Greece: “We Are Their Greatest Fear”

Stelios Bozikis, recently elected Mayor of Zakynthos Town on the island of Zakynthos, discovered that there were 650 blind people on the island—2% of the population, 10 times the rate of blindness in Europe. But only 40 were actually vision impaired. The rest had succeeded in getting themselves declared blind to receive €350 or more in monthly payments. When he stopped payments to the faux blind, they—in another sign of how ingrained corruption is—revolted and threw eggs and yogurt at him. Apparently, the head ophthalmologist at the hospital diagnosed people as blind in exchange for cash. The claims were approved by the governor of the island, Dionysios Gasparos—his way of buying votes. And he is running for election as candidate for the New Democracy party.

So on Sunday, outraged Greeks get to vent their anger at the political elite. After decades of mismanagement and corruption, the two leading parties, the conservative New Democracy and the socialist Pasok, which had been taking turns divvying up the spoils, will take a licking, and neither might get enough votes to govern. In 2009, Pasok had won by landslide. But its support crumbled as troika-imposed reform measures cut into wages and benefits of its power base, public sector employees. New Democracy, according to the latest polls, will likely emerge as the strongest party, but not strong enough. And a record six or maybe even eight other parties that are vigorously campaigning against the reform measures might clear the 3% threshold and enter parliament.

“There are certain misconceptions that worry me: for instance, the misconception that whatever happens, we are not going to leave the euro,” said Evangelos Venizelos, president of Pasok and former Finance Minister. But frustrated voters are searching for alternatives, and they’re finding the Golden Dawn party whose emblem is reminiscent of a swastika—in a country brutalized by the Nazis. And so the neo-Nazis will likely make it into Parliament for the first time in Greek history. While few Greeks sympathize with their neo-Nazi principles, enough like their anti-immigrant stance—and in a desperate effort to hang on to votes, the government hastily opened retention camps for illegal immigrants.

Even the traditional pre-election jump in economic sentiment by households and businesses—a result of the equally traditional vote-buying racket—practically disappeared, according to the Foundation for Economic and Industrial Research (IOBE). The index rose only a tiny bit, to 77.3 from 75.7 in March (with 100 being the average 1996-2006). Racked by record unemployment, lower wages, gruesome suicide reports in the media, and higher taxes, consumers were the most pessimistic in Europe; and 80% expected the economic situation to get even worse. “This time there appears to be no margin for particular optimism,” the IOBE reported dryly.

In a sign of just how gummed up the system has become, another “temporary” pre-election bailout saw the light of the day: €250 million for Public Power Corp, Greece’s exclusive electricity retailer and largest power producer. Hurt by higher fuel costs and wilting demand, it had lost €148.9 million in 2011. And it ran out of money.

The reason: a Greek irony. Last year, as part of the bailout requirements, the government implemented a reviled tax collection method that billed homeowners for property taxes on their electricity bills. If the taxes didn’t get paid, PPC would cut off the juice. In protest, homeowners stopped paying their bills altogether. Due to popular unrest, the juice wasn’t cut off, but PPC’s cash flow collapsed. It stopped paying natural gas suppliers and small power producers that had sprung up following the EU-imposed liberalization of the electricity market in 2007. Producing 23% of the country’s electricity, they threatened to shut down their generators if they weren’t paid. Faced with pre-election power chaos, the government agreed to let PPC hang on to €250 million in property taxes it had already collected and was supposed to transfer to the government.

“Change everything,” was the rallying cry of Antonis Samaras, the leader of New Democracy, at a rally in Thessaloniki, though his party had entered into a coalition with Pasok to advance the reform measures far enough to where the bailout money would flow again. He exhorted his listeners to give New Democracy an absolute majority. And Greek election math might help him: the party with the most votes gets an additional 50 seats in the 300-seat parliament, a big step toward obtaining the 151 seats needed to form a government. It probably won’t be enough. So the party has three days to form a coalition with another party. But….

“We do not want to rule jointly,” Samaras said at the rally. “Those speaking of joint governance do not want anything to change. And we are their greatest fear because we want to change everything.”

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