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Greece Elections: Voters Will Choose the Syriza Party – and Send a Defiant Message to the EU
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It was raining yesterday in central Athens, which creates a problem for those feeding the homeless. “Normally, people living on the streets stay at a single spot where they can get heat from an air vent from underground, so they’re easy to find,” says Yanis, a diver and engineer in the navy who runs a charity. “But with the rain coming down, they may have moved to seek shelter under a bridge or somewhere like that, so it’s more difficult to bring them food.”

Yanis is hoping that Syriza, the party of the radical left, will win today’s election and reduce both mass poverty and the general sense of hopelessness. “I don’t think that tomorrow will bring green valleys and golden cows,” says Yanis. But he does hope, with Syrizia in power, to see some improvement.

He may well get his wish by the time polls close at 7pm today.

The Greek radical left is likely to defeat the centre-right governing party in today’s elections, challenging the EU over repayment of Greece’s €240bn debt and enforced reduction of living standards. Opinion polls show that, in the past few days, the left-wing Syriza party, led by Alexis Tsipras, has been increasing its lead over the party of the Prime Minister, Antonis Samaras, who for two years has imposed austerity on Greece in return for loans from the EU. Unfortunately for him, the Greeks haven’t felt that they were benefiting from their sacrifices.

Mr Samaras appears to have failed to convince voters that he had no choice but to bow to the EU’s demands and that putting Syriza into power is “national suicide”. At the last government rally, inside a sports stadium built for the Olympics in 2004, Mr Samaras told a crowd of wildly cheering supporters waving a forest of white and blue Greek flags that “the opposition say that rather than a bad deal [with the EU] it is better to die”. He added, for good measure, that Syriza is going to disarm the police, let a flood of immigrants into Greece and turn the country into a Mediterranean version of North Korea. The mostly middle-aged crowd applauded, loudly chanting: “Greece! Greece! Samaras! Samaras!”

Fear of the unknown and of a final rupture with the EU won the elections for Mr Samaras in 2012. But today Greeks are weary of attempts to frighten them into accepting a status quo that has brought misery to so many and shows no signs of ending. The very fact that the general elections are being held early is a consequence of Mr Samaras’s inability to muster enough parliamentary support to elect a new president last month. This was a result of his failure to win satisfactory compromises over the bailout, austerity measures and debt write-offs, as well as to get the much detested International Monetary Fund removed from the “troika” of the European Central Bank (ECB), the IMF and the European Commission which supervises Greece’s adherence to its agreement with the EU. With the troika seen by Greeks, with some reason, as the equivalent of overseers in the workhouse in Oliver Twist, Mr Samaras appears as their willing agent.

It is not just the poor and unemployed who are angry and demanding change. In a large tent housing the Syriza campaign headquarters in Koumoundourou Square in the centre of Athens, a party worker called Alexis says that he himself is not badly off. A 64-year-old air traffic controller, he has seen his monthly salary cut from €5,500 to €4,500 (£4,100 to £3,360), and he pays higher taxes. He is more upset by the fact that no new air traffic controllers have been appointed for years and, as a result, he and his colleagues get only a few days’ holiday a year. He said that crucial to Syriza doing even better in the election than it did in the European parliamentary elections last year was the introduction of a new property tax. Not only did it seem to be yet one more particularly onerous tax – and Greeks have long seen buying property as their ultimate insurance – but there seemed to be no light at the end of the tunnel.

Syriza supporters brush aside talk of a run on the banks on Monday. While Mr Samaras has warned his supporters that “liquidity can be cut off and it will only take days for Greece to be asphyxiated”, this no longer has the resonance it once had. Syriza may be radical, but it has been doing its best not to sound revolutionary and to avoid frightening middle-class voters or the international markets. In any case, sympathetic commentary by financial experts on debt forgiveness and better terms for payment of existing debt is becoming much more the norm. The eurozone has a bailout fund, and the ECB will buy the bonds of countries in trouble.

Syriza may not win an absolute majority in parliament and will be reliant on smaller parties. It will also be constrained by a commitment to balanced budgets and securing a €7.2bn loan tranche, as well negotiating on the €320bn debt. But the early elections called by Mr Samaras and the likely victory of Syriza are strong pieces of evidence that the sort of reforms the EU has been trying to implement in return for its money are vastly unpopular within Greece, where they are seen as a humiliating symbol of servitude. It is also obvious that Mr Tsipras is right in saying that the Greek debt is “not just unbearable, it objectively cannot be repaid”.

Meanwhile, he has a list of reforms, such as giving free electricity to people whose power has been cut off, providing food stamps for children, healthcare to the uninsured, and some form of accommodation for the homeless, as well as raising the minimum wage from under €500 a month to €750.

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The mystery in Greece is how so many people manage to survive without jobs or unemployment benefit. The answer is that most rely on their families. Yanis says: “The family is what counts here – that is what saves us. If we followed the English model, half the people would be in the street.” Leaving aside the questionable implication that family bonds don’t count for much in England, the Greek state has shown itself largely incapable of coping with the needs of the 26 per cent of the population who are out of work or the three million who live below the poverty line.

Lena Ekonomigou, a 63-year-old unemployed cleaning lady who used to clean the tax offices in the Ministry of Finance, recalls how she “used to earn €325 a month, but two years ago I was sacked. We were laid off as if we were garbage. That is why I believe in Alexis [Tsipras].” Lena did not wholly explain how she has survived, but says “the church helps” and she made a little money looking after a woman who has difficulty walking. She says: “All I really want is to get my job back.”

Even those jobs that do exist are often temporary or poorly paid. Manya Kavvathea is 27 years old and was trained as a historian. She is getting by on short-term jobs doing marketing surveys. Many of her friends have emigrated “to Holland, France and Germany”. If there are few jobs in Athens, there are even fewer in her home town of Nafolio, a pretty tourist resort where “the only employment is waitressing in the cafés”.

These elections are a measure of the failure of the EU, which has sought to bludgeon Greeks into policies that they see as being against their interests and which, in any case, they had not assented to. The supervision of the troika provokes the same sort of ill feeling that countries feel for colonial rulers, regardless of the justifiability of the changes they want to introduce.

There has also been a certain amount of hypocrisy involved since, at the time of the previous general election, the EU was seeking to keep Syriza out of power while simultaneously claiming that radical reform of the old corrupt clientist Greek political system would be implemented by the parties that had created and still benefited from it. If the EU really does want to change Greece, they need a party with the same commitment.

(Republished from The Independent by permission of author or representative)
 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Greece, Syriza 
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