Greece conservatives get boost from Eurozone exit warnings

ATHENS — The head of the 188-country International Monetary Fund says school-deprived kids in sub-Saharan Africa “deserve more sympathy” than recession-hit Greeks.

European officials keep warning Athens to fulfill its austerity commitments or give up bailout funds, while also urging companies to gird themselves for a Greek exit from the Eurozone, whose members share the euro currency.

Those are not the supportive words Greece would like to hear from its European peers and creditors. But the warnings, not to say scorn, may be having their intended effect.

As Greece gears up for new elections June 17, there are signs that voters are being driven back into the arms of traditional political parties largely supportive of Athens’ painful bailout agreements.

A week after European officials and bankers sounded fresh warnings of a Greek exit from the Eurozone, five polls showed the conservative New Democracy party picking up support, slightly overtaking Syriza, the radical leftist group that shook Europe with its pledge to scrap Greece’s commitments to an additional three years of austerity in exchange for emergency loans.

The polls put the conservatives ahead of the upstart Marxist-Leninist group, helping boost the Athens stock exchange by 6.5% in one day this week, up from a 22-year low.

But in a sign of how volatile the situation is, daily tracking polls also showed a sudden uptick in popularity for Syriza leader Alexis Tsipras after he lashed back at comments by IMF boss Christine Lagarde that were published last weekend. Tsipras has said that Greece can tear up the bailout agreements and still remain in the Eurozone.

In an interview, Lagarde expressed scant sympathy for austerity-weary Greeks, who are battling rising problems of homelessness and hunger. Instead, she berated the country for its rampant tax evasion.

“The last thing we seek in Greece is her sympathy,” Tsipras said.

Brash and boyish, with no experience in government, Tsipras has nonetheless helped redraw Greece’s political landscape. His party’s surprise second-place finish in the inconclusive May 6 vote broke the vise-like grip that conservatives and Socialists have held on the political system for more than three decades.

With the unemployment rate topping 21% during a fifth year of recession, many voters spurned the two mainstream parties in favor of Tsipras and his pledge to abandon austerity while maintaining Greece’s Eurozone membership, goals that European officials insist are incompatible.

Since the elections, however, some Greeks have come to question Syriza’s assumption that Germany, Europe’s paymaster, would blink first and ease Athens’ bailout terms rather than jeopardize the future of the common currency. Statements out of Berlin and Brussels that the Eurozone could weather a Greek exit have been seen as part of a European strategy to put voters off Syriza.

The vast majority of Greeks want their country to stay in the Eurozone. Nearly 7 in 10 say they are willing to withstand even greater austerity for the sake of safeguarding that membership, according to recent polls.

Tsipras also alienated some of his compatriots by brushing off repeated overtures from rival parties to form a coalition government, preferring instead to force repeat elections that could put him at the helm of government.

Senior officials in his party have alarmed people with talk of nationalizing local banks and using customers’ deposits to pay down the country’s huge debt.

“If it weren’t for these mistakes, everyone would be lining up to vote for him,” said Maria Kordatou, a loyal conservative who switched to Syriza in the May vote. “But we’re all rethinking now.”

She said that voters would ultimately tilt to New Democracy, not out of real hope or conviction that it could offer something more, but because it was the lesser of two evils.

Although polls show that New Democracy could edge to a victory June 17, the party would almost certainly fall short of clinching overall control of Greece’s 300-seat Parliament. That could force a coalition government with the Socialists, an awkward alliance that was tried in November but ended in April, when elections were called.

“It is a tight race, and the scare factor is already weighing in,” said John Loulis, a prominent Athens-based political analyst.

A pro-bailout coalition would provide a respite from fear of a euro breakup, but the marriage of convenience is unlikely to last a full term to fulfill austerity commitments amid swelling popular resistance, Loulis said.

“Don’t bet on it. It’ll be a weak and short-lived coalition,” he said. “And rest assured, Tsipras will be waiting around the corner to take charge with the first fumble.”

Carassava is a special correspondent.