Greece’s failing economy brings voters to Syriza

Andrew Simmons, a senior journalist, has more than 20 years of experience in high profile television news.

Andrew Simmons

 

 

What a difference a few months makes in Greek politics.

The last time I visited Chalkida was last October. George Papandreou was Prime Minister and leader of Pasok, the biggest socialist party in Greece at that time.

The centre right New Democracy party was making political capital. Its leader, Antonis Samaras, was attacking Pasok for more-or-less giving away the country’s sovereignty to “The Troika” and failing to resist some of the austerity measures imposed by the ECB, the EU and the IMF.

Now Papandreou is in the political wilderness, his party decimated.

And Samaras, having signed up to one of the bailout memoranda during his term in a unity coalition government with Pasok, is fighting a tough battle to convince the people of Greece that he will renegotiate the harsh bailout terms.

Democracy is a Greek word. And the election on May 6 gave Greeks the chance to use that democracy to express themselves.

That gave a cue to Syriza, a collection of politically radical groupings, to enter stage far-left and give the mainstream politicians of this ancient land the biggest shake up of their lives.

Now it’s a rerun. Could the new kids on the block really take over and do the unthinkable – win on Sunday and take Greece out of the eurozone?

Here In Chalkida, capital of the Evia region, Syriza fared better on May 6 than the national average. They were the number two party nationwide – but topped the poll in this region.

“Some of us may be amateur,” one of the Syriza campaigners admitted. “But we connect with the people in a way mainstream politicians can’t.”

And he is right. At first sight Chalkida, one hour’s drive from Athens, appears to be a fresh, smart tourist-resort type of city. But this facade, proudly built on economic growth from bygone times, is wafer thin. This city has been brought to its knees by austerity.

Soaring unemployment

In the nine months since my last visit, unemployment figures for those under 24 years of age have increased from under 50 per cent to 55 per cent.

Overall, unemployment is also higher than the national average 22.6 per cent.

These are official figures based on benefit registration, and the true jobless figure is higher.

The retail sector has been devastated. Scores of small family businesses have closed. And a drive out of town to the industrial areas shows large numbers of defunct factories.

This region had been a manufacturing powerhouse. But Greece is in its fifth year of recession and there isn’t any type of factory, service industry, or family business that has escaped the depression.

A survey of job losses in small- to medium-sized private businesses puts the number of people out of work since October last year at a staggering 6,000.

One of those jobs belonged to Giorgos Kotsaris. Until two weeks ago he was a warehouse inspector. He has three children and his wife, Anastasia, has been unemployed for a year.

His home was inherited but Giorgos can’t afford the property tax and could soon face legal action.

He says Syriza is a natural choice: “It’s not a protest vote … it’s a conscious vote. I believe if I didn’t vote for Syriza, but chose New Democracy or Pasok instead, then my vote would be wasted for sure.”

His view is shared by many others from all classes and situations.

Simpler campaign theme

However, it does appear that New Democracy has made some inroads with what is a simpler campaign theme for this election. They are telling the people of Greece: vote for us and stay in Europe, or get out, go back to the drachma and face an even bigger financial catastrophe.

An exit isn’t a popular prospect with most people you meet – even Syriza supporters.

Syriza’s leader, the young and charismatic Alexis Tsipras, has said if he wins then he has a mandate to tear up the loan agreement. Then he wants to negotiate.

His strategy is not to set about taking Greece out of Europe, but that might be the result if warnings from the like of Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, hold true.

More likely, many analysts now believe, is that he plans to huff and puff, throw the chairs around in Brussels, and then settle on a new deal.

It could well be a who-blinks-first situation.

The EU, the IMF, and in particular Merkel, are pushing a hard public line of no compromise. But by the day more analysts are coming around to the view that regardless of who wins this election a reworking of the bailout terms has to be negotiated.

Greece simply isn’t keeping its end of the bargain. And the political ground has shifted massively.

This may not calm the nerves of global markets. And the risks of meltdown are still there.

Sunday is, as they say, too close to call. Under Greek election law, official opinion polls stop a fortnight before polling. A poll of polls put New Democracy a whisker ahead of Syriza but, with margin of error taken into account, the two parties were neck and neck.

What a difference a few months makes in Greek politics – but it may not change the ultimate destiny of this country.

Whoever wins, with such a high debt burden, a departure from the eurozone could well be an eventual inevitability.

 

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