Final poll before new Greek vote foresees a left-wing victory

By Apostolis Fotiadis | McClatchy Newspapers

ATHENS, Greece — A leftist political party that has rejected an austerity agreement that Greece struck last year in exchange for a bailout from the European Union seems likely to win parliamentary elections later this month, according to the last poll that can be published ahead of the June 17 vote.

Such an outcome almost certainly would mean more turmoil surrounding Greece’s continued membership in the eurozone, the 17 countries that use the euro as their currency. European bankers and German officials have in recent weeks warned that any effort to renegotiate the bailout agreement, which requires Greece to reduce its government deficit through spending cuts and tax increases, could mean Greece’s expulsion from the eurozone.

The new poll, by the respected Greek firm Public Issue, suggests, however, that a growing number of Greek voters are tired of what they believe are draconian austerity measures and prefer to anger the bankers rather than to accept additional cuts. The poll was conducted May 25-30 and included phone interviews with 1,210 people. The margin of error was 2.82 percentage points.

According to the poll, the Radical Left party, known as Syriza, has the support of 31 percent of Greek voters, while the center-right New Democracy party, which favors abiding by the bailout agreement, is backed by 27 percent. The Socialist Party, known in Greek as Pasok, which also backed the bailout agreement, has the support of 13.5 percent, and the Democratic Left party, which favors renegotiating the agreement, polled 7.5 percent.

Under Greece’s election laws, the first-place finisher receives a bonus of 50 seats in Parliament, meaning that if Syriza comes in first, it would likely be able to form a coalition government with a smaller party that like it favors renegotiating the bailout agreements. But if Syriza were unable to strike an agreement, New Democracy also might be able to put together a governing coalition.

But commentators here think the most likely outcome remains a victory by Syriza, a rise fueled by a backlash against what Greeks feel are unfair austerity requirements that has seen support for Syriza skyrocket from the 16.6 percent of votes it garnered in indecisive parliamentary elections May 6.

In that vote, New Democracy won 18.8 percent and Pasok 13.1 percent, but no party was able to muster the majority in Parliament needed to name a government, forcing a return to the polls this month.

Should Syriza come in first, it would be an amazing rise for a party that in 2009 won just 4 percent of the vote.

“The rise of a party from 4 percent to 30 percent in such a short time happens in Europe once a century,” said Xristoforos Vernadakis, a leading pollster with another survey firm, VPRC. “The 48 percent of Greeks who live at or below the poverty level see the welfare state as working and find themselves powerless at the annihilation of citizens rights and social cohesion by austerity. They are turning to Syriza in search of a new social deal, a new contract that will offer them an opportunity to survive. People below 55 years old are turning fast towards Syriza”.

Vernadakis predicted that were New Democracy to end up forming a new government and attempting to implement new austerity measures, that government “will be destroyed in a few months amid tremendous social unrest.”

Any future election after that would likely see Syriza earn even more support, he suggested. “As long as it stands firm, the leftist party will win enormous approval rates and the European strategy for Greece will totally collapse,” Vernadakis predicted.

In any case, it is clear that Syriza has become a major force in an electoral field that for 30 years was dominated by Pasok and New Democracy.

Syriza officials express optimism that they will emerge on top of the electoral heap. They claim that crowds attending their rallies have quadrupled in recent weeks. While many of those were at one time supporters of New Democracy and Pasok, said Nasos Iliopoulos, Syriza’s youth secretary, “there are plenty who have been inactive for years and now have decided that it’s time to get involved again.”

“People are aware that what lies ahead will be very difficult, but they are outraged that the burdens of social malaise hit the poor hardest,” Iliopoulos said. “They’re for finishing with the old political system.”

That determination appears to have undercut New Democracy’s efforts to campaign as the only alternative to leftist radicalism and the hope for keeping Greece within the eurozone, analysts say.

Greece’s economy is expected to contract 7 percent this year. Under the bailout agreement, Greece is expected to impose another $14 billion in cuts after the election.

Syriza legislators say it won’t happen.

“People have experienced austerity for the last two years and know that it is hopeless for us,” said Eirini Agathopoulou, 26, a pharmacist who won a Syriza seat in Parliament in the May 6 elections. “They will support anyone they believe that honestly will help them fight it.”

Fotiadis is a McClatchy special correspondent.

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