Slovenia elects new leader amid social tensions

Updated 03 December 2012
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Slovenia elects new leader amid social tensions

LJUBLJANA: Slovenians voted yesterday in a presidential run-off with opinion polls favoring former premier Borut Pahor, despite his support for government austerity plans that have brought thousands of protesters on to the streets.
Pahor, 49, pulled off an upset in the first round on Nov. 11 when he won almost 40 percent of the vote ahead of incumbent President Danilo Turk, 60, with almost 36 percent.
On Sunday, he was expected to win just 60 percent ahead of 40 percent for Turk, according to latest opinion polls published Friday.
Pahor, who is backed by the center left opposition Social Democrats (SD), appeared to have won voters over by admitting that some of his decisions as prime minister were wrong.
Having been ousted after a no-confidence vote in 2011, he has capitalized on his image as a good-looking, relaxed, people’s politician with a US-style campaign for the post of president, a largely ceremonial role.
Turk, who is running as an independent candidate with the backing of the largest center left opposition party, Positive Slovenija (PS), lost most of the candidates’ televised debates, according to commentators.
Analysts said however the results could be impacted by a wave of protests against austerity measures introduced by the center-right government of Prime Minister Janez Jansa aimed at cutting the public deficit this year to 3.5 percent of GDP.
Slovenia, once seen as a star new member of the European Union, is suffering one of the deepest recessions in the eurozone, while problems with its banks have raised fears it may need a bailout.
While Pahor has defended Jansa’s unpopular austerity policies — which include public sector wage reductions and social welfare cuts — Turk’s position has been more in line with the public mood.
“Turk’s victory would be a big surprise... but he still has some chances,” Vlado Miheljak, a political specialist at Ljubljana University, said, adding that he might be able to “ride the wave” of social dissatisfaction.
“People do not want their president to be excessively soft, they want somebody who can point his finger at the government.”
A week after the first-round vote, 30,000 people attended a rally in Ljubljana called by Slovenia’s main unions to protest at the austerity cuts, and several other demonstrations have followed.
On Friday, police in Ljubljana used tear gas and water cannon against demonstrators and detained over 30 people after violence erupted at the end of a largely peaceful rally.
“The government should listen to protesters, it should not try to intimidate them,” Turk said as he voted yesterday.
“This government has been unsuccessful, it is arrogant, and it should make big changes.


“The government has a recession much deeper than they had forecast, it is producing very bad results and it should know that it is responsible for such a situation.” Turk said Sunday he was optimistic of his chances after opinion polls showed him closing the gap on Pahor.
While the Slovenian president has little power, analysts say the prime minister would benefit from collaborating with the head of state — particularly if the opposition and unions succeed in calling referendums to try to prevent the implementation of new austerity or reform measures.
And Pahor would be more effective in “bridging the gap” between government and opposition to lead Slovenia out of the crisis, according to analyst Matevz Tomsic from the Nova Gorica School of Advanced Social Studies faculty.
Pahor said at a candidate debate that there was no other option than belt-tightening.
“We should not lose any more time speculating about possible alternatives,” he said. “We should collaborate without further delaying the important decisions the government has to take.” Some 1.7 million Slovenians are eligible to vote. Polls close at 1800 GMT, with initial results expected later in the evening.


US defense chief Mattis to visit China amid Korea talks

Updated 35 min 28 sec ago
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US defense chief Mattis to visit China amid Korea talks

EIELSON AIR FORCE BASE: US Secretary of Defense James Mattis will make his first visit to China this week amid rising tensions between the two countries but also a deep need for Beijing’s support in nuclear talks with North Korea.
Mattis told reporters Sunday he wants to “take measure” of China’s strategic ambitions after it positioned weaponry on disputed islets in the South China Sea and is seeking to project its military power deep into the Pacific.
But in a four-day trip that will also include South Korea and Japan, the Pentagon chief also hopes to confirm China’s commitment to pressuring North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons, after historic talks between President Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un in Singapore.
The United States, China, Japan and South Korea “have a common goal: the complete, irreversible and verifiable denuclearization of the Korean peninsula,” Mattis said.
In Beijing From Tuesday to Thursday, Mattis will meet with senior Chinese defense officials.
Then he will travel to Seoul for talks with his South Korean counterpart Song Young-moo, followed by a stop Friday in Japan to see defense chief Itsunori Onodera.
Those meetings are aimed at reassuring both allies that Washington’s regional defense commitment remains unchanged after Trump unexpectedly announced on June 12 that the US would suspend a major joint military exercise in South Korea following his meeting with Kim.
The visit to China comes amid bilateral strains that cross multiple sectors. The Trump administration is challenging China on trade, theft of industrial secrets, and cyberthreats.
In the defense sector, China’s decision to position military hardware in built-up atolls in the South China Sea has sparked new security concerns throughout Southeast Asia.
Signaling Washington’s displeasure, in May the Pentagon disinvited China from the 2018 Rim of the Pacific Exercise, in which some two dozen navies train together for mostly civilian missions.
Weeks later at the Shangri-la Dialogue security conference in Singapore, Mattis slammed China for showing contempt of other nations’ interests in the South China Sea.
“Despite China’s claims to the contrary, the placement of these weapon systems is tied directly to military use for the purposes of intimidation and coercion,” Mattis said.
The Chinese, who say the weaponry is only defensive in nature, retorted that Mattis had made “irresponsible comments” that “cannot be accepted.”
Mattis has visited Asia seven times in his 17 months since becoming defense secretary, but not China. He has yet to meet the new Chinese defense minister, Wei Fenghe.
He said the talks in Beijing seek to scope out China’s long-term strategic intentions and determine possible areas of military-to-military cooperation.
He declined to characterize the relationship, saying that could “poison the well” before he meets his counterparts.
“I’m going there to get what I consider to be straight from them what they see for a strategic relationship,” he said. “I’m going there to have a conversation.”
But speaking separately a senior Pentagon official called the United States and China “strategic competitors” and suggested that Washington needs to keep up the pressure over the South China Sea buildup.
The Rimpac disinvite could be “just a first step,” the official said.
Chinese defense ministry spokesman Ren Guoqiang said Mattis was visiting Beijing at Wei’s invitation.
“It is in the common interests of both China and the United States to develop a healthy and stable bilateral military relationship,” Ren said in a statement.
Beijing “hopes that the United States and China will walk toward each other and work together to make the bilateral military relationship an important stabilizing factor in the relationship between the two countries.”
Mattis will also be adding his voice to North Korea talks, urging China to hold firm on commercial pressure on Pyongyang.
He said he has had daily discussions on the talks with the lead US negotiator, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
The senior US defense official said they are hoping to see a concrete outcome, including a timeline for commitments by Pyongyang, “soon.”
Mattis tied the suspension of exercises to the getting concrete results.
“We’ll see if they continuing negotiations keep them that way.”
Mattis meanwhile confirmed that US officials are awaiting the imminent release by Pyongyang of the remains of US servicemen who died in the Korean war in the early 1950s.
Preparations to receive the remains have been made, he said, and “We’re optimistic that it will begin.”