announcement, will that help quell the protests between now and then?

And also, even without a fair and just election, if there is a change in government, what hope do you have for Congo?

LEZHNEV: Well, I think it really depends on what the government's reaction is and also really depends on what the United States, the European Union and the African Union will do. I think there is not a one foregone conclusion here.

I think if the United States and European Union and African Union can put some stronger pressure on the government, particularly through targeted sanctions, anti-money laundering measures and threats of prosecutions, that the government really can move in the right direction and actually hold this peaceful democratic transition.

I think, absent that pressure and absent some more of the protests that are very likely, that we will see more of the same of high-level corruption and massive human rights abuses that are causing more than 4.5 million people to be displaced in Congo today and billions of dollars stolen every year through lucrative contracts, for example, with the Kabila family's 80-plus companies.

So I think we will see a lot of protests but the reactions are very important and policymakers need to be paying very close attention to what's happening here and act accordingly.

ALLEN: Sasha Lezhnev with the Enough Project, thanks so much for your insights. We appreciate it.

LEZHNEV: Thank you, Natalie.

ALLEN: Bangladesh is also voting right now in its general election. Prime minister Sheikh Hasina cast her --


ALLEN: -- ballot a short time ago. She appears set to win a record third consecutive term. This as she faces allegations of vote rigging and human rights abuses. For the latest, CNN's Nikhil Kumar is live in New Delhi.

Hello to you, Nikhil.

I want to ask you, first off, with so much controversy surrounding her leadership, questions about silencing the opposition, is this vote expected to be fair?

NIKHIL KUMAR, CNN NEW DELHI BUREAU CHIEF: Well, Natalie, rights organizations have been asking that very question. There are concerns about whether or not this vote will be completely fair, completely legitimate.

Recent days have seen heavy security across Bangladesh. The opposition has made claims that their activists have been arrested during campaigning. So there is that concern.

And this is a larger concern over the previous two terms that Sheikh Hasina has been in power. It's been two terms, during which there have been two stories. On the one hand, the Bangladeshi economy has boomed. It's been growing at high rates of growth. They've succeeded in cutting poverty quite significantly. Other development indicators have been doing well.

But on the other hand, the other story is the story of concerns about rights abuses, the clamping down by the government on dissenting voices. Earlier this year, we had the arrest of the photographer, who is well known around the world, who was incarcerated for many, many months.

And rights organizations have been pointing this out again and again, that whereas the economy has been growing, whereas development has been on the right track, Sheikh Hasina's government has been accused of being increasingly authoritarian.

And as people look and wait for the results of this election, there's concerns about how that will play into the voting, the counting. Then afterwards, she's widely expected to win.

And if she wins, will that lead to this authoritarian streak becoming more pronounced?

So a very, very important election for the country with this shadow over it about whether or not the result will be completely above board -- Natalie.

ALLEN: We thank you so much for giving us the latest. Nikhil Kumar, thank you.

We turn now to the U.S.; 800,000 federal employees facing an uncertain future without paychecks and President Trump says it's not his fault. We'll tell you who he's blaming coming up. -- Also as the clock strikes midnight on New Year's Eve, New York City

will likely be staring down a giant rainstorm. But at least it won't be freezing. We'll have more about it coming up here. (MUSIC PLAYING)



ALLEN: The pay raise U.S. government workers had been expecting in January has been taken away. President Trump canceled their 2.1 percent wage increase. It is another setback for the --


ALLEN: -- 800,000 federal employees without paychecks right now due to the partial government shutdown. For more about it, here's CNN's Sarah Westwood at the White House.


SARAH WESTWOOD, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: President Trump is alone in the White House and fuming about Democrats' refusal to provide any funding for his promised border wall.

And he's been trying to blame them for everything from the deaths of two migrant children at the southern border earlier this month to the partial government shutdown that he once said he'd be proud to own.

Now the president is alone here at the White House because he canceled plans to travel down to his Palm Beach estate, Mar-a-lago, amid the partial government shutdown that he's continued to blame on the inaction of congressional Democrats.

The president taking to Twitter on Saturday, writing, "I am in the White House, waiting for the Democrats to come on over and make a deal on border security. From what I hear, they are spending so much time on presidential harassment that they have little time left for things like stopping crime and our military."

Now acting chief of staff/budget director Mick Mulvaney said those Democratic congressional leaders haven't actually been invited back to the White House for further talks. Mulvaney said that the White House at this point is essentially just waiting for a counteroffer from the Democrats.

Mulvaney has suggested that the president might be willing to back down off that demand for $5 billion in wall funding, although he didn't specify by how much. That's in line with CNN's reporting that vice president Mike Pence went to Capitol Hill last weekend with an offer of support for a bill worth $2.5 billion. That's a deal that the Democrats rejected.

So talks are still at a standstill. There's not a lot of clarity at this point still about what kind of deal the president might support. But it is clear that Trump is growing increasingly frustrated with his inability to get funding for his signature campaign promise.

It's also clear that the partial government shutdown has no end in sight, with Democrats preparing to retake the House and, therefore, shake up the dynamics of negotiating power in a little less than a week -- Sarah Westwood, CNN, the White House.


ALLEN: Joining me now is Daniel Lippman, a reporter for "Politico" and co-author of "Politico's" "Playbook."

Daniel, thanks for coming in to talk with us. We appreciate it.

DANIEL LIPPMAN, "POLITICO": Thanks for having me.

ALLEN: Well, President Trump is now saying any deaths of children -- there have been two recently -- on the border are strictly the fault of the Democrats and their policies.

Will it help the president in any way to pin this tragedy on the other party?

LIPPMAN: I don't think it's a wise strategy because most Americans would probably reject politicizing these kids' deaths and placing the blame on Democrats, who have actually, you know, stood out and said that these deaths were related to the DHS and how they were caring for these kids.

And even Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen of Homeland Security, she has said that every person in U.S. custody should get a complete medical exam. And so she clearly understands that there are shortcomings in the system that have to be rectified; while President Trump seems to want to play politics and blame Democrats, when, in fact, you know, it's his government shutdown, as he bragged to Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi a few weeks ago.

ALLEN: Right.

And once the Democrats take over the House, what are the chances that Mr. Trump will ever see his wall built?

And why would Democrats allocate billions for a wall when he campaigned on the promise Mexico would pay for it?

LIPPMAN: Yes, we don't hear much talk about Mexico shelling out billions of dollars from their government treasury and sending the check to Washington, D.C., anymore.


LIPPMAN: The chances for a border wall are declining because Republicans' leverage on actually making this promise a reality is shrinking by the day and by the hour because Speaker Nancy Pelosi is going to come in on January 3rd and take control of the House.

And with that, the House Freedom Caucus, who has been pushing for this wall, and President Trump, they lose a huge swath of the government to make this possible. And if Trump actually wants to get as much money for the wall now, he should make a deal today and then you can maybe get $1.6 billion, $2 billion.

Instead, when Democrats take over, you might get barely $1.3 billion and that will just be for border security, not actually building that wall, since Democrats feel like the public is on their side since they voted for them in the midterm elections.

ALLEN: Right. I want to ask you this too, Daniel.

Has his constant chatter and tweets about the necessity of the wall, according to Mr. Trump, because there's an emergency at the border, has he done anything to convince people outside of his base that there is some emergency at the border?

LIPPMAN: I think every American --


LIPPMAN: -- Democrat and Republican, would say that clearly there are problems at the border when you have thousands of people stream in every month. And so that's not up for debate.

But when you yell fire in a crowded theater every day, people kind of get numb to the pictures and they think that there must not be a huge emergency because, A, Trump has said that the border is very secure, that, you know, the border is very tight.

And yet, at the same time, he says, well, there's a huge emergency.

So which is it?

So that's kind of the split screen, two messages that we see right now. And so it's hard for Americans to decide who to believe on that.

And then they look at the statistics and actually more people are coming through illegally. But that's not always related to presidential policies. It's often more connected to events on the ground in Central America, the fact that there are still murderous gangs, you know, prowling around Central America and the economy in those countries is so bad that anything, even a dangerous journey to the U.S., beats staying in those places.

ALLEN: That's what they're saying when they're interviewed. That's for sure.

It will be telling, won't it, when Nancy Pelosi takes over this coming week?

We'll likely talk with you again. We appreciate you joining us, Daniel Lippman with "Politico," thank you.

LIPPMAN: Thank you.

ALLEN: Airport officials in Baltimore, Maryland, are investigating what went wrong with a jetway that collapsed, injuring at least six people. Jetways are those extendible bridges that stretch from the terminal to the plane. Officials tell CNN the injuries are not life- threatening.

We hope not. That would not be cool.


ALLEN: She is the glamorous American actress who married a British prince. But now Meghan Markle, the Duchess of Sussex, is a favorite target of the British media. London correspondent --


ALLEN: -- Max Foster looks at why she's coming under such intense fire in the press.



MAX FOSTER, CNN ROYAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Just seven months after her fairy tale marriage to Prince Harry, lauded by commentators as a celebratory reflection of modern Britain, the knives are out in certain sections of the British media.

KATE WILLIAMS, ROYAL HISTORIAN: There's been an almost shockingly quick turnaround. One minute, it's all marvelous and fantastic. Next minute, there are all these negative stories in the press, stories about duchesses at war. It really is, within a few months, Meghan seems to have moved from the nation's heroine to someone actually being discussed in ways that almost makes her seem she's the nation's villain.

FOSTER (voice-over): Sources close to Meghan and Harry tell CNN they saw it coming, the wise and worn (ph) narrative that they say speaks to female stereotyping in the media more than it does to the reality of royal family dynamics.

"Sad" and "predictable" are two words I heard used for the covering.

WILLIAMS: In the past we've seen a lot of criticism of people who marry into the royal family and we saw it particularly with Diana. Diana suffered badly. The press criticized her. They criticized her weight. They criticized what she did. They criticized her fashion.

FOSTER (voice-over): Elements of the reporting are undeniably true. The Sussexes are moving out of the palace they share with the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge in London, a decision that seems to have added to rumors of a rift.

Other stories are completely made up, according to sources. An article suggested that Meghan is a vegan when she famously revealed she was roasting a chicken when her husband, Harry, proposed.

AYESHA AZAREKA, POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I think race is a factor in this. I think there's a lot of commentators in many parts of the British press that are saying, right. We're going to try and box her into that. There's already a gender discount against her. There's already the classic stereotype, which, is if she's a strong woman, then she's a strident woman, she's a bossy woman, a difficult woman.

And, of course, being a woman of color, they're on top of that. There's another layer of stereotypical, cliched disadvantage, which is, ah, she's an angry woman. She doesn't fit in. She doesn't understand how we do things.

FOSTER (voice-over): Traditionally, British royals don't respond to negative media coverage and their courtiers can't speak on their behalf. So many of the more personal attacks on the duchess about her behavior, for example, have gone unanswered.

FOSTER: The duchess doesn't read all of the articles written about her. I'm told by sources here at Kensington Palace she's far more focused on selecting charities that she's going to support going forward.

She's renovating a new home and she's having a baby in the spring. The British monarchy is an ancient institution and the feeling behind palace walls is that this new latest storm is going to pass -- Max Foster, CNN, Kensington Palace, London.


ALLEN: We hope it will.

Thanks for watching CNN NEWSROOM. I'm Natalie Allen. Your headlines right after this.