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Local ballots test Greek government, ahead of EU vote

Greece's embattled government faces a first test in municipal and regional elections on Sunday, a week ahead of EU polls, as the country struggles to return to growth following years of economic crisis.

ATHENS: Greece's embattled government faces a first test in municipal and regional elections on Sunday, a week ahead of EU polls, as the country struggles to return to growth following years of economic crisis.

The local elections -- for which a second round will be held on May 25 where necessary -- will show how much support remains domestically for the conservative-socialist coalition government after two years of unpopular austerity measures.

"Even though the vote has local characteristics, in essence this is a test of forces between those who tolerate the government's policies and those seeking to send a message of protest," says political analyst Thomas Gerakis of Marc institute.

Four years of economic crisis -- and a six-year recession -- have shattered the power of the Pasok socialists and the New Democracy conservatives, the two parties that ruled Greece for the last 40 years, and which currently form the government.

The coalition majority in the 300-seat parliament has dwindled to 152 deputies after successive fiscal measures demanded by Greece's EU-IMF creditors.

Conservative Prime Minister Antonis Samaras insists the country has finally turned the corner and that recovery is in sight without need for further painful sacrifices.

"The difficulty is over, the only way now is upwards," Samaras told his party lawmakers earlier this month.

Greece is about to register slim growth in 2014, and painful fiscal reforms mandated by EU-IMF creditors finally seem to be paying off.

But this progress has come at a heavy cost -- record unemployment, mounting poverty and a 25 per cent decline in the country's overall output.

Voters have flocked to anti-austerity parties, mainly radical left Syriza, which have become the main opposition movement after pledging to scrap many of the austerity reforms adopted in the last four years.

Syriza leader Alexis Tsipras admitted last week: "Our goal is (on May 25) to record a major victory... so that on (May 26) the government will leave."

In the first round, Syriza's task appears easier in some areas, including Athens and Thessaloniki, where the conservative camp is fractured.

The neo-Nazi party Golden Dawn, under investigation for crimes including assault, illegal arms possession and murder, is also fronting candidates.

The local vote serves to elect 325 mayors and 13 regional governors.

Voting, which started at 7:00 am (0400 GMT) and ends at 7:00 pm (1600 GMT), is compulsory for some 10 million registered Greek voters, but this requirement is no longer enforced by authorities.

Early results are expected around 2000 GMT.

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