Despite economic improvement, protest vote poses major test for Greece's governing coalition

Greece's rickety coalition government faces its first electoral test in local and regional voting Sunday — followed in a week by the nationwide European parliamentary elections that the left-wing opposition has billed as a referendum on the country's bailout.

Much has changed in the two years since Prime Minister Antonis Samaras' governing conservatives won a slim victory in a parliamentary election. In mid-2012, the debt-hobbled country was on the brink of a possible chaotic exit from the group of European countries using the euro currency, amid deep political and financial instability.

Since then, in a coalition with the remnants of his Socialist archrivals, Samaras has overseen a massive fiscal turnaround. Greece is projected to return to growth after a nightmare six-year recession slashed a quarter off the economy. But unemployment, although below its cruel peak of nearly 28 percent, remains very high amid a deep drop in incomes and property prices.

So the pain of more than four years' austerity, imposed to secure international rescue loans, is a top issue for voters. Polls give Alexis Tsipras' opposition Syriza party a small lead over the conservatives in the May 25 European parliamentary elections, in which Tsipras is the European Left's candidate for EU Commission president.

"In these four years, austerity policies have caused the greatest humanitarian crisis the country ever suffered," Tsipras said this week. "The government named this dramatic situation a success story."

In municipal and regional elections, held in two rounds Sunday and May 25, the center-left-backed incumbents are seen as favorites to win the major cities of Athens and Thessaloniki.

Samaras has played down fears that an expected poor showing by his Socialist partners on May 25 could undermine the coalition's legitimacy — it has only a majority of two in the 300-seat parliament.

"There was government stability during hard times," Samaras said in an interview with private Antenna TV. "Under no circumstances is that stability under threat after the elections."

An Alco poll for Proto Thema newspaper published Friday gave Syriza 23.4 percent of the vote, compared to the conservatives' 22 percent. The Nazi-inspired Golden Dawn party polled at 7.3 percent and the Socialists at 5.1 percent.

Before the financial crisis forced them to share power, the conservatives and the Socialists combined accounted for nearly 80 percent of the vote — while Syriza was backed by only about five percent of Greeks.

"Mr. Tsipras was brought to the foreground by the crisis," Samaras said. "When the crisis ends, he, too, will disappear."