The day didn’t start well: PASOK leader Evangelos Venizelos, who was named Deputy Premier/Foreign Minister after backing austerity measures that saw his party plummet in the polls, was booed when he went to vote, while major opposition Coalition of the Radical Left (SYRIZA) leader Alexis Tsipras was applauded.
Surveys show New Democracy with a slight edge entering the first day of two rounds of voting – the second to coincide on May 25 with balloting for the European Parliament that give SYRIZA the edge.
The elections come at the crucial mid-way point for Samaras’ coalition, two years after he was elected without enough of the vote to control Parliament without the help of PASOK, and of another then-partner, the Democratic Left (DIMAR), which left last year after refusing to back worker firings at the state broadcaster ERT which was shut down and replaced.
The government has continued to back big pay cuts, tax hikes, slashed pensions and worker firings that have created record unemployment and deep poverty and Tsipras is trying to make the elections a referendum on the austerity measures.
Greece is surviving on what’s left of two bailouts of 240 billion euros ($330.7 billion) from the Troika of the European Union-International Monetary Fund-European Central Bank (EU-IMF-ECB) and Samaras is pinning his hopes on a message of stability and recovery, four years after the rescue began.
But PASOK has had to align itself to a new center-left political movement called Elia, or Olive Tree, that is showing at 7 percent or less in surveys while Venizelos has warned the coalition would fall without him.
“In these four years, austerity policies have caused the greatest humanitarian crisis the country ever suffered,” Tsipras said this week. “The government named this dramatic situation a success story.”
In municipal and regional elections, center-left-backed incumbents are seen as favorites to win the major cities of Athens and Thessaloniki.
Samaras has played down fears that an expected poor showing by his Socialist partners on May 25 could undermine the coalition’s legitimacy — it has only a majority of two in the 300-seat parliament.
“There was government stability during hard times,” Samaras said in an interview with private Antenna TV. “Under no circumstances is that stability under threat after the elections.”
An Alco poll for Proto Thema newspaper gave SYRIZA 23.4 percent of the vote, compared to the conservatives’ 22 percent. The neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party polled at 7.3 percent and the Socialists at 5.1 percent.
Another factor could be the new populist, anti-politician To Potami (The River) party of former TV presenter Stavros Theodorakis as Golden Dawn strugges with all its 18 Members of Parliamen either arrested or jailed while awaiting trial on charges of running a criminal gang.
Before the financial crisis forced them to share power, the conservatives and the Socialists combined accounted for nearly 80 percent of the vote — while SYRIZA had only about 5 percent before rising on the backs of an anti-austerity message that weary Greeks have embraced.
“Mr. Tsipras was brought to the foreground by the crisis,” Samaras said. “When the crisis ends, he, too, will disappear.”
Political analyst Thomas Gerakis of Marc Institute told Agence France Presse:.”Even though the vote has local characteristics, in essence this is a test of forces between those who tolerate the government’s policies and those seeking to send a message of protest.”
REFERENDUM OF REPUDIATION?
The biggest test though could be the May 25 European Union ballot which Tsipiras said would show voters disdain for austerity and repudiate Greece’s ruling parties so much that it would bring down the coalition and force early national elections before the government’s term runs out in 2016.
He said if he comes to power he would seek to revise the terms of the bailouts or default, a prospect terrifying EU leaders and those in the Eurozone, such as Germany, which has put up much of the bailouts but demanded austerity in return.
Samaras said Tsipras would stop Greece’s burgeoning recovery in its tracks and bring chaos while Tsipras said the EU would be forced to give Greece better terms and relieve a burden on the populace.
Tsipras said last week that, “Our goal is (on May 25) to record a major victory… so that on (May 26) the government will leave.”
“It’s certain that the local government vote will affect European elections,” Kostas Panagopoulos, head of Alco polling company told the Bloomberg news agency. “It’s the first time we have local government elections a week before European elections.”
A total of about 9.9 million Greeks will choose their local representatives in the country’s 13 prefectures and 56 municipalities with vote beginning at 7 a.m. and finishing at 7 p.m. Athens time. If the leading candidate fails to secure more than 50 percent in any one vote, a runoff election between those in the first two positions will be held May 25.
Local government and European elections will cost the Greek state 75 million euros ($102.9 million), according to Interior Ministry figures.
A majority of 54 percent in a GPO poll said the national political situation would be the main factor in their voting, while 42 percent said they’d be more swayed by local problems. GPO surveyed 1,000 people for Mega TV between April 30 and May 5.
What’s at stake in these elections is for Greece to “get rid of bailouts,” Nikos Voutsis, General Secretary of SYRIZA’s parliamentary group, told Bloomberg. “Election results will bring political developments as soon as June.”
Injecting national issues into local politics makes it harder for local officials to do their jobs, said Dora Bakoyiannis, a former mayor of Athens from Samaras’ New Democracy party.
“Local government is a place for cooperation not exclusion,” Bakoyiannis told the news agency. “I deeply believe we should avoid trying to exploit the results of the local government elections. And this applies to all parties.”
She returned to the party after she was unexpectedly toppled for its leadership – and the Prime Minister candidacy – by Samaras, leading her to form a new party with only a handful of followers. Since coming back she has been largely invisible after once being a dominant player in Greek politics.