Greek Elections Set for April 29 – Will Anything Change?



New Democracy conservative party head Antonis Samaras leads polls to become Greece's new Prime Minister, but is committed to supporting the same austerity measures passed by the former ruling PASOK Socialists

ATHENS – The brief reign of interim Prime Minister Lucas Papademos, the former European Central Bank (ECB) Vice-President who has been ruling since former premier George Papandreou resigned on Nov. 11, 2011, may end on April 29 if Greeks go to the polls to elect a new leader, as that date has reportedly been set to create a new government. Papademos has been overseeing a hybrid government of PASOK Socialists, who were in power from 2009 until Papandreou quit in the face of more than 18 months of protests, riots and strikes over austerity measures he imposed on the orders of international lenders to keep lifeline loans coming, and their bitter rival New Democracy conservatives. A third partner, the far Right-Wing LAOS party, quit the government after disagreeing with the terms of a second bailout from the European Union-International Monetary Fund-ECB Troika, this one for $172 billion. Like a first ongoing series of $152 billion in loans, it came with more of the pay cuts, tax hikes, slashed pensions and now with the planned firings of 150,000 public workers over the next three years.

Greeks, disgusted with the two major parties, have been turning away and toward other parties, and more than two dozen new ones have appeared in anger at the bailout conditions and the role of PASOK and New Democracy in supporting them. Papademos told European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso in Brussels the date had been set, according to the newspaper Kathimerini, but the Greek leader refused to respond to questions at a news conference.

Surveys in February showed that PASOK and New Democracy are at an all-time low, and if either party wins but doesn’t get a majority – even with the addition of 50 more seats in the 300-member Parliament that goes to the winner – it could mean another coalition government looms. A different survey by the Marc polling group gave the two main parties a combined 27 percent – but found that this became 38 percent once non-voters, the undecided and protest voters were excluded.

With the winning party given 50 extra seats, and many small parties’ votes will also be discounted for failing to cross the 3 percent threshold, a share of somewhere between 35 and 40 percent should be enough for a majority, pollsters say. The Marc survey would give New Democracy 117 seats and PASOK 39 seats, for a total of 156 in the 300-seat parliament, the polling group said.

New Democracy leader Antonis Samaras, who supported the new austerity measures he opposed when Papandreou was ruling, but now says he will try to renegotiate them if he wins, had 20 percent of voter support in the poll by the survey company GPO, only 3.5 percent ahead of current Finance Minister Evangelos Venizelos, who is favored to replace Papandreou as the head of PASOK when the party convenes on March 18. Venizelos has doubled income and property taxes for Greeks and taxed the poor, giving him the difficult task of convincing Greeks to back someone who has put them under punishing conditions.

MORE OF THE SAME
Many analysts, however, expect Greeks to fall in line and back the two parties who have taken turns ruling Greece since 1981, and both Samaras and Venizelos had given their backing to continued austerity, leaving little wiggle room for any change if either wins. An election system that favors big parties and a likely rebound by the currently leaderless Socialists of PASOK suggest that the conservative New Democracy party and PASOK will ultimately find themselves with little alternative but to renew their current uneasy coalition, Reuters reported.

The poll, taken after Papademos and Venizelos had gotten a second bailout deal, that is planned to include a write-down in Greece’s debt of $134 billion, proved unpopular with Greeks already under an avalanche of tax hikes and suffering a recession of near 21 percent unemployment that has led to the closing of more than 111,000 businesses. New Democracy garnered only 19.4 percent support with 13.1 percent for PASOK, although that was a 5 percent increase over earlier polls that showed the party had plunged to fifth place, also behind the Democratic Left and Communists. When Papandreou won in 2009, PASOK had  44 percent support. “This is the lowest level for the two parties that we have ever recorded,” GPO’s head pollster Takis Theodorikakos told Mega TV, which commissioned the survey. Leftist, anti-bailout parties – the Left Coalition and the Democratic Left – gained, the GPO poll showed.

Papademos’s popularity also tumbled, with only 43 percent of the poll’s 1,200 respondents saying they had a positive view of him compared with 63 percent in December. But he ranked third as best suited for prime minister with 6.3 percent, behind Samaras at 20 percent and Venizelos at 16.5 percent.

IT JUST DON’T ADD UP

“I have been doing this job for 22 years and never has it been as confused and volatile as at present,” Costas Panagopoulos of the Alco polling group told Reuters. “Somehow we’re going to end up with a coalition of the two parties,” he said. “I do not see another coalition government stable enough to govern the country,” he added. “For me the critical point is how PASOK is going to handle the change in leadership,” said Panagopoulos. “And most important, how the new leader – probably Venizelos – will act and how he will try to reconnect with voters.”Widespread voter disillusionment has boosted leftist, anti-bailout parties like the Left Coalition and the Democratic Coalition in the polls – and Greeks can even opt for the extreme-right Golden Dawn party. Panagopoulos expects at least seven parties to be in the new Parliament, potentially complicating matters for the big players.

Both Papandreou and Samaras expelled Members of Parliament from their parties for voting against the bailout package and some have joined other parties or created their own, adding to the confusion for voters, although pollsters and analysts said Greeks will do what they have for more than 30 years and vote for the same major parties who brought them austerity.

Most Greeks want to stay in the euro zone, the poll showed, with 77 percent saying their country must keep the currency “at all costs,”  the same percentage as two months previous. Almost two-thirds of respondents said a coalition government was best suited to deal with the country’s problems. On current poll numbers, New Democracy would fail to win an absolute majority in the election and would depend on the Socialists to govern, creating another coalition of ideological enemies. Some 27 percent of Greeks said they’ve given up on politics and wouldn’t vote, making the actual numbers of support for the parties and their leaders far less.
(Sources: Kathimerini, Reuters)


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