Pro-and-anti-austerity forces battle it out, with both sides predicting disaster.
By Andy Dabilis for Southeast European Times in Athens -- 11/06/12
Alexis Tsipras, head of Greece's Left Coalition party, delivers a speech during an election campaign rally in Athens. [Reuters]
Despite the warnings from international lenders and pro-austerity politicians, Elias Marineas doesn't think that his country is doomed -- unless the critical June 17th elections yield an administration that backs more austerity.
"I'm not afraid," Marineas, a 30-year-old architecture student told SETimes. "The old ones want people scared so they can maintain their system," he said, referring to the once-ruling New Democracy Conservatives and PASOK Socialists who backed pay cuts, tax hikes, and slashed pensions in return for two bailouts totalling 239 billion euros.
New Democracy leader Antonis Samaras and PASOK's new leader, Evangelos Venizelos, say Greece will collapse unless the country sticks to the austerity measures they backed.
Fury over austerity has propelled the Coalition of the Radical Left (SYRIZA) party into a neck-in-neck race with New Democracy to win on June 17th. SYRIZA finished a close second to New Democracy in the May 6th elections, but no party got enough votes to form a government, and coalition talks broke down.
The new elections have turned into a referendum on whether voters are frightened enough to keep austerity coming, or believe SYRIZA's leader Alexis Tsipras can cancel the memorandum with the EU-IMF-ECB Troika without Greece being pushed out of the eurozone.
Tsipras said he would raise salaries, repeal tax hikes, replenish savaged pensions, stop the planned layoff of 150,000 workers, and refuse to implement another 12 billion euros in cuts demanded by the Troika. He also said he would stop privatisation programmes and nationalise the country's sagging banks.
"We will seek a new renegotiation of the debt at the European level, aiming to drastically reduce it, or a debt moratorium and a suspension of interest payments until conditions for the stabilisation and recovery of the economy are created," Tsipras said.
"Nobody is trying to frighten the people," Kostas Ifantis, Associate Professor of International Relations at the University of Athens told SETimes. "For the first time the people in these parties [New Democracy and PASOK] are telling the truth … [Tsipras] doesn't have a realistic take on the situation internationally."
At stake is the livelihood and future for the Greeks, who are struggling with 21.7% unemployment and 1,000 businesses closing a week -- grim scenes that Tsipras has capitalised on.
"Instead of extreme policies, we can stabilise the economy, it's not a question of going back to the drachma," George Stathakis, professor of economics at the University of Crete he told SETimes. "This austerity madness has to stop," he added.
Platon Tinios, an assistant professor of economics at Piraeus University, said it makes no difference who wins.
"SYRIZA will get us out [of the eurozone] as they don't want to do what it takes to stay. New Democracy will get us out because they are not able to put together what it takes to stay. Either way we're out -- the irresponsible on one end, the incompetent on the other," he told SETimes.
An exit from the eurozone could threaten the 17-country financial bloc and set off jitters in markets worldwide, but most Greeks are worried about themselves.
"Tsipras is betting on the anger of the Greek people who say they've had enough of PASOK and New Democracy and don't want any more austerity or pay cuts, but it's not very solid soil to stand on," Antonis Klapsis, head of research at the Konstandinos Karamanlis Institute for Democracy told SETimes. "
The National Bank of Greece report said to exit the eurozone would reduce per capita income from 19,400 euros to 8,700 euros annually, the GDP would fall 22%, unemployment would hit 34%, inflation 32%, and interest rates 37%.
George Tzogopoulos, a research fellow at the Athens Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy, said the arguments on both sides are futile. "Irrespective of the election results, our economic problems cannot be controlled," he told SETimes.