ATHENS (Reuters) - Scandalous details of the lavish life of a former minister who spent 20,000 euros on curtain rods while cash-strapped Greeks buckled under tax hikes and wage cuts have driven anger against the establishment to boiling point before Sunday’s election.
Akis Tsohatzopoulos, 72, a once-powerful Socialist arrested on charges of taking bribes and evading taxes, has become a symbol of the corruption that has bedeviled Greece in the 38 years of rule by the Socialist PASOK and the conservative New Democracy, the two parties backing the country’s bailout by international lenders.
The affair has become a symbol of the injustice felt by ordinary Greeks, who have seen pensions cut and wages plunge by a quarter last year while their wealthy compatriots still enjoy their yachts and fancy restaurants, seemingly immune to the cuts that have pushed many into poverty and even suicide.
Anger stoked by the Tsohatzopoulos affair runs so deep that many Greeks are willing to accept the risk of an election victory by anti-bailout leftists that might lead the country out of the euro, just to punish an entrenched and out of touch political class.
“I lost all my money while people like Tsohatzopoulos were taking bribes and evading taxes, and you’re asking me if I’ll vote for them?” said Dimitrios Panagiotou, 71, a retired civil servant whose pension has been slashed by a third.
A wave of suicides triggered by financial despair over the past month stands in stark contrast to the reported luxury of the Tsohatzopoulos household - from his younger, second wife spending 20,000 euros, or $25,000, on curtain rods, to their lavish wedding night in the Four Seasons George V hotel in Paris eight years ago.
Tsohatzopoulos, who is accused of money laundering and using offshore companies to buy a luxurious mansion in Athens, is in jail pending trial. He last served as a minister in 2004.
Law-abiding Greeks, mostly low- and middle-income employees, have their tax deducted monthly from their salaries while rich businessmen, doctors or lawyers notoriously under-declare income or bribe tax officials. Annual tax evasion is estimated at 45 billion euros ($55 billion) - one fifth of the 215 billion euro ($270 billion) economy.
Most middle-class Greeks are taxed at between 25 and 40 percent of their annual income, with the tax burden rising sharply after the government imposed a string of one-off levies and lowered the tax free threshold from 12,000 ($15,000) to 5,000 euros ($9,500).
In contrast, shipping income from Greek-flagged vessels is taxed in the low-single digits while Greek shipping companies enjoy generous tax exemptions. Rich shipowners buying up property and football clubs are taxed abroad, if at all.
“My parents have paid taxes all their life and have nothing to show for it - but the rich always find loopholes to escape,” said Niki Argyriou, a 19-year-old language student who voted on May 6 for the first time.
“There’s no way I will vote for either New Democracy or PASOK.”
“NO SHIPOWNER IN TEARS”
Even the country’s foreign lenders - well aware of the rising resentment against the austerity measures they have demanded - are asking wealthier Greeks to contribute their fair share.
“I only see poorer Greeks struggling ... I haven’t seen any rich Greek shipowner in tears yet,” Eurogroup chief Jean-Claude Juncker told German radio last week.
The frustration felt by young, first-time voters like Argyriou is boosting the anti-bailout, radical leftist SYRIZA party and its youthful 37-year-old leader Alexis Tsipras.
Combined support for the two pro-bailout parties more than halved in the May 6 election to 32 percent of the vote. That share is expected to edge up slightly on Sunday, but many voters remain unperturbed by the prospect of a victory by anti-bailout politicians and the ensuing clash with Greece’s lenders.
“There are still many people out there who want to kill the old, tired political system,” said independent political analyst John Loulis. “The Tsohatzopoulos affair brought back in voters’ minds all the scandals of the past - it’s not a surprise that Tsipras appears as the freshest face in politics right now.”
New Democracy, which is running neck-and-neck with SYRIZA in opinion polls, has tried to address the voter anger, vowing to crack down on tax evasion.
“Our top priority is to show the people that we have understood what they want: justice,” the party’s leader, Antonis Samaras, said on Wednesday.
But voters remain skeptical.
“The established politicians will never turn on the rich because they’re rich themselves,” said Evangelos Chrysanis, a 47-year-old driver who voted for the KKE Communists on May 6.
“The Tsohatzopoulos arrest was just a show. They may take his house away but nothing worse will happen to him,” he said.
Additional reporting by Lefteris Papadimas; Editing by Giles Elgood