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Greeks Gear Up to Cast ‘Protest Votes’ Against Austerity

ATHENS, May 3 2012 (IPS) - Aggeliki Anagnostopoulou (30) sits in a corner of the huge room that volunteers from the new party, Independent Greeks, are using as a headquarters for their pre-election campaign in the lead up to polling day on May 6.

A New Democracy (ND) voter until the last election in 2009, she recently joined the Independent Greeks, led by former ND minister Panos Kammenos who broke away from his old party when it entered a pro-bailout coalition government at the end of last year.

“Greek voters are disappointed with the two big parties. They are trying to find a new perspective. I (used) to vote for Panos Kammenos in New Democracy but I was disenchanted with the party so I followed him to this new beginning,” said Anagnostopoulou, who used to work as an external auditor for a United States-based multinational but was made redundant in 2011.

At the two-month-old, improvised party headquarters, modern techniques like the use of social media are being fused with the traditional practice of citizens registering with the party, in the hope of attracting new supporters while keeping the old voter base happy.

With elections just around the corner, the Independent Greeks’ headquarters has become increasingly populated.

Former supporters of ND and PASOK, the two parties that dominated Greek politics from the beginning of the 1980s up until the last election in 2009, have thrown their lot in with Kammenos in what appears to be the biggest protest vote the country has experienced in the last 30 years.

Kammenos, known for his explosive speeches in parliament, has capitalised heavily on anti-bailout rhetoric with nationalist undertones, in a campaign that blames PASOK and New Democracy politicians for betraying the country and conspiring against the nation.

Recent polls show him climbing up to 10 percent support in the national election this Sunday.

Creditors hold the reigns

Greece all but handed over its public finances to its creditors – led by the Troika, an administrative structure consisting of the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund – when it became all too clear in May 2010 that the country was unable to repay its huge public debt.

Since then it has implement a severe austerity programme of raising taxes and cutting pensions and state salaries across the board, deregulating the labour market and pushing ahead with pro-market reforms in exchange for billions of ‘bailout euros’.

The programme of slashing public spending has sunk the country into three years of recession and pushed unemployment up to 21 percent.

The austerity policy has also damaged political parties associated with its implementation and sent an enormous wave of protest votes fleeing towards leftist and right-wing parties.

Pre-election polls have highlighted the fragmentation of political forces, showing ten parties from across the political spectrum climbing above the three percent support threshold.

“It is evident now that the old political system that nurtured Greece’s public finance issues is meeting the beginning of its end,” said Nick Malkoutzis, a renowned journalist and political analyst who has gained recognition covering the crisis on his popular blog ‘Inside Greece’.

Increased support for leftists or the appearance of extremist groups like the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party are not yet proof of a change in political culture; still, “It is evident that people are looking for something different. Plenty of them think that a vote for the neo-Nazis is a way to punish traditional politicians,” said Malkoutzis.

“Real change might come not in this but the next election,” he told IPS.

Given that the Troika plans to return to Greece right after the elections, to determine an economic plan that will cut a further 11.5 billion euros in public spending, “it is unlikely that the new parliament will live long,” Stavros Lygeros, a senior Greek political analyst, commented a few days ago.

“It is in fact one of the major paradoxes of this election that ND and PASOK fight each other, when they have both signed (onto) the austerity programme to be implemented after elections.”

He added that the mainstream political establishment is hopeful that the two parties will survive the election only to form a new coalition government that will carry on under the Troika’s command.

During the announcement of elections at the beginning of April, Troika officials publicly exerted pressure on the leaders of PASOK and ND in order to prevent them from straying too far from the rhetoric of bailout commitments.

Paul Thomsen, head of the IMF mission in Greece, has specified measures the new government will have to implement, irrelevant of which party wins the election.

“It is very negative for Europe that technocrats were able to express opinions in international media that elections should not take place in Greece, or that the country must carry out its commitments irrelevant of the outcome of this election. It is obvious that the Troika would prefer a PASOK and ND government that implements further austerity measures,” says Malkoutzis.

ND and PASOK leaders have employed a pre-election rhetoric that borders on blackmail, explicitly warning the nation in their latest speeches and articles about the chaos that will surely follow if they do not survive the election.

Though “this blackmail worked for the last two years, it wont be of use for much longer,” said Zeza Zikou, an economic analyst for the biggest national political newspaper, Kathimerini.

Gradually, she said, people will understand that the bailout agreements have condemned ordinary people to work forever to repay a debt that can never be settled.

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