French and Greek leaders who backed the European Union’s severe austerity measures are likely to take a drubbing when both countries hold national elections on Sunday, raising pressures on EU leaders to ease the tough fiscal constraints they adopted to head off the euro crisis.
In France, President Nicolas Sarkozy was trailing his Socialist challenger, Francois Hollande, by 6 percentage points in polls Friday and appealed to the country’s “silent majority” to save his government and give him a second term in office.
Hollande, after capturing the endorsement of centrist Francois Bayrou, who had won 9.1 percent in the first round two weeks ago, urged voters to give him enough support so that he can act once in office and not be “a hobbled victor.”
Hollande has promised to renegotiate the European Union’s “fiscal pact,” which sets tight budget rules, and he called for a “growth pact” in order to stimulate stagnant economies and add new jobs. There are many politicians here and in Spain who hope that he can sway German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who with Sarkozy had led the EU’s drive for austerity and tight budgeting in the face of slumping economies.
In their nationally televised debate Wednesday, Sarkozy sounded almost desperate as he accused Hollande of lying, even as Hollande called for “bringing together” his countrymen after years of divisiveness at the hands of Sarkozy.
In Greece, the two centrist parties that have ruled in an uneasy interim government since late last year may see their popular support collapse. Backing for PASOK, the Greek socialist party, which currently has the most seats in Parliament, could plummet to as low as 12 percent from 44 percent at the last elections in 2009, while the right of center New Democracy party may fall to 20 percent or 25 percent, from 33 percent, according to polling data obtained by McClatchy.
The electoral shift expected in both countries, coming after the fall of leaders in Italy, Spain and the Netherlands, has gotten the attention of EU leaders. Herman van Rompuy of Belgium, president of the European Council, late last month said he may call for a special summit of European leaders devoted to EU growth.
In Greece, which now has one of the fastest shrinking economies in Europe and still has to approve additional budget cuts and new taxes in June, the big gainers Sunday are expected to be the Coalition of the Radical Left, a group of 16 leftist parties known as Syriza, and the Independent Greeks, a breakaway from New Democracy. Both have been highly critical of the European Union’s austerity demands in return for providing Greece with billions to meet debt obligations.
Support for Syriza, which attracted a large, cheering crowd of more than 10,000 to a rally in central Athens on Thursday, apparently has surged, and it could finish second after New Democracy with as much as 15 percent of the vote, while the Independent Greeks party was believed to be heading for around 10 percent, according to the data.
“We will cancel the bailout agreements,” Aleksis Tsipras, 37, a firebrand member of Parliament who heads Syriza, told the rally. Calling it a “demonstration of victory,” he accused the ruling PASOK and New Democracy parties of basing their campaigns on fear.
New Democracy leader Antonis Samaras, indeed, warned several thousand flag-waving followers that same night that the country would enter a period of instability if his party didn’t win a clear majority. And, in an appeal to ultra-rightist sentiment, he described illegal immigrants as the “tyrants” of Greek society. Samaras has said he, too, wants to renegotiate aspects of the terms under which the EU extended loans to Greece.
On Friday night, Evangelos Venizelos, the PASOK party leader, warned that Greece might have to abandon the euro if his party fails. “Sunday will decide if we stay in Europe and in the euro,” he said, “or if we send the country down the road of bankruptcy and its people to massive poverty.”
The lack of enthusiasm for PASOK was palpable. Just a few thousands turned out in Athens’ Syntagma square, in contrast with past events there that have drawn up to 1 million, and even those stood mostly quiet as they listened to the speeches.
The likelihood that Greek voters will reject their current leaders prompted an explicit warning from Germany _ something that is almost certain to go down badly here. “The future government in Greece must abide by the country’s commitments,” Wolfgang Schauebele, the German finance minister, said Friday, the Reuters news agency reported. “If Greek voters were to vote for a majority that does not honor those agreements, then Greece will have to bear the consequences of that.”
Under Greek election law, the party that wins the most votes will have three days to form a government. If it fails, President Karolos Papoulias will give the party with the second highest number of votes three days to form a government, followed by an invitation to the third ranking party. If none succeeds, Papoulias will ask them to form a national unity government, in which case he must call new elections within one month.