Athens, Greece - Greece is entering its fifth consecutive year of recession. As the unemployed, the angry, and the newly poor turn in the widening gyre, the country's political centre falls apart.
Since the end of Greece's military junta in 1974, two parties - the centre-left PASOK and the centre-right New Democracy - have taken turns in power. Today, the two parties rule together in an interim government. But, largely because of the parties' support for unpopular economic austerity measures, voters are eyeing more radical choices in a parliamentary election on May 6.
Two middle-aged women, sitting together at an outdoor cafe in southern Athens, personified this fragmentation of the political order. In the 2009 election, Eleni voted for PASOK, and Katerina supported New Democracy. Both asked that their real names not be used.
Now, Katerina says she will vote for Golden Dawn, a far-right party with neo-Nazi tendencies, partly out of disgust with the ruling parties. Golden Dawn, which is likely to win seats in parliament for the first time this election, seems "totally independent and doesn't want to make deals under the table", says Katerina. She also supports the party's desire "to clear the place of all the immigrants".
Eleni says she plans to support a party to the left of PASOK. She's angry that the ruling coalition has supported a slew of tax hikes, including a controversial measure that inserts a new property tax into Greeks' electricity bills.
The final set of polls published before the election show that about one-third of voters now support left-wing parties, up from 15 per cent in the previous parliamentary election. Meanwhile, support for the two relatively centrist major parties has nosedived from about three-quarters in 2009 to only about 40 per cent.
Some members of parliament are rebelling, too. Over the past few years, the major parties have expelled MPs who refused to toe the party line on austerity. Sofia Sakorafa, a former Olympic athlete who once held the world record in the javelin throw, was kicked out of PASOK in 2010 for not supporting a bill related to the first EU-IMF bailout package.
She's been an independent MP since then, but recently decided to run for parliament as a member of the Coalition for the Radical Left (SYRIZA), an alliance of 16 left-wing parties. At an outdoor rally in Dafni, a middle-class suburb south of Athens, Sakorafa blasted PASOK and New Democracy for planning additional austerity measures, and urged her "friends in PASOK" to unite under SYRIZA's banner.
Sakorafa isn't the only one evangelising. On Sunday, April 29, Democratic Left leader Fotis Kouvelis told a crowd of a few thousand Athenians that PASOK voters should be careful about their choice this time around, promising that his party would remain ideologically consistent.
Dimitri Sotiropoulos, a political science professor at the University of Athens, said there was a competition underway among the three biggest left-wing parties - the Communist Party of Greece (KKE), SYRIZA, and Democratic Left - to receive "as many former [PASOK] voters as possible".
This feeding frenzy was made possible, according to Sotiropoulos, because the austerity measures supported by PASOK "were contrary to the promises it had given before coming to power in October 2009". Furthermore, he said, these policies were especially damaging to PASOK's electoral base, many of whom are low- and middle-class voters living in urban areas.
In a nod to the disaffected, party president Evangelos Venizelos said at a rally in Athens' Syntagma Square on Friday that PASOK had "learned from our mistakes and omissions", and that he respected the sacrifices Greeks had made.
A divided left
But will the left's growing share of support translate into political power after the election?
Its historical fractiousness won't help. SYRIZA has repeatedly called for cooperation between its leftist brethren, but has been repeatedly spurned.
Although the parties' views on some important issues overlap - for example, they all oppose the current smorgasbord of austerity measures - a host of other issues rule out a pan-leftist coalition.
Major fissures within the Greek left first opened after 1968, when the Communist Party of Greece (KKE) split into pro- and anti-Soviet camps. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, leftist parties in Greece have split, reformed, and reunified a bewildering number of times.
The KKE still propounds unreconstructed, Marxist-Leninist communism, and categorically refuses to form a coalition with any other parties. In an interview with Athens News, party leader Aleka Papariga charged other leftist parties with being "forces that cooperate with the parties of capital" and said that the rise of new parties "will not change their class-based character".
This unwillingness to cooperate irks many non-Communists. "The argument from the rest of the left is: 'Hey guys, Jesus is going to rise at some point and there's going to be a second revelation, but what about now? We need solutions now'," said Matthaios Tsimitakis, a SYRIZA supporter and editor of political blog Greek Left Review.
On the edge of Europe
The deepest cleavages on the left concern Greece's position within Europe. The KKE wants to unilaterally write off Greece's debt, leave the euro and return to the previous currency, the drachma. It also advocates leaving the European Union.
At a KKE rally in Athens' Pedion Areos neighbourhood, Papariga said that Greece's membership in the EU and eurozone "has brought us closer to slavery, a position that benefits only the monopolies of the EU".
By contrast, most factions within SYRIZA support Greece's membership in the eurozone and EU, but are discontent with Greece's position within the union. Kostas Isychos, a member of the political secretariat of SYRIZA's biggest party, Synaspismos, told Al Jazeera that Greece should not remain a "neocolony" in the EU.
"Europe sees Greece as a 'lab rat'... testing austerity measures on the country to see if similar policies can work elsewhere."
- Panos Mandikos, teacher
Regarding the "memorandum" - the terms of the EU/IMF bailout - Isychos said Greece should pay off its debt, but over the long term, and only after the debt had been audited. When it comes to renegotiating the memorandum, Isychos suggested that Greece has "a weapon in its arms right now. If it goes into bankruptcy, it will create a minor nuclear explosion".
Democratic Left, the youngest of Greece's major leftist parties, was founded after SYRIZA dissidents split in 2010, claiming that the coalition was becoming too anti-Europe. The new party believes that austerity should be carried out in a way that does not burden the lower and middle classes as much, but does not categorically oppose the rescue packages.
At a Democratic Left rally in central Athens, Panos Mandikos, a ponytailed physical education teacher, said he used to support SYRIZA. He has no love for austerity: Europe sees Greece as a "lab rat", he believes, testing austerity measures on the country to see if similar policies can work elsewhere.
But Mandikos plans to vote for Democratic Left this time, because he says the party "wants to be in the hard-core of Europe".
And Democratic Left parliamentary candidate Dora Kailipoliti said she "couldn't stand" SYRIZA's staunch anti-memorandum positions any longer. Although she believes the memorandum should be renegotiated to give Greece more time to pay off its loans, the agreement "is something that the country has to respect in general", she says. "There has to be continuity."
Democratic Left has already rebuffed offers from SYRIZA to work together, and has also rejected the idea of participating in a PASOK/New Democracy government. (Sotiropoulos, however, thinks this may merely be pre-election spin, and that Democratic Left "will probably like to collaborate with one or two other major parties".)
Yet even if no leftist party comes to power in the next government, a strong showing in the election will still have important ramifications.
The terms of the latest EU/IMF bailout stipulate that, this June, the Greek parliament must find ways to cut an additional 11.5 billion euros ($15.2bn) from its budget by 2014. An influx of leftist MPs could make passing further austerity measures that much more difficult for the ruling coalition: just a few defections could send legislation required by the memorandum crashing to defeat.
And if PASOK and New Democracy together win more than half the seats in parliament, but fail to win a majority of the popular vote (which is possible due to the quirks of Greek electoral law), anti-memorandum parties on both the left and right will be able to make a case that the government's programme lacks legitimacy, said Sotiropoulos.
Tsimitakis argued that the election will have consequences outside of government as well. "The elections are not important just because they elect a government, but because they shape the environment for how social relations form the day after," he said, speculating that a convincing performance by left-wing parties at the polls could mean "more demonstrations and more strikes" in coming months.
"If you have a very strong left bloc in society," he continued, "it means that whatever the government might try to do, it will face resistance".
If resistance is strong enough, the ruling coalition could be compelled to bring a third party into the fold - or call new elections.
Aimiliani Vlachou assisted with translation from Greek.
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