ATHENS (Reuters) - Long lines of pensioners jostling to get into a limited number of banks opened specially to pay out retirement benefits have become a powerful symbol of the misery facing Greece and the problems mounting for Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras.
With banks closed down and capital controls imposed to shield the financial system from collapse, the depth of the problems facing the country has become clearer each day.
Tsipras’ leftwing government came to power in January vowing to protect pensioners and much of the breakdown in relations with international creditors centered on its refusal to accept the cuts in pensions that the lenders demanded.
Mindful of the fact that many older Greeks do not use credit or debit cards and so do not have access to cash machines, it has ordered 1,000 banks to open across the country to pay out a maximum of 120 euros and issue cards.
But in the process it has created a compelling reminder of the costs its confrontation with the lenders is inflicting on a society already deeply scarred by more than five years of harsh austerity imposed under successive bailout accords.
“In line for a handful of euros,” the conservative Eleftheros Typos newspaper headlined on Thursday. “The dignity promised by Tsipras turns into humiliation for thousands of pensioners”.
In a country where one in four of the workforce is without a job, the plight of the pensioners, whose monthly benefits can often be the only source of income for families, is an acutely sensitive issue.
Konstantinos Nikolopoulos, a 70-year-old former employee of U.S. entertainment group Warner Bros, emerged from his bank empty-handed after being told that benefits from his pension fund were not being paid out.
“They told me they don’t know when they will have the money and asked me to come again tomorrow just in case,” he said. “This situation is out of control.”
With scenes of long bank queues being played continuously on Greek television, the issue creates a big risk for Tsipras ahead of Sunday’s referendum on Greece’s bailout terms, now widely seen as a decisive test on the country’s future in the euro.
The only major opinion poll published on the referendum showed support for the “No” vote recommended by Tsipras slipping since the introduction of bank controls this week, although the depth of resentment against bailout-imposed austerity makes the outcome very hard to predict.
“On Sunday, I am slightly confused,” said Nikolopoulos. “I believe the message should be that the Greek people has to take a decision to settle its debt with a fair compromise, I am leaning more to voting ‘No’.”
The government side is however keenly aware of the damage the headlines and continuous television broadcasts are creating for its image.
The left-leaning Efimerida ton Syntakton newspaper, which is sympathetic to the ruling Syriza party, reflected the concern on Thursday, blaming the TV stations for deliberately seeking to stoke the climate of fear in the country.
It showed the TV broadcasts alongside German Chancellor Angela Merkel and her Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble, IMF head Christine Lagarde and others seen as villains by the left in a graphic headlined: “The mechanism of terror”.
Writing by James Mackenzie; editing by Anna Willard