Clock ticks for Greece as election campaign enters climax

The fight for power in Greece enters its final hours, with Prime Minister Antonis Samaras making a last-ditch appeal to voters as he tries to defy opinion polls showing a victory for his anti-austerity opponent.

The monthlong election campaign wraps up on Friday when Samaras addresses a rally of his New Democracy party at 6 p.m. in Athens. Alexis Tsipras, who leads the opposition SYRIZA group, will speak on the island of Crete in the evening. The nationwide ballot is on Jan. 25.

After the debt crisis shrank their economy by a quarter and sent unemployment to a record, Greeks are choosing between the familiar and the unknown. Samaras is imploring the country to stick with wage cuts and tax increases to appease creditors like Germany. Tsipras, whose party has never been in power, has vowed to abandon the budget constraints that underpin an international financial lifeline while keeping Greece in the euro.

“Tsipras will change things for the better not only in Greece, but also in Europe,” Tassos Harbilas, a 48-year-old unemployed technician who backs SYRIZA, said yesterday as he sipped coffee at a sidewalk table in downtown Athens. “The Europeans will listen to him.”

A loose alliance with communist roots also known as the Coalition of the Radical Left, SYRIZA is projected by polls to gain about 32 percent of the vote on Sunday compared with about 27 percent for New Democracy.

Latest poll

In a GPO survey for Mega TV published late Thursday, SYRIZA got 32.5 percent support versus 26.5 percent for New Democracy. To Potami, a new party that has said it would potentially form a government with SYRIZA, placed third with 5.8 percent. No margin of error was immediately available.

“Nobody doubts that SYRIZA will win,” Thomas Gerakis, head of Athens-based Marc Pollsters, said yesterday by phone. “The question on the night of the elections is whether SYRIZA will be able to govern alone.”

In a show of solidarity between European forces opposed to fiscal tightening as the euro area seeks to avert deflation, Pablo Iglesias, leader of Spain’s Podemos party, joined Tsipras at a SYRIZA rally yesterday in Athens. Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams in Ireland telephoned to wish him luck.

A SYRIZA win would end four decades of political supremacy by New Democracy and the socialist party Pasok and set up challenges to the establishment elsewhere in Europe, provoking fresh questions about the integrity of the euro.

Junta’s fall

Since the fall of a Greek military regime in 1974, New Democracy and Pasok have alternated in power except over the past two-and-a-half years when they have ruled together after two narrowly contested elections in 2012.

Pasok’s popularity has collapsed in favor of SYRIZA, with the GPO poll putting the party on 4.4 percent, behind the communists and far-right Golden Dawn.

As the main opposition party, SYRIZA has said it will increase wages, expand the number of government jobs and push the euro region to write off some of Greece’s debt of about 180 percent of gross domestic product.

Greek election math means that, without about 38 percent of the vote, SYRIZA would have to form a coalition to control at least 151 of the Greek parliament’s 300 seats.

To Potami’s leader, former journalist Stavros Theodorakis, said the price for teaming with Tsipras would be defending Greece’s membership of the euro and “European course.”

Coalition candidates

Another SYRIZA coalition candidate is Panos Kammenos’s Independent Greeks, a group that includes former New Democracy members and opposes the rescue program for Greece.

A third possible ally is the Movement of Democratic Socialists established this month by former Pasok leader George Papandreou, prime minister between October 2009 and November 2011. Gerakis, the pollster, said the Independent Greeks have a better chance than Papandreou’s new party of reaching the 3 percent threshold needed to enter parliament.

Samaras, 63, asserts that budget discipline since he took office in June 2012 has restored Greece’s economic health. In 2014, the country emerged from a six-year recession, returned to bond markets and was on the verge of balancing its budget. By pressing ahead with unpopular spending cuts, Samaras has also kept international aid flowing to Greece.

“He’s done more than others,” said Andreas Xronopoulos, a 22-year-old student who plans to vote for New Democracy on Sunday after backing Pasok in 2012. “If we vote for SYRIZA, where’s the money going to come from?” Xronopoulos asked on Thursday from behind the window of the Athens kiosk where he works two to three times a week.

Human cost

Investors have been spooked by the same question, selling Greek bonds and stocks since Samaras opened the way in early December for snap elections.

Greek bonds delivered the worst returns in the past month among 34 sovereign securities tracked by Bloomberg’s World Bond Indexes. The Athens Stock Exchange index is the worst performing of all the major equity markets over the same period.

Tsipras, 40, promises to tackle the human cost of a Greek recession that has left unemployment above 25 percent, while sending soothing signals to Greece’s creditors about his respect for European fiscal rules.

In his speech yesterday in Athens to thousands of supporters waving banners such as “Change Greece, Change Europe,” Tsipras accused Samaras of yielding to Germany.

He urged Greeks to give SYRIZA enough votes to govern alone and pledged to be prepared for “big clashes” with Greece’s international creditors in order to revamp what he called the “barbarity” of the nation’s rescue.