Out of bailout spotlight, Greeks feeling recovery pains at election

Out of bailout spotlight, Greeks feeling recovery pains at election
Greece's Prime Minister and New Democracy leader Kyriakos Mitsotakis is seeking a second term. (AP)
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Updated 19 May 2023
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Out of bailout spotlight, Greeks feeling recovery pains at election

Out of bailout spotlight, Greeks feeling recovery pains at election
  • Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis is seeking a second term
  • Observers expect a second election in July when the voting system will favor a winning party with a seat bonus in parliament

ATHENS: For the first time in more than a decade, Greeks will go to the polls Sunday to elect a leader no longer confined to steering the country’s economy from a back seat.
Conservative Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis is seeking a second term after a draconian regime of spending controls ordered by international bailout lenders ended last summer.
The clean-cut Harvard graduate, as comfortable speaking in English as his native Greek, delivered unexpectedly high growth, a steep drop in unemployment and a country on the brink of returning to investment grade on the global bond market.
Debts to the International Monetary Fund were paid off early.
A landslide reelection for the 55-year-old Mitsotakis was once seen as a foregone conclusion. But his center-right New Democracy party could struggle to return to power as Greece’s voters and political parties emerge from a prolonged battle for survival.
On an unseasonably hot day in central Athens, taxi driver Christina Messari waited patiently in start-stop traffic near Greece’s parliament, where tourists wheel bags around giant crimson banners set up by the Greek Communist Party for its main election rally.
“The last four years have been like looking at a heart monitor: Up then down … when business improves, prices go up, so you stay in the same place,” the 49-year-old said.
European governments and the IMF pumped 280 billion euros ($300 billion) into the Greek economy between 2010 and 2018 to prevent the eurozone member from going bankrupt. In return, they demanded punishing cost-cutting measures and reforms.
A severe recession and years of emergency borrowing left Greece with a whopping national debt that reached 400 billion euros last December and hammered household incomes that will likely need another decade to recover.
Left exhausted after the bailout-era political and economic turmoil, ordinary Greeks sank into private debt, low wages and job insecurity.
Messari lost her bakery business during the crisis before joining her husband as a cab driver. During pandemic lockdowns, they switched to parcel delivery to make ends meet.
“I think things have to change so that people can live with some dignity and not just work to cover their basic expenses and pay taxes,” she said.
Mitsotakis lost a long-standing double-digit lead in opinion polls following a Feb. 28 rail disaster that killed 57 people, many of them university students ‒ battering the government narrative of acting as business-oriented modernizers.
A passenger train slammed into an oncoming freight carrier mistakenly placed on the same track in northern Greece. Train stations, it was later revealed, were poorly staffed and safety infrastructure broken and outdated.
The European Parliament is also investigating a murky surveillance scandal after prominent Greek politicians and journalists discovered spyware on their phones. The revelations deepened mistrust among the country’s political parties at a time when consensus may be badly needed.
Six political parties are set to gain national representation, ranging from NATO-skeptic nationalists to a Communist Party vocal in its admiration of the Soviet Union 32 years after its collapse.
The far-right Greeks Party, founded by a jailed former lawmaker with a history of neo-Nazi activity, was banned from participating by the Supreme Court.
Leading the opposition is 48-year-old Alexis Tsipras, a former prime minister and the firebrand leader of the left-wing Syriza party. His campaign has focused heavily on the rail disaster and wiretapping scandal.
Opinion polls indicate that Sunday’s election won’t produce an outright winner under a newly introduced system of proportional representation. A second election in early July may be needed, when the system would revert to one that favors the winning party with a seat-bonus in parliament.
Even then, current polling data suggests Mitsotakis may be forced into a coalition, with the once-powerful socialist Pasok party — that almost disappeared during the crisis — potentially holding the balance of power.
“We don’t have a consensus culture in our political system, it’s more zero-sum: If you lose, I win,” says Thodoris Georgakopoulos, editorial director of diaNEOsis, an independent think tank in Athens.
Greece, he argued, has a rare opportunity to forge bipartisan decision-making, with the three largest political parties, New Democracy, Syriza and Pasok, all publicly committed to fiscal responsibility and deeper European Union integration.
A grace period of relatively low annual repayment bills for bailout loans will last another 10 years, he said: “By then, we must have figured out a new productive model for the country.”
He added: “Many of our most important reforms have been left till last, in the justice system, education and the health sector, because they will be the most difficult. The challenge in these elections will be to find the consensus needed among the country’s political forces so that these very difficult reforms can be carried out.”
More than 9.8 million Greeks are eligible to vote in Sunday’s general election for 300 lawmakers in the unicameral parliament who serve a four-year term. The voting age will be lowered to 17 for the first time, while in another first, Greek citizens living abroad will also be allowed to vote in their country of residence.
Polls at 22,000 voting precincts will open at 7 a.m. (0400 GMT) and remain open for 12 hours. The Interior Ministry estimates that 80% of the vote will be counted by 10 p.m.


UK’s Cameron urges Israel not to retaliate against Iran, France calls to avoid ‘conflagration’

UK’s Cameron urges Israel not to retaliate against Iran, France calls to avoid ‘conflagration’
Updated 56 min 9 sec ago
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UK’s Cameron urges Israel not to retaliate against Iran, France calls to avoid ‘conflagration’

UK’s Cameron urges Israel not to retaliate against Iran, France calls to avoid ‘conflagration’
  • The strike by more than 300 missiles and drones from Iran caused only modest damage in Israel

LONDON: British Foreign Secretary David Cameron urged Israel not to retaliate after Iran’s drone and missile attack, saying it should “think with head as well as heart” because Tehran’s strike had been a near total failure.
The strike by more than 300 missiles and drones from Iran caused only modest damage in Israel as most were shot down by its Iron Dome defense system and with help from the US, Britain, France and Jordan. It followed a suspected Israeli airstrike on Iran’s embassy compound in Syria on April 1.
“I think they’re perfectly justified to think they should respond because they have been attacked, but we are urging them as friends to think with head as well as heart, to be smart as well as tough,” Cameron told BBC TV.
He said he was urging Israel not to escalate the tensions in the Middle East.
“In many ways this has been a double defeat for Iran. The attack was an almost total failure, and they revealed to the world that they are the malign influence in the region prepared to do this. So our hope is that there won’t be a retaliatory response,” he told Sky News.
Cameron said Britain would also work with allies to look at imposing more sanctions on Iran, and it urged Israel to return its focus on agreeing a ceasefire with Iran-backed Hamas in the Gaza war.
Macron says will do everything to avoid Middle East ‘conflagration’
President Emmanuel Macron said Monday that France would help do everything to avoid an escalation in the Middle East.
Iran launched its first-ever direct assault on Israeli territory late Saturday in retaliation for a deadly April 1 air strike on Tehran’s consulate building in Syria’s capital Damascus that was widely blamed on Israel.
“We will do everything to avoid a conflagration that is to say an escalation,” he told the BFMTV news channel.
French jets helped repel an Iranian violation of Jordan’s air space, Macron added.
“For several years now we have had an air base in Jordan to fight terrorism,” he said.
“Jordanian airspace was violated... We made our planes take off and we intercepted what we had to intercept.”
Experts say Israel was able to neutralize most of the missiles and drones.
French Foreign Minister Stephane Sejourne on Sunday said he had asked the foreign ministry to summon the Iranian ambassador on Monday to express a “message of firmness.”


Marcos rules out giving US access to more Philippine military bases

Marcos rules out giving US access to more Philippine military bases
Updated 15 April 2024
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Marcos rules out giving US access to more Philippine military bases

Marcos rules out giving US access to more Philippine military bases
  • Marcos also said the trilateral agreement signed between his country and the US and Japan was not directed at anyone

MANILA: Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos said Monday the United States would not be given access to more Philippine military bases.
“The answer to that is no. The Philippines has no plan to open or to establish more EDCA bases,” Marcos said in response to a question.
Manila last year announced the locations of four more military bases it is allowing the US military to use on top of the five agreed on under the 2014 Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement, known as EDCA.
The deal allows US troops to rotate through and store defense equipment and supplies.
The four additional bases include sites near the hotly disputed South China Sea and another not far from Taiwan.
Marcos made his remarks during a forum with the Foreign Correspondents Association of the Philippines that was attended by members of the Philippine military and foreign diplomats.
Marcos also said the trilateral agreement signed between his country and the United States and Japan was not directed at anyone, but merely a strengthening of relations between the three.
Marcos met with US President Joe Biden and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida in the nations’ first trilateral summit in Washington last week.
A death of a Filipino soldier in the South China Sea could be grounds to invoke a mutual defense treaty with the United States, Marcos told foreign correspondents in Manila.


Australian police say Sydney knife attacker may have targeted women

Australian police say Sydney knife attacker may have targeted women
Updated 15 April 2024
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Australian police say Sydney knife attacker may have targeted women

Australian police say Sydney knife attacker may have targeted women
  • Five of six people killed and majority of 12 injured in Saturday’s attack in Sydeny were women
  • Australian Police say suspect Joel Cauchi, 40, suffered from mental health issues in the past

SYDNEY: Australian police said on Monday the attacker who fatally stabbed six people at a busy shopping center in Sydney’s beach suburb of Bondi may have targeted women, as the country mourned the victims and hundreds of people laid flowers near the scene.

In the attack on Saturday at the Westfield Bondi Junction mall, five of the six people killed and the majority of the 12 injured were women.

“It’s obvious to me, it’s obvious to detectives that seems to be an area of interest that the offender had focused on women and avoided the men,” New South Wales State Police Commissioner Karen Webb told the Australian Broadcasting Corp.

“The videos speak for themselves, don’t they? That’s certainly a line for inquiry for us.”

Witnesses described how attacker Joel Cauchi, 40, wearing shorts and an Australian national rugby league jersey, ran through the mall with a knife. He was killed by Inspector Amy Scott, who confronted him solo while he was on the rampage.

Police have said Cauchi had mental health issues in the past and there was no indication ideology was a motive.

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said “the gender breakdown ... was concerning” when asked on ABC Radio if it was a gender-motivated attack.

The only man who was killed during the attack was a 30-year-old security guard at the mall, Faraz Tahir, who arrived in Australia last year as a refugee from Pakistan, according to a statement from the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community of Australia, to which he belonged.

The New South Wales government said it would give A$18 million ($12 million) for an independent coronial inquest into the attack but Premier Chris Minns ruled out any change in rules that would allow private security guards to carry firearms.

DAY OF MOURNING

Thousands of flowers and wreaths lay in a makeshift memorial outside the beachside mall in Bondi on Monday as hundreds of Sydney residents came down to pay tributes.

“It’s shocking something like this could happen so close to home,” said Wren Wyatt, who paid respects at the memorial.

“I’m still trying to get back to everyday life. I’ve taken today off to try and get my head better,” she added.

Wyatt said she was walking past the mall on Saturday when a crowd rushed past her screaming and security told her to flee.

Police said they had finished taking physical evidence at the mall and began allowing people inside to collect cars and other belongings.

Violent crimes such as Saturday’s stabbing are rare in the country of about 27 million people, which has some of the world’s toughest gun and knife laws.

The Australian national flag is flying at half-mast across the country, including at the Parliament House and Sydney’s Harbor Bridge, in honor of the victims. Sydney Opera House’s sails will be lit with a black ribbon on Monday evening.

Chinese state TV reported on Sunday that one Chinese citizen was among those who had died in the attack, without revealing the identity of the victim, adding that another Chinese citizen had been injured. 

($1 = 1.5437 Australian dollars)


In Modi’s India, opponents and journalists feel the squeeze ahead of election

In Modi’s India, opponents and journalists feel the squeeze ahead of election
Updated 15 April 2024
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In Modi’s India, opponents and journalists feel the squeeze ahead of election

In Modi’s India, opponents and journalists feel the squeeze ahead of election
  • India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party has brought corruption charges against many officials from its main rival
  • Under Modi’s rule, peaceful protests have been crushed with force while a once-free press is threatened

NEW DELHI: Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his government are increasingly wielding strong-arm tactics to subdue political opponents and critics of the ruling Hindu-nationalist party.

A decade into power, and on the cusp of securing five more years, the Modi government is reversing India’s decadeslong commitment to multiparty democracy and secularism.

The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party has brought corruption charges against many officials from its main rival, the Congress Party, but few convictions. Dozens of politicians from other opposition parties are under investigation or in jail. And just last month, Modi’s government froze the Congress party’s bank accounts for what it said was non-payment of taxes.

The Modi administration says the country’s investigating agencies are independent and that its democratic institutions are robust, pointing to high voter turnout in recent elections that have delivered Modi’s party a clear mandate.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, left, and the president of the Bharatiya Janata Party, Amit Shah, in New Delhi, India, on April 8, 2019. (AP/File)

Yet civil liberties are under attack. Peaceful protests have been crushed with force. A once free and diverse press is threatened. Violence is on the rise against the Muslim minority. And the country’s judiciary increasingly aligns with the executive branch.

To better understand how Modi is reshaping India and what is at stake in an election that begins April 19 and runs through June 1, the AP spoke with a lawyer, a journalist, and an opposition politician.

Here are their stories:

DEFENDING MODI’S CRITICS

Mihir Desai has fought for the civil liberties and human rights of India’s most disadvantaged communities, such as the poor and Muslims, for nearly four decades.

The 65-year-old lawyer from India’s financial capital Mumbai is now working on one of his – and the country’s – most high-profile cases: defending a dozen political activists, journalists and lawyers jailed in 2018 on accusations of plotting to overthrow the Modi government. The accusations, he says, are baseless – just one of the government’s all-too-frequent and audacious efforts to silence critics.

One of the defendants in the case, a Jesuit priest and longtime civil rights activist, died at age 84 after about nine months in custody. The other defendants remain in jail, charged under anti-terror laws that rarely result in convictions.

“First authorities came up with a theory that they planned to kill Modi. Now they are being accused of being terrorist sympathizers,” he said.

Lawyer Mihir Desai poses for a photograph at his office in Mumbai, India, on April 3, 2024. (AP)

The point of it all, Desai believes, is to send a message to any would-be critics.

According to digital forensics experts at US-based Arsenal Consulting, the Indian government hacked into the computers of some of the accused and planted files that were later used as evidence against them.

To Desai, this is proof that the Modi government has “weaponized” the country’s once-independent investigative agencies.

He sees threats to Indian democracy all around him. Last year, the government removed the country’s chief justice as one of three people who appoint commissioners overseeing elections; Modi and the opposition leader in parliament are the others. Now, one of Modi’s cabinet ministers has a vote in the process, giving the ruling party a 2-1 majority.

“It’s a death knell to free and fair elections,” Desai said.

A POLITICIAN’S PLIGHT IN KASHMIR

Waheed-Ur-Rehman Para, 35, was long seen as an ally in the Indian government’s interests in Kashmir. He worked with young people in the majority-Muslim, semi-autonomous region and preached to them about the benefits of embracing India and its democratic institutions – versus seeking independence, or a merger with Pakistan.

Beginning in 2018, though, Para was viewed with suspicion by the Modi government for alleged connections to anti-India separatists. Since then, he has been jailed twice: in 2019 on suspicion that he and other political opponents could stoke unrest; and in 2020 on charges of supporting militant groups — charges he denies.

The accusations stunned Para, whose People’s Democratic Party once ruled Kashmir in an alliance with Modi’s party.

But he believes the motivation was clear: “I was arrested to forcibly endorse the government’s 2019 decision,” he said, referring to a clampdown on the resistance in Kashmir after the elimination of the region’s semi-autonomous status.

Modi’s administration argues the move was necessary to fully integrate the disputed region with India and foster economic development there.

After his 2020 arrest, Para remained in jail for nearly two years, often in solitary confinement, and was subjected to “abusive interrogations,’’ according to UN experts.
“My crime was that I wanted the integration of Kashmir, not through the barrel of the gun,” said Para, who is seeking to represent Kashmir’s main city in the upcoming election.

Para sees his own plight within the larger context of the Modi government’s effort to silence perceived opponents, especially those with ties to Muslims, who make up 14 percent of India’s population.

“It is a huge ethical question … that the largest democracy in the world is not able to assimilate, or offer dignity to, the smallest pocket of its people,” he said.

The campaign to turn once-secular India into a Hindu republic may help Modi win elections in the short term, Para said, but something much bigger will be lost.

“It risks the whole idea of this country’s diversity,” he said.

A JOURNALIST FIGHTS CHARGES

In October 2020, independent journalist Sidheeq Kappan was arrested while trying to report on a government clampdown in the northern Uttar Pradesh state ruled by Modi’s party.

For days, authorities had been struggling to contain protests and outcry over a gruesome rape case. Those accused of the crime were four upper caste Hindu men, while the victim belonged to the Dalit community, the lowest rung of India’s caste hierarchy.

Kappan, a 44-year-old Muslim, was detained and jailed before he even reached the crime site, accused of intending to incite violence. After two years in jail, his case reached India’s top court in 2022. While he was quickly granted bail, the case against him is ongoing.

Kappan’s case is not unique, and he says it highlights how India is becoming increasingly unsafe for journalists. Under intense pressure from the state, many Indian news organizations have become more pliant and supportive of government policies,

“Those who have tried to be independent have come under relentless attack by the government,” he said.

Foreign journalists are banned from reporting in Kashmir, for example. Same goes for India’s northeast Manipur state, which has been embroiled in ethnic violence for almost a year.

Television news is increasingly dominated by stations touting the government’s Hindu nationalist agenda, such as a new citizenship law that excludes Muslim migrants.
 Independent TV stations have been temporarily shut down, and newspapers that run articles critical of Modi’s agenda find that any advertising from the government – an important source of revenue – quickly dries up.

Last year, the India offices of the BBC were raided on tax irregularities just days after it aired a documentary critical of Modi.

The advocacy group Reporters Without Borders ranks India 161st on a worldwide list of countries’ press freedoms.

Kappan said he has barely been able to report news since his arrest. The trial keeps him busy, requiring him to travel to a court hundreds of miles away every other week. The time and money required for his trial have made it difficult for him to support his wife and three children, Kappan said.

“It is affecting their education, their mental health,” he said.


Landslides hit Indonesia’s Sulawesi island, killing at least 18 people

Landslides hit Indonesia’s Sulawesi island, killing at least 18 people
Updated 15 April 2024
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Landslides hit Indonesia’s Sulawesi island, killing at least 18 people

Landslides hit Indonesia’s Sulawesi island, killing at least 18 people
  • Loosened by torrential rain, mud poured from surrounding hills onto four houses just before midnight Saturday in the Tana Toraja district of South Sulawesi province

TANA TORAJA, Indonesia: A search and rescue team found 18 people killed by landslides on Indonesia’s Sulawesi island and are still looking for two missing, officials said Monday.
Rescuers found about 14 bodies in Makale village on Sunday afternoon and four in South Makale, said Mexianus Bekabel, the chief of Makassar Search and Rescue.
“We are still looking for two more victims, but fog and drizzle made the search difficult and officers in the field were overwhelmed,” Sulaiman Malia, chief of the Tana Toraja district Disaster Management Agency, said on Monday.
Loosened by torrential rain, mud poured from surrounding hills onto four houses just before midnight Saturday in the Tana Toraja district of South Sulawesi province, said local police chief Gunardi Mundu. He said a family gathering was being held in one of the houses when the landslide hit.
Dozens of soldiers, police and volunteers joined the search in the remote hillside villages of Makale and South Makale, Mundu said. Rescuers early Sunday managed to pull out two injured people, including an 8-year-old girl, and rushed them to a nearby hospital.
Downed communications lines, bad weather and unstable soil were hampering the rescue efforts, Muhari said.
Tana Toraja has many popular tourist attractions, including a traditional houses and wooden statues of bodies buried in caves, known as tau-tau.
Seasonal downpours cause frequent landslides and floods in Indonesia, a chain of 17,000 islands where millions of people live in mountainous areas or fertile flood plains.