Greek voters are sharply divided as campaign season opens

Greece has finally set the date. With the dissolution of Parliament last week, the campaign is on for early national elections June 2. By all indications, the campaign will be a closely contested affair. Recent public opinion polls showed the two main parties -- the ruling Pan-Hellenic Socialist Movement (Pasok), and the conservative New Democracy Party -- in a virtual dead heat, with the pro-Moscow Communist Party attracting 10 to 12 percent of the vote.

The election will take place in a sharply polarized atmosphere.

According to Panayote Dimitras, director of the polling firm Eurodim, the election will be fought on symbols rather than real issues.

The two main parties are trying to tar each other as a threat to democracy, just as they did in the 1984 elections for the European Parliament.

Opposition leader Constantine Mitsotakis has pointed to what many regard as questionable tactics of Pasok in electing Christos Sartzetakis to the presidency last month as a sign that Prime Minister Andreas Papandreou threatens the country's pluralist democracy and intends to transfrom Greece into a one-party state.

Mr. Papandreou replied that a victory by New Democracy would bring back the kind of heavy-handed right-wing rule characteristic of the 1950s and early '60s.

Greek and foreign political observers say Papandreou faces a delicate task in trying to hold onto the support of the estimated 3 to 4 percent of the voters who lean toward the communists but voted for Pasok in 1981.

The prime minister's dumping of conservative Constantine Caramanlis as president in favor of Sartzetakis -- and Papandreou's endorsement of constitutional reforms intended to strip the presidency of its powers -- was widely regarded as a play to the left.

Nevertheless, the Communist Party continues to criticize the Pasok government in harsh terms.

And the Communists openly indicate they hope to gain enough power to have significant leverage on a new Pasok government.

New Democracy is seeking to convince the 15 to 25 percent of the voters who traditionally supported the centrist parties that it is not the right-wing party of the past and that it has the competence and imagination to solve the country's daunting economic problems. The centrist parties virtually collapsed in the 1981 elections.

Mitsotakis has tried hard to give his party a centrist, progressive image, claiming the mantle of such heroes of the center as the current prime minister's father, the late Prime Minister George Papandreou.

The New Democracy Party leader has focused his harshest attacks on the government's handling of the economy and proposed an ambitious plan of tax cuts, liberalization of the economy, and government reorganization.

New Democracy's new assertiveness and its economic proposals clearly caught the government off guard.

A majority of political observers here consider a New Democracy victory unlikely, but they say the opposition won an initial tactical victory. Its continuous charges that Papandreou has mismanaged the economy and its economic proposals have forced Pasok to spend a great deal of time and energy defending its domestic record.

Pasok argues that the world economic crisis and mistakes of previous conservative governments are to blame for the dismal state of the economy. Pasok has published glossy pamphlets claiming the government has made great strides in ``laying the infrastructure'' for recovery.

The two main parties have so far played down international affairs. Pollsters say foreign policy is low on the electorate's list of priorities and can become an asset or liability only in the event of a major crisis.

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