Greece’s elections on Sunday are poised to give one of a handful of smaller parties a central role in the direction of the country—and possibly the entire eurozone. The opposition leftist Syriza party and the ruling conservatives, New Democracy, are battling for a first-place finish. But neither is likely to get a majority and will need to turn to another party to help govern, putting whoever comes in third in a position to become a kingmaker. The contenders range from the far-right Golden Dawn, shunned by Greece’s mainstream parties, to Pasok—part of the ruling coalition, but a shadow of the party that dominated Greek politics for most of the past four decades.
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.
The final day of polling before the repeat election in Greece on June 17 showed the two main contenders neck and neck. The economic crisis has divided Greeks, who appear split on the causes and solutions to the country’s financial meltdown. The political stalemate only appears to be entrenching these divisions. Industrial disputes do not get much worse than this. The workers at the Hellenic Halyvourgia steel plant have been on strike for more than 200 days. Yorgos Sifonios is president of the workers’ union. He showed letters of solidarity from unions across the world. “The Union has undertaken collective action, which has roused the whole of Greece’s working class. Our strike has become a landmark, a model of how all workers must fight,” Sifonios said. The factory’s owner laid off 50 workers last year, blaming falling demand. The company declined an interview.
The Chinese curse, “May you live in interesting times”, might have been coined with the Greek people in mind. Not since the fall of the military junta in 1974 has there been such turmoil and uncertainty. It’s not physical turmoil (although there have been mild fisticuffs in my local bar) but conceptual, as voters prepare for the next elections on June 17th, following the totally inconclusive ballot last month. There is a series of dichotomies (after all, the Greeks invented the word). On one hand, in the bigger picture, is the right of the Greeks to self-determination; on the other are Greece’s international obligations, as members of the EU and debtors to the IMF. On one hand, many politicians and technocrats are saying Greece must be changed completely, while on the other Greek people want to go on being Greek. The greatest dilemma is the fact that Syriza (Radical Left) may well top the polls, having pushed Pasok into third place last month. Current predictions have Syriza at 27-30 per cent, with New Democracy (ND) on 23-27 per cent and Pasok limping badly on 12-15 per cent. Topping the poll on 30 per cent would give Syriza 90 seats, plus a bonus of 50 – a total of 140, just 11 seats short of an overall majority. Syriza’s leader, Alexis Tsipras, the new kid on the block, wants to repudiate Greece’s debts, reverse the austerity measures and nationalise the banks, yet – and here’s another dichotomy – he wants to stay in the euro, which might be fiscally impossible.
The Greek president on Sunday held last-ditch talks with party leaders in a bid to form an emergency cabinet and avoid new polls that could endanger reforms and push the country out of the eurozone. Carolos Papoulias met for 90 minutes with the heads of the three parties that topped last Sunday’s inconclusive election – conservative New Democracy, Socialist Pasok, and radical leftist Syriza. He was to meet with leaders of smaller parties later in the day.
Greece opened its first purpose-built detention centre for illegal migrants on Sunday in Athens, a week before a national election where illegal immigration has emerged as a key issue. About 130,000 immigrants cross the country’s porous sea and land borders every year, the vast majority via Turkey, and the authorities are forced to release those who are arrested because of a lack of permanent housing. With Greece in its fifth year of recession and worries over rising crime levels, illegal immigration has become a major issue in the run up of the May 6 election. The once-obscure far-right Golden Dawn, which wants to deport all immigrants, is among the parties that has benefitted most from the mood among voters, and is expected to win its first seats in parliament.
Greece is entering the home stretch of its first election campaign since becoming a global financial pariah and the polls show no party gaining a mandate to enforce the austerity policies needed to stay in the euro. The final surveys, published on April 20, showed as many as 10 parties with a chance of winning seats in the May 6 vote. The two biggest, traditional rivals New Democracy and socialist Pasok, may be forced into a coalition. The country needs a functioning government to ensure that it continues to receive rescue funds to keep its economy afloat.
With Greek elections looming, the country’s mainstream political forces are melting down and splintering into smaller, more radical factions, all of which are vowing to deliver Greece from its EU bailout terms. In his campaign kickoff speech on April 19, Greek socialist leader Evangelos Venizelos described the state of Greek politics as “rudderless”. “This political dead end will multiply and deepen the economic and social crisis,” he said. Venizelos was holding up the specter of ungovernability, which currently haunts Greek politics, to deter voters from punitive action at the ballot box. More than four in ten voters say they are going to the polls to punish socialists and conservatives for their mismanagement of the economy in previous years, rather than to elect the best possible government.
Greek voters are unlikely to pick a clear winner in a snap election that is expected to send a record number of parties to parliament next month and test the international bailout keeping the country afloat. Political analysts say the outcome of the May 6 election is hard to predict. The conservative New Democracy party is seen ahead but not by enough to take sole charge of the indebted euro zone member. This could lead to days or weeks of negotiations while it forges a coalition with the Socialist PASOK party to impose austerity and reforms to meet the terms of a second 130 billion euro bailout from Europe and the International Monetary Fund. “It’s a great puzzle,” said Theodore Couloumbis of the ELIAMEP think tank. “I hope the pro-bailout parties will be able to form a government. This is the most likely scenario.”