Greeks Cast Votes And Doubt On Bailout Deals

People are going to the polls on Sunday to cast their ballots in what has become a referendum on international loan agreements. The election is the most unpredictable in recent history and could produce a hung parliament. NPR's Sylvia Poggioli talks to host Rachel Martin from Athens.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Now, to Greece where voters are going to the polls today to cast ballots in what has become a referendum on international loan agreements. The country is in deep recession. Unemployment has hit 21 percent and GDP has been slashed by 20 percent in just two years.

NPR's Sylvia Poggioli joins us on the line from Athens. Good morning, Sylvia.

SYLVIA POGGIOLI BYLINE: Good morning, Rachel.

MARTIN: So, Sylvia, these elections have been described by many economists as crucial for the future of the eurozone, and really for the future of Greece itself. How to Greek voters see this election?

BYLINE: They're very, very angry about the austerity measures imposed on Greece by a German-inspired European Union and at their own politicians who brought their country to this very sorry state.

The two parties that governed Greece for four decades, the socialist PASOK and the conservative New Democracy, are blamed for having bowed to international creditors' demands. The socialists and conservatives are so unpopular they could barely campaign in the open. Their candidates were jeered, harassed and pelted with yogurt.

The two parties claim that if they are defeated, Greece faces expulsion from the eurozone, bankruptcy and massive poverty. But polls suggest that a very large number of Greeks do not believe that this is a credible threat.

MARTIN: So the major political parties are getting a lot of the blame. Are there any political parties that are leveraging the current situation to their advantage?

BYLINE: Absolutely, there are many small fringe parties both on the left and on the right. On the extreme right there the very worrisome neo-Nazi Golden Dawn, which is going to probably get into parliament. But the most popular party on the right is a new party, Independent Greeks, that was created by a politician who split from the conservative New Democracy. And on the left, there's something called Syriza, The Coalition of the Radical Left that groups Euro Communists, social Democrats and Greens.

And all these fringe parties are popular thanks to their strong criticism of the German-inspired austerity program, but also thanks to their very strong defense of national sovereignty. One of the mantras you hear here is that Greeks are never consulted, that austerity was imposed on them from outside, and that the democratic process was sidestepped.

According to the polls, the anti-austerity front could actually pool the most votes. But of these parties are very divided. They could never form an alternative coalition on their own and a crowded parliament will really likely be very chaotic and very fractious.

MARTIN: So a weaker government, Sylvia, what would that look like?

BYLINE: Well, most analysts expect that the Socialists in new democracy will scrape through and continue their uneasy coalition. And that's certainly when Germany is hoping for. But even so, it's going to be a very weak government which had a tough task ahead, slashing another 15 and a half billion dollars from the state budget over the next two years. And that's going to be very difficult in a country where some 20 percent of Greeks are living under the poverty line. And so, many analysts say there could be another round of elections within a few months.

MARTIN: We mentioned all of the instability with the eurozone and Greece's role in that. With all of the political instability in Greece in this election, could this mean that Greece could be forced out of the eurozone?

BYLINE: Well, legally, it's not clear if that can happen. Certainly the pressure is strong. In Berlin, officials said Greece will have to bear the consequences if the next government does not respect its commitment. But many Greeks are pinning their hopes on what they see as a mood shift throughout Europe. They no longer see themselves as of the isolated international financial pariah.

The anti-austerity movement is growing in Spain, Italy, Ireland, and even the Netherlands, and today, it could even topple Germany's loyal ally President Sarkozy in France. Many Greeks are hoping this could be a game-changing moment that weakens the austerity-first crowd, and offers alternative policies that focus on growth rather than cutbacks.

MARTIN: NPR's Sylvia Poggioli, reporting from Athens. Thanks so much, Sylvia.

BYLINE: Thank you, Rachel.

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