Tuesday 1 May 2012

Greece elections: In an exclusive interview, socialist leader Evangelos Venizelos issues election rallying call 
Polls show more than 75% of Greeks remain supporters of the euro despite enduring the steep pay and pension cuts

by Helena Smith

Evangelos Venizelos thinks twice before saying more or less anything. The man who helped pull off the biggest debt restructuring in world history in the continuing attempt to keep a Greek bankruptcy at bay speaks with all the caution of the constitutional law professor he was before he went into politics.

But only days before Greeks go to the polls, the bullish former finance minister is in no doubt that Sunday's election is the "most critical" the ailing country has faced since it returned to democracy in 1974.

"The battle will be decided in the last few days," he said in his first major interview with a foreign newspaper since assuming the helm of the socialist Pasok party in March. "The Greek people will have to give a clear answer as to whether it wants [to follow] a pro-European course, which is safe and responsible, or something else."

If it elects "something else", the country that sparked Europe's escalating debt crisis will not only be turning its back on the "progressive reforms" to modernise its moribund economy, it will be choosing to throw the eurozone into deeper turmoil.

Venizelos admits he is worried. Although surveys show that more than 75% of Greeks remain ardent supporters of the euro – despite the steep pay and pension cuts many have endured in more than two years of grinding austerity – a great number, he says, also appear to be labouring under "certain misconceptions".

"There are certain misconceptions that worry me: for instance, the misconception that whatever happens we are not going to leave the euro," he said, adding that with so much at stake it was crucial Greece's "political stability" was ensured at the ballot box.

"Europe and the eurozone have no reason, rationally, to push Greece out of the euro. But this is a system in which many parties, many countries, many governments, many electorates participate and we could have events which, rationally, are not controllable," he said.

With Athens' near-empty coffers blamed squarely on a corrupt and discredited political elite, polls have revealed a dramatic drop in support for mainstream parties that back the stringent terms of EU-IMF rescue loans keeping the economy afloat and in the eurozone.

Trapped in a fifth year of recession, the worst since the second world war, and with little light at the end of the tunnel, Greeks appear ready to throw their weight behind "anti-bailout" extremists, including the far-right Chrysi Avgi (Golden Dawn) which is poised to clinch 5% of the popular vote.

"We mustn't allow Greek society to become fascist and nor can parliament host followers of neo-nazism," said Venizelos. "It's absurd and a pity that people who are despairing and bitter, who are unemployed and have lost their businesses, should be persuaded by such policies."

It is not lost on Venizelos that bitterness and despair are the byproducts of austerity measures that he was forced to adopt when he was appointed finance minister following widespread criticism of Athens reform efforts last year.

Draconian cuts, new taxes and record levels of unemployment have taken a toll on support for the country's entire political establishment, but none have been hit harder than Pasok.

The party, which vaulted into office with a landslide victory in 2009, has seen big defections of supporters amid successive rounds of belt-tightening forced on public sector employees, its traditional power base.

Surveys show four out of 10 Pasok supporters are among an unprecedented number of undecided voters. "There are over a million without work … no family does not have someone who is unemployed," said Venizelos, conceding that he, too, had relatives "with many qualifications" who could not find work.

The prospect of yet more spending cuts in June, when the new government will be called to announce an extra €11.5bn (£9.3bn) in savings in line with its latest €130bn loan agreement, has stoked further anger and added to the sense of suspense the election has engendered.

"To a great degree the battle will be decided within Pasok," said Venizelos, whose elevation to the post of party president was another episode in the unfolding crisis that cost the job of his predecessor – the former prime minister George Papandreou.

"We want to convince these people that despite their bitterness and dashed hopes … they should again support Pasok," said the 55-year-old, whose leadership has helped revive the party's fortunes, even if it is still trailing the conservative New Democrats in the polls.

Up until 20 April when polling data was banned in line with Greek election law, surveys indicated the country's two mainstream forces combined could win less than 50% of the vote – compared to the near 80% they captured in the last election in 2009. Instead, Greeks appear more likely to cast ballots in favour of a range of extremist fringe parties on the left and right with hardline communists and other radical leftists set to gather as much as 30% of the vote.

Greeks had shown "great courage" in the sacrifices they had made and they were beginning to pay off. "I would say we are more than two-thirds through the crisis," Venizelos said. "We started with a primary deficit of €24.5bn and are now at €2bn … but we have to be helped to break the vicious circle and support for Greece in terms of development [from the EU] is, in this respect, is very important."

Neither New Democracy nor Pasok, locked in a fractious power-sharing arrangement since last November, have much room for the pre-election promises of old. To date, the socialist leader's biggest pledge is that he will ask the EU and IMF to allow Athens to prolong adoption of the latest cuts through to the end of 2015, rather than 2014. For Venizelos the country is still "at war". For the man most associated with the tortuous negotiations that have seen €108bn of Greek debt written off in a massive bond exchange, it is a war that could have been avoided if Europe had sounded the alarm earlier.

Instead, he says, little Greece was left to act as a "laboratory of history", just as it was in the 1940s when the Greek civil war between communist and anti-communist forces put it on the frontline of the cold war. "The alarm bell should have rung earlier. We should have done things that we didn't understand [we had to do] because we weren't forewarned and, in this, institutions in the European Union and the eurozone bear some responsibility."

Because the financial failings were discussed only at a prime ministerial level, or among finance ministers and central bankers, the magnitude of the crisis was misunderstood when it eventually erupted beneath the Acropolis in late 2009. "We had the feeling it was a conventional crisis, like a flood or an earthquake," he said. "We didn't understand it was like a nuclear disaster for the economy and that basic elements of financial policy had radically derailed." An economy in freefall, political instability and the prospect of fascism rearing its ugly head were not what the constitutional law professor had in mind when he went into politics.

Nearly four decades after the collapse of military rule, 31 years after Athens' accession to the-then EEC and 11 years since its adoption of the euro, Greece's chaotic state was "a reversal of the rules of history", he said.

For those, like him, raised with dreams and visions of the politics of anti-junta opposition, the crisis came as a huge shock. More than once he had felt "as a refugee" in his own land, with the spectre of living standards dropping to those not seen since the 1950s and 60s a chilling reminder of what economic mismanagement could bring.

Navigating the country through the turmoil had involved sleepless nights and, says the self-declared Churchill fan, learning the art of self-control.

"I never thought I would see this happen. My generation grew up thinking that every year things would be better," he said. "And now there have been several years where things have got worse and the distance between [us] and other European countries is growing … It's been a very difficult experience. The responsibility and the anguish have been huge."

* Relative link:  http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2012/apr/30/greece-elections-evangelos-venizelos?INTCMP=SRCH

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Tags: Interviews