ATHENS — A Greek pensioner's suicide outside parliament has quickly become a symbol of the pain of austerity and has been seized upon by opponents of the budget cuts imposed by Greece's international lenders.
The 77-year-old retired pharmacist, Dimitris Christoulas, shot himself in the head on Wednesday after declaring that financial troubles pushed him over the edge. A suicide note said he preferred to die than scavenge for food.
The highly public — and symbolic — nature of the suicide prompted an outpouring of sympathy from ordinary Greeks, who held a protest march and set up an impromptu shrine with notes condemning the crisis at the spot where he killed himself.
The conservative newspaper Eleftheros Typos called the victim a "martyr for Greece" and said his act was filled with "profound political symbolism" that could "shock Greek society and the political world and awaken their conscience" in the weeks before a parliamentary election that will determine Greece's future.
Anger was directed as much at politicians as it was at the austerity medicine prescribed by foreign lenders in return for aid to lift the country out of its worst economic crisis since World War Two.
"It's horrible. We shouldn't have reached this point. The politicians in parliament who brought us here should be punished for this," said Anastassia Karanika, a 60-year-old pensioner.
With the tragedy occurring barely a month before elections are expected in Greece, smaller parties opposed to harsh spending cuts included in the country's second bailout were quick to point the finger at bigger parties backing the rescue.
"Those who should have committed suicide — who should have committed suicide a long time ago — are the politicians who knowingly decided to bring this country and its people to this state of affairs," said Panos Kammenos, a conservative lawmaker who recently set up the Independent Greeks anti-austerity party.
Smaller parties like the Independent Greeks have been riding high in opinion polls at the expense of the two main co-ruling parties, the conservative New Democracy and socialist PASOK, backing the bailout.
The two big parties are together expected to take less than 40 percent of the vote. Losing more voters to the smaller parties could put them at risk of not having enough seats in parliament to forge a pro-bailout coalition again.
That in turn would have profound implications for Greece's finances, given continued aid from European partners and the International Monetary Fund is contingent on Greece's new government pushing through reforms demanded as part of the bailout.
New Democracy and PASOK, which have ruled Greece for decades, expressed their sorrow for the tragedy. Political opponents attacked them for joining in the mourning.
"Shame on them. The accomplices responsible for the suffering and despair of the Greek people … should at least keep quiet in the face of the hideous results of the capitalist crisis and their policies, instead of pretending to be saviors and sensitive," the KKE Communist party said.
Resentment is growing in Greece over repeated rounds of wage and pension cuts that have compounded the pain from a slump which has seen the economy shrink by a fifth since 2008.
Unemployment has surged to a record 21 percent — twice the euro zone average — with one out of two young people without a job. The number of suicides has surged, and many Greeks feel ordinary people like the retired pharmacist are being forced to pay for a crisis that was not of their making.
"When dignified people like him are brought to this state, somebody must answer for it," said Costas Lourantos, head of the pharmacists' union in the broader Attica region.