Election preview: Greece

Greece goes to the polls tomorrow for the third time in three years, an early election forced by the failure of parliament last month to elect a new president. The election is expected to bring the radical left party, SYRIZA, to power for the first time.

The last election, in June 2012 (just seven weeks after a previous inconclusive effort), saw the centre-right New Democracy finish with 29.7%, less than 3% ahead of SYRIZA’s 26.9%. But the Greek electoral system gives a 50-seat bonus to the leading party, so that enabled New Democracy (with 129 seats) and the centre-left PASOK (12.3% and 33 seats) to command a majority of the 300 seats between them. Apart from that, voting is proportional with a 3% threshold.

Latest opinion poll results (here’s Wikipedia’s summary) show SYRIZA consistently scoring in the mid-30%s, maybe 6 or 7% clear of New Democracy, with no-one else even close to double figures. That would put SYRIZA very close to but probably just short of the 150-seat mark.

However, assuming those numbers are even approximately correct, there’s no possibility of anyone but SYRIZA being able to form a government. In addition to New Democracy and PASOK, with around 90 seats between them, there will be between 10 and 20 seats for each of the two extreme parties – the fascist Golden Dawn and the unreconstructed Greek Communist Party. The liberal Potami (“River”) and the right-wing Independent Greeks are also expected to win seats.

So unless the polls are radically mistaken, the other mainstream parties will be in a position where they have no realistic alternative but to let SYRIZA form a government, either on its own or in coalition with PASOK and/or Potami. SYRIZA leader Alexis Tsipras will become prime minister, with a mandate to renegotiate the terms of Greece’s financial obligations in a fashion that may lead to trouble with the European Union leadership –  and particularly with Germany and its pro-austerity chancellor, Angela Merkel.

Despite all the breathless commentary on the possibility that Greece may default on its debt or leave the euro zone, my view is that SYRIZA in government will behave less like a revolutionary movement and a lot more like a traditional social democratic party. It is simply not in Tsipras’s interests to make demands that the Germans can’t possibly accept. He needs to be able to cut a deal, and his most recent rhetoric shows that he’s perfectly aware of this.

It’s not quite so clear that Germany has the same interest. There’s some thought that Merkel may choose to play hardball and be willing to evict the Greeks from the euro zone if SYRIZA refuses to capitulate, as a lesson to other spendthrift economies. But although a Greek exit might not involve the turmoil that it would have two or three years ago, it would still be a major setback for the EU. It’s hard to imagine Merkel or anyone else in authority wanting to provoke it if a reasonable alternative is offered to them.

Moreover, although he wants to reverse many of the austerity measures, Tsipras is not running as an opponent of sound finance; he simply argues that wealthy Greeks should be made to pay their fair share of taxes rather than have the deficit made up by cutting welfare for the poor.

The competing problems of poor tax collection and bloated public sector spending are emphasised by different parts of the political spectrum, but in reality they are both symptoms of the same basic political dysfunction. None of the established parties have proved able to deal with it, so it makes sense to give a more radical option a try.

Writing in the Nation, Maria Margaronis says that if Greece’s politicians “have any care at all for the country they claim to serve, they will work together to build what Greece has lacked: a functioning state based on rights and responsibilities that’s run for everyone, not godfathers and clients.” That’s the hope, often disappointed, with which the country’s voters will turn out again tomorrow.


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