ATHENS — Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou, buffeted by negative polls and continuing protests at economic austerity measures, said Sunday he will continue with policies aimed at drastically cutting the country’s debt and says the alternative — a default — would be a catastrophe.
“We have taken a decision, that no Greeks should live through the consequences of a default and to change the country radically so that it is no longer under anyone’s supervision and can stand on its own feet,” Papandreou said in an interview with Sunday newspaper To Vima.
“Never in my life did I imagine that we would need to slash pensions in order for the state to continue to pay any pensions at all,” he added. “We chose the least painful of two options: one (is) difficult, the other — defaulting — is catastrophic.”
On Friday, the government unveiled an austerity program running through 2015, aiming to save around C28 billion ($41 billion). The measures will slap a host of new taxes on austerity-weary Greeks — in spite of previous pledges to avoid more blanket tax increases.
Passage of the austerity program is seen as essential in securing the fifth installment, worth C12 billion ($17 billion), of a C110 billion ($159 billion) bailout package agreed on in May 2010 with the European Union and the International Monetary Fund. Greece hopes to secure a second bailout deal later this month.
Papandreou faces continued protests and dwindling support in opinion polls. More than 10,000 gathered Sunday afternoon at Syntagma Square in central Athens, while a poll published Sunday shows the ruling Socialists trailing the conservative opposition by 4 per cent.
The Syntagma square protest, running for a 22nd consecutive day, drew fewer people than at previous Sundays, designated by a loose coalition of organizers as peak protest days. But a larger gathering is expected Wednesday, to coincide with a general strike. And while these protests have been peaceful, there are calls to completely block access to the Parliament facing the square that day and the government fears a violent escalation.
A poll conducted monthly by research company Public Issue and published Sunday in newspaper Kathimerini shows the ruling socialists trailing opposition New Democracy 31 per cent to 27 per cent, while only 8 per cent of respondents say they are satisfied with the government, versus 92 per cent dissatisfied.
This is the largest margin recorded in favour of the conservatives in any poll since at least a year before they were trounced in national elections in October 2009. The opposition had edged ahead for the first time in another opinion poll in late May.
The Public Issue survey in May had shown the socialists ahead, 32 per cent to 29 per cent. Their support has eroded steadily since last September, when it stood at 44 per cent, versus 27 per cent for the conservatives.
Most of the socialists lost support has shifted to smaller parties on their left and right. As a result, the poll finds, seven parties would get over the 3 per cent limit needed to enter parliament if an election took place now, making it impossible for the winner to gain an outright majority of the 300 seats.
Asked who they believed would win an early elections, respondents chose the conservatives (27 per cent to 22 per cent). In a similar poll a month ago, 43 per cent had said they believed the socialists would win versus only 16 per cent who picked the conservatives.
Despite the erosion of the government’s popularity, the opposition hardly fares better: 10 per cent are satisfied with the conservatives versus 88 per cent unsatisfied, and nearly 60 per cent said they did not want early elections against 30 per cent.
The poll was conducted between June 1-7 with a sample of 1,204 and a margin of error of plus or minus 3.2 per cent.