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PREVIEW: Greece prepares to go to the polls in snap elections

By dpa news     Sep 11, 2007 in Politics
Greeks will go to the polls on September 16 in possibly the closest election race in recent history after destructive fires and a spade of political and financial scandals hit the country.
Conservative Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis called snap elections last month to try to win a new mandate to tackle pending issues like pension and education reforms before the 2008 budget is introduced in October.
With a 4 per cent advantage over the main opposition socialist party PASOK, Karamanlis appeared to be coasting to victory despite a bond scandal earlier this year.
But 10 days of devastating forest fires in August that killed more than 65 people has now left his government defending itself from accusations of mishandling the response to the disaster.
Although opinion polls published last week showed the conservatives still ahead of the socialists, the lead has dropped to less than two percentage points and analysts now say that neither party seems set to reach the 42 per cent mark needed for an outright majority.
Surveys also showed the number of undecided voters to have surged to 27 per cent compared with only 19 per cent before the massive fires and many could end up shifting their support to smaller parties.
Karamanlis has repeatedly said that he will not agree to a coalition with the other three parties that opinion polls show could enter Greece's 300-seat parliament.
"We cannot cooperate with the extremes," he said during a televised debate last week, referring to the right-wing Popular Orthodox Alarm party (LAOS), which appears set to win votes away from Karamanlis' ruling New Democracy party. "There are no grounds for a coalition government."
Polls suggest the LAOS party, which opposes Turkey joining the European Union, has promised to stop illegal immigration by Albanians into Greece and supports closer ties with the Orthodox church, is quickly gaining ground and stands an excellent chance of passing the three-per-cent threshold needed for a seat in Parliament.
Its leader, Giorgos Karatzaferis, has denied accusations of racism and anti-Semitism but in previous elections has been known to have recruited members of the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn group, which has been blamed for violent attacks against leftist groups and immigrants.
Of the smaller parties, the Communist Party (KKE) is expected to garner 7.5 per cent of the vote and Synasprismos Left Coalition 5 per cent.
Greece's prime minister said that while he does not want a new election, a rerun would be necessary to try to produce a strong government to push through reforms that include the introduction of private universities, overhauling the debt-stricken pension system and raising retirement age limits.
Greece has one of the highest ratios in Europe of retirees living close to or below the poverty line. The country's pension funds, of which there are about 170, face estimated future deficits collectively of up to 400 billion euros (552 billion dollars).
"The pension issue is a big issue and it must be dealt with," he said. "Dialogue is good but in the end someone has to take decisions." dpa cp pmc ct