Wary Greeks look to election with trepidation

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By ELENA BECATOROS, Associated Press

ATHENS, Greece (AP) — At the dinner table, in the coffee shop, on the street corner, the one constant as Greeks prepare to vote once again is concern, and even fear. Depending on the outcome of Sunday's election, Greece could be forced out of the European joint currency, with potentially catastrophic consequences for the global economy.

"Everyone now is in a dilemma, just like me. ... We don't know what tomorrow will bring. The future is uncertain now," said Paraskevi Thoma, an unemployed Athens beautician struggling to support a 5-year-old son and 6-month old twins.

Greeks cast their ballots Sunday for the second time in six weeks, after May 6 elections left no party with enough seats in Parliament to form a government and coalition talks collapsed.

The debt-ridden country's two-year financial crisis has left much of the nation in tatters, tearing at its social fabric. Hospitals have run out of supplies, suicides have been on the increase and unemployment has skyrocketed to above 22 percent as tens of thousands of businesses shut down.

The protracted crisis has also overturned Greece's political scene, hammering the two parties that have dominated for decades and whom Greeks blame for sending their country from boom to bust in the space of just a few years.

"We want something better for the country and for ourselves, but we don't know who to vote for," Thoma said. "With what criteria should we vote? Whoever you vote for I don't believe that the day after it'll be paradise and we'll be eating with golden spoons ... I don't expect it, no matter who wins."

If Greeks reject the strict austerity measures taken in return for billions of euros in rescue loans from other European countries and the International Monetary Fund, they could be forced out of the euro, which in turn would likely drag down other financially troubled countries and rip apart the euro itself.

"In these elections, the survival of the Greek economy and its integration in Europe is at stake," said Dimitris Sotiropoulos, associate professor of political science at Athens University. "There's nothing more and nothing less to it."

The last opinion polls published before a two-week pre-election ban showed the anti-austerity radical left Syriza party neck-and-neck with the conservative New Democracy party. Neither was projected to win enough votes to form a government alone, leaving a coalition as the only option to avoid yet another election.

While the publication of polls in the two weeks before the vote is barred by law, the Athens Stock Exchange soared to close 10 percent up Thursday on rumors that New Democracy might be pulling ahead. But with a sizeable chunk of the electorate undecided until the last minute, the result could go either way.

Syriza leader Alexis Tsipras, a 37-year-old former student activist, has pledged to rip up Greece's international bailout agreement and repeal the strict austerity measures the previous governments took in return for the loans.

Riding high on anti-austerity sentiment and anger with Greece's political establishment, his party — a coalition of 12 small and often fringe left-wing groups — came a surprise second on May 6 behind New Democracy. He won nearly 17 percent of the vote, quadrupling his support since the 2009 elections.

"I don't expect things will be better, I'm afraid they will get worse," said Stelios Ratsikas, a 41-year-old unemployed shop worker in the northern city of Thessaloniki. "I voted in anger last time, but this time I will look at things more logically."

He wasn't alone in his choice. Furious at the handling of a two-year financial crisis that has plunged the country into a deep recession now in its fifth year, many voters say they cast ballots in anger, or threw their weight behind parties they don't necessarily agree with.

"I will vote for Syriza, not because I believe in it, but because it's better to vote for someone who hasn't made any mistakes yet ... than for someone who has made so many mistakes already and now wants me to vote for them again," said Gogo Brezati, who runs a clothing shop in central Athens. "There's no ideology any more anyway."

And there was hope mingled with the concern — however rueful.

"I'm very optimistic. When we hit the bottom, I'm always optimistic," she said. "There is a bit further down to go, but this had to happen, to shake up the conscience of the people."

Tsipras' pledges, which include canceling planned privatizations, nationalizing banks and rolling back cuts to minimum wages and pensions, have horrified European leaders as well as many Greeks. Although he insists he can persuade other European nations that it is in their interests to keep Greece within the euro, his political opponents have accused him of being out of touch with reality, saying his policies will force Greece out of the euro and lead to mass poverty for years to come.

Even foreign newspapers have joined the fray. Germany's Financial Times Deutschland ran a front-page column on its web site Friday under the Greek headline "Resist the demagogue" in which the respected newspaper urged Greeks not to vote for Tsipras and to vote instead for New Democracy.

"Vote courageously in favor of reform and not in anger against the necessary and painful restructuring," it urged Greeks. "Resist the demagoguery of Alexis Tsipras and of Syriza."

The column sparked furious responses from both Syriza and New Democracy.

"Greeks are a proud nation. We know what we vote for. Take your recommendations elsewhere!" New Democracy lashed out, while Syriza described the article as an "unprecedented raw intervention" that was "an insult to national dignity" and undermined democracy.

Though Tsipras' supporters strongly clearly believe he can pull it off, the tactics might be working.

"I am not afraid, it's them who want to scare me," Ratsikas said, referring to politicians and European leaders in general. "Perhaps all this noise is leading me to not vote (for Syriza), but I can't really believe that all these things they say we should be afraid of are real."

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Costas Kantouris in Thessaloniki and AP Television in Athens contributed

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