ATHENS (Reuters) - Greece's political heavyweights went head-to-head for the first time on Wednesday in campaigning for national elections, trading accusations over the economic crisis as they sought to win over undecided voters.
In a televised debate, former prime minister Alexis Tsipras said the international bailout he had agreed to in July had stabilized Greece, while his conservative rival Evangelos Meimarakis said it had damaged the economy.
"An agreement is always judged by the outcome and the outcome is unfortunately much more painful than it would have been in January," when Tsipras' left-wing Syriza party won power, Meimarakis said.
He blamed his rival for scaring away investors and cutting private sector jobs.
Voted into office on an anti-austerity platform, Tsipras forced a snap election by resigning in August in an effort to quell a rebellion in his party and win a stronger mandate to implement austerity measures prescribed by the country's creditors in exchange for the 86 billion euro ($99 billion) rescue package.
"We didn't manage to fulfill all of our commitments but... we fought a battle and returned with a compromise. It may be painful but it also has positive elements," Tsipras responded, defending his party's seven months in power.
Opinion polls suggest Tsipras' decision to resign could backfire.
Less than two weeks before the Sept. 20 vote, Meimarakis' New Democracy and Syriza are running neck-and-neck and may be forced to join forces or ally with smaller parties to prevent a second round of elections, which both have said they want to avoid.
They are trying to attract a big pool of undecided voters, many fed up with austerity or angry at a political system that has failed to extricate the country from seven years of crisis.
Leaders of five smaller parties - centrist to Potami, Communist KKE, radical left Popular Unity, the once powerful Socialist PASOK party, and Tsipras' former coalition ally the right-wing Independent Greeks - also participated in the debate.
Far-right, anti-immigrant party Golden Dawn, which is running third in the polls, did not take part.
(Reporting by Renee Maltezou, Editing by John Stonestreet)