ATHENS – A promise to return part of an unexpected primary surplus to some austerity victims has given Prime Minister Antonis Samaras’ New Democracy Conservatives enough of a boost to take back the lead over the major opposition Coalition of the Radical Left (SYRIZA) ahead of critical May elections for Greek municipalities and the European Parliament.
Samaras had said he would give back 70 percent of an expected surplus of 1.5 billion euros – or about 1.05 billion euros – to low-income pensioners, as well as a key constituency of his party, the military, police and emergency services personnel, although critics said they already have better salaries and benefits than most workers.
The poll by Alco, conducted March 24-27 for the weekly newspaper Proto Thema, gave New Democracy a 21.7-21.2 percent lead over SYRIZA for the first time in six months, although given the margin of error it remained essentially a dead heat.
The new political movement To Potami (The River) which has no leader, no candidates and no platform beyond its populist, anti-politician stance since being created by former TV presenter Stavros Theodorakis, is third with 9.4 percent, followed by the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn which has fallen to fourth at 8.2 percent.
Another survey by Palmos Analysis for TVxs.gr for the European Parliament elections gave SYRIZA a 15.2-15.1 percent lead over New Democracy, with To Potami third at 9 percent, Golden Dawn at 7.3 percent, the KKE Communists at 5.2 percent and the Elia (Olive Tree) movement that includes the fading PASOK Socialists, who are Samaras’ coalition partners, at 3.3 percent, barely above the 3 percent threshold needed to enter Parliament.
The Independent Greeks had 2.8 percent and the Democratic Left (DIMAR) that was once a coalition partner has vanished at 1.5 percent.
The Palmos poll though for the Greek municipal elections gave SYRIZA a 20.7-18.8 percent lead over New Democracy, followed by Golden Dawn at 8.2 percent, To Potami with 7 percent, KKE at 4.7, the Independent Greeks at 2.8 and DIMAR at 1.9 percent.
In Alco’s previous poll on March 11-13, SYRIZA led New Democracy by 21.2 to 20 percent, a lead similar to that in all other polls tracked by Reuters in recent months.
SYRIZA leader Alexis Tsipras had predicted a big win for his party in the elections which he said would force early national elections and bring him to power.
Still, the new poll came as welcome news to the Conservatives and Samaras who was trying to keep together a fragile coalition that includes his partner, the fast-disappearing PASOK Socialists who had to align themselves with Elia after finding its backing for pay cuts, tax hikes and slashed pensions cut their support to around 5 percent.
Sounding a lot like former PASOK leader and previous Premier George Papandreou, who had said before the 2009 elections that, “The money is there,” Samaras promised the pre-election giveaway although at this stage it would be only half of what he said he would give to austerity victims,
Most workers will get nothing back and pensioners then will face a 25 percent cut in auxiliary pensions, effectively taking away more than they would get from the surplus bonanza. Samaras said he would give 500 million euros to five million citizens – 500 euros per person – during a crushing economic crisis that has seen their purchasing power cut 46.8 percent.
The results came ahead of a scheduled midnight vote on March 30 on an omnibus bill that was agreed with the country’s international lenders, the Troika of the European Union-International Monetary Fund-European Central Bank (EU-IMF-ECB).
The government said approval is necessary to get release from an April 1 meeting Eurozone finance ministers of a long-delayed nine billion euro installment that is among the last in two bailouts of 240 billion euros, most of which run out this year.
Tsipras said if he comes to rule he would force revisions to the terms or renege on the payments, which could force Greece out of the Eurozone and also unable to borrow from the markets.
Eight lawmakers from the ruling parties objected to a provision that would extend the shelf life of fresh milk, which they said would bring in foreign competition and hurt Greek dairy farmers who have been accused of colluding to set high prices, but the would-be rebels reportedly caved in without a fight after being spoken to and brought back in line.
“At this point, my political ethics do not allow me to put the country’s smooth financing at risk,” he said in a statement.
The ruling parties have only 153 votes in the 300-member Parliament, but Samaras’ ordered arrest of leaders from the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party on charges of running a criminal gang, including six MPS, means the government now needs only 148 votes to get the bill passed as it’s expected it will.
Greece must pass the law to qualify for further bailout funds and repay 9.3 billion euros of debt maturing in May as most of the rescue packages have gone to repay previous loans, banks and investors.
Samaras also said Greece will ask the Troika for debt relief after a previous government stiffed private investors for what effectively was 74 percent losses, including Diaspora bondholders he promised to hold harmless before reneging on it.
He said he expects the Troika to disburse the nine billion euros and probably more, then start talks soon on how to provide further debt relief for Greece, which last year outperformed the fiscal goals set by its lenders although the primary surplus doesn’t include interest on debt, the cost of running cities and towns, state enterprises and some military expenditures.
“We have kept our promises, so our lenders will keep theirs,” he was quoted as saying in an interview with newspaper Realnews. “I believe that the (debt relief) issue will be settled by the fall,” he added.
The draft bill allows Greece’s bank bailout fund HFSF to sell its some of its stakes in Greek banks at losses to private investors, a move that led Tsipras to say he would sue government officials who do so.
The bill also includes anti-corruption clauses, including 15,000-150,000 euro fines on prime ministers, cabinet ministers and lawmakers caught red-handed.
Greek labor unions have called rallies outside parliament on March 30 to protest the draft law. Pharmacists who would lose their monopoly on the sale of non-prescription drugs and guaranteed profits, and angry that drugs could be sold in supermarkets which have longer operating hours, have been on strike but have decided to open more duty hour pharmacies.
Seamen said they would strike on March 31-April 1 although hundreds of strikes the past four years have done nothing to deter successive governments from continuing austerity measures that have created record unemployment and deep poverty.