ATHENS (Reuters) - Socialist party leader Evangelos Venizelos is running an uphill race to Sunday's election, trying to convince angry Greeks that deeply unpopular economic reforms are the only way to escape the worst crisis in decades.
In less than three years, his PASOK party went from a landslide election victory to fifth place in opinion polls, loathed by Greeks for imposing crippling austerity measures and accused by European powers of mishandling a debt crisis that shook the euro zone to its foundations.
Venizelos insists the party did what was best for Greece despite arousing the hatred of many former supporters.
"We sacrificed our election result to the national cause and the public interest," he told Reuters in a recent interview. "This was something rare in European political history."
Nevertheless, since taking over the party from his discredited predecessor George Papandreou in March, Venizelos has revived PASOK's fortunes, bringing it back up to second place in opinion polls behind conservative rival New Democracy.
This virtually guarantees PASOK a major role in the coalition government that is likely to follow the May 6 vote.
Both formerly dominant parties, now ruling in an uneasy alliance, have hemorrhaged support as angry voters turn to smaller groups opposed to the harsh terms of an international bailout that saved Greece from default.
If they cannot rule alone, they are likely to face major difficulties in finding allies for a workable coalition, bringing the prospect of a new period of political chaos that could again destabilize the euro zone.
As finance minister from June to March, Venizelos negotiated a second bailout that saved Greece from bankruptcy and a bond swap that chopped more than 100 billion euros off the country's debt. But to do so, he also had to agree to a stack of deeply painful fiscal measures that have bought demonstrators on to the streets several times in violent protests.
The son of a provincial lawyer from the northern Greek city of Thessaloniki, Venizelos, 54, is a bulky party stalwart whose tough-guy image may have lost him the battle for the PASOK party leadership to Papandreou in 2007.
Friends and foes agree that the bruiser looks conceal one of the sharpest minds in Greek politics.
"If you add up all the top PASOK officials, their collective intellect is a fraction of his intelligence," said a senior official at the rival New Democracy party.
A post-election alliance with conservative arch-rival Antonis Samaras, 60, will not come easily. Samaras wants parts of the bailout renegotiated to boost growth and bring Greece out of its worst recession in years. He insists on becoming premier.
Venizelos would rather have a wider coalition with a third party prime minister and says he can convince lenders to spread the painful measures agreed in exchange for the bailout over three years instead of two.
But critics say his egocentric election campaign as one of the two big beasts of Greek politics may have hurt him as much as his difficult message - suffer the tough measures or leave the euro zone, something most Greeks want to avoid.
"He is a one-man orchestra," said political analyst John Loulis. "His party has better personnel than New Democracy, so what he should have done was to collect 5-6 people around him and present them as the better team."
A constitutional law professor famous for his rhetoric, Venizelos rose from the ranks of the leftist student movement to hold several portfolios since 1993, including transport, justice and defense. As culture minister, he was credited with supervising a successful 2004 Athens Olympics despite many problems beforehand.
Those close to him admire his quick grasp of issues but are sometimes exasperated by his failure to delegate.
"He gets it before you finish your sentence," said a close aide on condition of anonymity. "On the other hand, he sometimes wants to do everything by himself, to be in complete control and that's a problem for his team."
Editing by Barry Moody