Greek prime minister, Giorgos Papandeou (left) leaving the St Demetrios cathedral - Thessaloniki
Last night Greek prime minister took part in a Q & A session with journalists from the country's largest TV stations. The decision to organise such an event in the run up to the local elections in November was criticised by opposition parties who consider that the Papandreou is campaigning on behalf of his beleaguered PASOK party who have been trailing in the polls, affected by the harsh austerity measures that have seen living standards plummet as job losses, higher taxes and galloping inflation have combined to make for a perfect storm for those on lower incomes such as the unemployed and pensioners.
The harsh new economic reality facing Greeks can be seen in a slew of reports that show that many household are now struggling to pay basics such as power and phone bills. The state run electricity board says that 1 in 4 bills are overdue whilst the OTE telecommunications corporation has 500,000 unpaid accounts to deal with. Even in Greater Athens area, which one of richer parts of the nation 1 in 11 are receiving food handouts via breadlines according to research carried out by the Economic University of Athens recently. In Greece's second city, Thessaloniki, home to over a million nearly half the population is living on either savings or loans whilst another 40% say that they can barely make ends meet.
Even consumption of basics such as bread has dropped by 30% whilst other areas of the economy such as real estate and car sales have ground to a virtual halt. The Greek chamber of commerce is predicting that 175,000 small businesses are set to close in the near future with 300,000 more being added to the unemployment lines.
With such a bleak outlook Giorgos Papandreou decided to hold a press conference to set out his party's policies and to explain to the nation what he believes has to be done to save Greece from bankruptcy.
The interview which was carried out by seven journalists lasted two hours and was was followed by viewers. In the first round journalists were allowed to ask one question and one follow up. A recipe which allowed the PM plenty of wiggle room and produced a predictably sonorific result as Papandreou was free to simply set out party positions that have long been made clear in previous briefings. While the questions were hard hitting, the lack of follow up meant they were easily sidestepped with waffle and set speeches.
The second half of the interview proved more interesting with reporters able to pursue points made and get the prime minister to do more than simple PR.
However,the basic tenet of Papandreou's message remained the same that the current crisis was the results of years of fiscal mismanagement that the previous New Democracy administration had failed to take seriously and that if Greece did not have any other choice but to implement the painful measures set down by the EU and IMF. He also made it clear that his government sees the forthcoming elections as a referendum on the measures intimating that if PASOK suffered a serious defeat then this would be seen as a loss of the popular mandate necessitating national elections in the near future.
For Papandreou the choice is clear; either accept the cuts in public services and wages set out or vote for the opposition New Democracy party led by Antonis Samaras whose brand of populist rhetoric is full of heat and passion but light on concrete proposals on exactly how different his right of centre party would deal with a 400 billion debt load without severe cuts in public spending or higher taxation.
Yet despite growing dissatisfaction with both major parties it seems business as usual with both sides making lavish promises to voter in order to persuade people to support them. The ruling PASOK party has vowed to help local income families and farmer with extra funds before the end of the year, though where exactly the money is coming from is unclear especially with so many employees of the state run organisations and pensioners who have been waiting months to be paid. Next week heating oil distributors have threatened to suspend deliveries in protest over delays over the return of tax payments promised earlier. Likewise hospital report running low on basic supplies after pharmacutical companies stopped taking new order until the government pays outstanding debts, some going back years.
However, the 600lb gorilla in the room is the possibility of still harsher cuts when Eurostat revises Greek debt figures for 2009. The organisation delayed publishing figures citing the need for more time to untangle Greece's often tangled web of public spending statistics until 15th November just after the second round of local elections. This has been seen in many quarters are an attempt not to upset PASOK's election chances still further with more bad news. On the one hand Papandreou has stated on a number of occasions that there will be no further measures for wage earners and pensioners whilst European Commissioner Olli Renn has made it clear that higher than expected debt load will mean more sacrifices on the part of Greece in 2011.
Attending celebrations in Thessaloniki today Giorgos Papandreou was met with boos and jeers by some worshippers outside the Saint Demetrios cathedral and was quickly whisked inside the building with church bells ringing in order cover the sounds of protests from TV crews covering the event. Hundreds of riot police were also on duty in the surrounding area ready to keep disgruntled state employees at a safe distance while people shouting anti-government slogans were swiftly confronted by uniformed and plain clothes officers in the crowd.