ATHENS – PASOK Socialist leader Evangelos Venizelos, whose party is floundering in the polls, said if elected Prime Minister in the May 6 elections he would push international lenders who have imposed austerity measures on Greece that he supported as Finance Minister to give the country an extra year to meet its fiscal targets. In his first speech on the campaign trail, Venizelos, who doubled income and property taxes and taxed the poor, said Greece needs more time, although he earlier said he would adhere to the demands of the European Union-International Monetary Fund-European Central Bank (EU-IMF-ECB) Troika which is putting up $325 billion in two bailouts to rescue Greece. Those include more pay cuts, tax hikes, slashed pensions and the firing of 150,000 state workers.
Venizelos’s address came moments after IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde stressed the importance of Greece implementing the fiscal adjustment program it had agreed with its lenders as part of the country’s second bailout, putting his plans at odds with hers. The Troika has said it would stop the money pipeline if a new Prime Minister, who will replace former ECB Vice-President Lucas Papademos’ government of PASOK and its bitter rival New Democracy Conservatives, tries to stall or change the conditions.
Speaking at an indoor arena in the Athens neighborhood of Nea Smyrni, Venizelos slammed the so-called “anti-memorandum” parties, which oppose the terms of Greece’s new bailout. He also said that if PASOK is part of a coalition government after the elections, he would attempt to convince the EU and the IMF to give the country more time to meet the conditions of the new loan agreement.
“In June, Greece has to decide which measures it will implement to reduce spending by 11 billion euros ($14.4 billion) by the end of the adjustment period,” he told PASOK supporters. “It falls upon us to decide this and we propose that the country push for something it can achieve easily: adjustment not over two years until 2014 but over three years, until 2015. The adjustment should be softer, more friendly for citizens and more friendly on growth,” he said, hoping to deflect anger against the harsh measures he put on Greeks.
PASOK and New Democracy are facing unprecedented challenges and trying to fend off anti-bailout parties and the rise of extremists such as the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party, which is on track to win seats in Parliament by capitalizing on anti-immigration issues and public ire over the austerity measures. Venizelos supported former Prime Minister George Papandreou to the hilt, but now he is trying to distance himself from the austerity measures Papandreou imposed as a condition of international rescue loans, saying he really opposed them. Speaking on Mega TV, Venizelos, whose party is floundering badly, said he didn’t agree with Papandreou’s decision two years ago to ask the IMF for a bailout.
Venizelos said he felt the government should have drawn up its own measures to counter the country’s debt problem but didn’t say what he thought they should have been when he was Finance Minister, doubling income and property taxes and taxed the poor. He praised Papandreou for stepping down as Prime Minister last November in the face of incessant protests, strikes and riots and for handing the party over to him, saying it showed “unprecedented” responsibility. Venizelos, who has long sought to be Prime Minister, accused Samaras, who he is trailing in the polls, of being fixated on becoming premier. “I do not feel that history owes it to me to make me prime minister,” he said although he is running for that office.
While both PASOK and New Democracy, who are sharing power in a shaky hybrid government, support the pay cuts, tax hikes, and slashed pensions as continuing measures that came with a second bailout of $173 billion, Venizelos said he now wants to help businesses. Some 111,000 businesses have closed on his watch because of the austerity measures that worsened a deep recession and created 21.8 percent unemployment. He also said he wants to help Greek households crushed by debt and being hounded by banks to pay back all they owe while the government has imposed 74 percent losses on banks as part of a Public Sector Involvement (PSI) program forced on investors.
He proposed that banks reduce the interest rate for loans to businesses and maintain adequate borrowing limits for companies that are creditworthy. He also pledged measures to speed up the payment of money owed to businesses by the state, as well as Value-Added Tax (VAT) returns of nearly $10 billion.