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In Greek Election Campaign, Anger Trumps Civility

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Greeks will vote Sunday in what is expected to be the most fractious parliamentary election in decades.

People are so divided that no party is expected to get enough votes to form a government. Voters blame politicians for bankrupting the country and then selling it out to international lenders, who forced the government to impose painful austerity measures in exchange for billions of euros in bailout loans.

This election is an early one; the economic crisis forced out the previous elected government led by George Papandreou.

In 2009, when Papandreou's center-left PASOK party won in a landslide, politicians held big, music-filled campaign rallies. Now, most candidates are holding small events and hiring bodyguards. That's because some voters are so angry they're attacking lawmakers with eggs, yogurt and obscenities.

Open Season On Incumbents

On the Aegean island of Rhodes recently, a few national and local politicians attended a parade. In better times, the dignitaries waved at smiling schoolchildren singing the national anthem.

But this year they ran from an angry mob pelting them with cartons of yogurt and water bottles. Local TV footage shows the crowd breaking through security barriers and screaming, "Traitors!"

In Athens, the epicenter of anti-austerity protests, demonstrators surrounded Parliament, shouting, "Thieves!" They are especially angry at PASOK and the center-right New Democracy, the two parties which have run Greece for the past 30 years.

But Greeks are even angry at politicians who opposed the bailout. Protesters recently shouted down longtime Communist Party of Greece leader Aleka Papariga at a campaign event at the Acropolis.

It seems to be open season on all incumbents, says Kyriakos Mitsotakis, a parliamentary deputy for New Democracy. He represents Athens and is running for re-election.

"It's extremely different from the last campaign I had to run two years ago," Mitsotakis says. "People are very angry, and I think rightly so. They feel let down by politicians, especially those who represent the two major parties. At the same time, there is also a lot of concern about the future of the country."

Mitsotakis, who is also a target because he comes from a well-known political family, says he hasn't gotten attacked and still feels safe. Still, he is avoiding big rallies for security reasons. Instead, he's working the phones and listening to voters at small town hall meetings.

"They're concerned with the way the burden and the pain [are] distributed," he says. "They're concerned about whether corrupt politicians are going to go to jail. And they also want to hear our views and thoughts as to whether Greece can get back to a sustainable growth path."

More Yelling Than Listening

Voters want answers. That's why journalist Constantinos Bogdanos helped organize a town hall meeting at Bios, an arty bar in central Athens. About 100 voters came to quiz candidates from 10 parties.

"When it comes to politicians, you know, egg throwing is not the worst thing in the world, but it's not going to take us anywhere," Bogdanos said. "As long as we realize that and start voting as responsible citizens and discussing as responsible citizens, I think we're gonna make it."

But only about 20 minutes into the talk, voters complained that politicians weren't answering questions. Then a middle-aged woman yelled: "When are we going to lynch someone for this mess?" The politicians grew angry and accused the voters of being hostile. Soon, everyone was arguing.

Gabriela Triantifylis, a 32-year-old theater manager, walked out looking shell shocked.

"I really thought that it could be more civil than this," she said. "I never expected to experience such tension and such distress in this building. People simply could not listen to each other."

One of the politicians, Giorgos Charalambopoulos, left the talk after the lynching comment. He spent the rest of the evening on the bar's balcony, smoking a cigarette and looking wistfully at the Acropolis.

"OK, when you say, 'Why don't you hang somebody?' and we let that develop, that's bad for democracy," he said. "If we let that [happen], they will hang not only guilty people but innocent people. So we're not talking about that. I'm not part of that bargain."

Charalambopoulos is a parliamentary deputy in PASOK, the party many Greeks blame for austerity. He's hoping to win re-election in his Athens district.

He also has a bodyguard, a young policeman named Lazarus. These days, Charalambopoulos says, you can't be too careful.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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