Elections bring no hope to soup kitchens

In front of a rundown building in central Athens, four men and a young woman pull a huge pot and bottle of gas from the trunk of a car and set them up on the pavement.

Oblivious to their crumbling surroundings, they fill the pot with water and bring it to a simmer by the side of a busy road, stirring in pasta to feed those driven to poverty by Greece?s debt crisis.

They are stepping in where the politicians have failed, they say, even though they, like one in five Greeks and half of all the nation?s young people, are unemployed.

Every day, through an informal group they call ?O Allos Anthropos?, or The Fellow Man, they feed all comers – mostly immigrants and others without jobs – thanks to donations, whether from a pensioner handing over half a loaf or market vendors stumping up unsold vegetables.

A few blocks away, workers are building a stage to hold campaign rallies for the May 6 elections. The pasta crew shake their heads in scorn.

?Those who are running in the election will just be wasting money to make campaign posters. They should be ashamed of themselves,? said Constantinos Polychronopoulos, 47, a jobless marketing man in a black apron, as he added zucchinis and onions to the mix.

?They have never gone hungry in their lives.? Like many of the people they feed, he lost his job in a deep recession, now into its fifth year, that has claimed hundreds of thousands of jobs. Many in this new army of the destitute, angry with the tax hikes and wage cuts that were a condition of the international bailout that saved the country from bankruptcy, are likely to abstain or back small parties opposed to austerity measures.

?The new poor will vote in great anger and disappointment for smaller or protest parties,? said Costas Panagopoulos, at ALCO pollsters. ?It?s a vote against the system.? The election will decide who steers the nation through the tough times after an emergency government secured the rescue funds from the European Union and International Monetary Fund, but it is not expected to change much.

Parties who object to the bailout also mostly object to each other, so there is no prospect of them coming together to rule.

That leaves a renewal of the fragile coalition between the conservative New Democracy party and PASOK, the socialists, as the only viable option.

It is likely to hold only a weak majority, while the growing ranks of the disaffected split their vote between as many as 10 opposition parties.

The bitterness towards politicians was shared not far away in a quiet churchyard, where a few dozen men and women queued up clutching empty plastic bags and boxes.

They arrived one by one at the yellow-stone Aghia Zonis Orthodox church to pick up a warm meal of potatoes and peas to take home to their families. There were no smiles, barely any talking and even less hope.

?I will be homeless in a few days. Does any politician have a solution to that?? said Costas Smaragdis, 60, a carpenter whose public sector job disappeared in 2010 when the state stopped renewing temporary contracts to save money.

He has just found a job at a funeral home, but that pays only 400 euros a month, not enough to avoid eviction. He will vote for a small party — it?s his ?democratic duty? — but believes the election will solve nothing.

Most of those gathered in the churchyard, old and young, were shocked to find themselves in such circumstances.

They used to be taxi drivers, shop owners or public servants, before their lives were sucked into the country?s deepest economic crisis since World War II. Now the basics are beyond their means.

After collecting food, a young mother also facing eviction took the black-robed priest aside and asked him softly if he could help her and her two children find a place to stay.

The Aghia Zonis church has seen the numbers coming for food more than double to over 100 a day since the crisis began. Three quarters of Greeks say they are struggling to keep up with bills, a Eurostat poll showed.

Pensioner Costas Yiakouvakis had owned a shop and driven a cab in his 67 years. Now his social benefits are lower than the rent for the flat he shares with his unemployed son.

He is angry to find himself depending on charity to eat.

?I am disgusted by politicians. I will not vote,? he said.

He was once a Socialist party official, too, but lost faith in politics when wages and benefits were slashed to plug the fiscal gap. Pensions have been cut by an average 25 percent since the beginning of the crisis.

Average private sector wages have also tumbled, falling by nearly a quarter last year alone.

?There can be no hope from politicians, even after the elections,? he said. ?I have no reason to go vote.? He knows that whoever governs will have to find another 11 billion euros of spending cuts to satisfy lenders, and the economy, 16 percent smaller than when the crisis began, will shrink again this year and next, and maybe beyond. [Reuters]