Sunday 21 January 2018

Syriza victory in Greece no longer certain — polls

'Syrian refugees have found a far more roundabout way of reaching Europe - heading to the Arctic Circle and entering Norway from Russia by bicycle'

'Syrian refugees have found a far more roundabout way of reaching Europe - heading to the Arctic Circle and entering Norway from Russia by bicycle'
'Syrian refugees have found a far more roundabout way of reaching Europe - heading to the Arctic Circle and entering Norway from Russia by bicycle' Newsdesk Newsdesk

Former Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras's leftist Syriza party said on Thursday it remained confident of winning an outright victory in a September 20 election despite an opinion poll that showed its main conservative rival edging ahead.

Just a few weeks ago, a Syriza victory in the snap election had appeared almost certain as Greeks lauded the charismatic and youthful Tsipras for waging a bruising battle against European and International Monetary Fund creditors over austerity cuts.

But opinion polls over the past week have shown the New Democracy party run by Evangelos Meimarakis catching up quickly, with one showing it even overtaking Syriza, suggesting a surprisingly tight contest.

The poll also showed Syriza set to win 25pc of votes, just behind New Democracy on 25.3pc. More than one in 10 voters remained undecided, meaning the final outcome is far from certain.

A separate poll by Pulse, published on Thursday, showed Syriza clinging to a slender lead of 25.5pc against New Democracy's 25pc.

Some Syrian refugees have found a cheaper, safer, though much more roundabout way of reaching Europe than crossing the Mediterranean - heading to the Arctic Circle and entering Norway from Russia, sometimes even by bicycle.

As world attention focuses on migrants cramming into trains in Hungary or on to flimsy boats headed for Greece or Italy, Norwegian police said about 170, mostly Syrian, refugees have used the Storskog border crossing in the far north of Norway so far this year, up from just a dozen in all of 2014.

Warm relations between Moscow and Damascus mean that it is relatively easy for Syrians to get visas for Russia. From there they move on to Norway, one of the world's richest nations and a member of Europe's passport-free 'Schengen area', though not of the European Union.

Russian laws bar anyone from going on foot to the frontier and it is illegal under Norwegian law to willingly give a lift to people without proper identity papers, prompting some refugees to cover the final stretch by bicycle.

"Cycling is permitted under the Russian rules," said Hans Moellebakken, police chief in the nearby Norwegian town of Kirkenes. "Most [coming across] have been individuals but there have been some families."

Refugees who seek asylum in Norway are flown to Oslo for registration before their applications are considered, meaning they have to leave behind their bicycles, often brand new.

Police have a store of about 40 bikes at the border, Moellebakken said, many of them bought in an unexpected sales boom for a shop in the nearby Russian mining town of Nikel.

Spain will probably hold national elections on December 20, prime minister Mariano Rajoy said on Thursday, leaving him fewer than four months to persuade Spaniards that an economic recovery is good enough to warrant giving him a second term in office.

"Once the budget is approved ... I will call elections ... They will be in December," Rajoy said in an interview with COPE radio. Elections are due by year-end.

Pressing for the exact date, the journalist asked if he could conclude from the interview that the most likely date for the election was December 20.

Rajoy replied: "Use the headline you said: 'The most likely thing is that Spain will hold elections on December 20'."

His centre-right People's Party's hold on power has been loosened not only by its mainstream rival, the Socialists, but also from two newcomers, business-friendly Ciudadanos and left-wing Podemos, which have proved attractive to voters still struggling in the aftermath of economic crisis and what many view as a corruption-tainted establishment.

A strong economic turnaround, which is set to make Spain one of Europe's fastest-growing economies this year, has seen Rajoy's party extend its lead in the polls.

But it remains well short of an absolute majority and the question for many Spaniards is whether the improving economy is filtering down to their daily lives. Unemployment is falling but remains above 20pc.

In the interview, Rajoy also reiterated his implacable opposition to Catalan independence, saying: "Catalan independence will never happen. It's nonsense."

Catalan President Arturo Mas has scheduled regional elections for September 27, portraying them as a proxy vote on independence after Rajoy's government went to court last year to block a referendum on the north-eastern region breaking away from Spain.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel's popularity has dropped abruptly over her handling of Europe's refugee crisis, a poll for ARD television network showed.

Merkel, who was criticised for being slow to condemn violent protests against refugees in an east-German town last month, saw her approval ratings slip by four points from the previous month to 63pc in the Infratest Dimap survey.

Although she remains very popular at home, it was an unusually steep one-month drop in a survey that normally moves by just a point or two each month. It was the lowest support rating for Merkel since December 2012.

Foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, a leading Social Democrat (SPD), remained the most popular politician with an approval rating of 72pc, while support for finance minister Wolfgang Schaeuble was at 69pc. More than half of those surveyed were unhappy with how Merkel had acted in the refugee crisis, which she has described as a bigger challenge for Europe than the Greek debt crisis.

Sixty-one infants have died at an Indian children's hospital in just two weeks, sparking protests and forcing the state government to launch an investigation. The deaths highlight the challenges faced in India's underfunded public health system, where successive governments have failed to address the acute shortage of staff and clinics.

Those problems are compounded by the stark poverty and poor sanitary conditions in many villages. Cases of shoddy medical treatment are also regularly reported throughout the country. A criminal probe was under way.

Sunday Independent

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