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.
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Trailed by a cheering entourage, ND leader Antonis Samaras, 61, told reporters that the outcome was “a stable foundation for national unity with a European direction” and he asked political leaders to “join a government of national salvation.” “Greece’s position in Europe will not be put in doubt,” said Samaras, an economist and longtime politician educated at Amherst and Harvard. German Chancellor Angela Merkel called to congratulate him on the results.
Samaras’ main rival, Alexis Tsipras, the leader of Syriza, conceded the elections late Sunday and also congratulated Samaras. But Tsipras, 37, a civil engineer educated at the National Technical University of Athens, continued to insist that Europe’s austerity policy is deeply flawed and is destroying the economy of Greece and other troubled countries in the 17-member euro zone. Rejecting austerity measures, he said, is “the only viable solution not only for Greece but also for Europe.” Some observers feel Tsipras is the ultimately political winner in the two rounds of voting, having brought his coalition from the fringes to prominence — and by forcing the main parties (and the E.U.) to change the nature of the austerity debate.
Nevertheless, his hard line may have cost him. Even though Tsipras has consistently said he supports the euro zone and wants Greece to remain in it, Samaras framed this election as a referendum on the euro; ND even promoted TV campaign spots showing a forlorn schoolgirl asking why Greece wasn’t a member of the euro zone. A vote for ND, Samaras said, would be a vote to stay in the euro zone.
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That kind of fear had pervaded the divided electorate. Aris Vourdas, 50, a lawyer in Athens, said he voted for ND because he considered it a “pro-European” party. Syriza, he said, was just “communism lite” and would have scared euro-zone leaders. “I’m frightened because I can see that the puzzle is almost there for Greece to be denied participation not only in the euro zone but the European Union,” he said. “We can’t let that happen.”
Public-opinion polls show that more than 70% of Greeks want to keep the euro as their currency. But most Greeks are also deeply troubled by Europe’s terms for staying in the euro zone: the very harsh austerity measures that come in exchange for billions in international bailout loans keeping the country solvent. The austerity measures have dragged the country into a fifth year of recession, and economists are predicting it will last a sixth year. Unemployment is now more than 22%, tens of thousands of businesses have closed, and hospitals and pharmacies are so broke, they’re running out of medicine.
“That’s just not humane,” says Eliana Voutsadakis, an architect in her 30s who voted for Syriza. “What we would like is for human beings to be more important than banks and technocrats. It’s in Europe’s interest to consider how badly austerity has hurt this country. I’d like to see a government who can actually negotiate with European leaders,” not just rubber-stamp austerity measures.
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Greeks are also deeply mistrustful of ND, which, alternately with PASOK, has run Greece for the past 40 years. Many Greeks view the parties as deeply corrupt and blame them for bankrupting the country.
“These people need to go back to their homes, and new people need to be in the political system,” says Ilias Georgoulatos, 32, a civil engineer in Athens. The debt crisis revealed the politicians in those parties “for the compromised people they really are,” he says. “My generation never trusted them. Now, with the debt crisis, we know with facts exactly what has been going on.” Georgoulatos voted for a coalition of moderate probusiness parties, which didn’t win enough votes to get seats in Parliament.
In a disturbing repeat of the May 6 elections, the far-right Golden Dawn received nearly 7% of the vote. Golden Dawn is best known for using Nazi salutes and symbolism and violently beating dark-skinned immigrants. A spokesman, Ilias Kasidiaris, is wanted by police for punching a female Communist Party politician during a televised debate.
Muscle and physical prowess may be the only ways remaining for Greece to work out its frustration with imposed austerity. On Friday, Greece qualified for the next round of the Euro 2012 soccer tournament after defeating Russia. The next team Greece faces will be Germany — the country that has become the symbol of E.U. intervention in Greek affairs. Unfortunately, the Germans are also the heavy favorites to win that June 22 match.