By Deepa Babington and Renee Maltezou
ATHENS (Reuters) - A television journalist-turned-political crusader promising to shake up Greek politics is winning unexpectedly strong support from voters in the run-up to European elections in May.
Tapping into the disgust felt by many Greeks against established politicians with a call for a grassroots, youth-led movement to solve Greek problems, Stavros Theodorakis has quickly snapped up followers from both the left and the right.
He has become the most-talked about new force in Greece's already turbulent political scene.
Barely three weeks since launching his To Potami (The River) party, polls show him securing about 6 percent of the vote in the European Parliament elections - ahead of established parties such as the co-ruling socialist PASOK and making him the fourth or fifth biggest force if elections were held now.
The May vote - which also includes local elections that To Potami will not contest - is being closely watched as a test of support for Prime Minister Antonis Samaras's fragile coalition pushing through reforms in the face of popular resistance.
The reforms are needed to meet European Union and International Monetary conditions for Greece's bailout money.
Theodorakis's rise could complicate matters for both Samaras and his biggest rival - the radical leftist, anti-bailout Syriza - depending on whose voter base he steals away most support.
Famous for a weekly TV show featuring documentary-style pieces on issues such as homelessness and drug addiction where he can be seen walking with a backpack to interview subjects, much of Theodorakis's appeal comes from being outside the old crony culture blamed for bringing Greece to the brink of bankruptcy.
"In this country there is no point saying whether you are on the left or right," the 50-year-old said in an interview.
"When there are so many problems, when you feel that the boat is sinking you don't ask whether there is a good left-wing or right-wing engineer, you just want a good engineer."
Clad in jeans and a long sleeve tee-shirt, Theodorakis works and blogs from an Athens apartment-turned-office in a nondescript residential block. A mask of U.S. President Barack Obama smiles from one of the walls; a room divider featuring The Beatles iconic Abbey Road album cover stands in another room.
With a "Politics for Everyone" slogan, Theodorakis is now embarking on a nationwide campaign tour promising to bring down the near 28 percent unemployment rate, boost prospects for youth, reduce the size of parliament and revamp the justice system.
Once dominated by rival conservative New Democracy and socialist PASOK parties, Greece's political scene has been turned upside down by the debt crisis which forced it to be bailed out twice by the EU and IMF along with punishing austerity measures.
The two parties still govern in an uneasy coalition, but PASOK's support has largely disappeared, and so far various splinter groups and leftist movements have failed to fill the centre left void left by the once-mighty party.
The staunchly anti-bailout Syriza and the far-right Golden Dawn on the other hand have cemented their place on the political scene, reflecting increasing polarization.
Whether To Potami can capitalize on the fragmentation to establish itself on the political scene remains to be seen, but analysts say the level of support it has picked up in just a few weeks is surprisingly strong.
"We've had plenty of new parties popping up in recent weeks, but they get up to one percent - not more," said Costas Panagopoulos of the ALCO pollster, adding that 77 percent of To Potami's voters are women and are in the 25-44 age group.
"To Potami has all of the elements fulfilling the profile of a party that could make a difference.... We'll see if it will be perceived as something new or just a passing fad."
ALCO's poll conducted on March 6 showed To Potami getting 6.4 percent of the vote, while a Kapa poll for Sunday's To Vima newspaper showed it getting 5.9 percent in the wider Athens region and as high as 8.1 percent in northern Greece.
There is a 3 percent threshold for representation in both the Greek and European parliaments.
To Potami has already succeeded in making far more established rivals take note - with most of the leftist parties coming out to criticize the group as vague and lacking coherent proposals. The right-wing Independent Greeks party has suggested To Potami is only a front for PASOK.
Theodorakis denies any ties to the political establishment.
"We don't have and we don't want the support of any politician," he says. "What we want is to see new blood on the Greek political scene."
(Editing by Jeremy Gaunt)