NEWS

Ahead of EU vote, local ballots to test Greek government

Ahead of EU elections on May 25, Greece's embattled government faces a first test in municipal and regional elections on Sunday as the country struggles to return to growth following years of economic crisis.

The local elections, to be held on May 18 and 25, will show how much support remains domestically for the conservative-socialist coalition government after two years of unpopular austerity measures.

"Even though the vote has local characteristics, in essence this is a test of forces between those who tolerate the government's policies and those seeking to send a message of protest,» says political analyst Thomas Gerakis of Marc institute.

Four years of economic crisis -- and a six-year recession -- have shattered the power of the PASOK socialists and the New Democracy conservatives, the two parties that ruled Greece for the last 40 years, and which currently form the government.

The coalition majority in the 300-seat parliament has dwindled to 152 deputies after successive fiscal measures demanded by Greece's EU-IMF creditors.

Conservative Prime Minister Antonis Samaras insists the country has finally turned the corner and that recovery is in sight without need for further painful sacrifices.

"The difficulty is over, the only way now is upwards,» Samaras told his party lawmakers last week.

Greece is about to register slim growth in 2014 and painful fiscal reforms mandated by EU-IMF creditors finally seem to be paying off.

But this progress has come at a heavy cost -- record unemployment, mounting poverty and a 25-percent decline in the country's overall output.

Voters have flocked to anti-austerity parties, mainly radical left Syriza, which have become the main opposition movement after pledging to scrap many of the austerity reforms adopted in the last four years.

Syriza are focusing their attention on a good result in the European elections, which their 39-year-old leader Alexis Tsipras has termed a «referendum» on austerity.

But analysts note that they also have a fighting chance in some of the country's main constituencies, including the posts of Athens mayor and governor.

"The main goal for Syriza is for their candidate for Athens governor, Rena Dourou, to beat the incumbent (socialist-backed) Yiannis Sgouros,» says political analyst Ilias Nikolakopoulos.

Coupled with a strong European result, winning Athens will enable Syriza to declare victory against the government, he argues.

Syriza leader Tsipras admitted last week: «Our goal is (on May 25) to record a major victory... so that on (May 26) the government will leave."

In the first round, Syriza's task appears easier in some areas, including Athens and Thessaloniki, where the conservative camp is fractured.

The neo-Nazi party Golden Dawn, under investigation for crimes including assault, illegal arms possession and murder, is also fronting candidates.

Golden Dawn has been allowed by Greek justice to run in the European and local elections as the trials are still pending.

Golden Dawn's spokesman Ilias Kasidiaris is running for the post of Athens mayor, and is expected to score some 12 percent in the first round for a fourth-place finish.

The local vote serves to elect 325 mayors and 13 regional governors. A second round will be held on May 25 where necessary, to be fought among the top two candidates. A result of over 50 percent is required for outright victory.

Voting is compulsory for some 10 million registered Greek voters, but this requirement is no longer enforced by authorities.

[AFP]

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