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Greece's Critical Election Campaign Set to Kick Off

ATHENS – With only three weeks to woo voters before the May 6 election, Greece’s political parties will try to rally support beginning this week in a campaign to elect a new Prime Minister and government amid rising anger over austerity measures and a suddenly hot new issue: getting rid of immigrants. The two dominant parties, the PASOK Socialists and New Democracy Conservatives, have seen their combined support fall from more than 80 percent to 33 percent. The fall was a result of them both supporting pay cuts, tax hikes, and slash of pensions that have plunged the country into a deep recession of 21.8 percent unemployment and led to the closing of more than 111,000 businesses, with more shutting their doors every day.
The political vacuum is being filled by parties opposed to the austerity measures that were conditions of two bailouts from the Troika of the European Union-International Monetary Fund-European Central Bank (EU-IMF-ECB), the first for $152 billion and a second recently agreed deal for $173 billion. Voters are fleeing PASOK and New Democracy in favor of anti-bailout groups, including those formed by former Members of Parliament kicked out of the major parties for voting against austerity.
And a new phenomenon has appeared: far Right-Wing parties such as the neo-Nazi Fascist Golden Dawn. The party is gaining support rapidly on a platform of ridding Greece of unlawful immigrants blamed for crime and the degradation of the city’s center where they have congregated with little attempt by police to stop open drug dealing and crime. A recent crackdown was made by Public Order Minister Michalis Chrysochoidis, a PASOK member serving in a shaky hybrid government that also includes New Democracy and is presided over by interim Prime Minister Lucas Papademos, a former ECB Vice-President who engineered the second bailout but is set to leave as an unpopular temporary ruler.
Seeing the fervor over anti-immigrant agendas, PASOK and New Democracy have jumped on the bandwagon with Conservative leader Antonis Samaras saying he, too, wants unlawful immigrants out of the country. Greece has complained that the European Union has done too little to help curb waves of immigrants and asylum seekers entering Greece, a gateway to Europe, a problem that has overwhelmed the capacity of the government to deal with it.
But austerity remains the hot topic, and PASOK and New Democracy find themselves shackled with the mantle of being the water-carriers for the Troika. They are also being blamed by Greeks for imposing the austerity measures that have impoverished many, and created desperate spectacles such as the suicide in Syntagma Square across from the Parliament of a 77-year-old retired pharmacist who wrote that his pension had been cut to the point where he feared he would have to scrounge through garbage for food. The campaign will be conducted mostly through advertisements as politicians are afraid to come out on the streets; many have been assaulted with everything from yogurt to eggs, so there will be little of the American-style “pressing the flesh” handshaking and public appearances, although some political leaders have scheduled rallies.
Polls show as many as eight or nine parties could gain seats in a new Parliament, creating the likelihood of another fractured coalition government in which New Democracy and PASOK seem set to finish 1-2 despite their overall unpopularity. They would either have to deal with each other despite being bitter ideological rivals – like Republicans and Democrats in the United States sharing power in the White House – or another election would have to be called.
Samaras is at odds with PASOK leader Evangelos Venizelos, the former Finance Minister who doubled income and property taxes and taxed the poor. The two leaders are neck-and-neck in polls as to who should be Prime Minister, showing that the parties still command enough of a hard core of party loyalists to partially nullify the rising support of other parties, such as Independent Greeks, formed by Panos Kammenos, a New Democracy outcast, and the Democratic Left, a PASOK offshoot. Communist party leader Aleka Papariga is calling on Greeks to vote en masse for her party, although she has reportedly said she doesn’t want to rule and won’t work with any coalition.
Samaras, who is giving contradictory signals, has rejected a coalition. Reports have emerged that PASOK might be willing to accept New Democracy’s Vice-President, former European Commission and Wall Street banker Stavros Dimas as a compromise Prime Minister, which would deny Samaras the seat he covets. Whoever wins will face another challenge: the Troika has demanded the new government adhere to austerity and implement more reforms, such as privatizing state enterprises and selling or leasing state-owned properties and find ways to raise revenues or make another $15 billion in cuts.
Samaras opposed austerity when former PASOK leader George Papandreou was Prime Minister before resigning on Nov. 11, 2011 following incessant protests, riots and strikes against the pay cuts, tax hikes and slashed pensions, but accepted them to be part of the current coalition. He now says he opposes them again and would try to renegotiate them. He also said he would follow them “to the letter,” then later stated he wants to reduce taxes and raise pensions although the Troika said the money pipeline would be shut off, showing how critical the election is. Papademos said Greeks either have to accept their fate of more austerity or Greece could be forced out of the Eurozone and face an economic catastrophe, although critics said that has already happened and nothing could be worse.
(Sources: Kathimerini, New York Times)


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