x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

It's grim in Greece as voters go to polls

Critics in Greece say austerity has exacerbated the downturn and brought the country to the point of social and economic collapse.

ATHENS // Greek voters could hold the fate of the world economy in their hands as they head for the polls today, but with their society on the brink of collapse many are ready to reject the harsh austerity measures imposed by the international community.

"I am one of the lucky ones: I was fired last week," said Tasos Kostopoulos, a journalist with 25 years' experience at one of Greece's leading daily papers.

He had not been paid for 10 months. Now that he has been officially sacked, there is at least a chance of compensation.

"If the paper goes bankrupt, perhaps I will receive something in a year or two."

This is what passes for good fortune in Greece today, two years after a debt crisis sent the country into a spiral of recession and unemployment - now at a record high of more than 22 per cent.

Since then, the country has been forced to accept severe austerity measures, including huge cuts in public spending, as part of an international bailout. Critics say austerity has exacerbated the downturn and brought the country to the point of social and economic collapse.

Ominous signs are everywhere. Shops are closing one after another. Adverts offering cash for gold have sprouted like weeds on every corner.

Cafes are deserted and hassled by beggars, previously a rare sight in downtown Athens. At one central station, a man in a fraying suit checks each ticket machine for loose change.

Most observers expect a tight two-horse race in today's election, a rerun of the inconclusive poll last month that left the leading parties unable to form a government.

It is an ugly choice with huge stakes.

On one side is New Democracy, one of Greece's traditional leading parties that supports the austerity package as the price of continued international support. If they win, Greece could see a repeat of the violent anti-austerity street protests that convulsed Athens last October.

Their main opponent is Syriza, a coalition of 13 left-wing parties that rejects the terms of the bailout and says it will pull out of the deal. If foreign lenders refuse to renegotiate, Greece could be forced out of the euro. That would further devastate the Greek economy, and possibly trigger a crisis of confidence in the whole euro zone that would have huge implications for the global economy.

Syriza's charismatic leader, Alexis Tsipras, has taken the party from obscurity to the brink of victory on the promise that the international community is bluffing and cannot afford to let Greece leave the euro. Many Greeks are willing to take that risk simply because they feel there is nothing left to lose.

The port at Piraeus, half an hour outside the capital, dates back to the fifth century BC when the navy of classical Athens dominated the Mediterranean. In recent decades, its shipyards have been the backbone of a booming maritime industry.

A visit on Friday found the docks silent, the 10,000-strong workforce that built and repaired ships reduced to a skeleton crew of a hundred. The rusting hulk of a half-built tanker lays abandoned, its owners unable to keep up payments.

"People took great pride in their work here," said Babis Dinakis, who has spent 20 years in the close-knit Piraeus community and runs a store for tools and parts.

"It was highly specialised, often dangerous work - freezing in the winter, over 40 degrees in the summer. There was a culture that jobs were always delivered on time - no matter how many hours were needed."

But many here have been out of work for 18 months, while families face new taxes and pension cuts prescribed by the bailout package.

Locals have set up soup kitchens and food collections for the worst off, but even the famously strong support network of this working-class community is stretched to breaking point.

"People come to my store and beg to work for €10 a day," said Mr Dinakis. "These are people who have been experts in their job for 25 years."

This week, members of the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party trashed the shop of a well-known Egyptian fishmonger in Piraeus and hospitalised him, a sign of the spreading anti-immigrant extremism that has accompanied the crisis.

"He was well-liked and well-integrated, but this is the sort of anger that is growing," said Mr Dinakis. Golden Dawn took more than 10 per cent of the vote in Piraeus last month, compared with 5.3 per cent nationwide.

Many in the international community are frustrated with Greece's apparent unwillingness to pay the price for years of excessive spending, exorbitant welfare schemes and a bloated, over-protected public sector.

While many Greeks accept that cuts need to happen, they still question the way in which austerity has been implemented. The perception is that front line staff are bearing the brunt while politically connected officials are untouched.

"The kids had no exercise books for four months at the start of the year," said Anjelica Sapouna, a secondary schoolteacher in Athens and parliamentary candidate for Syriza. "In winter, there was no heating because schools couldn't afford fuel."

There are daily reports of pharmacies blocking access to medicines for lack of money, and children fainting in classrooms because they are no longer eating breakfast.

"Doctors and nurses have their wages cut in half, but pointless people in ministries keep their jobs," said Ms Sapouna. "There is no political will to change the medieval system of patronage and corruption."

Having never been in power, Syriza is free from the taint of corruption and its promises of a new approach to the crisis based on growth and job protection has struck a chord with those desperate for some glimmer of hope."

But many remain unconvinced by the economics of their plan, and fear a Syriza win could mean a tumultuous exit from the euro.

"This isn't about politics or even economics," said Kostas Stamatiou, a 52-year-old attorney in the crowd of a New Democracy rally on Friday evening. "This is a civilisational choice - do we want to stay part of the European way of thinking? Syriza would take us out of that, which would be a disaster."