By Dina Kyriakidou
ATHENS (Reuters) - Manolis Glezos takes to the podium with the spry step of a young man, lifts his arms in the air and tells thousands of flag-waving supporters the time has come for the Greek Left to unite and rule.
At 89, the former wartime fighter against Nazi occupation, who is running for the Left Coalition party, hopes Sunday's election will fulfill his lifetime dream.
"It is a unique opportunity for the people to come to power," he told Reuters, encouraged by opinion polls showing angry voters deserting mainstream parties they blame for a dire economic crisis and turning to smaller groups like his.
"We must convince people not to vote for those who brought them to this state," he said. "Those who created this crisis must pay for it. Why should the Greek people pay?"
Seen in the last published polls getting about 10 percent of the vote, the Left Coalition has called on all leftist groups to unite and form a government for the first time in Greek history. So far there have been no takers.
With his white mane of hair and thick moustache, Glezos is a fixture in leftist politics, recently braving police tear gas at protest rallies against tough cuts imposed in exchange for the international bailout that is keeping Greece afloat.
Revered by all political sides as a national treasure, he is most famous for scaling the steep walls of the Acropolis with a friend in 1941 to take down the Swastika and replace it with the Greek flag, the first visible act of resistance against the Nazis occupying Greece.
Captured and tortured soon after, Glezos now says Germany and Chancellor Angela Merkel have treated Greece badly at its time of need and there must be a change of stance.
"Germany owes us," he said. "Germany today enjoys democracy and is not under Nazism, partly thanks to the Greek people's struggle. Frau Merkel wants to punish us for cancelling Hitler's plans?"
"I want to remind all Europeans that when Italy attacked us there was despair in all of Europe and we were the people who destroyed the myth of the undefeated Axis," he added.
FAR RIGHT THREAT
What saddens him even more than Germany's tough pro-austerity stance is the rise of Golden Dawn, an ultra-nationalist group expected to enter parliament for the first time after tapping public outrage with the big parties.
"It upsets and hurts me very much to see Nazi collaborators show up and ask for the vote of the Greek people," he said. "I remember all those who gave up their lives, their youth so we can be free today."
Asked if Greece would be able to survive without the help of European paymaster Germany and the 130 billion euro EU/IMF bailout, Glezos said politicians had lied about the economy.
"They find money when they want to, even by mismanaging the state. Imagine what would happen if there was good management," he said. "If there is no huge tax evasion and the state doesn't waste money, we can cover all our needs."
Greek voters are set to vote along pro and anti-bailout lines in Sunday's poll. Conservative New Democracy is seen coming first but without enough votes to rule alone. That would likely force it to try to form a coalition with Socialist PASOK, which is seen coming second.
Glezos, who will be 90 in September, says the Greek people are using up their last reserves of strength to survive the economic crisis but patience is wearing very thin.
"They will force a major overthrow, declaring to all that they need no saviors, they need no loan sharks," he said. "Greeks will not tolerate being subjugated to foreigners."
Asked what has kept him at the forefront of politics all these years, Glezos said it was the memories of dead comrades:
"Before every battle, every protest, we told each other: 'If you live, don't forget me'. I am paying a debt to those I lost during those difficult years."
"My only regret is that I haven't done more," he said.
(Reporting by Dina Kyriakidou; editing by Barry Moody)