Greek conservative head makes last pitch to voters

ATHENS Thu May 3, 2012 3:56pm EDT

Leader of the New Democracy conservatives party Antonis Samaras addresses the audience during a pre-election rally at Zappeion in Athens May 3, 2012. REUTERS/Yorgos Karahalis

Leader of the New Democracy conservatives party Antonis Samaras addresses the audience during a pre-election rally at Zappeion in Athens May 3, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Yorgos Karahalis

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ATHENS (Reuters) - Greek conservative leader Antonis Samaras on Thursday made a last-ditch appeal to voters in Athens, his biggest constituency, for a strong mandate in Sunday's elections to lead the debt-stricken country back to growth and stability.

Samaras, 60, is hoping a last-minute polarization of voters will get him enough ballots to rule alone, although recent polls hint this is unlikely, meaning a new coalition will need to be formed to carry on with policies agreed under an EU/IMF bailout.

"I don't want to co-govern with (socialist) PASOK," he told thousands of supporters waving Greek flags at a central Athens rally. "If we formed a government with PASOK we would be hostage to its policies, afraid at every step that the coalition may break up," he said.

The "troika" of IMF, EU and ECB lenders have said the election poses a big risk to the fiscal steps and reforms Greece needs to deliver to get cash and turn its ailing economy around, including 11 billion euros worth of new measures in June.

The country's pro-bailout parties also say that failure to stick with the terms of the 130 billion euro EU/IMF bailout - hugely unpopular because of the austerity it imposes on Greeks - may endanger Greece's future in the single currency, with dire risks for other EU peripheral states like Spain and Italy.

Much will depend on whether Samaras and PASOK leader Evangelos Venizelos can set aside differences and forge a viable coalition as neither party is likely to win an absolute majority alone. One sticking point is who gets to be prime minister.

PRIORITY IS GROWTH

Samaras promised measures to jump-start growth in an economy that is mired in a deep recession, hit hard by cuts in pay and pensions and higher taxes to plug fiscal shortfalls.

He pledged to reduce the corporate tax rate to 15 from 20 percent and lower the value added tax to 19 from 23 percent currently to create incentives.

"Growth means competitiveness, I am talking about a revolution in the tax system," Samaras told the cheering crowd.

"Let's prove that Greece can make it," he told the rally.

New Democracy backed austerity measures needed for the country's second bailout package. But Samaras has been a vocal critic of the belt-tightening prescribed by Europe, arguing it has led to a deep slump that hampers deficit reduction targets.

It is a view increasingly heard in the mounting debate in Europe over what critics say is the self-defeating nature of austerity-only policies.

"The plan to get us out of the crisis is simple: growth to halt the recession," Samaras said, pledging an amnesty to Greeks who sent money abroad in a bid to bring back deposits to the banking system and boost liquidity.

Samaras promised help for those on very low pensions and relief measures to households struggling to service their mortgages, saying loan payments must not exceed 30 percent of their income.

In a nod to voters to the far right, he also said his government would opt for a massive repatriation of illegal immigrants and secure borders.

(Editing by Mark Heinrich)

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