By Dina Kyriakidou
THERMOPYLAE, Greece (Reuters) – At modern day Thermopylae, a different kind of battle is raging among politicians vying for one of 300 seats in Greece’s parliament in the October 4 national election.
Near the pass where 300 Spartans briefly held off a vast Persian army in 480 BC, outgoing conservative New Democracy candidates and socialist PASOK opposition contenders are fighting hard to lure farmers, a critical mass of voters.
Criss-crossing the Kallidromo mountain in central Greece, Socialist candidate Katerina Batzeli fended off questions from locals gathered under a mulberry tree at the village of Anavra.
“If you get elected, you should not make the same mistakes that you made in the past because people are on to you,” Costas Athanasiou, 71, told the candidate.
Like other candidates in the Fthiotida district, Batzeli has the hard task of convincing voters disappointed with both major parties that have ruled Greece for decades that this time around, things will be different.
“It’s a big goal for all of us to restore faith in the state. If we don’t, we’re finished,” she said. “I believe we can win Fthiotida for PASOK for the first time in many years.”
Farmers account for about one seventh of the Greek electorate, one of the highest proportions in the EU. Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis, who trailed by about 6 percentage points in the last polls published a week ago, put himself on the ticket in Larissa in central Greece’s farming heartland.
A farmers’ shift toward New Democracy, first recorded in 1999, marked the end of decades of socialist rule. Pollsters now say the tide is turning again, and are registering more support for PASOK for the first time in a decade.
Karamanlis called the snap poll halfway through his term, requesting a fresh mandate to cope with the economic crisis and promising a state wage and hiring freeze. Greece, seen as the euro zone’s weakest link, is burdened with heavy budget deficits and a ballooning public debt.
PASOK leader George Papandreou has promised a stimulus package, taxing the rich and supporting the less well-off. Whoever wins Sunday’s election must negotiate reform of the EU’s common agricultural policy after 2013, when Greece’s rich northern partners will be pushing for cuts in subsidies.
FARM INCOMES SLUMP
The farmers’ union PASEGES said members’ income had dropped by 18 percent in 2008, largely because of the collapse of market prices for key products like cotton, olive oil, fruit and cereals. Greece provides about 80 percent of all EU cotton and, along with Italy, more than 75 percent of its raw tobacco.
Memories of generous EU handouts during the socialist 1980s have faded and farmers know the flow is drying up.
“Our future is black. If things don’t change we’re through,” said farmer Yannnis Kapsis, 70, in the village of Drimea, who will vote for the Communist party KKE. “I’m not interested in EU subsidies, I don’t want charity. I want to be paid for my work.”
What dominates the conversation both at the all-male village coffee shops and the more urbane town cafes, is the issue of scandals and corruption.
“More than anything, I am upset by political corruption,” said Kapsis. “Every day you wake up and hear of a new scandal. If they’re interested in filling their pockets, how are they going to help me?”
Karamanlis swept to power in 2004 promising to clean up Greek politics. He won again with a slim majority in 2007, when Fthiotida elected 4 conservative and one socialist deputies, with about 49 percent of the vote for New Democracy and 37 percent for PASOK. This time around, things are tougher.
In the main town of Lamia, New Democracy deputy Christos Staikouras dashed through shops and cafes, shaking hands and patting shoulders in his bid to get re-elected.
“People are satisfied with the projects done in the area but a part of society is displeased with the political system and most of them are New Democracy supporters,” he said. “They expected more.”
Pollsters say the election may be decided by the big slice of New Democracy voters who may not vote at all to punish the government for 5 years of scandals and unfulfilled promises.
“I wanted Karamanlis to do what he promised to do at the beginning, the big reforms, the clean-up,” said maths teacher George Papaconstandinou, 48, a New Democracy supporter in Lamia.
“I wavered for a while and now I think I will vote for New Democracy. But it’s the last chance I give them.”
(Editing by Tim Pearce)