27/09/2009 - D-7
On 3rd September Greek Prime Minister Kostas Karamanlis (New Democracy, ND) announced to everyone's surprise that early general elections would take place on 4th October (this had initially been planned for the autumn of 2011).
The head of government is running for another term in office and is holding these elections early for two main reasons: firstly the economic crisis which has obliged him to set in place a series of difficult and necessarily unpopular structural measures and secondly the pressure placed on him by the main opposition party, the Panhellenic Socialist Movement (PASOK), which has declared that it would oppose the election of a compromise President of the Republic in March 2010, when the present Head of State, Carolos Papoulias's mandate is due to come to an end. Indeed ND only has a weak majority in Parliament and cannot guarantee the election of its candidate. According to the Greek Constitution the President of the Republic must win the vote of 200 of the three hundred representatives in the Vouli (Parliament). If he does not manage this then a new general election has to be organized. Although Kostas Karamanlis is accustomed to early elections (appointed as head of government in March 2004, he was re-elected on 16th September 2007 after an early election that shortened his mandate by a year), the precipitation of this election has not however occurred since Greek returned to a democratic system in 1974.
23 political parties are running in the general elections on 4th October. The electoral campaign rules were modified this time round with regard to the media. Previously the two 'main' parties – ND and PASOK – enjoyed 80% of the airtime and the 'small' parties shared what remains. From now on the two main parties will have 75% of the airtime and the 'small' ones the remaining 25%. In addition to this ND and PASOK have undertaken a great amount of work to renew their electoral offer even though ND seems to have had some problems in putting together its list of candidates.
An urgent need for reform
Greece is experiencing economic difficulties. Whilst its GDP growth rate was, until a few years ago, one of the highest in the EU, this is due to fall into the negative in 2009 (-2.5%) and lie at just over zero the following year (0.2%). The country, which was affected late on by the international economic crisis, has seen its two main economic sectors – sea trade and tourism – suffer severe losses. In addition to this Greece's debt has been growing by 237 million € per day. Its budgetary deficit that lay at 5% of the GDP last year is due to rise to 6.2% in 2009 and to 7.3% in 2010; national debt may rise beyond 100% this year. The balance of payments has the greatest deficit in the euro area in proportion to the GDP, inflation is high, unemployment lies at 15.5% of the working population (one quarter of university graduates are without work) and more than 20% of Greeks live below the poverty line with an average of 414 € per month according to figures published by the Employment Institute.
Since 27th April the country has been monitored by the EU for its excessive budgetary deficit. The European Commission has asked Greece to bring this figure below 3% of the GDP at the end of 2010. On 24th October next Athens is due to put forward the measures it intends to establish to reduce the budgetary deficit. The present Economy and Finance Minister has asked the EU to extend the deadline granted to it to achieve this by two years.
The two 'main' parties' electoral campaign
Outgoing Prime Minister Kostas Karamanlis, who launched his campaign on 8th September in Alexandroupoli gave details of his programme: the freezing of salaries in the public sector together with that of retirement pensions, the reduction of the national debt and a stepping up in the pace of privatizations to limit public spending. His aim: to reduce State spending by 30% over the next two years. Members of the government, MPs and mayors will witness the reduction of their allowances. His programme also includes the creation of the post of Environment Minister and the privatisation of nickel manufacturer, Larco, of the gas company DEPA and the second most important water company EYATH. Finally the party is committing to take steps to support the tourist industry and to fight effectively against tax evasion. "It is certain that this policy will produce results but it will require two years of work. If difficult necessary decisions are not taken and applied now the bill will come later and it will be much heavier," said the outgoing Prime Minister adding, "I have presented you with my policy. I may have made some mistakes or have certain weaknesses but I am determined to do what I have said and I shall do it."
Many political analysts wonder why the Head of government did not act earlier, or show more rigour in terms of the budget and even reform the university system when he had some room to manœuvre. Costas Caramanlis stands accused of not having addressed the scourge which undermines the country i.e. clientelism, nepotism and corruption, as he had promised to. According to some journalists the fight for the succession to the post of head of the ND party, held by the outgoing Prime Minister, if the party loses these general elections, has already started. Present Foreign Minister Dora Bakoyannis, Culture Minister, Antonis Samaras and Health/Social Solidarity Minister, Dimitris Avramopolos are amongst the pretenders to the seat. Kostas Karamanlis said that he had no intention of leaving his post as chair of ND if the party lost on 4th October.
Public Works and Environment Minister George Souflias will lead ND's list of State Representatives. Amongst the 300 members of the Vouli elected by a proportional vote 288 are appointed within their constituencies, the 12 remaining members, called State Representatives, because they represent the whole of Greece – a mainly honorary position, are elected on the basis of the results achieved by each of the parties nationally.
As for the opposition, PASOK, which launched its electoral campaign on 9th September in Egaleo, is promising wonders to the Greeks. George Papandreou's party supports greater redistribution of wealth, wants to stimulate the economy by bringing public investments up to 5% of the GDP, granting salary increases in the public sector above the inflation rate, reducing taxes on those who have an annual income below 30,000 € and by raising unemployment and retirement benefits. PASOK is promising to re-introduce wealth tax and inheritance duties and to protect households' buying power by freezing prices for the next year on services provided by State controlled companies but also those of companies by suspending the reimbursement of their bank debts for the same period. The party which declares that it will ask the EU to extend the deadline granted to it to reduce its budgetary deficit by another three years also hopes to renegotiate the privatizations that have already been finalized and to abandon any on-going projects. Finally PASOK wants to review military spending, reduce the number of ministers (by creating an Environment Ministry and by separating the Economy from the Finance Ministry), create a Council of Political Parties that would be responsible for countering corruption under the chairmanship of Costas Papoulias, reform local authorities by merging town councils, grant Greek nationality to any child born in the country and grant the right to vote to immigrants who can prove they have lived in the country for five years.
In terms of foreign policy George Papandreou said on 13th September that he would not exclude using his veto with regard to Turkey's accession to the EU if this country did not respect good neighbourly rules and did not help towards settling the problem in Cyprus. "We want a Turkey with a European view and as long as this country fulfils its obligations with regard to the Union and respects international law," he said during a press conference that was broadcast by Net TV channel. George Papandreou accused Kostas Karamanlis of "avoiding his responsibilities under pressure from Turkey in the Aegean Sea and with regard to Cyprus". Although Greece and Turkey have drawn closer together since 1999, notably under the influence of George Papandreou, then Foreign Minister in the government led by Costas Simitis (PASOK), both countries oppose one another over issues of sovereignty of the Aegean Sea and over the future of Cyprus.
The Small Parties
The Communist Party will put 424 candidates forward 35% of whom will be running for the first time and 36% of whom are women. Its chair, Aleka Papariga is campaigning on the lack of differences between the ND and the PASOK. "The two main parties must lose the elections and to do this people have to vote for the Communist Party," she repeats. She called on the 47.39% who abstained during the European elections on 7th June last asking them "to take part in the electoral battle that is coming and to make their opposition to the present policy visible." "It is time for a new start, the time for change," she declared.
On the far left the ideas are very much the same. Synaspismos leader (the main party in the Radical Left Coalition SYRIZA), Alexis Tsipras, whose popularity has declined since he expressed support for the rioters in Athens at the end of 2008, said "that a vote for the left (i.e. the Radical Left Coalition) represents a guarantee of social security". The list of the State Representatives for the Radical Left Coalition will be led by To Vima journalist Vassilis Moulopolos.
George Karatzaferis, the far right leader of the party the People's Orthodox Alarm (LAOS° accused the Prime Minister of "having chosen flight in a difficult time". During his speech at the 74th international fair of Thessaloniki which traditionally marks the start of the new political season in Greece (915 companies from 35 countries attended the event which took place from 5th to 13th September), he said he was convinced that PASOK would win the election on 4th October without however gaining enough seats to form a government alone. George Karatzaferis thinks that the socialists will choose to form an alliance with ND, a possibility which outgoing Prime Minister, Kostas Karamanlis ruled out completely on 10th September. The Head of government also said that ND would never join forces with the far right.
Yoannis Korantis, former ambassador and former head of the Greek secret services will lead the LAOS's State Representative list.
"The Greeks are tired of the two political dynasties which have been in power for the last fifty years," says the Green spokesperson Yoanna Kontuli. "Real problems such as corruption and nepotism will not be settled by the main parties. The Greeks have had enough and will find it difficult to turn out to vote this time," she added. The ecologist party's State Representatives list will be led by Doctor Maria Piniou-Kalli.
A tradition of political violence
On 23rd September a bomb exploded in the centre of Athens causing slight damage in front of the apartment of PASOK's economic issues spokesperson, Louka Katselis. Greece has a long history of political violence. On 10th September last the newspaper To Pontiki published an 11 page text on the part of Revolutionary Combat (EA), a far left group that features on the American and European list of terrorist organizations. The article accuses politicians of being responsible for the international economic crisis and indicates that "big shareholders, the golden boys and capitalists will pay for their criminal acts". The organisation, which stepped up its action since the death in December 2008 of a 15 year old teenager, Alexis Grigoropolos, killed by the police forces, claimed responsibility for the car bomb which damaged the headquarters of the Athens stock exchange on 2nd September; the blast injured one passerby. They also claimed to be behind the bomb attack on the ground floor of the Argyrupolis branch of the Eurobank on the outskirts of the capital on 12th May. Revolutionary Combat which warns that it will step up its attacks in the next few months is calling for abstention on 4th October next.
Just one week before the election PASOK is still in the lead in the polls ahead of ND by around 6 points. The KKE is in third position followed by LAOS and SYRIZA. Ahead in the polls PASOK does not seem able to win an absolute majority and will therefore have to work with one or several other parties to govern.