By Andy Dabilis
In the heat of the economic crisis and extremist groups appealing to a disenchanted populace, Greeks go to the polls on Sunday (May 6th) for the country’s most critical elections since the fall of a military junta in 1974.
Fearful of rising anger over austerity measures demanded by international lenders in return for two bailouts totaling 239 billion euros, most Greek politicians have mostly stuck to giving speeches to party faithful without venturing into the streets.
They are concerned about being harangued or assaulted, as some politicians have been, the targets of verbal brickbats, eggs, yogurt and other objects. Political groups opposed to the pay cuts, tax hikes and slashed pensions demanded by the EU-IMF-ECB Troika as a condition of the bailouts have sprung up.
“These are the most uncertain elections since the 1950s,” political analyst George Sefertzis told AFP. “It will be a long election night, and I’m not at all sure about who is going to emerge as the victor.”
Seeing his party’s popularity plummet, New Democracy Conservative leader Antonis Samaras said he would go out for the first time this week to meet the public, while his PASOK Socialist rival, former Finance Minister Evangelos Venizelos, said he’d be meeting the public, too.
Venizelos is planning a risky gambit: a rally outdoors in Syntagma Square across from the parliament on Friday. Unless it’s packed with PASOK followers, the square could be a cauldron of anger.
“I’d try to avoid having an open air speech because people are angry and you don’t know what to expect,” said Antonis Klapsis, head of research for the Konstantinos Karamanlis Institute for Democracy in Athens. “You don’t need to have people throwing eggs and only a few people can cause chaos. The parliament is like a magnet for people who want to make a statement against PASOK, Venizelos and austerity and the Troika.”
Greece has been governed for six months by a shaky coalition that, with the defection of the far Right-Wing LAOS party, is composed of the two long-time ruling parties. New Democracy is leading in the polls with about 20%, while PASOK is at about 14%. In the 2009 elections, the two main parties garnered 80% of the vote.
That means they could be forced to form another coalition with each other or another group, or Greeks may face another snap election.
Polls suggest that as many as ten parties could wind up in parliament.
Kostas Ifantis, an associate professor of International Relations in the Department of Political Science at the University of Athens, said mainstream parties and the offshoots that sprung up missed an opportunity by not campaigning: polls show as many as 40% of PASOK followers are looking to others, including anti-bailout parties.
The neo-Nazi, Fascist Golden Dawn party, which wants all immigrants thrown out of Greece, has stepped into a political vacuum and could gain as many as ten seats in the new parliament.
Klapsis said that while politicians were avoiding the limelight, Golden Dawn is going where Greeks gather.
“They’re getting support from people who wouldn’t have supported them in other elections, who are saying ‘They are the only people interested in us,'” he told SETimes.
Whoever wins will face the daunting prospect of trying to rule a bitterly divided country and will have few resources to deal with the continuing crisis. The Troika has said Greece must find 12 billion euros in revenues or make more cuts.
Samaras said that if he wins, he will try to renegotiate the terms, but the Troika has warned any attempt to tinker with reforms would lead to the money pipeline being shut off. Venizelos vowed he’s done taxing Greeks but that he would adhere to Troika demands that could include more taxes. Both promised to create jobs and growth.
The elections will be closely-watched in Europe, amid fears that a stalemate could force Greece out of the eurozone and jeopardise the economic bloc.
The confusion and fear is also affecting the voters.
Athens resident Maria Efthymiou, a civil servant nearing retirement, said she felt lured but torn, bitter over pay cuts and a pension that will be slashed, but not wanting her country to fall.
“I agree with them but I feel apprehensive about going back to the drachma,” she told SETimes. “Everything I’ve worked for all these years is going down the drain. I’m trapped in a dilemma.”