ATHENS – With their parties in a virtual deadlock for first place in the June 17 elections that could decide Greece’s fate, New Democracy leader Antonis Samaras has challenged Coalition of the Radical Left (SYRIZA) head Alexis Tsipras to a television debate that would be a battle between Samaras’ support of austerity measures against Tsipras’ insistence Greece renege on bailout deals from international lenders that came with attached conditions of pay cuts, tax hikes and slashed pensions.
New Democracy won the May 6 elections, but with only 18.8 percent of the vote, little more than 2 percent ahead of the surprising surge of SYRIZA. With the PASOK Socialists a dismal third, no party was able to form a government and coalition talks collapsed, leading to the new elections. Polls show New Democracy and SYRIZA with about 25 percent of the vote each, with PASOK, under new leader Evangelos Venizelos, an almost irrelevant third. New Democracy and PASOK, otherwise ideological rivals, were sharing an uneasy coalition before the last elections and supported austerity, while Tsipras hammered away against it, a position Samaras said could force Greece out of the Eurozone and into complete economic collapse and chaos.
With so much at stake, Samaras wanted to pit himself against the rising Tsipras, a 37-year-old former land surveyor, in a head-to-head contest, and proposed a showdown the week before the elections. The proposal by Samaras was relayed by New Democracy spokesman Yiannis Michelakis during an interview with Vima FM radio station. Sources in SYRIZA’s camp indicated that Tsipras would be open to a debate though it remained unclear whether this would be a head-to-head between Samaras and Tsipras or a debate involving the leaders of all the main parties or both, newspaper Kathimerini reported. If it’s just the two of them, that would relegate Venizelos, regarded as easily the best orator among the three, to a bystander roll.
Samaras, who opposed austerity, then supported it, now says he wants to renegotiate the terms, as does Venizelos, who, as Finance Minister, doubled income and property taxes and taxed the poor and his party paid a price for it, falling from 44 percent in the 2009 elections it won, to just 13.2 percent. PASOK’s spokeswoman Fofi Gennimata issued a statement condemning Samaras for making the overture to Tsipras after having consistently refused a similar invitation from Venizelos to debate him. After the May 6 elections, Samaras, who said he would never work in a coalition, offered to do so again with Venizelos but their combined forces weren’t enough to form a government.
The June 17 elections could also decide whether Greece stays in the Eurozone and keeps the euro or returns to the ancient drachma. The Troika of the European Union-International Monetary Fund-European Central Bank (EU-IMF-ECB) that is putting up $325 billion in two bailouts to rescue Greece has insisted on more austerity and another $15 billion in cuts and said any attempt by the next government to tinker with reforms could lead to the money pipeline being shut off.