Fires singe popularity of main parties

As forest fires ravaging the Peloponnese and Evia showed signs of abating yesterday, a poll indicated that the blazes could have a lasting effect on the country’s political scene. Thousands of people gathered in central Athens to express their outrage at the state’s inability to avert the massive devastation caused by the fires. Their anger could have a serious impact on the September 16 election. A poll by VPRC on behalf of Kathimerini and SKAI TV indicated that the fires had led to a 1.5 percent drop in support for New Democracy and PASOK, with the Communist Party and Popular Orthodox Rally (LAOS) benefiting. This would put ND on 41.5 percent and PASOK on 38, meaning that the ruling conservatives would return to power with 151 MPs – the slenderest of majorities in the 300-seat Parliament. The poll also suggests that the proportion of undecided voters has increased from 19 percent before the fires to 27 percent now. More than half (55 percent) of those questioned believe that a PASOK government would have had the same problems as the ruling conservatives in handling the fires. More than 2,000 people were questioned by VPRC and 67 percent of them said they believed the wildfires were the result of an «organized plan» by arsonists. Almost a third of those (31 percent) believe foreign forces or interests were responsible and 26 percent blame landgrabbers. PASOK will resume its election campaign and, according to sources, its leader George Papandreou aims to emphasize all the aspects of PASOK’s policies and not focus just on the government’s handling of the fires. The government yesterday tried to highlight the help being offered to people affected by the fires as it believes this could pay off in the elections. Government spokesman Theodoros Roussopoulos said that 24 million euros in aid was handed out yesterday to 7,496 people who benefited from the simplified process that has been put in place for this disaster. Villagers in the Peloponnese lined up outside banks from early morning to get their emergency aid payment of 3,000 euros, which was payable upon the submission of a solemn declaration. Some 38 million euros have been deposited in a special fund set up for disaster relief and almost 63,000 people had called the 1555 hotline that has been set up for donations. Farmers will begin receiving tomorrow an advance on the aid that has been set aside to cover the loss of their livelihoods. The government has earmarked 300 million euros for the payments. After six days of struggling with raging infernos, firefighters contained most of the fires still burning in parts of the Ileia and Evia prefectures, although they remained on standby last night. Late yesterday, fires were still burning in Mistro, Evia, Andritsaina and Kotyli, in Ileia and on the slopes of Mount Parnon. A new fire in Gortynos, in the prefecture of Arcadia, led to the evacuation of three villages but there were no reports of homes under threat late last night. Firemen were upbeat about their progress in curbing blazes but concerned about a new stint of high temperatures provoking new outbreaks. «The biggest (fire) fronts are either receding or under partial control,» fire service spokesman Nikos Diamandis said. «But we are concerned because a new heat wave is coming, peaking on Saturday and Sunday,» he added. Meanwhile, in the first major public protest since the deadly blazes broke out last Friday, some 10,000 protesters squeezed into central Syntagma Square and surrounding streets. Most protesters wore black, as a sign of mourning for the dead, as they stood silently before the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The protest, which was organized by bloggers through the mass distribution of e-mails and text messages, was mostly peaceful. The only unrest was provoked by a group of leftists who were booed away from the crowd after turning up with a flag bearing political messages. Most protesters held black flags, either plain or bearing – unpoliticized – messages of protest.