ATHENS-Greek leaders presented their goals during a highly charged televised debate Monday night, in advance of the Sept. 20 general election for prime minister. The election was forced when former Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras resigned in August, trying to quell a rebellion and win a stronger mandate to push through tax hikes and spending cuts agreed under the €86 billion ($97.3 billion) bailout he initially opposed.
With Sunday's national ballot looming, the marathon event was an opportunity for voters to draw more conclusions about the candidates' positions. The spotlight was on the top two contenders: Former Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras of the Syriza party, and Evangelos Meimarakis, who heads the conservative New Democracy (ND) party.
They have been neck-and-neck in the polls for several weeks, casting doubt on whether a stable government will emerge from an election if neither can win outright. Yesterday's poll by ANT1-TV showed a draw with both Syriza and ND garnering 24.6 percent of voters.
More than 4 million people watched the debate, but early public reaction does not show that either candidate won.
During the debate leftist leader Tsipras and rival Meimarakis said they would broadly honor the country's bailout commitments. Neither candidate supports a "Grexit" from the euro.
But Alexis Tsipras once again ruled out the possibility of cooperation with New Democracy (ND) after the elections to form a grand coalition in the standards of the CDU/SPD alliance in Germany. "Immediately after the elections, there will be a government in the country. Not a paranormal coalition between progressive and conservative parties," he said.
In contrast, Meimarakis noted he would welcome an alliance with Syriza to help bring government stability so Greece can emerge faster from its economic crisis. "A New Democracy-Syriza government is possible. It is not paranormal," he said. "If we work together, we can implement the commitments for which you pledged. We can have a national negotiating team for the bailout."
Meimarakis urged Greeks to vote for his party to complete the work that was left unfinished when Greece headed to early elections in January. "We brought investments, and Tsipras chased them away," he said, stressing the need for growth-boosting policies to turbocharge the recession-hit economy.
He aims to improve the long-term manageability of public debt, gradually reduce taxes on households and businesses, ensure fiscal consolidation, recapitalize Greek banks and attract foreign investment.
If reelected, Tsipras pledged he would continue the war against corruption, reduce bureaucracy and oversee tax reform to ensure transparency, recapitalize Greek banks and help stimulate small and medium-size business development.
On the immigration crisis in Europe, both opponents agreed it was imperative for Europe to address the issue. According to Meimarakis, Syriza's policies have encouraged refugees to come to Greece. But Tsipras rebuked the criticism, noting many of those arriving on Greece's islands are refugees fleeing war. "We want the patrolling and reinforcement of patrols by Frontex," he said.
Furthermore, the debate dealt with the issue of political corruption in Greece and political relations with vested interests. "They shouldn't lecture us on vested interests, the same people that didn't even bring one law on tax evasion," Meimarakis said.
To that, Tsipras replied, "I know that the desire of the vested interests is to embrace me, but they will not succeed."
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—By Nasos Koukakis, special to CNBC.com