ATHENS – Some 9.9 million Greeks are eligible to vote in the critical June 17th elections that could decide whether Greece keeps austerity and the euro, or rejects the bailouts that came with the attached pay cuts, tax hikes and slashed pensions that caused rage and led to a repudiation of the ruling parties on May 6 and a deadlock.
The latest polls allowed under Greek law showed that the pro-austerity New Democracy Conservatives of Antonis Samaras, who has been wavering in his support for the deal he signed with international lenders, are locked in a tight duel with the anti-austerity champion, Alexis Tsipras, leader of the Coalition of the Radical Left SYRIZA, a motley collection of Leftists, Communists, Trotskyites, Greens and anti-Capitalists.
Greece is surviving on a first bailout of $152 billion from the Troika of the European Union-International Monetary Fund-European Central Bank (EU-IMF-ECB) that is withholding a second for $173 billion to see if SYRIZA wins and is able to form a government that could renege on the reforms. Five other parties won enough of the vote on May 6 to gain seats in Parliament and the polls state they are in a position to do so again.
Greece is locked in a desperate five-year recession with 22.6 percent unemployment and struggling under a $460 billion debt caused primarily by New Democracy and PASOK hiring hundreds of thousands of unneeded workers for generations in return for votes, creating an unprecedented economic crisis for the country.
With so much at stake – if Greece exits the Eurozone, the financial bloc would be threatened or even toppled, rattling international markets and risking a return to the Great Recession of 2008 – world leaders were watching to see what Greeks would do. Troika officials, without backing down from their insistence that Greece adhere to austerity and make another $15 billion in cuts, indicated they were at least willing to talk about talking and perhaps open discussions on modifying some of the measures.
If Greece rejects the bailout deal it struck in February for a second rescue package of $173 billion, all bets would be off and pressure would grow on it to quit the Eurozone or be forced out. “The headline targets cannot be changed,” one senior EU official told Reuters. “There could be some tweaks to the path to get there, but not the goals.”
“If the Greeks do not meet the commitments they have made, do not meet their financial commitments, do not repay loans, Slovakia will demand that Greece leaves the euro zone,” Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico told his Parliament, although he said Europe should strive to keep Greece in. French President Francois Hollande, who was elected on an anti-austerity pledge, said Greece has to accept the austerity he rejected for the French or could find itself returning to the drachma and financial Armageddon. “
“I have to warn them, because I am a friend of Greece, that if the impression is given that Greece wants to distance itself from its commitments and abandon all prospect of recovery, there will be countries in the Eurozone which will prefer to finish with the presence of Greece in the euro zone,” he said.
If a SYRIZA victory sparked panic about a return of the drachma, the immediate action would come from the country’s central bank, backed by the European Central Bank. The Greek central bank has the ability to directly inject cash into the country’s banks, if savers rush for their money, in the form of Emergency Liquidity Assistance, which although provided by the ECB, would be underwritten solely by Greece.
EU officials say Eurozone countries are also preparing longer-term contingency plans for a possible Greek exit from the euro, concerned about possible bank runs and public unrest, including the suspension of the Schengen passport-free zone and imposing capital controls and limiting ATM withdrawals. Under the memorandum of understanding detailing the terms of its second bailout, Greece must cut its debt to 116.5 percent of GDP, from 165 percent in 2011, numbers which mean savings could only come through more deep cuts that all the parties – including the pro-austerity New Democracy and PASOK – say they don’t want to implement, as well as long-stalled privatization programs.
A German EU official said regardless of who wins the vote, a new government would be given a final chance. “There will be a very clear 100-day plan for a new government. If it’s not implemented in full, then the game is over,” the official said. “This is a very bitter election for the Greek people. They are being asked to support the old guard that got them into this mess.”
The chairman of Eurozone finance ministers, Jean-Claude Juncker, suggested last month that some leeway might be possible if the next Greek government vowed to implement the bailout terms. “The government would have to make clear it was fully committed to the program, and then, if there were exceptional circumstances, we wouldn’t exclude the possibility of discussing this issue,” he said, although he ruled out substantial changes.
There is reluctance to give Greece leniency because the government has repeatedly missed reform targets, failed to go after tax evaders or reduce corruption, virtually ignored privatization and piled all the sacrifice on workers, pensioners and the poor while letting the politicians and the rich largely escape sacrifice. “Their performance has not been brilliant, to say the least,” a senior EU official told Reuters. “There is no positive mood towards Greece.”
Besides the politics, there are practical considerations for voters and according to Reuters, some of the key issues are:
- Polling stations are open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. when the first, eagerly-awaited exit polls will be announced, although official results are not expected until late into the night as polling stations, in an effort to save money, are faxing the results instead of sending telegrams. The first official projection of the results is expected from 9-9:30 p.m.
- Voting in parliamentary elections is compulsory in Greece, with about 9.9 million Greeks aged over 18 eligible to vote.
- About half of the voters are aged either between 18-29 or over 66.
- Parties need to secure at least 3 percent of the vote to enter parliament for a four-year term. The party that comes first gets an automatic 50-seat bonus, so that even a slim advantage could play a decisive role in determining which party forms the next government.
- Greece is divided into 56 local constituencies and the number of deputies elected in each constituency depends on the region’s population.
- Voters in Athens, where half of the country’s 11 million population live, elects 59 deputies. Twelve of the 300 lawmakers are directly appointed by the parties.
- If, as the latest opinion polls show, no party wins an outright majority, Greek President Karolos Papoulias gives the party leader with the most votes three days to forge a coalition government with other parties.
- Should this fail, the president hands the exploratory mandate to the second party, and then to the third. Negotiations could be wrapped up within hours. If all efforts to form a government fail, the President will ask for the formation of a caretaker government with the participation of all parties elected in parliament and tasked with calling new elections.
- The parties set to enter Parliament are: the conservative New Democracy, the radical left SYRIZA, the Socialist PASOK, the right-wing Independent Greeks, the Communist KKE, the Democratic Left, and the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn
- SingularLogic SA, the software distributor in charge of vote counting and data processing, will give an initial estimate of the final result at about 9:30 p.m. A more accurate estimate will be available at about 11:00 p.m. The vote count will be available on the Interior Ministry’s website, www.ypes.gr.
- A party needs about 36 percent of votes to secure a majority in the 300-seat parliament, equivalent to 151 seats. Neither New Democracy nor SYRIZA were within reach of the majority in the most recent poll. Some 21 parties are vying in for election; polls have indicated that as many as eight will get the 3 percent needed to enter Parliament
- Votes cast for parties that do not make it into Parliament also get distributed proportionally, which affects the percentage of votes the first party needs to reach 151 seats. Two examples: if the smaller parties that do not secure entry into Parliament get 3 percent of the vote, the first party needs about 40 percent to reach 151 seats; if they get 5 percent, the first party will need about 36.5 percent
- The new Parliament is due to convene on June 28. The following day, a three-day plenary debate starts on the program of the new government. The debate will be completed at midnight of the third day with a confidence vote.