23 Jan 2015

Ripped off, poor, suicidal: the farmers turning to Syriza

There’s pizzazz tonight at the election rally of the Greek conservatives. There is a lot of money riding on their victory. But right now it looks like the election is slipping away from Prime Minister Antonis Samaras.

Two polls last night put Syriza ahead – one, by the usually authoritative Mega channel, has the far left on 32.5 per cent against New Democracy’s 26.5 per cent. More polls today tell the same story: a widening Syriza lead.

If Greece does elect Alexis Tsipras as the first far-left prime minister in Europe since the 1930s, then the place where it’s lost and won will not be Athens. Syriza is making inroads into towns and provinces that have traditionally voted right.

In the gulf of Corinth there are a whole string of mountain villages that have traditionally been known as “castles” for the two main parties – ND and the centre-left Pasok. But Pasok has collapsed, and even some conservative voters are swinging over to support the left.

Read more: The idiot’s guide to Greece’s elections – the parties explained

In Assos, a sleepy farming village Giannis Tsogkas, a grape farmer aged 56, explains why the place has swung towards the left.

“Two-thirds of the land here has been mortgaged to the banks. Now we can’t pay our debts and we’re in constant fear of repossession. These are the worst times we’ve ever seen. We’re at a point where we can’t afford anything.

“We used to go to the supermarket three times a week, now we only go once every two weeks – and we count every single cent we spend. It never used be like this: we had money, we were.. We produced, we sold, we had an income.”

There’ve been a string of suicides, he tells me. And not just because of austerity. Every year, he alleges, the merchants who buy their grapes refuse to pay, or go bust. The legal system is so decrepit that it cannot help them. For the farmers in Assos the problems of falling incomes and a political system they see as corrupt merge into one.

“They shoved us into austerity with the IMF. The small farmer will die, that’s it. People here keep committing suicide. So we looked for someone to protect us, and we found it in Syriza.”

Ten years ago Syriza got a grand total of 121 votes in the village – just over 2 per cent. In the June 2012 general election it came second, with 22 per cent. Last year, in the Euro elections it topped the polls with 27 per cent – and Mr Tsogkas believes it will win easily on Sunday.

It’s anger like this that has seen poll swings to Syriza in rural areas, suburban communities, and even regions like Thessaly that were once strongly right-wing. The government, which had relied on a fear strategy to stop Syriza, seems bereft of strategy.

In the local coffee shop in Assos we meet other farmers, once staunch supporters of the centrist Pasok party.

“They keep saying if Syriza wins we’ll be like North Korea or Venezuela. The politicians who tried that line are making a laughing stock of themselves. I don’t care who governs us, I care about Greece,” one man says angrily.

The arrival of the global media in Greece has inevitably filled the news screens with shots of street sleepers, food kitchens and destitution. But it’s not just poverty and falling wages that are driving people to the left.

I covered the last election here, in 2012, when the Athenian middle classes panicked over a Syriza victory and swung rightwards. I have a sense that the opposite is happening now.

Syriza’s core support – maybe 27 per cent, and that gained from the collapse of Pasok – is being augmented by support from people for whom the primary issue is corruption and a political system that does not work.

When we ask what Mr Tsogkas wants from Syriza he answers: “Justice. To be able to benefit from my work and not to have others, foreigners, steal what I make.”

Here are the results from the latest Mega poll:

Syriza 32.5 per cent
New Democracy 26.5 per cent
The River 5.8 per cent
Golden Dawn 5 per cent
Communist 5 per cent
Pasok 4.4 per cent
Independent Greeks 3.4 per cent
Papandreou 3 per cent
LAOS 1.4 per cent
Democratic Left 1 per cent

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