A LEFT-WING party which pledges to end austerity measures and “erase” national debt is set to take control of Greece’s political landscape as voters prepare to go to the polls today.
Syriza, the controversial political group which has vowed to rewrite the terms of Greece’s international bailout, is due to bag at least a 4 per cent victory over prime minister Antonis Samaras’s conservatives, polls claimed. If it wins, it is likely to need to team up with a smaller party to govern.
Syriza’s leader, Alexis Tsipras, 40, – a former Communist youth member – favours a radical approach to Greece’s politics, which many fear could see it lose its place as a eurozone member and subsequently its place in the European Union.
“We will seek to erase the largest part of the [national] debt,” Tsipras said. “It is not just unbearable, it objectively cannot be repaid.” He has pointed to the policy of debt forgiveness for Germany in the 1950s. Greece’s debt level currently stands at around ¤320 billion (£240bn).
Syriza is strongly supported by young adults – half of whom are currently unemployed in Greece, which finally came out of a six-year recession just last November – who believe change is needed.
But outgoing prime minister Samaras has warned of financial collapse if the left-wing party wins today’s election, which was called just four weeks after parliament failed to elect a president, triggering a vote.
Syriza has claimed it has been demonised by the conservatives, who, they say, have stoked middle-class fears of bankruptcy and a return to the old drachma currency, while critics have claimed that Syriza is gambling on the idea that the EU will want it to remain in the union enough to cancel its debts.
“Syriza is not a European party,” Samaras said. “People must decide between truth and lies.”
Greece, which has been bailed out twice by the EU, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), has been the subject of swingeing austerity measures since 2008 when the government borrowed heavily as the economic crisis hit the country hard.
The economy has since shrunk by a quarter and average incomes have been reduced by a third, while unemployment is sky high. Health care services have deteriorated, pensions have been slashed, and most apartment blocks lack central heating because so many residents cannot pay bills. Healthcare is linked to employment in Greece, leaving many people unable to afford to visit a doctor.
“I want this government to go, it has disappointed me,” said Babis Limnaios, 41, an Athens electrician who last voted in 2004 for the conservatives but will now back Syriza. “I want them to change everything – tax, healthcare, education.”
Cinema production electrician Gerasimos Soulis said he would vote for Syriza but without great conviction in its ability to enact change.
“Jobs have opened, but they’re not jobs. It’s like you’re making pocket money,” he said. “We are trying with a third of the money to do what we used to do. And we’re happy that we now have a third, because they made us grow accustomed to having nothing.”
Syriza has alarmed markets and investors with its talk of massive debt forgiveness and riding roughshod over the bailout deals.
However, since the last election in 2012, when many people saw a vote for Syriza as too risky a move, Greece’s European partners are now less exposed to fallout from a Greek financial collapse. Also, the eurozone has a bailout fund and the ECB has committed to buy the bonds of troubled countries, if needed.
Syriza says it wants to ditch primary surplus targets, while still pursuing a balance between non-debt-related spending and revenues.
It proposes to restore the minimum monthly salary from ¤586 to ¤751, provide free power and food coupons to 300,000 households, raise the tax-free income threshold from ¤5,000 to ¤12,000, reverse public sector firings and liberalise labour laws.
The party is also trying to play up its mainstream, Eurocentric-driven attributes, a drive which is not helped by some Syrizan officials, one of whom suggested printing euros as a last resort.
However, creditors insist Athens must honour its bailout commitments if it is to receive continued support. If things go wrong, Greece could again face default – despite its massive bailout and years of belt-tightening – and find its eurozone membership untenable. Samaras, whose New Democracy party governed since May 2012 in a coalition with its Socialist former arch-rivals, has promised some tax relief, saying economic growth and investment will gradually reduce unemployment.
Greece’s winner-takes-all electoral system gives a 50-seat boost to the first party, making it effectively impossible for the runner-up to form a coalition if the winner fails. Possible partners include the new, centrist but untried To Potami (River) party or the once-formidable PASOK Socialists. A third option could be governing with the populist right-wing Independent Greeks, which agrees with Syriza on the need to end austerity but disagrees on about everything else.