Reporting From Greece: Reading The Greek Election
(GREECE) – I could have started with another suicide story; there certainly was one this week. Instead, we can look at the trend. Reuters quoted a study reporting that the suicide rate in Greece rose by 17 percent from 2007 to 2009. The first half of 2011 posted rates 40 percent higher than the first half of 2010. There would be no reason to believe the rate has gone down since then.
For every person who commits suicide due to facing economic ruin, there are likely several others damaged by long term depression, despair and fatalism over a future that seems beyond control. As U.S. economist Paul Krugman has been warning, this is the long-lasting damage of a prolonged economic slowdown, one that does not go away the moment full employment is restored.
This is the context for the run-up to Greece’s elections on June 17.
To understand those elections, two common perspectives in western media have to be taken on. First is the idea that the election is a vote to stay in the euro or not. Hugo Dixon, in the International Herald Tribune published May 28, exemplifies this with his comment that the upcoming elections will surely “give a decisive answer to what the Greeks want: Stick with the program and stay in the euro, or tear up the plan and bring back the drachma?”
That may be how European bankers and elites want to see the vote, but that isn’t how Greeks see it. Several opinion polls in Greece show that 60 to 70 percent of voters want to stay in the Euro. That was the view of those I spoke with in Greece — also from bus drivers to bankers. What Greeks want is to renegotiate the agreements, not tear them up. The election results are as much about repudiating failed leaders as about the euro.
This should not be surprising. Greeks wanted to join the Euro. They saw it as desirable economically, as giving them political clout over Turkey and as proof that they were part of Europe. Mock the “Greeks invented everything” meme all you like, but one consequence of that is that Greeks feel a strong identity with the west and want to be acknowledged as integral to it – rather than being seen as a “Balkan” or “Eastern” country distinct from Western Europe.
Secondly, also referenced in the Dixon quote above, and repeated other places, is to see this election as inevitably definitive. Some imply that it is a sort of runoff election. But it is not a runoff; it is a total redo with every parliamentary seat up for grabs as before.
It is entirely possible, therefore, that the second election gives results as inconclusive as the first.
At least 32 parties contested the May 6 election with seven gaining the 3 percent minimum necessary to win seats in parliament. Before looking at those in parliament, we should pause to appreciate the “I Don’t Pay” party, the “Organization for the Reconstruction of the Communist Party of Greece”, not to be confused with the “Organization of Communists Internationals of Greece” and the “Anti-capitalist Left Cooperation for the Overthrow.” Nor, for that matter, should we confuse the “Greek Ecologists” (who came in dead last of the 32 parties with 66 votes nationwide) with the “Ecologist Greens” who just missed the 3 percent cutoff.
When the current parliament opened after the May 6 elections, everyone knew it would only last for a month. However that didn’t prevent even the swearing-in ceremony from being “lively.” Quoting the Athens News:
The speaker, Vyron Polydoras, skipped the swearing-in ceremony for the body’s Orthodox MPs. Pasok’s Apostolos Kaklamanis had to remind him. The rate of participation during the religious oath-taking varied, with almost all Communist Party (KKE) MPs not taking part. Liana Kaneli seemed to be the only deputy from that party to display the sign of the Trinity with her hand as the archbishop of Athens read out the oath. About half of the deputies from the Radical Left Coalition (Syriza) and the Democratic Left participated.
During the swearing in of the body’s three Muslim MPs, the Golden Dawn [neo-Nazi] MPs remained seated while the rest of the chamber stood.
Earlier, the Golden Dawn MPs marched into the parliamentary chamber in military formation, led by the party leader. It’s the first time that the neo-Nazi party has entered the parliament.
A Golden Dawn MP got himself into trouble just this week, when, on live TV, he threw a glass of water at a Syriza MP and exchanged ineffective blows with another. That extremist MP already was facing one trial for politically motivated violence.
It is a reminder that one of the ancient goddesses was Eris, or “chaos”.
Some efforts to combat that and achieve unity have occurred. Most notably has been the patching up of the quarrel between Antonis Samaris, the leader of center-right New Democracy, with his former party rival Dora Bakoyannis, now leader of Democratic Alliance. Bakoyannis had been the first female mayor of Athens (and credited with the success of the Olympic games in 2004), first female Minister of Foreign Affairs and nearly the first female leader of New Democracy. Though, since she is the daughter of a former PM of Greece, she continues the dynastic tradition of Greek politics.
New Democracy had led the May 6 poll with 19 percent of the vote, the Democratic Alliance obtained 2.5 percent and was merged back into New Democracy for the June election with Bakoyannis promised a leading position in any government.
Several Golden Dawn MPs have also defected to the ND alliance. This is controversial, as most parties have strongly condemned Golden Dawn and vowed never to cooperate with them in or out of government.
Predicting the election
There are opinion polls in Greece, if not done as obsessively as in the U.S. They vary but tend to show that both New Democracy and Alexis Tsipras’ Coalition of the Radical Left (SYRIZA) would poll about 30 percent of the votes with the other, former, powerhouse of Greek politics, center-left PASOK, trailing well behind at 15-20 percent.
A party does not need to get to 50 percent to form a government. The last time any party in Greece got 50 percent or more of the vote in an election was in 1974 at the restoration of democracy. It’s never happened since. But the party that comes in first in votes is granted an extra 50 seats in parliament. Thirty percent of the votes would translate to approximately 90 seats in the 300 member parliament. Given an extra 50 would put the leading party at 140, tantalizingly short of a majority. So another attempt at a coalition seems likely.
Will it be New Democracy (committed to the Euro and austerity, but talking of modifications to the agreements) or SYRIZA (originally talking of tearing up the agreements and promising more jobs) that gets first crack at it? And can they succeed?
That the leading parties would be at 30 percent rather than 20 would seem to simplify the process. New Democracy might be able to form a “right-left” coalition with PASOK. ND and PASOK insist SYRIZA has to be part of any governing coalition, but SYRIZA is so far refusing to contemplate the compromises necessary to either of the two. SYRIZA might reach out to other leftist parties.
June 17 will bring a new perspective on the Greek political landscape, but may not quickly give Greece an authoritative government.
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