Greece vote set for Sept 20 as Syriza takes poll lead

AFP , Friday 28 Aug 2015

Outgoing Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras leaves as Greece's newly appointed caretaker prime minister Vassiliki Thanou enters her office at Maximos Mansion in Athens, Greece, August 27, 2015 (Photo: Reuters)

Greece geared up Friday for a snap election next month, with an opinion poll showing the leftist party Syriza ahead despite a wave of defections over the country's massive new bailout.

President Prokopis Pavlopoulos signed a decree dissolving parliament and confirming the widely-expected date of September 20 for the crisis-hit country's fifth election in six years, a parliamentary statement said.

A caretaker government appointed by Pavlopoulos to organise the election took office earlier Friday with Greece's top judge Vassiliki Thanou as prime minister, replacing Syriza leader Alexis Tsipras who resigned last week.

Tsipras, who rode to power in January on a wave of popular anger over austerity, is seeking re-election to implement more reforms demanded under the new 86-billion-euro ($96-billion) international rescue package.

A poll in leftist newspaper Efimerida ton Syntakton gave Syriza only a slim 3.5-point lead over the conservative New Democracy.

The survey by pollsters ProRata said 23 percent of voters would support Syriza over 19.5 percent for New Democracy.

But more than a quarter of those polled said they were undecided.

"Today the great electoral battle begins. The Greek people will give a strong mandate for the present and the future," Tsipras said in a statement to the Syriza newspaper Avgi.

"Greece cannot turn back and will not turn back. It will only go forward," he said

For now however, the country faces more recession, despite posting growth in the second quarter of the year, the new interim finance minister said Friday.

"The Greek economy has already entered a recessionary phase. We hope it will not last long," said George Chouliarakis, head of the state economic advisor council, and the top negotiator with Greece's creditors.

The past eight months since Syriza came to power have proved a rollercoaster for the troubled Greek economy.

As talks broke down in June between Athens and its international creditors and Greeks rejected austerity proposals in a referendum, the European Central Bank restricted its assistance to Greek banks, forcing the government to shut them down and impose capital controls to avert a run on deposits.

Chouliarakis said his main aim over the next four weeks was "not to lose valuable time."

He said he planned to "move forward with strengthening the Greek bank system as fast as possible, further consolidate credibility and confidence in the economy... and raise capital controls as fast as possible".

Until today, there was only one known photograph in circulation of Chouliarakis, a low-profile ecoomics lecturer at Manchester University in England who prefers to work in the background.

"(He) is a real person!" outgoing finance minister Euclid Tsakalotis jibed to reporters.

The Greek economy has shown some resilience in the first six months of 2015.

Earlier in August, the statistics agency said output had surprisingly picked up in the second quarter of the year, growing by 0.8 percent -- at a time when Greece was bickering with its creditors over the bailout and fears of a Greek exit from the eurozone were running high.

On Friday, the agency revised the figure upwards, saying the economy had grown by 0.9 percent.

Syriza was hit by a wave of defections after Tsipras signed up to the third bailout, which critics say is the harshest Greece has adopted so far.

A group of 25 hardline lawmakers split off to form their own party, Popular Unity, and Syriza has also been hit with resignations at local party level.

According to Friday's opinion poll, Popular Unity would pick up 3.5 percent of the vote, just above the minimum required for parliamentary representation.

"We will do our utmost so that the elections are held in flawless fashion," Supreme Court head Thanou, Greece's first female PM, said.

The poll found that 64 percent of voters disagreed with Tsipras' decision to step down, and one in two were unimpressed with his promise to ease the austerity measures he ratified if re-elected.

Thanou, 65, has already indicated that she also intends to tackle issues such as the huge influx of migrants and refugees during her brief term.

The veteran judge is known for her critical stance towards austerity -- in February she wrote to European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker to warn that the cuts were "annihilating" the Greek people.

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