Decision time: will the radicals hold their nerve?

As fear of the financial abyss takes hold, Patrick Cockburn reports from Athens

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The Independent Online

Greeks vote tomorrow in a crucial election that could lead to their country leaving the eurozone and precipitating a financial crash in the rest of the world.

Greece is facing a political as well as an economic crisis as the country divides between those willing to accept the EU austerity programme in return for €240bn in loans in 2010 and 2011. The two main political parties, divided for and against the austerity agreement, were believed to be running neck and neck up to the final days of campaigning.

But the conservative New Democracy party may have edged a few points ahead of the radical left Syriza party at the last moment as voters fear a financial calamity and Greece’s exit from the euro. The party with the most votes receives an extra 50 seats in the 300-seat parliament if it succeeds in forming a government.

“I believe there will be a deadlock,” say George Tzogopoulos of the Bodossakis Foundation think tank in Athens. “The most likely outcome, if New Democracy comes first, is that it will form a weak coalition with strong opposition inside and outside parliament.” He does not expect such a coalition to survive more than a few months.

If Syriza, the grouping of left wing parties under its inspirational leader Alexis Tsipras, wins most votes, it is pledged to tear up the austerity memorandum with the EU as soon as it forms a government. EU leaders have said Greece cannot do this and stay in the single currency. Mr Tsipras says he wants Greece to stay in, but he believes he can renegotiate the memorandum on cuts to pensions, wages and the labour force and the rise in taxation that has sent the economy spiralling into deep depression.

Syriza supporters gathering in Omonia Square in central Athens for the party’s final rally prior to the poll tomorrow explained how unemployment, poor wages and a sense of betrayal by traditional politicians had led them to support the radical left. Marianna Papocanno said: “I used to work in advertising at a newspaper but I lost my job two years ago and I’ve been unemployed until this week. I have just got a job in a call centre paying €450 a month which is not enough live on.”

Vassilis Letos, an unemployed builder, says he has worked 48 days in the last two years and “I feel betrayed by Pasok [the socialist party that was in government until last year] - it joined the corrupt plutocracy and stopped representing the people.” Pasok, the main player in Greek politics for 30 years, suffered a disaster in the first round of the election on 6 May with many of its former voters defecting to Syriza. It will be part of any new coalition led by New Democracy.

Disillusionment with traditional parties as corrupt, self-serving and incompetent explains the swift rise of Syriza on the left, and the neo-fascist Golden Dawn party on the right. Mr Tsipras says Greeks should not give up hope and seek to persuade the EU to moderate its terms. Sophia Papaioannou, a television anchor and journalist says, “All Greeks are afraid but a bit happy that an alternative exists [in the shape of Syriza]. Previously it was as if we always surrendered.”

Even if Syriza tops the poll it will have great difficulty finding allies to form a government since the KKE Communist party, seen as deeply fossilised, says it will not join a coalition. But, even if Greece does not formally renege on the memorandum, it is so widely reviled in Greece as a foreign diktat which is ruining the country that it will be politically very difficult to implement.

In the short term, fear of economic disintegration may lead to voters rallying to New Democracy. Greek newspapers and television stations have been portraying Syriza as a revolutionary party which will lead Greece to immediate economic disaster and exit from the euro. The jibe of one of the party’s critics is that “Tsipras wants to behave like Chavez but without the oil.”

For their part New Democracy and Pasok are open to the charge that it is unrealistic, since they each formed governments notorious for their corruption and maladministration, to put them in charge of cleaning up the system. Mr Tzogopoulos says the greatest miscalculation of the EU Troika (EU, IMF and European Central Bank) was to see these leaders as instruments of change. “Their biggest mistake was to think that Greek politicians could operate at German standards,” he says.

People’s sense of insecurity is not confined to economics, but is fuelled by growing violence in the streets. One incident symbolising this came earlier this week when a middle-aged pharmacist, Spiros Poukamisa, on his way home in a back street in a poor area near the port of Piraeus, was shot dead by two thieves when he refused to hand over the day’s takings. The spot where he was murdered is marked by rows of candles and bunches of red flowers and carnations.

It is in a measure of increased crime that the spot where Mr Poukamisa was killed is only a few feet from a memorial to two policemen shot dead last year by thieves they were pursuing. Another two policemen were wounded and the spot where the four men were gunned down is marked by a model blue-and-white Greek church and a model policeman on a motorbike.