Atop the Acropolis, voter fury trips up Communists

Reuters News
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Posted: Apr 26, 2012 10:59 AM
Atop the Acropolis, voter fury trips up Communists

By Deepa Babington and Renee Maltezou

ATHENS (Reuters) - It was meant to be a picture-perfect election campaign stop: Greece's communist leader striding across the ancient Acropolis to rally marble workers painstakingly restoring a symbol of Greece's past splendor.

Instead, Aleka Papariga's pre-election visit this week became memorable for all the wrong reasons: blue-collar workers heckled to ask why she failed to block spending cuts; others drowned her out by yelling she was part of the same self-serving political system her party claims to fight.

"You should have made a difference!" shouted one worker. Another jumped in to yell: "I read in the newspaper that you lawmakers get higher salaries because of the crisis!"

In many ways, the campaign rally gone wrong was emblematic not only of the Communists' failure to tap into disillusionment among voters, but also of the virulent anger Greeks feel towards an entire political class they see as corrupt and fraudulent.

With Greeks grappling with sharply lower wages and pensions and an economy mired in its fifth year of recession, campaigning for national elections on May 6 has stumbled to a surly start.

Unbridled anger and yogurt-pelting has replaced the cheering supporters and ebullient, thunderous rallies of elections past.

Much of the anger has been directed at the two big parties that have ruled Greece for decades - the Socialist PASOK and the conservative New Democracy - which have been punished in opinion polls for backing a bailout tied to steep spending cuts.

PASOK and New Democracy are the only two major parties backing the bailout and need to forge a coalition government to press ahead with the reforms they say the country needs to keep getting aid and stay in the euro. The raft of smaller left and right wing parties vying for third place oppose the bailout.

Polls suggest the two big parties will get sharply lower support but just enough to renew their coalition, with smaller anti-bailout parties riding high at their expense.

But while groups like Alexis Tsipras' Left Coalition and conservative rebel Panos Kammenos' Independent Greeks surge, Greece's KKE Communists have failed to capitalize on the anti-austerity mood despite their staunch opposition to the bailout.

"The Greek population is against everybody," said Dimitris Mavros, managing director of the MRB polling group.

"They are more polite with Mr. Tsipras and Mr. Kammenos, but against the other leaders they are furious."

"THIEVES!"

Founded in 1918, the KKE has been a fixture in Greek politics for decades despite being mostly outlawed until the fall of a military junta in 1974. With a hammer and sickle in its logo, the party still espouses Marxist-Leninist ideology two decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Its members over the decades, often persecuted by right-wing regimes, included many who fought as partisans in the Greek mountains during the Nazi occupation of Greece. But their unreconstructed Communist message has failed to inspire youth in recent years and support has dwindled.

The mother of all Greek leftist parties, KKE secured 7.5 percent of the vote in 2009, with support going to some of its splinter groups that were born from internal ideological clashes.

This time, polls predict it will take between 8 and 11 percent, but analysts say the party lacks the momentum enjoyed by more reformist leftwingers like Tsipras and Fotis Kouvelis, whose barely two-year old Democratic Left is polling similar numbers.

"Among the left-wing parties, the weakest one is KKE," said Mavros. "They are not able to gain new blood; the new left-wingers prefer to go Tsipras."

As the Acropolis rally showed, the venerable KKE is seen by many as part of the same tainted system that brought Greece to the verge of bankruptcy, forcing it to accept humiliating cuts to wages and spending in return for aid.

Papariga, 66, was named KKE general secretary in 1991, the first woman to lead a Greek party. A daughter of resistance fighters and a widow, she donates her parliamentarian salary to the party like all other KKE deputies.

"Why didn't you believe us when we warned that joining the European Union would be a catastrophe?" she said. "But we still believe in the working class, which can raise the flag of the people over the Acropolis."

During her oft-interrupted speech, one worker, referring to state funding for parties to run election campaigns, yelled: "KKE is like every other party, you took the extra money like everyone else."

Papariga's denial was met with an even angrier "Thieves! Take the money and give it to the people who are hungry."

The Communists have also been punished for having a message that lacks clarity since they seek an overthrow of the entire system rather than focusing it on the bailout, says Mavros.

Atop the Acropolis, Papariga said her aim was not to win power during the elections, but to have a weak government installed that would set the stage for a workers' revolution.

"We want a scared and panicked government that cannot move in the way it has so far," she said, outlining a scenario feared by Greece's European partners and International Monetary Fund.

The rhetoric appeared to impress few in her audience of Acropolis workers, even though the ancient site is a favorite spot for the Communists to unfurl large banners protesting against austerity measures.

"Some of their ideas are correct but are I don't see them being implemented," said Christina Pappou, 55, a sculpturist who restores Acropolis marble. "They are out of touch."

(Writing by Deepa Babington; Editing by Peter Graff)