Just a month ago, Prime Minister Kostas Karamanlis called for early parliamentary elections, when his center-right New Democracy party seemed a shoo-in for victory.
Greece’s moribund economy was on the rebound. After three and a half years of sometimes painful changes, the nation had one of the fastest rates of growth in Europe.
But much has changed since then, and that is affecting the elections on Sunday. Fires in August tore through forests parched by two months of intense heat, killing at least 65 people, charring half a million acres of farmland, and throwing the government’s reflexes into question.
“The fires shocked the nation,” said Theodore A. Couloumbis, vice president of Eliamep, a research organization in Athens. “They left many Greeks wondering ‘if neither the conservatives nor socialists can prevent such calamity, then who can we turn to?”’
With polls indicating that as many as 12 percent of Greece’s 10 million voters are undecided, Karamanlis’ conservatives and Pasok, the socialist party he defeated in 2004 after almost 20 years of uninterrupted socialist rule, appear to be in one of the toughest races in recent memory. But in those surveys, neither New Democracy nor Pasok polled more than 40 percent, raising the likelihood that the winner will have to share power in a coalition or struggle to govern with a thin majority in the 300-seat parliament.
Karamanlis and his change-minded administration have built a record of economic discipline, slashing the budget deficit. A sharply reduced majority for the conservatives may imperil their hopes to make other changes, including privatizing ailing state enterprises and revamping the social security system.
Yet discontent with the government’s handling of the fires has given little help to the socialists, despite the thumping campaign style of the party’s usually mild-mannered leader, George A. Papandreou.
The standoff offers the chance for a far-right party to break into parliament by amassing more than 3 percent of the vote, the threshold for entering the legislature. The Popular Orthodox Rally, which was founded by a politician whom Karamanlis expelled in 2000 for his extremist statements, has struck a chord among disgruntled voters with a medley of xenophobia, nationalism and anti-American views.
Last week, the party leader, Giorgos Karatzaferis, softened his stance, denying accusations of racism and of sympathy for anti-American terrorists at large in Greece.
He and the socialists have accused the prime minister of covering up a bond-trading scandal, of tolerating cronyism and of responding ineptly to the fires.
But Karamanlis responded with handouts to fire victims, and by offering packages of higher pensions and tax breaks. He also has threatened to hold new elections this fall if his party fails to win an outright majority.
“Voter frustration may continue to linger,” said Anthony Livanios, president and chief executive of Alpha Metrics, a polling agency in Athens. But, he said, “Most voters will have to size up to reality and pick the best show of leadership before them.”