Europe

How Greek election has become political circus

Alexis Tspiras Image copyright AFP
Image caption Alexis Tsipras, leader of radical left party Syriza, has shaken up Greek politics

As Greece goes to the polls this weekend, debates are heated and tempers running high.

I've never had any issues with my ears before. But last weekend, while filming the election campaign in Athens, I lost all hearing in my left ear following a cold. The doctor said I'd be deaf for 10 days.

"Better off that way in Greece," said a friend, and then so did another. And another.

I must admit, listening to the rhetoric and propaganda, the scaremongering and accusations in the run-up to this election has left me feeling frustrated.

Last week Prime Minister Antonis Samaras offended many voters by likening the Charlie Hebdo attackers in Paris to the migrants he says the opposition party Syriza want to let flood into the country.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption People march holding signs reading "Je suis Charlie" in front of the White Tower in Thessaloniki

His words were seen here as a dangerous departure from the European mainstream, which has so far avoided linking Islamist terror with the issue of migration.

And that's only one of the ways Greece feels different. In December, a businessman close to the government was recorded allegedly trying to bribe an MP to vote and keep the New Democracy party in power.

Meanwhile, the anarchists continue to throw Molotov cocktails at the headquarters of all political parties, and the cleaners sacked by the finance ministry without severance pay are still camped outside the ministry in tents, knitting.

Though I've covered this country for years, I am astounded by the political circus that is the Greek election.

Heated debates

Last week, while looking at the headlines of papers hanging from a news kiosk, I was hit in the face by a man shouting racist abuse at me because I was speaking English. Luckily I wasn't hurt, just shocked.

Some suggested he was mentally ill. Others said he was probably a supporter of the far-right Golden Dawn party. But the incident was a reminder of the tensions bubbling under the surface here only a few days before the opening of ballot boxes.

Debates are heated and taking place everywhere. In cafes, bars, taxis, and hairdressers - everyone you speak to has something passionate to say.

If the polls are right, more than a third of voters want to see a change in government, and look to the man running on the slogan "Hope is Here" - the leader of Greece's far-left Syriza bloc, Alexis Tsipras.

His popularity has risen as people say they are tired of trying to oppose austerity through strikes and demonstrations.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Government attempts to reform Greece's economy have been met with often violent protests

Many of those who took to the streets in 2011 and 2012 are now looking to this radical left party to carry out its pledge to halt the austerity programme agreed with the EU and negotiate a massive debt write-off.

Years of corruption have also caused many to lose faith in the country's established political figures.

It's even stopped some from voting. I followed a Syriza candidate on the election trail in the predominantly working class area of Keratsini.

Amid the dense cigarette smoke, one 82-year-old man slammed his hands down, next to his Nescafe and backgammon board, and told me he would never vote again - for anyone - because he didn't believe in anything anymore.

At a barber shop in the more affluent Athens district of Kolonaki one customer told me that he'd always voted for the conservative New Democracy party.

He sees better days ahead within Europe and believes we must all vote for the future of our children.

Technically, Greece has turned a corner. It's growing and its books are actually balanced.

But the unemployment figures still refuse to budge, and Greeks are struggling to survive on an average wage of just 600 euros (£460; $700) a month - which is driving support for Syriza.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Supporters of the far-right Golden Dawn party, which has attracted support during the country's financial crisis

This week, the prime minister's campaign team issued a video showing him explaining to boys on the street how things will improve.

Within hours, cruel parodies began circulating.

One, which has gone viral, shows the prime minister telling a young boy if he votes Syriza, he will have no food.

"But we don't have any food now," says the boy. "Well just be grateful you've at least got the plate," Antonis Samaras replies.

With a few respected global economists now vocally backing the idea of a new write-off of the debt, some no longer see Syriza as extreme.

But this hasn't stopped talk of a run on the banks or current ministers predicting a huge outflow of foreign capital if they lose the election.

In the Greek diaspora, everybody is nervous. Some Greek friends in London fear a coup if there's a left victory.

Others are wondering what happens if mainstream politics fragments, Syriza fails and the Golden Dawn party - its leaders currently in jail - is the only force left standing.

Politics here is a circus and the ringleader - whoever it may be in the end - has a lot to put in order. With the cohesion of the eurozone at stake, the whole world will be watching the show.

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