In Greece's 'city of despair' the young vote with their feet

DRAMA (Greece) (AFP) - Shivering in the cold in one of Greece's poorest cities, 24-year-old Nikos stands outside a fast-food restaurant, handing out election leaflets ahead of next Sunday's snap poll.

Few passers-by are interested.

"I get two cents per leaflet," Nikos told AFP. "If I hand out 1,000 of them I'll get 20 euros ($23) for a day's work."

"By the way, I'm not voting for these people," he added, pointing to the conservative party leaflets he was holding.

A regional hub on the border with Bulgaria, Drama and its environs have a jobless rate of 50 percent, local labour groups say.

The city once had 7,000 small businesses, mainly in the textile and timber sector. But many of those that were not wiped out by the economic crisis have moved across the border to where business costs are cheaper.

Today, even supermarkets in Drama have trouble hanging on to customers who prefer to shop in Bulgaria.

- 'City of despair' -

"Welcome to the city of despair!" a local shouted this week when Alexis Tsipras, head of the anti-austerity Syriza party tipped to win next Sunday's election, visited Drama.

"We live in a city of poverty and unemployment," said 22-year-old local Costas Avramidis.

"We were told that if wages fall, the economy will become competitive and growth will come -- but we don't see it," he said.

In six years of recession, Greece lost a quarter of its national output. There are still 1.2 million unemployed, half of them under the age of 25.

Syriza has pledged to reverse many of the austerity reforms enacted in Greece over the last five years in return for EU-IMF bailout loans, and deemed to have plunged the country into the worst recession in memory.

In particular, it promises to raise the minimum wage and pensions and create 300,000 jobs.

Yiorgos Savridis, a senior Drama trade unionist who has been unemployed for three years, takes this with a pinch of salt.

"It is a party trading in hope. And as we say in this country, hope dies last," he told AFP.

Savridis says that emigration has reached an alarming rate, with even people as old as 55 seeking a better future abroad, mainly in Germany.

"If this goes on, only the elderly will be left in Drama," he said.

- No heating, no bread -

In Komotini, a city further to the east with a strong Muslim Turk and Pomak population, the situation is similar.

Previously buzzing factories lie empty, the only movement that of looter gangs who strip the buildings bare of metals and machinery at night.

"Fifteen years ago, 17,000 people would come through the gates here to work," says Pantelis Magalios, head of the Komotini trade union centre.

"Today there are barely 800 employees. And out of 100 businesses and factories, only 10 are left," he says.

And among those few enterprises that continue to operate, most leave their staff unpaid for months.

"As incredible as it sounds, I was working without pay for five years in a factory making fireproof tiles," said worker Topur Jilaidin.

"I sleep in a home without heating, and I didn't even have money for bread," he said, showing his frostbitten fingers.

Politically, both cities were once right-wing strongholds like most of the Greek north. But in these elections, the conservative New Democracy party of outgoing Prime Minister Antonis Samaras is likely to suffer.

"There are many who voted for New Democracy in the past and will now choose Syriza," said Magalios.

"Not because of ideology, but because they are desperate for a solution to their problems," he said.

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