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Europe

Tensions high ahead of second Greek vote

On Sunday, the Greeks choose a new parliament for the second time in six weeks. A neck-and-neck race is expected between the center-right pro-European New Democracy party and the radical left Syriza coalition.

If the last election was about the voters teaching the major parties a lesson, this time the central issue for the mainstream parties is the question of whether Greece will remain a member of the eurozone - a dilemma that the leftists reject vehemently.

Surveys suggest that about 75 percent of the Greeks support membership in the euro, but are against the austerity measures in their present form. All the parties are trying to capitalize on this seemingly contradictory mood. The traditionally pro-business conservatives see themselves as the guarantor of the country's ability to retain the euro, but have also suggested they will tone down the austerity measures.

The far-left Syriza party said the program of cuts is null and void, but that Greece should keep the euro. Nikos Chountis, a former secretary of the party executive and member of the European parliament, is certain: Just like the last election, the vote is a matter of giving the old parties a resounding slap in the face.

"The alleged question on Sunday of 'euro or drachma' has not arisen at all. This pseudo-dilemma leads only to voter disorientation," Chountis said. Agreeing to budget cuts, or a rescue, does not in itself create a legal basis for Greece's membership in the eurozone. On the contrary, it was the implementation of austerity measures that pushed Greece into the abyss, and thus into Europe's problem zone, he said.

Dispute over 'a different kind of politics'

The surprise second-place winner of the last election wants "a different kind of politics" toward Greece's rescuers. How this should look is not clear. During the campaign, the charismatic Syriza leader, Alexis Tsipras, has promised again and again that as prime minister he would undo wage cuts and reopen negotiatations with Greece's creditors.

British-educated economist Yannis Dragasakis, who is already being talked about as a possible new finance minister, put it more diplomatically, declaring that the austerity measures should be revoked "politically and not formally or judicially." The leaders of the main parties face accusations that they have trouble communicating a common line - a charge that Nikos Chountis does not want to leave unanswered.

"That may have been the case earlier, and we never concealed it," he said. In a pluralistic, left-wing party, differences are not unusual, but in time for the parliamentary elections, the party has agreed on a new political program and it should only be judged on this, he said. It was not fair that one or two quotations from the past should outweigh everything else, to create sentiment against the left, Chountis added.

Fear of losing the euro

Labor lawyer Dimitris Stratoulis, a member of the coalition's hard left, caused headaches in early May, when he said in a radio interview that the left would use the bank deposits of citizens "in a targeted manner to stimulate the economy." Within a week, small savers pulled 700 million euros out of Greek banks. Since then, similar sums have disappeared from the banks in a single day. Business analyst Thanassis Mavridis is furious: It is embarrassing that politicians who may soon assume responsibility for government, apparently do not know how the banking sector works, he complained in his column on the Capital.gr website.

Greek MEP Nikos Chountis

Nikos Chountis: Austerity pushed Greece into the abyss

According to media reports, the operating subsidiaries of foreign banks in Athens are preparing for a possible exit of Greece from the euro. The National Bank of Greece warns in no uncertain terms of a euro exit: This is "not a theoretical hypothesis" any more, it said in a report. The conservative New Democracy presents itself as the party of reason, ensuring Greece stays in the eurozone. But the left has been able to gain the voters' favor, since its promise seems credible that it would take advantage of the favorable political climate in Europe to renegotiate the austerity program. Kostis Hatzidakis, former conservative finance minister, sees things differently.

"When it comes to Greece, the center-right and center-left parties in Europe now almost speak the same language, but our parties do not want to admit this," Hatzidakis said. If the left claimed it would simply jettison the austerity program, it would put the entire country in danger, especially since Europe is now better protected against the effects of a euro exit. "We try to make clear to voters that it's more worthwhile to achieve the best for our country within the eurozone through serious negotiations," he said.

Bipartisan hopes for mercy

"The best" for Greece under the present circumstances would appear to be a relaxation of the austerity goals, something both the conservatives and the socialists are hoping for. In fact, they would score points with voters if there were not a little credibility problem: The once-powerful national parties, which are considered responsible for the country's current economic plight, now want to be knights in shining armor, with strong support from Brussels. Will that work?

"I understand the reactions of the population," Hatzidakis said. The people have lost their prosperity and their work; they will be paying the price for the realignment of the Greek economy, he said, adding that the way things are today, it is especially important that past mistakes not be replaced by new mistakes: "When you realize that you're going 100 km/h in the wrong direction, you need to change direction, not double your speed," he said.

Greek electoral law stipulates that no new poll results may be published in the last two weeks before an election. Commentators believe the neck-and-neck race between the conservatives and Syriza is still uncertain. A number of splinter and protest parties, among them the neo-Nazi "Golden Dawn," can also realistically expect to enter parliament.

Author: Giannis Papadimitriou / sgb
Editor: Gregg Benzow

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