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When we talk about the economic crisis in Greece, we usually talk in terms of how it could affect the entire world economy. The fact is it's already devastating for Greece. Facing harsh austerity measures imposed by the European Union in exchange for help, Greece is a society in turmoil, and one that is also facing an election this spring. NPR's Sylvia Poggioli reports that opinion polls suggest the old political system is collapsing and extremist parties are rising in popularity.

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SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: Of the many protests Athens has seen, this was one of the most unusual. A large bronze bell tolled as thousands of policemen in full uniform marched solemnly through the streets of Athens. They ominously waved their handcuffs at parliament, shouting take your bailout plan and get out of here.

CHRISTOS FOTOPOULOS: (Foreign language spoken)

POGGIOLI: Christos Fotopoulos, president of the policeman's union, accused Greece's international lenders of plundering his country and even called for their arrest. Nick Malkoutzis, deputy editor of Kathimerini's English-language daily, says this protest is one sign of widespread loss of trust in Greek institutions.

NICK MALKOUTZIS: What we're seeing at the moment is the crumbling of the political system that was constructed over the last three decades. It was a political system very much built up around the middle classes and built up around the two main parties.

POGGIOLI: Polls show plummeting approval for the Socialists and the conservative New Democracy, which backed the government and approved the bailout plan. But small parties further to the left and further to the right that oppose the terms of the agreement are gaining ground. The four small leftist parties are ahead by 43 percent and could win a majority and in theory form a governing coalition.

That terrifies Greece's creditors, some of whom have questioned the wisdom of holding elections. But postponing the vote, Malkoutzis says, can only incite more protests and more violence.

MALKOUTZIS: There is the issue of whether people here in Greece feel that their opinion is being heard, whether they have the right to express it. There are huge democratic issues at stake.

POGGIOLI: And it's not just the left that's gaining popularity. So are two new far-right movements. One is the ultranationalist and neo-fascist Golden Dawn, which preaches the superiority of the white race. It's polling above the three percent necessary to enter parliament.

Its bookshop is filled with tracts on Nazism and sells t-shirts of Hitler. A large crowd of people listen to a Golden Dawn member who identifies herself only as Georgia.

GEORGIA: (Foreign language spoken)

POGGIOLI: We reject the idea that all races and nations are created equal, she says. We have become economic slaves, Georgia adds, of the Zionist economy and usurers.

At the other end of the political spectrum, one of the parties doing well in the polls is far-left Syriza that wants to re-negotiate the terms of the bailout. MP Dimitris Papadimoulos says austerity has sharply widened the gap between rich and poor. He calls for a wide governing coalition because Greece, he says, faces the same dilemma the West faced after the crash of 1929 – a progressive or an authoritarian outcome.

DIMITRIS PAPADIMOULOS: In the USA we had the New Deal and Roosevelt. In Europe we had Hitler and Mussolini.

POGGIOLI: Publisher and commentator George Kirtsos is a conservative, but he agrees that Greece risks class warfare.

GEORGE KIRTSOS: You cannot have a functioning democracy without some kind of positive economic and social results.

POGGIOLI: With the economy going from bad to worse, Kirtsos says, the country is in permanent political crisis.

KIRTSOS: At one point or another you will have to declare martial law to impose all these measures.

POGGIOLI: Elections are likely at the end of April. And the leaders of the pro-bailout Socialist and New Democracy parties want to woo back their angry supporters. The conservatives have a tough law-and-order and anti-immigrant platform. The socialists say they saved the country from default.

But today's polls show that one-third of the electorate is still undecided and an equal number say they've given up on politics and refuse to vote.

Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News.

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