Suspense in Greece with Election Rivals Seen Neck-and-Neck

Posted on: June 18, 2012 at 00:41
Greece's conservative and radical parties are running neck-and-neck according to exit polls after elections Sunday that could help decide the future of the eurozone and being watched around the world.

The pro-bailout New Democracy party favored by the international community took between 27.5 and 30.5 percent of the vote compared to 27-30 percent for the anti-austerity leftist Syriza party, the exit polls showed.

Syriza's firebrand leader Alexis Tsipras has vowed that if he wins he will tear up on Monday a European Union and the International Monetary Fund bailout deal that has given Greece a credit lifeline in exchange for harsh austerity.

''We have conquered fear. Today we open a path to hope, to a better future,'' Tsipras said as he cast his ballot in a working-class district of Athens.

New Democracy chief Antonis Samaras has accused him of playing with fire and says the vote is a choice between keeping the euro or returning to the drachma, although he too argues the terms of the bailout deal should be revised.

''Today the Greek people speak. Tomorrow a new era starts for Greece,'' Samaras told reporters in his hometown of Pylos in the southern Peloponnese peninsula.

Costis Hadzidakis, a senior New Democracy official said on Skai TV: ''There needs to be a government. The country cannot remain directionless.''

''This government has to be a national team with as big a majority as possible. What else has to happen for us to realize this?'' he said.

With no one party holding a majority according to the polls the coming days are likely to be dominated by coalition talks with smaller parties -- an ominous reminder of the deadlock last month following inconclusive elections.

Syriza has excluded any possible coalition agreement with New Democracy.

''The figures are very tight, there is no majority,'' Syriza supporter Lavros Moustakis said in the streets of Athens. ''We may have to re-run the election in a month and in that time, (German Chancellor Angela) Merkel will ruin us.''

Merkel and other international leaders urged Greeks to vote for lawmakers who will toe the line on the bailout, saying it was ''extremely important.''

Eurogroup chief Jean-Claude Juncker meanwhile has warned that a victory for the radical left would have ''unpredictable consequences'' for the eurozone.

The exit polls also showed the neo-Nazi party Golden Dawn could win between 6.0 and 7.5 percent of the vote on the back of anti-immigrant sentiment.

Analysts warn that a victory for Syriza could send Greece crashing out of the euro within months even though a huge majority of Greeks want to stay in and that a New Democracy-led Greece may also eventually be forced out of the euro.

''I think that most people are anxious because the future is very dark,'' Tonia Katerini, a 54-year-old architect, told AFP after casting her ballot in an elementary school in the upmarket Kolonaki district in central Athens.

''The situation in the last two years has been very hard for most people so I believe we have to make a big change,'' she said as dozens of people scanned electoral lists in front of an Orthodox church as the bell tolled for mass.

But Emmanuel Kamkoutis, a 68-year-old pensioner, said he voted for the right because he wanted ''a pro-European government and not a communist one.''

''We signed something. We can't just take it back,'' he said, referring to the bailout deal. ''We have to try very hard to keep ourselves in the euro.''

Greek newspapers said the vote was the most critical since the end of military rule in 1974.

Germany's Bild tabloid added to tensions ahead of the vote with an open letter telling Greeks their ATMs had euros only because ''we put them there''.

''If the parties who want to be through with austerity and reforms win the election and contravene every agreement, we will stop paying,'' it said.

Greece has been forced to seek bailouts twice, first for 110 billion euros in 2010 and then for 130 billion euros this year plus a 107 billion euro private debt write-off -- for a total of 347 billion euros ($439 billion).

There may be some room for compromise on the bailout conditions, such as extending a crucial deficit-cutting deadline to 2016 from 2014.

But for many Greeks a fine-tuning of the terms may not be enough as public anger is rising against the steep pay and pension cuts seen since the crisis first exploded in 2009, setting off a chain reaction across Europe.

Greece is now in its fifth year of recession, prompting many young Greeks to vote with their feet by emigrating, while local media warn the state will run out of cash to pay public-sector salaries and pensions on July 20.

The ballot passed off mostly smoothly but at around 1000 GMT prominent private media group Skai TV, which supports the unpopular austerity drive, was evacuated after two grenades were found outside its offices.

Police said the grenades, which were operational, were found after an anonymous telephone warning in the early morning. There was no explosion.

''Democracy cannot be terrorized,'' said government spokesman Dimitris Tsiodras.

Source:Agence France Presse
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