Greeks called to a decisive election this Sunday face voting either for pro-austerity politicians or those who oppose the iron discipline asked in return for bankruptcy rescue loans. Both ways lie hardship.
The money Greece still has is due to last only through July. To pay pensions and all the salaries of anyone working in the public sector, Athens will need the cash provided for in the second rescue plan. Funds are also draining out of the banks. Anyone able to has already stashed any surplus savings somewhere else.
Retired engineer Despina Tsilali said: “I’m worried, but I don’t have money to take out. My main worry is my children. They don’t have jobs.”
Greeks have not seen austerity improve things. They are in their fifth year of recession. Unemployment is more than 22 percent overall, and more than 50 percent among the youngest. Some with jobs protest they are owed backpay.
A blighted economy has made daily living a challenge for many, in cities and rural communities. In Chrissos, near the temple of Delphi, tourists have become rarer since the May election, and a kilo of olives is selling for seventy cents. Farmer Dimitris Basanos is bitter.
He can not hire help to pick his crop. He said he used to vote for the traditional parties but now plans to vote left-wing. He said: “I will take my revenge.”
Young people also have seen the European dream turn grey, as if their country’s economy had caught a fiscal plague. Babis Kontaris has cut his furniture business down to one store, and plans to vote communist.
“I grew up with the drachma and it was fine. Now I can’t raise my family. That’s how it is. If Greece did not meet the criteria to join the euro, why did we join? So I can call myself a European? Does this look like Europe, like a European store, a European business? Do you have this in Germany?”
The radical left coalition, Syriza, has managed to raise hopes. Its leader Alexis Tsipras promises that if he is elected to govern he will sit down within ten days to re-negotiate terms with Greece’s international credit suppliers. People wonder: could they really cut funds off?
euronews interviewed Nikos Konstandaras, Managing Editor of the centrist daily newspaper Kathimerini in Athens.
Alasdair Sandford, euronews:
We’ve heard from Alexis Tsipras of Syriza a powerful rallying call. Do you think he could actually win the election this time?
Well, Tsipras certainly believes that Syriza can win the election this time. Has a lot of wind in his sails, he’s been at the forefront of the campaign – I mean he’s the one we see, we hear, the one Europe is discussing. So, there is definitely a current of optimism in Syriza and the polls that we had until recently were showing that they were neck and neck with the conservatives of New Democracy.
You said last time that you thought his support was really something of a protest vote. Does that mean now that many Greeks really do believe his message: that Greece can reject the bailout conditions and yet stay in the euro?
At first it was a protest vote, because nobody, not even the party itself believed that it could go from about 5% to 16-17%. That surprised everybody, from the moment that happened it became a pole, it attracted people who were against austerity, who want some change, who want something new. The unfortunate thing is that Syriza doesn’t seem to be proposing something new, other than a return to the good old days of before the bailout. Its message is very strong for people who just want change without really considering much more.
And what about Mr Samaras of New Democracy, the other frontrunner? Does he have anything really positive to offer, or is he only offering more austerity? Is there any evidence that this austerity has brought any benefits as well as pain?
Well, austerity in this case goes with stability. What Samaras and New Democracy are offering is at least that nothing changes dramatically on Monday, the day after the elections. What they are saying is “let’s stick with the agreement, let’s make whatever changes we can to it, and let’s not rock boat too much and find ourselves forced outside of the euro”. The unfortunate thing is that the reform process has been so half-hearted over the past two years, that the reforms didn’t come out as strongly as the austerity did. So the people felt the pain without feeling the benefits of the reforms. Now Samaras is saddled with having to ride this cart with one wheel bigger than the other, basically.
Now there’ve been plenty of warnings outside Greece that this election is about far more than Greece, that the whole of the eurozone is at stake. Is that message being heard in Greece ?
The message is being heard but it’s being ignored to a great extent, by the people who are against the austerity and the bailout agreement. It’s been presented to them not so much as a referendum on the euro – the way some people in Greece see it and certainly all our partners outside Greece see it – but as a bluff, as the euro being used as a means to frighten the people into voting for the old parties that brought Greece to this point. People do not have a clear picture of this, and the messages from Europe, however strong they are, are always seen as reinforcing one side against the other. So they are discredited by the people who believe that we can take our chances with the bailout agreement and still stay in the euro.
Is there a danger that this election could be as inconclusive as last time?
It is very dangerous, because if on the one hand we have New Democracy and the coalition that it can form around itself, it will be quite weak. If on the other hand Syriza comes through then it will have to start looking for a policy that can work, because it has to understand that it can’t go it alone and have all the benefits of the bailout and none of the pain. So either way we will spend a long time trying to find our feet again, which is the last thing the Greek economy can afford right now.