Anger over Greek fires puts ruling party's lead in peril

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The Independent Online

The inferno that has ravaged as much as half of Greece's forests has also destroyed the ruling conservatives' lead in opinion polls a fortnight before a snap election.

What had seemed a certain progression to a second term for Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis and his New Democracy party is now set to be a bitter struggle as a lead of up to five points earlier this month has narrowed to within the margin of error.

Greece is facing its most uncertain election for a generation as a polling blackout is set to come into force on Friday; election law forbids surveys in the final two weeks of the campaign.

Efforts by the administration to blame arsonists in an attempt to deflect anger at the response to the fires have so far had little effect. The front page of the upmarket daily newspaper To Vima was unforgiving, predicting: "The elections of wrath". Left-leaning daily Ta Nea was also typical in its hostility: "Too busy hunting arsonists to put out fires," it read.

Fires continued to burn on at least 25 fronts yesterday, with a new blaze outside Athens prompting a frantic response from a multi-national team of firefighters. More than 20 countries have contributed personnel and kit to fight the flames, which have so far consumed nearly 270,000 hectares of forest, leaving at least 64 people confirmed dead and 3,500 homes burnt.

The government, which declared a state of emergency at the weekend, has promised immediate aid to victims of the fires and called for calm. "It is at times like these that a society must show its solidarity," Mr Karamanlis said. "At this time, all Greeks must be united." But while all campaigning has been suspended, there is little sign of a political truce.

Opposition leader George Papandreou was scathing in his assessment of the government: "It has been woefully unable to deal with the major issue of the fires all summer. Unfortunately, it didn't even manage to save people's lives, their property and their homes."

The government's assertions that the fires were the result of organised arson - possibly by some ill-defined group - have also led to confusion and anger.

"The fires are not burning because of some conspiracy but because of bad planning," said Elias Apostolides, a forestry expert. "When there is no planning, there is nothing you can do. At the moment the country has fallen to pieces, one village burning after the next."

Political analyst Paschos Mandravelis said it was not yet clear who would be made to pay. "The fires put the government in a difficult position. It has a lot of explaining to do as to why it took so long to co-ordinate efforts. But it takes a long time to change perceptions, so damage is certain but we don't know the extent of it," he said.