Past austerity haunts Greek voters facing soaring prices

Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis visits party's main campaign kiosk at Syntagma square in front of the Greek parliament in Athens on May 14, 2023. (PHOTO / AFP)

ATHENS — Fourteen years after a debt crisis that saw Greece nearly crash out of the euro, single parent Niki Klaoudatou says she worries more about money now than she did during the worst years of the country's economic meltdown.

Ahead of an election on May 21, a cost-of-living crisis that is eroding earnings is foremost in voters' minds. For Klaoudatou it means voting for anyone but the incumbent conservative New Democracy or the opposition leftist Syriza.

It was a painful adjustment to get the country's finances back on track. Since its bailout programme ended in 2018, Greece has regained market access, wrestled down its record debt and growth is set to outpace the euro zone's average

"I'm going to vote for a small party, more to show that I am not happy with the bigger parties," she said, echoing opinion polls that suggest the outcome will be a hung parliament.

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Three international bailouts saved Greece from toppling out of the euro zone during a decade-long debt crisis that peaked in 2015. But austerity imposed in return for financial aid meant millions of Greeks saw their livelihoods hit as taxes soared and wages and pensions were recalibrated.

It was a painful adjustment to get the country's finances back on track. Since its bailout programme ended in 2018, Greece has regained market access, wrestled down its record debt and growth is set to outpace the euro zone's average.

For many, however, that turnaround is only on paper.

Now aged 40 and a telephone company employee, Klaoudatou is earning the same money – 850 euros a month – she did as a 20- year-old supermarket worker in 2004.

With a mortgage, two young children and spiralling food bills, she says can't afford the basics.

"Εven during the crisis – and this is the joke – I didn't think so much before spending a single extra euro," Klaoudatou told Reuters.

Double whammy

While millions across Europe are struggling with rising prices, especially for energy and food, the financial turmoil of the last decade has amplified the impact in Greece.

"The past 10 years has been static for workers and pensioners. Any improvement in growth hasn't been passed on to them yet," said Vlassis Missos, fellow researcher for the Greek Centre of Planning and Economic Research.

A GPO poll on May 6 showed the ruling conservative New Democracy was set to get 36.9 percent of the vote on May 21, compared with 30.4 percent for leftist Syriza, its main rival. However, smaller parties including the once-dominant Socialist PASOK, were also gaining ground.

Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis has raised the minimum wage and pensions, and promised to do more if re-elected.

His main rival, leftist Alexis Tsipras who governed over the 2015-2019 period, has also pledged to raise pensions and the minimum wage, and to index wages to inflation.

Greece may formally be out of fiscal surveillance by the European Union, but its heavy debt burden continues to make lenders wary.

That means any administration must undertake a perilous balancing act of placating an electorate worn down by austerity and now inflation with keeping markets happy.

There is little wiggle room.

"From a fiscal point of view, we're still a way from a primary (budget) surplus which is necessary for the long-term debt sustainability," Greek central banker Yannis Stournaras told media outlet on May 10.

Paycheck barely gets to paycheck

One in two Greek households could barely get by on their monthly income last year.

Eurostat, the EU's statistics agency, says 36.4 percent of Greeks had overdue bills in 2021, the highest proportion in the 27-member bloc. The share of people whose housing costs represent more than 40 percent of their disposable income was also the biggest in the EU, at 32.4 percent of Greek households compared to an EU average of 10.4 percent.

And in the past year, those bills have been getting higher as the European Central Bank raises interest rates at a record pace to rein in runaway inflation.

Klaoudatou, who shares a small apartment in the Athens suburb of Alimos with her two children and her mother, has seen her mortgage rise to 450 euros a month, 100 euros more than a year ago.

READ MORE: Greece's top court bans far-right party from general elections

She shares expenses with her mother, who receives a monthly pension of around 850 euros. But still the family cannot make ends meet.

Klaoudatou only uses her car when strictly necessary, and recently had to tell her 12-year-old he couldn't go out with his friends because she couldn't afford the food.

"I felt bad. Really, really bad," she said. "I would never have done that before."

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