Forest fires singe Greek pre-election opinion polls

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Athens, Sept 01: Deadly forest fires that have destroyed large parts of the Greek countryside have made it nearly impossible for opinion polls to predict the results of Sept.16 elections, pollsters said today.

A week ago, the ruling conservatives led the opposition socialists by 1-2 percentage points ahead of a parliamentary election expected to decide the pace of reforms Greece needs to catch up with its euro zone partners.

But the country's worst wildfires in memory that killed 63 people have brought the government under severe public, press and opposition criticism for its handling of the crisis.

Some polls released after the fires showed the government widening its lead over the socialists.

''All polls conducted over this period should be burned,'' said the respected liberal daily Eleftherotypia. ''They distort reality, mislead and serve the interests of specific clients.'' One agency cancelled the publication of a poll amid a flurry of attacks, saying that people in the fire-stricken southern Peloponnese region were refusing to cooperate.

''There was an extremely high percentage of refusal to participate,'' the MRB company said in a statement. ''(We) decided to cancel the publication.'' The socialist PASOK party also attacked polls showing it was unable to capitalise on the public outcry over the fires.

''There cannot be a reliable poll in these conditions,'' PASOK spokesman Nikos Athanasakis said. ''The lies are over. Now is the time of truth, the time of the citizen.'' Analysts say the public, tired of the two main players ruling Greece since its return to democracy in 1974, is turning to smaller political parties. This could force the election winner to resort to forming a coalition government.

Pollsters agree that conducting a poll in the month of August is unreliable enough with most Greeks on holiday it is difficult to get a reliable sample.

But with the current national emergency, polls are virtually useless in indicating how the election will go, they say.

''The impact of the fires will be apparent after the emotional tensions are over, in the two weeks leading to the elections,'' said Thodoris Livanios of the Opinion polling agency.

But Greece's election rules ban polls from being published after midnight on Friday and voters will remain in the dark on how views are shifting. ''Only political parties or whoever has commissioned the polls will know,'' Livanios said.


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