Greece’s 2012 elections: what message to Europe?

Rarely do citizens vote not on the basis of right or left but right or wrong:  and Greeks consider the tough austerity measures plain wrong.

At the ballot box, voters punished the two predominant parties for their role in the economic crisis and for imposing spending cut measures on the population already suffering from a 22% unemployment rate.  This ends the predictable era of politics which saw Greek voters alternate between PASOK and New Democracy.

Biggest winners: Syriza & Golden Dawn

Illustrating the breadth of support, Syriza picked up voters who in 2009 had voted for Pasok (37%), New Democracy (14%) and KKE (9%), the greatest chunk of which were aged 18-35.  According to opinion polls, support for Syriza blossomed when leader Alexis Tsipras announced his objective to form a left-leaning government.  Moving from 4.6% support in 2009 to 16.8%, Syriza convinced voters it is more than a simple third party but a serious coalition partner.

Another winner in the election was the Golden Dawn party that stripped New Democracy of over 40% of its supporters and 20% of PASOK from 2009.  Its base comes largely from under 35-year-olds and is considered a mix of traditional right with young people.  How this party might act in  Parliament is unclear but signals raised by party members demanding journalists stand when the party leader entered a press conference are surely concerning.

End of two party alternating rule

Voters delivered a blow to PASOK by stripping the party of 119 seats (of 300) in the Parliament.  The party lost over 2 million voters from 2009 when it enjoyed 44% support. Back then it swept to power promising to clean up and modernize the government, yet within weeks announced that Greece’s debt numbers had been fudged, plummeting the country into a crisis of confidence involving the markets, then the whole Eurozone as fear of contagion spread.

Two and a half years later, PASOK’s center-right party in the outgoing coalition, New Democracy (ND) had expected to win enough votes to form a government outright or at least with PASOK.  ND finished first, allowing them to take advantage of a reinforced proportionality law (they won while last in government) providing the first party 50 bonus Parliamentary seats.  Yet even this boost wasn’t sufficient to help ND secure a coalition government.

Unity government uncertainties

New Democracy attempts failed to form a government, giving Syriza three days to form a coalition.  Tsipras wasted no time announcing his hopes to build a government that operates inside the European Union, with the Euro, but rejects the austerity measures imposed by the Troika in return for billions to keep Greece afloat.  For a country unaccustomed to coalitions yet accustomed to sweet election promises, the expectations raised by renegotiation rhetoric may undermine efforts to form a lasting coalition.

Markets, lenders, and European and global leaders are holding their breath while leaders of this country of only 11 million people decide more than the country’s future.  Each passing day without a government brings increased uncertainty and the eyes of the world will continue to watch the machinations in Greece as a prophesy for what lies ahead for the European economy and beyond.

By Julie Garman Kolokotsa, a former member of the FH team now based in Athens.