ATHENS (Reuters) - Conservative leader Antonis Samaras told Greeks on Friday they faced a stark choice between staying in the euro or a “nightmare” return to the drachma in an election that threatens to send shockwaves through the single currency.
Samaras’s New Democracy party is neck and neck with the radical leftist SYRIZA going into Sunday’s pivotal vote, with SYRIZA leader Alexis Tsipras threatening to tear up the punishing terms of the 130 billion euro ($164.12 billion) bailout that is keeping Greece from bankruptcy.
Addressing supporters at his final campaign rally, Samaras pledged again to renegotiate the bailout’s punishing terms in order to promote growth and jobs, but said that to go head to head with the country’s European partners would mean the end of Greece’s euro membership.
“We are going into an election to decide the future of Greece and of our children,” Samaras, 61, told the crowd of several thousand waving Greek and EU flags in the capital’s central Syntagma square.
“The first choice the Greek people must make is: euro versus drachma.”
“There are some outside Greece who want the country to be the black sheep and push it out of the euro. We will not please them,” Samaras said, in a speech laced with the anti-immigrant rhetoric on the rise in Greece as the economy flounders.
Neither party is expected to win outright, and negotiations will follow to create a pro- or anti-bailout coalition government.
Euro zone officials have hinted they might give a new Greek government some leeway on how it reaches debt targets set by the EU/IMF bailout package, but there would be no change to the targets themselves.
Greece’s lenders say they will turn off the taps if the country rejects the bailout. Tsipras says Europe is bluffing - it cannot afford to cut Greece loose and risk the contagion for the much larger economies of Spain and Italy, he argues.
Greeks say overwhelmingly that they do not want to leave the euro, but neither do they want the pension, job and wage cuts arising from the bailout which have helped condemn the country to five years of record-breaking recession.
“I’m optimistic because I hope people will think as Greeks when they vote and not give in to anger,” 61-year-old pensioner Anthi Zoitou said during Friday’s rally.
“I voted for another party ... in the previous election,” said 32-year-old economist Antonis Kargas, “but will vote for New Democracy now. The dilemma facing Greece is whether it holds onto its European prospects.”
Sunday’s vote is a re-run of a May 6 election that produced stalemate.
Tsipras has rejected forming a government of national unity, but Samaras said the country could not afford a third election.
“We cannot withstand it,” he said. “We are in favor of renegotiating (the bailout) for jobs and to remain in the euro; this is what the Greek people want.”
“Should young people have opportunities to work or will we allow today’s incredible unemployment to become a nightmare?”
Writing by Matt Robinson; Editing by Andrew Heavens