Greek Political Rivals in Dead Heat

Greece’s conservatives, who support the country’s internationally funded bailout program, are commanding a wafer-thin lead in the last public-opinion polls to be published ahead of a survey blackout before June 17 elections, which are seen as a de facto referendum on Greece’s future inside the euro zone.

Three polls Friday show New Democracy narrowly edging out the rival antiausterity Syriza party and confirming a broad trend shown by more than half a dozen similar surveys in the past week that give the conservatives a slight advantage.

But the polls in the Ta Nea and Eleftheros Typos newspapers and on the privately owned ANT1 channel, all show the difference separating the two parties is less than three percentage points—within the statistical margin of error—suggesting the race remains too close to call.

According to the three surveys of voter intentions, the conservatives would get between 22.7% and 26.5% of the vote, versus 22% to 24.2% for the radical left party. A fourth survey, for the Kathimerini newspaper and adjusted for undecided voters, showed Syriza ahead.

Since Greece’s May 6 polls left the country without a stable government, the two parties have been jockeying for first place in an election that has been centered around Athens’s agreed reform program, which European leaders have made a sine qua non for receiving further handouts from a €173 billion ($214 billion) aid package. Without further aid, Greece could face a payments crisis by late June, something that could precipitate its exit from the euro zone.

Whether New Democracy or Syriza comes first on June 17 will be crucial. Under Greece’s electoral system, the biggest party gets 50 bonus seats in the country’s 300-member Parliament. If New Democracy finishes first it will likely form a governing majority with the third-place Socialist Pasok party—which also supports the reform program—though both parties say they would renegotiate they plan with Europe to ease some of its terms.

If Syriza, which already has declared the bailout null and void, finishes first, it would tear up the deal, potentially placing Greece on a collision course with its creditors. On Friday, the party presented its economic program, vowing to rescind recent wage cuts taken by Greece under international pressure, calling for a fresh debt restructuring, and declaring it would immediately reverse the country’s ambitious, but long-delayed, privatization plan.

“Depending on the ability of the economy, we will gradually bring back to state control strategic investments that are being privatized or have already been privatized,” Syriza party leader Alexis Tsipras told a packed news conference.

Both the parties, which finished May elections with less than 20% of the vote, have seen their support grow. Much of that new momentum has come at the expense of smaller leftist and rightist groups—ranging from Communists to ultranationalists.

In the past two weeks, New Democracy has been currying right-wing support by joining forces with the small, liberal, splinter Democractic Alliance party—which failed to make it into Parliament last month. It also has wooed several former lawmakers away from the nationalist Laos party that likewise polled under the 3% margin needed to enter the legislature.

That strategy appears to be working, allowing New Democracy to take the lead from Syriza in the past seven days. So, too, has a tactic of frightening voters by equating a vote for Syriza as tantamount to voting for a return to Greece’s old currency, the drachma, something that eight in 10 Greeks say they don’t want.

For its part, Syriza has won the endorsement of two former Pasok ministers that broke with their fellow Socialists over the austerity plan, and appears to be picking up votes from rival leftist groups, such as the Communist Party of Greece and Democratic Left, both of which have seen their electoral strength slide by about a third.

But Syriza’s momentum appears to have stalled, say analysts, after they were seen as spoilers in failed coalition talks earlier this month. Recent comments by high-ranking party officials suggesting a tax on bank deposits and promoting bank nationalizations also raised jitters among many Greeks about the security of their savings.

In an election increasingly governed by fear, and with neither party holding a secure lead, both risk alienating voters in the sprint to the finish, says John Loulis, a prominent political analyst. “If [New Democracy leader Antonis] Samaras overdoes it with his scaremongering. that could still backfire. On the other hand, if Tsipras doesn’t control some of the loonies in his party, they could scare away voters,” says Mr. Loulis. “We have two more weeks ahead of us in a very fluid environment. That is a very, very long time.”


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