It’s not often that the losing party in an election can declare that “a new day is dawning.” Yet, SYRIZA leader Alexis Tsipras felt that his party’s phenomenal rise, which narrowly lacked the momentum to carry the leftists to first place in Sunday’s Greek elections, justified a feeling of optimism.
“The future does not belong to the terrorised but those who bring hope,” he told supporters at a small post-election rally in central Athens on Sunday night.
Tsipras is right to feel emboldened by his party’s upward trajectory from 4.6 percent in the 2009 election to almost 27 percent in yesterday’s vote but the immediate future belongs to those who pledge something much less ambitious than hope. Sunday’s result, which saw New Democracy’s conservatives gain 29.6 percent, provides a mandate for those who pledge plain old stability.
While the pro- and anti-bailout vote was split relatively evenly, Greece’s electoral system awards 50 extra seats to the leading party and makes governing without it virtually impossible. This gives New Democracy 129 MPs and the opportunity to form a coalition government made of parties that favour continuing with the EU-IMF bailout, albeit in a revised form. Fear of the political unknown and concern about being cut off from the security many Greeks feel euro membership provides tipped the balance in favour of the conservatives and against SYRIZA, which advocated rejecting the bailout terms and starting negotiations with the eurozone from scratch. That was too much of a leap for some Greeks, scared by the sight of their country crumbling around them, to take.
Nevertheless, it is clear that Greece is going through a dramatic political transition that is weakening the iron grip the country’s two main parties, New Democracy and centre-left PASOK, have had on power since 1974. The economic and social impact of the devastating crisis has acted as a political particle accelerator that is changing the face of Greek democracy. This change, though, is happening in stages and, at least for now, New Democracy and PASOK will continue to be the decision makers.
The conservatives will turn to PASOK to form a coalition. This will give them 162 MPs in the 300-seat Parliament but they are unlikely to leave it at that. SYRIZA’s rise has put pressure on these traditional forces to create a wider coalition, one whose roots spread into Greek society as widely as possible and which has an ample parliamentary buffer. The only viable candidate as a third coalition partner is Democratic Left, which gained 6.2 percent and 17 seats on Sunday. The moderate pro-euro leftist party opposes the austerity measures and has called for a gradual “disengagement” from the bailout. Given that PASOK and New Democracy both favour extending Greece’s fiscal adjustment period, due to end in 2014, by at least two years, the easing of austerity is something that all three parties can agree on.
Following the inconclusive May 6 elections, Democratic Left passed up the opportunity to join ND and PASOK in government. It had one eye on SYRIZA’s strengthened position and feared being tarnished as a traitor to leftist ideals. Yesterday’s elections removed the possibility of a left-wing government but it didn’t negate Greece’s desperate need to be governed. Democratic Left has to decide whether it will be part of an administration that has a better chance than at any stage since 2010 of convincing the country’s lenders that an austerity-centred programme in a recession-wracked economy is not going to produce results.
The best-case scenario for a New Democracy-PASOK-Democratic Left coalition would be to gain some concessions from the eurozone that would allow the government to do more than just chase its tail in an effort to find revenues and cut spending over the next few months as Greece heads for an economic contraction more than 5 percent of GDP this year. This could allow for more attention to be paid to structural reforms, particularly overhauling Greece’s inefficient public administration. A relaxation of asphyxiating austerity, relative economic stability and signs that the country was actually starting to put right some of the problems that brought it to the brink would start to win public opinion around.
Of course, this demands a level of cooperation between rival parties that Greek politics has rarely witnessed. It calls for levels of determination that Greek politicians have consistently failed to show. It will also require vision and planning, qualities that have been painfully absent from political life in Greece for many years. Without this, Greece will be left with uncomfortable political bedfellows applying failed policies handed down to them by the EU and IMF. This will be the road to ruin.
In this case, SYRIZA, with the freedom it will have as an opposition party and boosted by the swelling current of support that swept it to second place on Sunday, will be in a position to become a formidable force of resistance. In the fluctuating world of Greek politics, Sunday’s defeat may yet prove a victory for the leftists.
A shorter version of this article appeared on The Guardian’s website.