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Facing a 'National Crisis,' Greece Heads for Polls One Year Early

Premier hopes for fresh mandate but finds unexpected opposition

In the four weeks since Prime Minister Costas Simitis announced early national elections, Athens and other major cities have quickly entered into election mode as candidates try to attract the votes of a relatively disenchanted electorate ahead of Sunday's voting.

Campaign booths - rickety structures that resemble bus stops and are plastered with campaign posters - have sprung up in central squares. From them volunteers hand out party literature.

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Abandoned storefronts and offices have been turned into campaign headquarters and political rallying centers. But for all the hoopla, the election has captured little enthusiasm from a public that considers Greece's economy an unsalvageable project for any government.

The four-year term of the ruling Panhellenic Socialist Movement (PASOK) officially ends in October 1997. But the Greek Constitution allows for a premier to seek a renewed mandate through early elections if he is faced with a national crisis.

Opponents say that Mr. Simitis has used a just such a crisis in Greek-Turkish relations, created by the recent violence in Cyprus, as an excuse to call for early elections.

The vote may determine whether Greece will be a full partner in the European Union (EU) and a leader in the Balkan region.

Running neck and neck

PASOK welcomed Simitis's decision to call early elections. Simitis, although not as charismatic as the late PASOK leader Andreas Papandreaou, is still the leader in recent polls. But he has faced unexpectedly tough opposition from Miltides Evert of the conservative New Democracy Party.

PASOK officials had hoped that the Simitis's high public-approval ratings, together with economic recovery in the form of rising wages, would allow PASOK to win the elections with a comfortable majority. But as the campaign entered its final stretch this week, opinion surveys showed the ruling PASOK and its main opposition, the New Democracy Party, running neck and neck.

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A renewed mandate would enable Simitis to proceed with strict economic management in 1997 and boost Greece's chances of joining the proposed single European currency at the end of the decade.

In a recent public address, Simitis stressed the need for ambitious reforms aimed at slashing the deficit and inflation.

A supporter of European economic integration, Simitis said that Greece "is facing a difficult road ahead if it wants to achieve targets set by the 15 member-states of the European Union."

"We have to speed up our pace if we don't want to be left out of the united Europe. That would be a clear defeat," he added.

As far as economic policy is concerned, the ideological roles of the two main parties have reversed in recent years. In particular, PASOK's recent focus on economic austerity contrasts strikingly with Mr. Papandreaou's generous spending policies in the late 1980s.

While PASOK aims to halt excess state spending, curb tax evasion, and trim the number of government workers, Conservatives have focused their economic policy on the common laborer. They have pledged to undo PASOK's unpopular tax reforms and promised tax relief for farmers and small businesses.

Such tax relief would cost more than $1.25 billion, hurting Greece's economy and jeopardizing plans to join the European Monetary Union, say finance ministry officials.

A win at the polls would also allow Simitis to pursue better relations with Turkey on several fronts, including differences over Cyprus and territorial rights in the Aegean Sea.

A stronger role for Greece in the Balkans and closer ties with the former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia, which borders Greece to the north.

Splinter groups pose challenges

In addition to the two main parties, four minor parties will likely reach the 3 percent vote threshold needed to win seats in the 300-seat parliament. Both main parties face challenges from socialist and conservative splinter political parties.

Independent analysts claim both majority parties are in equal danger of losing support - a concern, they add, that has pushed both to try to polarize voters by casting the elections as a classic clash between right and left.

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