Crete key election battleground

WSJ — Crete, famous in Greece as a leftist bastion, has become a key battleground in Sunday’s elections, leaving the left-wing party that lost a clash with the country’s European creditors struggling to defend a former stronghold.

Greek leaders who normally focus on major cities like Athens and Thessaloniki are lavishing unusual attention on the country’s biggest island, which with a population of 620,000, accounts for only 16 of the 300 seats in Greece’s parliament.

Those seats could make all the difference in one of the closest elections Greece has seen in years.

Syriza and its leader, Alexis Tsipras, surged into power in a January on promises to reject austerity, but were ultimately forced to back down to creditor demands. The party is now running neck-and-neck nationally with the conservative New Democracy, according to opinion polls.

Though both parties largely back the tough bailout deal with creditors signed by Mr. Tsipras, a close outcome would require a potentially fractious coalition government that could usher in a period of costly instability. That could endanger the bailout program seen as critical to Greece remaining in the eurozone.

Crete’s seats are up for grabs to an unusual extent, political analysts say, and if voters there retreat from Syriza that could give the conservatives an in.

In a move allowed by Greek election law, many top leadership contenders—including Mr. Tsipras, who ran the country as prime minister until August—are running for parliamentary seats from there, a sign of just how important they perceive its support to be.

The island has been solidly left-wing for decades, and leaned strongly toward Syriza in January’s elections, so any divergence could signal a significant shift by voters angry about Mr. Tsipras’s U-turn on austerity.

In downtown Heraklion, the island’s capital, 30-year-old Nikos Mandounas, who is unemployed, said that he won’t back Mr. Tsipras as he did in January.

“I supported him thinking that something will be done for the younger generation that has been stagnating for the last five years and that he would have been better at negotiating Greece’s bailout,” he said. “Our hopes were dashed.”

Normally, Greek candidates for prime minister only run head-to-head in Athens. But in a bid to shore up Syriza’s support on Crete, Mr. Tsipras, is running for a seat in Heraklion for the first time, trying to hold on to a concentrated cluster of supporters who are at risk of defecting.

New Democracy leader Vagelis Meimarakis is also standing there. The heads of two other parties, centrists To Potami (“The River”) and the right-wing Independent Greeks, are also running in Cretan districts.

Greek candidates are permitted to run in two places, and then choose the constituency they keep if elected. It is common for Greek party leaders to stand in areas they don’t live in as an electoral strategy.

Syriza is also worried about suffering losses on Crete to a breakaway faction, Popular Unity, that revolted against Mr. Tsipras’s bailout deal with Europe. A significant number of Syriza activists on Crete have gone over to Popular Unity.

The island, whose tourist economy has been hit hard by austerity, has been a springboard to power before. In 2012 election, Syriza broke the stranglehold that Greece’s most established left-wing party, the Socialists, or Pasok, had long held over the island.

It was seen as a breakthrough in Mr. Tsipras’s yearslong effort to turn Syriza into a potent national force.

“It is more difficult than in January,” when Syriza won half the island’s seats, says Dimitris Klarakis, a Cretan lawyer and Syriza candidate. “People are tired of five years of [bailout] memorandums and it is difficult to explain to them why another one was needed,” he said.

This year, many voters say they are completely sick of politics. On the streets of Heraklion, it is mostly tourists who stop and look at the parties’ campaign stalls. The locals mostly scurry past.

Angry voters “normally just refuse to accept our pamphlets,” acknowledged Stefanos Liveris, a botanist and candidate for Popular Unity. Some people stop, he said—to shout abuse.

Some Cretans still admire Mr. Tsipras for making a doomed stand against the creditors. On an island with a long history of resistance against foreign powers, from the Ottomans to the Nazis, they attach pride to rebelling against authority, even if it doesn’t get far.

Where previous Greek governments meekly signed up to lenders’ bailout terms, Mr. Tsipras at least fought back, said Maria Papadakis, a 21-year-old sociology student.

She is voting Syriza, and accepts that Mr. Tsipras would have no choice but to implement the bailout program if elected again. “We can’t exit the euro,” she says. “We’re stuck with all of this.”