ATHENS – New Democracy head Antonis Samaras, whose party finished first in the May 6 general elections but with less than 19 percent of the vote, said after less than a day of trying that he can’t form a coalition, setting off new jitters that Greece won’t be able to create a new government and that new elections could be held in June; this would leave the prospect that those too could fail to bring any party a mandate to rule in a country deeply divided over austerity measures that have pushed many Greeks to the brink of poverty.
Samaras, the Conservatives leader who has pushed for snap elections, spoke with Alexis Tsipras, the 37-year-old leader of the Coalition of the Radical Left SYRIZA party, who rejected working with New Democracy because his party is vehemently opposed to the pay cuts, tax hikes, and slashed pensions that were backed by the shaky hybrid government that New Democracy shared with the PASOK Socialists, who finished third. The two ruling parties, who dominated Greek politics for 38 years, were repudiated at the polls and finished with 32 percent of the vote compared to the 80 percent they enjoyed two years ago.
That was before Greece plunged into an economic crisis after PASOK said it discovered New Democracy had lied about the country’s economy, forcing then PASOK leader and Prime Minister George Papandreou to ask for international aid. The Troika of the European Union-International Monetary Fund-European Central Bank (EU-IMF-ECB) loaned Greece $132 billion, but the attached austerity measures worsened a deep recession, created 21.7 percent unemployment, closed more than 111,000 businesses and set off cycles of protests, strikes and riots that brought down the government six months ago in favor of a temporary coalition.
Greek voters punished the parties who favored austerity. The Troika has warned that any new government must honor the commitments that came with the loans or a second bailout of $173 billion would be halted, leaving Greece without enough money to pay workers, pensioners or its bills, and defaulting on its loans. A so-called Private Sector Involvement (PSI) deal that former Finance Minister and now PASOK leader Evangelos Venizelos imposed on investors, forcing them to take 74 percent losses, has also locked Greece out of private markets.
Samaras handed the mandate back to the country’s ceremonial President, Karolos Papoulias. ”We did everything we could,” Samaras said. ”It was impossible [to form a government]. Papoulias was to meet with Tsipras, the former head of Greece’s Communist Youth party, who said he would try to form an anti-austerity of Leftist parties. He has offered the Prime Minister’s position to Communist leader Aleka Papariga, who has declined it.
Tsipras said he could not work with New Democracy or Conservatives because the parties’ agendas were diametrically opposed. Tsipras said he would try to meet with Venizelos as well to discuss a coalition as fears grew that Greece could be forced out of the Eurozone of the 17 countries using the euro as a currency. If Tsipras fails, the baton passes to Venizelos as third-place finisher, but his party was discredited, falling to 13 percent support and he has been identified as the person who doubled income and property taxes and taxed the poor and is wildly unpopular in Greece.
Seven parties won seats in the Parliament, including the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party, seen as a lunatic fringe that no one wants to work with. The new Independent Greeks party formed by New Democracy outcast Panos Kammenos won a strong fourth-place showing but with a core of former military and police officers and refusal to work with the Conservatives, it has left itself with no wiggle room to work with any of the top three parties in a coalition. The Democratic Left, a PASOK offshoot, finished seventh but its leader, Fotis Kouvelis, said he wasn’t interested in joining a coalition either although he supports austerity. The lack of a government could jeopardize the bailout deal with the Troika, which said an additional $15 billion in cuts must be made this year and as Greece needs to complete a $4.3 billion refinancing this month.
“The established parties were collapsed — they had too much pressure from Berlin and Brussels and the I.M.F.,” said Nikos Xydakis, an editor at the Kathimerini daily and a political commentator, referring to Greece’s troika of foreign lenders, told the New York Times. “We were expecting that, but not so violently and so quick, but they broke everything.”
Venizelos met with his arch rival Samaras and called for a government of national unity whose “minimum goal” would be to keep Greece in the Eurozone. Venizelos called for a four-party coalition with an appointed Prime Minister akin to the role held by former ECB Vice-President Lucas Papademos, who served as Premier the past six months but said he doesn’t want the job anymore.
Venizelos recommended that the new government include PASOK, New Democracy, SYRIZA and the Democratic Left, a cumbersome group of ideological opposites weighted in favor of austerity, which Tsipras said he could not accept after his party campaigned vehemently against the harsh measures. Kouvelis said he wants to stay in the Eurozone but wants a new deal with Greece’s lenders. Samaras and Venizelos, late in the campaign, said they too had changed their tune and wanted to renegotiate the terms but by the it was too late for them, ending Greece’s two-party system. Kouvelis though said he would consider working with Tsipras. “We will wait to hear a precise and clear proposal, then we will comment,” he said.
(Sources: Kathimerini, New York Times)