Greece opposition party stretches poll lead


Greece's opposition Socialist party has stretched its poll lead to as much as 6 percentage points over the ruling Conservatives amid public discontent over the handling of the worst rioting in decades, according to polls today.

Anti-government protests have entered a third week since the December 6th killing of a 15-year-old boy by police but Greek citizens were split on whether the government should call snap elections. The demonstrations have fed on anger at youth unemployment, pension reforms and privatisations, and an economic slowdown.

While the level of violence has fallen in the past few days, hundreds of students with fire bombs fought running battles with police in the centre of Athens late on Saturday and daily demonstrations clog the square outside parliament.

Students threw stones and petrol bombs at riot police outside university buildings late into last night. Police blocked surrounding roads and fired teargas at the youths, who sheltered in the university campus which police are banned from entering.

Across the country, hundreds of schools and several university campuses remain occupied by students. In the northern city of Thessaloniki, demonstrators briefly occupied a radio station and a cinema.

The protests, the worst Greece has known in decades, have fed on anger at youth unemployment, government reforms and the global economic crisis.

An opinion poll published by Kathimerininewspaper showed the Pan-Hellenic Socialist Party (PASOK) had 38.5 per cent of voters support compared to 32.5 per cent for the ruling New Democracy party.

The survey of 1,013 people by poll firm Public Issue, spanning the start of the riots, showed 86 per cent of Greeks were critical of the government's handling of the violence and believed "things in Greece are moving in the wrong direction".

"The government's handling of youth protests resulted in a further worsening of the government and prime minister's image," Yiannis Mavris, Public Issue general director, said.

But only half of the sample said the ruling party should call snap vote, after it won re-election last year.

The Greek government's term ends in September 2011 but many analysts say the ruling party might have to call elections as soon as next year. Prime minister Costas Karamanlis has rejected PASOK calls to go to the polls.

The violence in Greece has sparked sympathy protests across Europe. In the northern German port city of Hamburg, scattered violence erupted at a demonstration by about 1,000 people late on Saturday in support of the Greek protests.

Four police officers were slightly injured and 10 people arrested.

The Greek government's majority fell to one seat in the 300-member parliament after the expulsion of a rebel MP last month and its popularity has been hit by 15 days of protests which have caused hundreds of millions of euros in damage and lost business.

PASOK moved ahead in polls in September amid a series of political scandals and a slowing economy, part of the global financial crisis, hurt the government's image.

A second poll published on Sunday by To Vimanewspaper showed the socialists with a 4.5 percentage point lead.

Later today, the parliament is expected to approve a 2009 budget which targets 2.7 per cent growth next year, although the government has already admitted the target was "difficult" and may need revision.