ATHENS – New Democracy Conservative leader Antonis Samaras, who squeaked out a narrow win over the Coalition of the Radical Left (SYRIZA) of anti-austerity champion Alexis Tsipras in the critical June 17 elections, met with Greek President Karolos Papoulias the day after to receive a mandate to try to form a coalition that will still be opposed by the majority of Greeks.
New Democracy got 29.66 percent of the vote to 26.89 percent for SYRIZA, while the once-powerful PASOK Socialists, who shared a brief hybrid government with New Democracy and went along with pay cuts, tax hikes and slashed pensions demanded by international lenders, fell to third with only 12.28 percent of the vote.
Without enough of a margin to form a government on his own, Samaras is wooing PASOK’s new leader Evangelos Venizelos, who had said that any coalition would need to include SYRIZA, a notion that Tsipras rejected. “We will be present in developments from the position of the main opposition party,” Tsipras said. “We have opposite us an unholy alliance of yesterday’s powers, from inside and outside the country,” leading to speculation he was waiting for any coalition to collapse and create the need for another election. A May 6 ballot was stalemated after no party won enough of the vote to rule and coalition talks collapsed.
While New Democracy, as the winner, gets a 50-seat bonus in Parliament and would have 129 seats, it needs the 33 seats of PAOK to gain a majority in the 300-member body. But Venizelos said any coalition with an anti-austerity party would not have legitimacy with the electorate, leaving Samaras with only the Democratic Left of Fotis Kouvelis as a likely partner. Kouvelis said he opposed the bailout terms but was willing to deal. Democratic Left was sixth in the elections, with only 6.26 percent of the vote, but 17 parliamentary seats and could gain critical positions in the government. After the stalemated May 6 elections failed to give any party enough of the vote to form a government, Kouvelis was offered a chance to join a New Democracy-PASOK coalition but said he did not want to be branded a traitor to the left.
Three other parties won enough of the vote to enter Parliament, the fourth-place Independent Greeks made up of New Democracy outcasts, the seventh-place KKE Communists, and the sixth-place neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party, a group with violent tendencies that no mainstream political leader wants to work with.
THE WORLD WAS WATCHING
The campaign was watched closely by global leaders and markets, while central banks stood ready to intervene in case of financial turmoil — as the vote was seen as a vote on whether Greece should stay among the 17 nations that use the euro. Samaras had warned that Tsipiras, who wanted to tear up a $173 billion second bailout deal from the European Union-International Monetary Fund-European Central Bank (EU-IMF-ECB) Troika, would have driven Greece out of the Eurozone and back to the drachma, a prospect that could have jeopardized the 17-country financial bloc and rattled world markets.
EU leaders said they were relieved at the results and that more austerity was coming, although Samaras said he wanted to renegotiate some of the terms of the deal he had supported and previously signed despite Troika warnings any attempt to tinker with reforms could lead to the money pipeline being shut off and another $15 billion in cuts. Greece is surviving on a first-round bailout from the Troika of $152 billion in loans, but the austerity measures have worsened a five-year long recession, created 22.6 percent unemployment and led the economy to shrink by 6.5 percent in 2011. New Democracy’s constituency was largely those over 50 while exit polls showed that SYRIZA got the lion’s share of voters under 25, some 52 percent of whom are without work.
Speaking shortly after the result was announced, Samaras said Greeks voted to stay in the euro, foster growth and respect their country’s international commitments. “This is a victory for all of Europe,” he said. “I call upon all political parties who share these objectives to join forces and form a stable new government.” Samaras repeated campaign promises to honor the country’s bailout pledges but said he wanted to change them at the same time. “We will work together with our partners in Europe in order to supplement the current policy mix with growth enhancement policies,” he said. “We are determined to do what it takes and do it fast.”
Samaras was to meet Tsipras later on June 18 as calls arose for political parties to set aside differences and form a stable government. Greece’s broad-circulation Ta Nea daily said in an editorial that party leaders — including Tsipras — must respect voters’ manifest desire for a coalition government. “The country cannot waste a day,” the paper said. “It is clear from the arithmetic that after New Democracy’s victory a government can even be formed by two parties. But from a political viewpoint that will not suffice. All parties that say they believe in the country’s European future must actively prove their respect for the message of the elections.”
In a deep recession, crushed under its huge public debt and facing rising social tensions, Greece faces a daunting struggle to restore a near-bankrupt economy, and a new government could face a new wave of protests after taking office. “The crisis has been postponed, not necessarily averted,” said Theodore Couloumbis, political analyst and Vice-President of the Athens-based think-tank ELIAMEP, told Reuters. “For this government to last, it has to show results. You can’t continue with 50 percent unemployment in youth and a fifth straight year of recession,” he said.
(Sources: Kathimerini, New York Times, Reuters, AMNA)