Gloves come off as Greek elections loom

Greek main opposition leader Kyriakos Mitsotakis, right, dismissed government accusations of kickbacks allegedly pocketed by his party while in power prior to 2015 as ‘savage propaganda.’ (AFP)
Updated 06 January 2019
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Gloves come off as Greek elections loom

  • Hostility between the ruling leftist Syriza party and the frontrunning New Democracy conservatives has hit fever pitch
  • ‘We know they plan to hold dirty elections’

ATHENS: As Greece enters an election year, the two main political parties are deeply polarized setting the stage for a no-holds-barred campaign.
With the ballot scheduled for October but expected as early as March, hostility between the ruling leftist Syriza party and the frontrunning New Democracy conservatives has hit fever pitch.
“We know they plan to hold dirty elections,” New Democracy head Kyriakos Mitsotakis said of his Syriza rivals in a recent speech, dismissing government accusations of kickbacks allegedly pocketed by his party while in power prior to 2015 as “savage propaganda.”
Both sides accuse each other of marshalling web trolls to spread misinformation. New Democracy says the leftists have liberally dished out well-paid state jobs to a legion of ill-qualified friends and allies.
In turn, the government of Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras points to ongoing investigations targeting years of alleged kickbacks to conservative ex-ministers from Swiss pharma multinational Novartis and German engineering giant Siemens.
The government has identified prominent media group Skai as a key source of what it sees as unfair criticism of its policies. In addition to frequently attacking the station’s broadcasts, Tsipras’ party is boycotting its talk shows.
Relations hit rock bottom last month when a bomb exploded outside Skai’s Athens headquarters, prompting media group owner Yiannis Alafouzos to say Tsipras’ government was “morally” responsible for the attack.
“There is a climate that not only tolerates but often encourages extreme forms of expression in the public space,” Nikos Konstandaras, a veteran columnist for liberal daily Kathimerini that is part of the Skai group, wrote after the bombing.
“Today, the political polarization that breeds such violence is intensifying,” he added.
Brought to power on an anti-austerity ticket in 2015 after decades on the sidelines, Tsipras’ government faced an overwhelmingly hostile media.
His response was to completely overhaul the powerful TV sector and force channel owners — who had played kingmaker between New Democracy and the Pasok socialists for over two decades — to pay millions of euros for new operating licenses.
“In Greece, the dependence of mainstream media on the state is the most extreme in Europe, it is only comparable to Turkey,” George Pleios, head of media studies at the National University of Athens, wrote in a recent article.
With media under the control of businessmen mainly active in construction and shipping, ownership has long been a means of securing state contracts and favorable bank loans, adds Nikos Smyrnaios, a digital media professor at Toulouse university.
“In this way, when the (economic) crisis struck, state (bankruptcy) brought about a similar fate for the media,” he notes.
Alongside the conservative and socialist parties who had ruled the country prior to the crisis, mainstream media were also discredited, argues Stelios Papathanassopoulos, professor of media organization and policy at the University of Athens.
The anti-austerity demonstrations that helped propel Syriza to power also assisted the rise of social media and Twitter in Greece, mainly to the benefit of the left.
“The young, who at the time formed the bulk of Syriza voters, challenged the accuracy of (mainstream) media and turned to alternative networks,” Papathanassopoulos said.
After two years of bitter rivalry between Tsipras and those he labelled “oligarchs,” three major media groups changed hands to avoid bankruptcy, and Greece’s most powerful TV station before the crisis, Mega, went bust.
But the overhaul did little to promote smaller, more independent voices, notes Smyrnaios.
“Media groups are still in the hands of influential businessmen,” he said.
In another sign of the sector’s deep troubles, one of Greece’s two media distribution agencies filed for bankruptcy in 2017.
The one that remains is controlled by a leading media group.
“As in many Latin American countries, Greek media have overstepped ethical boundaries,” argues Smyrnaios. “It’s more about emotion, reviving old hatred between the right-wing and the left that goes back to the (1946-1949) civil war.”


Trump becomes first foreign leader to meet Japan’s new emperor

Updated 9 min 38 sec ago
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Trump becomes first foreign leader to meet Japan’s new emperor

TOKYO: Donald Trump on Monday became the first foreign leader to meet with Japan’s newly enthroned Emperor Naruhito — an honor Prime Minister Shinzo Abe hopes will help charm the US president when it comes to thorny trade talks.
The palace visit in the morning, followed by a royal banquet in the evening, was the main event in a feel-good trip that started Saturday and has seen Abe and Trump playing golf, eating out, watching sumo and generally enjoying an all-Japanese weekend.
Dining with Abe and their wives at a typical Tokyo grill restaurant on Sunday, Trump said he “had a great time” and was looking forward to meeting Naruhito, who took the Chrysanthemum Throne only three weeks ago, after his father stepped down in the first abdication in two centuries.
“Tomorrow is really the main event — a very important event in the history of Japan. It’s over 200 years since something like this has happened. So it’s a great honor to be representing the United States,” Trump said.
After calling on Naruhito in the morning, Trump and his avowed close friend Abe will meet for summit talks and have lunch, before holding a press conference.
On Sunday, they grinned for a selfie and praised each other’s golf game. Before the dinner, Abe also accompanied Trump to a sumo tournament where the US president presented a gigantic trophy, brought from the United States, to the champion wrestler.
Abe hopes those good vibes will spread into talks on trade, military ties, the stumbling efforts to rein in North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, and a growing superpower rivalry between Washington and Beijing.
Within an hour of touching down in Tokyo, Trump railed against what he sees as a trade imbalance between the world’s top and third-largest economies and vowed to make the relationship “a little bit more fair.”
But on Sunday, Trump struck a softer note, saying that “much” of that deal would wait until Abe faces upper house elections likely in July — as rumors swirl that the popular prime minister will combine that vote with a snap general election.
With his trade war against China getting bogged down, Trump won’t want to rock the boat for his closest Asian ally.
Top Japanese and American trade negotiators spent more than two hours locked in talks on Saturday night but failed to achieve a breakthrough, although the Japanese side said there was more “understanding” between the two sides.

Loving Chairman Kim
On North Korea, Trump appeared to undercut his own national security adviser, the hawkish John Bolton, by downplaying two recent short-range missile tests by Kim which raised tensions in the region.
“North Korea fired off some small weapons, which disturbed some of my people, and others, but not me,” Trump tweeted.
“I have confidence that Chairman Kim will keep his promise to me.”
Before Trump landed in Tokyo, Bolton had told reporters there was “no doubt” that the launches contravened UN Security Council resolutions, the first time a senior US administration official has said this.
The issue is bound to come up as the leaders meet families of people abducted by North Korea during the Cold War era to train Pyongyang’s spies, an emotive issue in Japan that Abe has pressed Trump to raise in talks with Kim.
The nationalist Abe himself has frequently offered to meet Kim to solve the “abductee problem,” as it is known in Japan.
On Tuesday, Trump is expected to address troops at a US base in Japan, highlighting the military alliance between the two allies.
His visit there will underline another big US priority — arms sales to Japan, which is considering revamping its air force with advanced US F-35 warplanes.