Samaras faces Greeks skeptical of his euro-exit warnings

Frances Moschou, who supported Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras in national elections in 2012, may now represent a bad omen for him as he fights for political survival.

Moschou, a 32-year-old from the Greek island of Rhodes, dismisses an argument that Samaras and his New Democracy party are reviving before snap elections on Jan. 25: voting for the anti-austerity Syriza alliance led by Alexis Tsipras would reignite the threat of Greece’s exit from the euro area.

“It’s all propaganda meant to scare people,” Moschou said on Jan. 2 as she served Greek wine and brandy to customers at Vrettos, a 106-year-old distillery tucked away in the old town of Athens below the Acropolis. “I don’t believe it.”

Samaras risks finding the playbook he deployed to take office in 2012 is less effective this year because wage cuts and tax increases that have kept international aid to Greece flowing have also left voters feeling more pinched than ever.

The resulting public anger has made many Greeks deaf to Samaras’s message that the country, which emerged in 2014 from a six-year recession and is on the verge of balancing its budget, would risk being thrown back into financial turmoil by a Tsipras-led government.

New Democracy edged out Syriza in elections in June 2012 that followed months of political stalemate and speculation Greece might be forced out of the euro area — a scenario that became known as Grexit. Polls now put Syriza, which has communist roots, in the lead.

‘A Bluff’

“About 60 percent of the population believes that Grexit is a bluff,” said Nikos Marantzidis, a pollster and professor of political science at the University of Macedonia in the northern city of Thessaloniki. “In 2012, the sense of fear was much more apparent.”

Samaras relied on fear factors in kicking off his re-election campaign over the weekend.

In a Jan. 3 speech in the central city of Larissa, the premier said Greece would be driven into default and out of the 19-nation European single currency by the policies of Syriza, which has vowed to increase wages, expand the number of government jobs and persuade the euro area to write-off some Greek debt.

“What Syriza says it would do if it ever came to power would with certainty lead to bankruptcy,” the 63-year-old Samaras said. “What they say isn’t doable, can’t be done and would only drive the country into a huge ordeal.”

Different Tone

A speech on the same day by the 40-year-old Tsipras struck a different tone, highlighting the human costs of Greek unemployment above 25 percent after the worst recession in more than half a century.

At a campaign event in Athens, he accused Samaras of scaremongering, called Greek debt unsustainable at its current level of about 180 percent of economic output and said German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s insistence on fiscal discipline for the euro area is a menace for the region as it confronts the threat of deflation.

“Austerity is absurd and catastrophic,” Tsipras said.

Such words appeal to voters like Christos Kosmas, an Athens taxi driver who backed Syriza for the first time in the 2012 national elections and plans to do so again this month.

“Nothing is going well here,” Kosmas, 52, said as he navigated through Saturday evening traffic. “What are we, the suckers of Europe?”

Investors are more wary of Syriza, selling Greek bonds and stocks since Samaras opened the way in December for national elections to take place as early as this month instead of in 2016 as originally scheduled.

Worst Performing

Greek bonds have lost 7.4 percent in the last month, making them the worst performing of 34 sovereign securities tracked by Bloomberg’s World Bond Index. Greek stocks have fallen 22 percent over the same period, the steepest decline among major equity indexes.

Samaras announced on Dec. 8 that he would bring forward by two months from February the process for the Greek parliament to pick a new head of state. He then failed to garner enough support among lawmakers for his presidential candidate in three rounds of voting that ended on Dec. 29 as opposition parties led by Syriza prevented the needed supermajority from being reached.

The planned early general ballot is required under the constitution when such a stalemate occurs.

Samaras maneuvered himself into office after a fundamental change in the Greek political landscape in 2012. While New Democracy won the last parliamentary elections by getting almost 30 percent of the vote, Syriza as a loosely organized protest movement was catapulted into second place with nearly 27 percent.

Enough Seats

Because neither party had enough seats to govern alone, Samaras forged a coalition with the No. 3 Socialist Pasok, whose support slumped to about 12 percent. That marked an unprecedented alliance between two rival parties that had alternated in power since a Greek military regime collapsed in 1974.

In that context, surveys of voting intentions before the Jan. 25 ballot show Syriza in first place with about 30 percent support, followed by New Democracy at about 27 percent. Pasok has about 4 percent.

The political terrain continues to shift in the run-up to the snap elections: George Papandreou, a Pasok prime minister from October 2009 until November 2011, announced over the weekend that he would lead a new party called Democratic Socialists.

‘Absolutely Clear’

Pollster Marantzidis, who calls Syriza the “absolutely clear” favorite in the coming ballot, says Papandreou’s new group nonetheless would be a threat to Tsipras if it manages to obtain at least 3 percent of the vote — the minimum needed to enter the Greek parliament.

“In that case, it will surely get voters from Syriza,” Marantzidis said. “If it gets less than 3 percent, then only Pasok will be damaged.”

For Moschou at the Athens wine and brandy bar, neither Papandreou’s new party nor Samaras’s warnings about Syriza may make any difference.

Undecided about which party to support this time, Moschou says Syriza could get her vote simply because Greek government leaders to date have failed and “Tsipras hasn’t been tested.”