Greece election Sunday to test austerity measures – USA TODAY
ATHENS — Every day for the past two years, Konstantinos Polychronopoulos has set his pop-up soup kitchen in the street to offer free food to passersby.
“Our food is for everyone,” says the former marketing executive who lost his job when the Greek financial crisis struck in 2009. “It’s not charity, it’s solidarity.”
Greece’s economic crisis and austerity measures the past six years have hit Polychronopoulos and his fellow citizens hard. They’ve lost patience with struggling and get to vote Sunday in a national election that gives them a tough choice on how to handle the country’s economic crisis.
Polls show Syriza, a relatively new left-wing party, is likely to win big in the parliamentary elections, and its leader has pledged to renegotiate the terms of bailouts by the European Union and International Monetary Fund that have led the government to hike taxes and make cutbacks.
Greece’s staggering debt topped $369 billion last year, equivalent to $34,600 for each resident.
Despite the bailouts, Greece’s gross domestic product has contracted about 30% compared with seven years ago. Unemployment has reached 26% — among youth, the jobless rate jumps to 60%. A third of the population lives below the poverty line.
Syriza promises more social programs to address the suffering felt by many families in Greece. On a recent campaign stop in the city of Argos, Alexis Tsipras, 40, the leader of Syriza, walked in the main pedestrian thoroughfare to meet voters. While a few young girls took a selfie with Tsipras, an older man shook his hand and said, “Even if you fulfill two out of the 10 (pledges) you’ve promised, we’ll be happy.”
Some say Syriza’s program is unrealistic and risky.
The government warns that Greece could go bankrupt, return to the drachma — its currency before joining the Eurozone in 2001 — and exit the EU.
“Greeks want to stay in the European Union,” conservative Prime Minister Antonis Samaras said at a recent election rally, adding that Greek GDP grew by 1.7% at the end of last year.
Samaras’ term was to expire in mid-2016, but in December, he called a snap election after Parliament failed to elect a president — a reflection of people’s frustration that the country’s economy has failed to get back on track.
Polychronopoulos has little time for Samaras’ warnings. “What does it mean when they threaten that Greece will go bankrupt?” he asks. “Greece is already bankrupt. If I’m living on the street, will I care if the banks go bankrupt?”
Some economists say people are suffering because officials haven’t implemented widespread changes needed under the austerity measures.
The price of oil, for example, has fallen about 50% on global markets since June. In Greece, it’s decreased by only 20% because the government never challenged the elites who control the energy sector, says University of Athens economist Aristides Hatzis.
“The oligarchy in Greece wasn’t affected,” Hatzis says. “Like the refineries cartel, none of the closed markets controlled by the oligarchy opened.”
The price at the pump in Greece is the 14th most expensive in the world, at $7.06 per gallon, according to Bloomberg’s Gas Price Ranking.
“You can cut state budgets, but it has to be in a smart way,” Hatzis says. “We don’t have heating, no cleaning staff. We don’t have guards. People come in and steal the school’s computers.”
Such staffing problems are common. The Greek government began laying off public-sector workers en masse in 2013, aiming to shed 180,000 employees.
Cleaning workers at the Ministry of Economics, among the first to go, have protested by setting up tents and sleeping outside their old workplace in shifts. Lower-paid private contractors have replaced them.
“They said our positions became redundant,” says Lili Giannaki, 39, who cleaned the ministry for 13 years. “I get help from my parents now.”
Syriza has promised to rehire Giannaki and her unemployed colleagues. She’s a staunch supporter of the party. “I’m not only hoping I get my job back but that things get better for everyone,” she says.