Has the euro zone found some breathing room in its crisis? The conservative New Democracy (ND) party eked out a victory in Greece’s parliamentary elections on Sunday, edging out the leftist Syriza party, which is strongly opposed to the austerity measures imposed as part of the country’s bailout. The margin was less than 3 points. The victory, however, still leaves Greece without a government. ND failed to win an outright parliamentary majority and must join forces with at least one party to govern. The scenario is similar to the results of an earlier round of voting. ND also came in first in May 6 elections, again with Syriza running a close second, but failed to form a government then. Forming a government quickly is crucial because Greece could run out of cash to pay its bills as early as next month. It’s unclear which party might join ND in coalition. Greek media are speculating that the conservatives might join force with their traditional rival, the Socialist PASOK party, which came in a distant third on Sunday. Whether the results fully reflect the popular will is another question: nearly 38% of eligible voters abstained from voting — a much higher percentage than any party received.
Trailed by a cheering entourage, ND leader Antonis Samaras, 61, told reporters that the outcome was “a stable foundation for national unity with a European direction” and he asked political leaders to “join a government of national salvation.” “Greece’s position in Europe will not be put in doubt,” said Samaras, an economist and longtime politician educated at Amherst and Harvard. German Chancellor Angela Merkel called to congratulate him on the results.
Samaras’ main rival, Alexis Tsipras, the leader of Syriza, conceded the elections late Sunday and also congratulated Samaras. But Tsipras, 37, a civil engineer educated at the National Technical University of Athens, continued to insist that Europe’s austerity policy is deeply flawed and is destroying the economy of Greece and other troubled countries in the 17-member euro zone. Rejecting austerity measures, he said, is “the only viable solution not only for Greece but also for Europe.” Some observers feel Tsipras is the ultimately political winner in the two rounds of voting, having brought his coalition from the fringes to prominence — and by forcing the main parties (and the E.U.) to change the nature of the austerity debate. Nevertheless, his hard line may have cost him. Even though Tsipras has consistently said he supports the euro zone and wants Greece to remain in it, Samaras framed this election as a referendum on the euro; ND even promoted TV campaign spots showing a forlorn schoolgirl asking why Greece wasn’t a member of the euro zone. A vote for ND, Samaras said, would be a vote to stay in the euro zone.