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Samaras, Venizelos Start Election Campaign Early

New PASOK leader Evangelos Venizelos (R) has his sights set on knocking off New Democracy's Antonis Samara s for Prime Minister

ATHENS – The date of the general election to choose a new Prime Minister will be announced next week, government officials said, but new PASOK Socialist party leader Evangelos Venizelos and his bitter rival New Democracy Conservative leader Antonis Samaras have already started jockeying for the position, even as polls show both major parties have sunk to record low support as Greeks, angry over their support for austerity measures, are turning to other political parties.
Venizelos, who stepped down as Finance Minister – a tenure during which he doubled income and property taxes and taxed the poor, is trying to pick up the pieces of a shattered party which has fallen from 44 percent support after the last election in 2009 which brought his predecessor, George Papandreou, to power, to 11 percent.
Venizelos succeeded Papandreou on March 18, who resigned four months ago after incessant protests against the pay cuts, tax hikes, slashed pensions, and the coming firing of 150,000 public workers. It was a sweet moment for Venizelos, a Constitutional lawyer, who five years ago was crushed by Papandreou in an attempt to take over the party leadership, but the glow may not last long as Greeks are furious and more strikes and protests loom, along with the prospect of a fractured coalition government after elections as record numbers of voters said they don’t want to bring back the parties that put austerity on them.
With Samaras’ support hovering around 30 percent, the prospect of another coalition government looms to replace the hybrid administration of PASOK-ND being led by interim Prime Minister Lucas Papademos, a former European Central Bank (ECB) Vice-President. They agreed to implement more punishing measures on Greeks, including the end of collective bargaining and cutting the minimum wage by 22 percent – 32 percent for those under 25 – in return for a second bailout of $172 billion after a first ongoing series of $152 billion in emergency loans failed to slow the country’s slide toward default. The Troika of the European Union-International Monetary Fund-ECB has said Greece will still need to slash another $15 billion in public spending in 2013-14, tying the hands of whoever is elected, and said it will insist the new Greek government stick to reforms or lose the aid.
A divide emerged immediately after Samaras said he wants to find a way to exclude individual holders of Greek bonds from the 53.5 percent losses on their investments imposed by Venizelos as part of a so-called Private Sector Involvement (PSI) deal to let Greece write down $134 billion in debt and get the second bailout. Venizelos had pledged to hold them unharmed but forced them to lose most of their investments although their holdings were under $134,000, and for most, represented savings they had loaned the country for what he called “patriotic reasons.”
Samaras said the small bondholders should not have been affected, adding that a “realistic solution” must be found to compensate them for their losses, although he didn’t offer one beyond words. “New Democracy has from the very beginning supported the view that private individuals must be excluded from the haircut on bonds,” a party statement said after a meeting of Samaras with representatives of small bondholders. About 11,000 people saw a huge chunk of their investments wiped out by Venizelos. “The private individuals were basically saving their earnings while, at the same time, supporting the country. Unfortunately, they were not excluded (from the PSI)” the statement said.
Venizelos met with Greek President Karolos Papoulias to give his resignation as Finance Minister a day after he got more than 97 percent of the vote from party members, although he was running unopposed. His victory was marred by allegations of vote-rigging across the country. Stefanos Tzoumakas, a former PASOK lawmaker who failed to attract adequate backing to run for the party’s top post, said there was an “unprecedented and extensive election fraud across the country.” He claimed that many polling stations did not provide blank ballots to let disaffected party members register their disapproval of Venizelos and criticized organizers for what he called “a clear violation of confidentiality rules.”
Venizelos turned his attention toward trying to resurrect a party whose Socialist platform was dismantled by Papandreou, whose father, former Prime Minister Andreas Papandreou, founded the party in 1981. “The party proved that its soul is alive,” Venizelos said, despite poll numbers showing it’s barely alive. Earlier, he said that, “We have achieved an exceptional success… and I believe everyone will soon realize that this is the only way to keep the country on its feet and give it a second historic chance that it needs.”
After the meeting with Papoulias, Venizelos told journalists: “We have elections ahead and this morning I had the opportunity in a farewell meeting at the finance ministry to give my last instructions.” Venizelos described the election as “a successful exercise in political readiness,” and pledged to spearhead “a collective effort” to lead his party to “rebirth” and help Greece emerge from a deepening debt crisis.
He said he realized the “discontent and bitterness” of austerity-weary Greeks, although he was responsible for much of it. Trying to soften the impact and reach out to voters, he said, “Already our country is at that crucial stage between the crisis and the now-palpable prospects for emerging from it,” he said.
Samaras earlier said he doesn’t want another coalition, but could be forced into it even if New Democracy wins and gets an automatic 50 extra seats in the 300-member Parliament unless it gets enough votes to hold a majority. Greek disaffection wasn’t lessened, as ferry workers began a two-day strike on March 18, leaving farmers on islands frustrated that their goods won’t get to market on the mainland. “I cannot change things if I need to step on the delicate balance of a ramshackle coalition,” he said, adding that, “I want my hands free so the country can get back to its feet.” It will be difficult, as he said if he wins he will try to renegotiate the terms of the austerity measures he supported after he previously opposed them, but which he said he now opposes again.

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