Greece election could throw Europe back into turmoil

GlobalPost, May 6, 2012

BERLIN — The fascination with the battle for the French presidency has overshadowed another crucial European election this Sunday. A weary and angry Greek people are going to the polls on May 6, in what is being described as the most important election in 40 years.

And the results are anything but predictable.

One thing seems certain though: The two big parties that have dominated Greek politics for four decades are in for a drubbing, something which is likely to make the already volatile political situation even more unstable after Sunday.

The question is whether, amid growing support for a plethora of smaller anti-austerity parties, they will muster enough seats to hammer together another coalition.

Otherwise, Greece could have difficulty fulfilling the terms of its bailout, ultimately risking its euro membership and even threatening the euro zone itself.

It will be an uphill battle. Voters hold both the center-right New Democracy and center-left PASOK responsible for the economic mess that Greece has found itself in.

Furthermore, the two parties are now part of a power-sharing coalition that has signed up to the punishing austerity measures dictated by the troika of the EU, IMF and European Central Bank in exchange for a bailout to prevent bankruptcy.

Under Greek law there are no opinion polls allowed in the two weeks running up to the election. The last polls from late April showed that New Democracy was on track to be the biggest winner, with around 22 percent support. PASOK was coming in second at 18 percent. In effect, that would mean their traditional support has been halved since the last vote.

However, the party with the most votes gets an extra 50 seats in Greece’s 300-seat parliament, which means the two could conceivably form a coalition with just 40 percent of the vote.

Analysts predict that if they do not have a popular mandate of over 50 percent or have to rely on smaller parties, then that instability could lead to new elections very soon, perhaps within months.

“My prediction would be that the next coalition government will not last long,” says Iannis Konstantinidis, assistant professor of politics at the University of Macedonia, in Thessaloniki. Indeed, the Wall Street Journal reports [6] that both parties are already preparing for fresh elections.

From the viewpoint of Greece’s euro-zone partners, such volatility couldn’t come at a worse time. After all, Athens is due to introduce harsh cuts, worth 11.5 billion euro ($15.1 billion) in June as part of its bailout agreement, including closing state-owned companies and cutting thousands more public sector jobs. It is also required to start overhauling its tax and justice systems.

Yet in the absence of a stable government, that could prove politically impossible, which in turn could prompt the troika to suspend payments.

The two major parties, which had alternated power since Greece returned to democracy in 1975, have seen their traditional supporters abandon them over their handling of the economy as well as their lack of honesty about the dire situation.

That anger is compounded by frustration that the troika-mandated austerity is not bearing fruit. The economy is still contracting and unemployment has soared to 22 percent.

Instead the increasingly furious Greeks are turning to other parties. In all, 32 are contesting the election, and around 10 are expected to get over the 3 percent hurdle to enter parliament.

Even the more moderate ones, such as the Europhile Democratic Left, reject the terms of the bailout. Other parties are to the extremes of the political spectrum, including anti-immigrant and far-right parties, the ugliest of which is the blatantly neo-fascist Golden Dawn.

The party, which has a logo reminiscent of a swastika, is likely to see its support increase 20-fold from 0.23 percent in 2009 to around 5 percent, allowing it to enter parliament for the first time. The party advocates the expulsion of foreigners from Greece and wants the border with Turkey to be sealed with landmines.

Such rightist ideology usually holds little sway in a country that experienced Nazi occupation during World War II and suffered the brutality of a military junta from 1967 to 1974.

Konstantinidis argues that the growing support for Golden Dawn and other far-right parties indicates a protest vote, rather than any particular surge in support for far-right ideology.

“People are just looking for a way to show their anger,” he says. “Such a vote would have a larger impact on the two main parties. It would be heard loudly.”

The vote is the first time that the Greeks will have been able to express their disapproval with their politicians since they turned to international lenders for a bailout in 2010 and then again earlier this year.

Back in 2009, PASOK recorded a landslide win, but the party is seen to have been slow to react to the true extent of Greece’s troubles. Its core constituency, public sector workers, have turned away after being hit by severe job cuts.

In November, Prime Minister George Papandreou stepped down, and a technocratic successor, Lucas Papademos, was appointed to lead a power-sharing coalition of the main parties.

That government then negotiated a deal with the troika in March securing a 130 billion euro ($173 billion) bailout from the EU and IMF, to stave off looming default.

The agreement was hugely unpopular, with the majority of Greeks rejecting the harsh austerity that is now being imposed at the behest of the troika. At the same time polls show that most Greeks want to remain in the euro zone.

“There is a sense of schizophrenia there,” says Spyros Economides, international relations expert at the London School of Economics. He points out that in recent polls the same percentage of people, around 70 percent, are against the austerity programs and yet in favour of remaining in the EU. “The two don’t always add up.”

Both mainstream parties are hoping that voters will put aside their anger and support them as the best choice for stability.

PASOK leader Evangelos Venizelos warned Greek voters earlier this week that they must not take euro zone membership for granted and should avoid voting for parties that might put Greece’s future at risk.

New Democrats leader Antonis Samaras is even appealing to voters to give his party such a strong mandate that it could rule alone, saying that a coalition with PASOK would lead to stagnation.

It remains to be seen whether voters will be swayed by such arguments.

“People are uncertain about whether they want to vote for them because they feel that they have brought us to this point,” says Economides. “But at the same time feel they ought to vote for them, because of one of two things, either loyalty to a party, or because they think, well, they are in fact our only hope of getting out of this mess.”

In the final stretch before polling day, the two parties have also been trying to suggest that a general change of mood against austerity in Europe, and a Hollande victory in France in particular, could turn out to be in Greece’s interest. After all, if the EU starts to focus more on growth, then the hope is that it could ease the pressure on Greece.

However, Konstantinidis predicts that when the voters get to the ballot box on Sunday, they will let their desire to punish their political elite override any concerns about Europe.

“As is the case between couples, once you feel betrayed then you are not acting rationally,” he says. “It is like if you realized your spouse had cheated on you, and you really wanted them to pay for what they did to you.”

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