Angelos Tzortzinasangelos Tzortzinis AFP/Getty Images

Greek voters look left for Syriza to end economic catastrophe

Despite German warnings, supporters of leftist party want stimulus, not austerity, to lift Greece’s economy

Vangelis Evangelides sells nuts. At this time of year, wearing a fur-lined coat and floppy cap, he pushes his heavy nut-laden cart from one alley to another through Plaka, the picturesque neighborhood beneath the ancient Acropolis.

He says he sees and hears a lot. But these days, he has only one concern. Less than two weeks before crucial elections in the country long at the center of Europe’s debt crisis, his overriding worry is whether the party he is rooting for will finally assume power.

“I want Syriza to win,” he says, cupping his hands against the cold. “Like the left all over the world, it says all the right things about health, social welfare and education. And Greece is in a terrible way. Syriza will help get us out of this mess.”

In a nation where politics is regarded almost as a sacred sport — a topic with the innate ability to animate people high and low — Evangelides is not alone. Nor is his reasoning. “I want the left to emerge victorious because they are clean,” he splutters. “They are untainted by power, they’ve never held office, and I want to see change. All those people, all those old faces who have ruined us have to go.”

His wish may well come true. For close to a year, Syriza — a coalition of former socialists, ex-communists, Maoists, Trotskyists and Greens — has seen its popularity soar on the back of vehement opposition to the austerity policies Greece has been forced to implement after its near economic collapse.

The policies — the price of about 240 billion euros in bailout funds from the European Union, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund — have had devastating effects. Since late 2009, the beleaguered Mediterranean state has suffered a Depression-era recession worse, analysts say, than even that experienced by the U.S. in the 1930s.

Its national output has contracted by over 25 percent, its unemployment rate at one point hit 30 percent (it is now 4 percentage points lower), and its poverty levels have skyrocketed, with the country’s once ebullient middle class decimated in the process.

‘I want Syriza to win. Like the left all over the world, it says all the right things about health, social welfare and education. And Greece is in a terrible way. Syriza will help get us out of this mess.’

Vangelis Evangelides

Athens street vendor

“People just don’t have a penny,” says Maria Tintisi, who has run a stall selling olives in Athens’ central market for the past 20 years. “Commerce hasn’t just fallen 50 percent. It’s fallen by 75 percent, and it is still falling. Who would ever have thought that the day would come when Greeks would not be able to afford olives? But it has. Every day people come … hands outstretched, begging.”

Suicides, infant mortality and hunger have risen alongside desperation, anger and fear.

At last count, close to 150,000 Greeks had fled the country in what sociologists have described as the biggest cull of the best and brightest to be experienced by an advanced Western economy since the World War II.

Syriza blames what people have called a silent humanitarian crisis on the emphasis Greece’s troika of creditors has given to fiscal austerity over monetary stimulus.

“Such catastrophic policies have led to the near death of our country,” says its chief, Alexis Tsipras, who was catapulted from relative obscurity to Greece’s main opposition leader at the height of the crisis in mid-2012. “If they continue, Greece will become a colony with no future.”

As the campaign heats up ahead of the Jan. 25 snap poll, Syriza’s rhetoric has resonated.

For many, the elections — forced on prime minister Antonis Samaras’ fragile coalition by parliament’s failure in December to elect a new head of state — offers a new beginning. Among Greek youths, who have been hardest hit by the inability to find work (more than 50 percent are jobless) the radical leftists embody hope.

Nearly three years after he assumed office, there is widespread belief that Samaras’ center-right New Democracy party and its junior coalition partner, the socialist Pasok, are symbolic of the patronage politics, corruption and cronyism that brought Greece to its knees. 

‘Such catastrophic policies have led to the near death of our country. If they continue, Greece will become a colony with no future.’

Alexis Tsipras

Syriza chief

“Our country has been destroyed by people who cared more about themselves than the patrida [homeland]," laments Eleftheria Kyriakopoulou, who now runs a hair salon from her fourth-floor apartment. “We had to close our shop because the 60,000 euro [about $70,000] grant we were meant to receive somehow went missing in the bureaucracy. And then with all the tax increases, wage and pension cuts, people couldn’t afford to have their hair cut or tinted.”

At 62, she is typical of an older generation that will also be voting for Syriza. Like others, she is persuaded it will put up “a better defense” in negotiations with debt-stricken Greece’s troika.

Talks aimed at unlocking a last tranche of aid — before agreement on a new credit line to bolster the economy when the bailout program ends — foundered late last year in disagreement over further cost-cutting measures.

Germany, Europe’s paymaster and provider of most of Athens’ rescue funds, is insisting that Greece modernize its economy with more unpopular reforms. At the top of the list is a root-and-branch overhaul of the pension system and reduction of employees in the bloated public sector.

“There can be no new memorandum,” Tsipras said at the weekend. “We will cancel austerity.” He insists that the country’s “unsustainable” debt load — at 177 percent of GDP, the largest of any EU member state — must also be drastically reduced, in an echo of the treatment given Germany after World War II.

It is such demands that have unnerved Europe, rattled markets and revived fears of Greece’s being forced to leave the eurozone.

Increasingly, the Greeks are being told that their desire to ease austerity is incompatible with the conditions attached to keeping the country afloat. Last week the Frankfurt-based European Central Bank announced, in no uncertain terms, that Athens would have to successfully complete its final bailout review before Greek banks could continue tapping its funds. Lenders have consented to extending their financial assistance until the end of February but have said any further support will depend on a new deal.

The warning has raised the specter of a run on Greek banks. If Syriza refuses to agree to the policies its voters so want to end and a compromise is not reached, anxiety abounds that depositors will panic. In December alone, some 2.5 billion euros (about $2.95 billion) fled Greece, according to the country’s central bank.  

To date, polls show that while the radical leftists enjoy a lead of 3 to 5 percentage points, they are unlikely — even with the 50-seat bonus awarded to the party winning the most votes in the elections — to attain an outright majority in the 300-seat parliament.

As it edges ever closer to victory, there is increasing focus on whom Syriza could join with in a coalition government.

“That is our best hope,” says Theodore Pelagidis, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who maintains that the radical leftists are far from ready to assume power. “The mental depression Greeks have suffered over the past five years should not be underestimated. Depositors are anxious because they are worried about how Syriza will behave after the election. But if they have to enter a grand coalition, it will help Tsipras tell his own left-wing faction that he has no choice but to agree with creditors. Right now, that is the best scenario we can hope for.”

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