Centre fights to hold Greece

POLITICAL horse-trading over the next few days will decide the shape of Greece’s next government, as the pro-bailout New Democracy party tries to form yet another coalition to lead the troubled country.
Greek voters provided a breather in the euro crisis by favouring parties that supported the bailout, warding off an immediate crisis in the eurozone. But they also rewarded parties of the radical left and extreme right, marking a new polarisation in political views.
New Democracy leader Antonis Samaras hailed his win as a victory for Greece and Europe: “We will not have new adventure, we will not doubt the position of Greece in Europe, we will not be cowed by fear.”
But he also promised that “we cannot continue to injure every family with government”.
Greece has been crippled by five years of recession and high unemployment, intensified by severe austerity measures imposed as part of a European deal to help it cope with its debt.
Greece’s lenders had insisted the two bailouts, totalling €240 billion ($300.7 billion), be honoured or funds would be cut off, bankrupting Greece and forcing it out of the eurozone.
But Greeks had protested fiercely against the harshness of the measures and a previously obscure party, the radical left Syriza, has sprung to prominence following promises to tear up the memorandum over the bailout. New Democracy won 29.5 per cent. Syriza came a close second, increasing its share of the vote to more than 27 per cent.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel congratulated Mr Samaras and told him she was confident Athens would abide by its European pledges.
Germany has been a major contributor to Greece’s two rescue packages and a key advocate of highly unpopular austerity and reform measures in exchange.
Meanwhile in France, weekend elections gave the Socialists an easy absolute parliamentary majority, strengthening President Francois Hollande’s position in questioning austerity measures and putting greater focus on growth.
The Greek electoral system gives the party with the highest vote a bonus of 50 extra seats but Mr Samaras will still need several coalition allies. He is likely to seek a partnership with the other traditional ruling party of Greece, the centre-left socialists of Pasok. Between them they could muster 160 seats in the 300-seat parliament, but given their fierce differences the coalition would be volatile. Syriza has declined to join the coalition.
“We have a very polarised election result and I think it is reflecting the anger as well as the fear of the voters,” said Kostas Papaioannou, a candidate for the Democratic Left.
Mr Papaioannou told The Age the strong result for extreme-right, anti-immigrant party Golden Dawn, which won about 7 per cent of the vote and an estimated 19 seats in parliament, showed the party was here to stay.
He said the vote that first catapulted the party into parliament last month was clearly not an aberration. Voters could not claim they did not know what they were voting for because they had seen the consequences of the party’s success in the past six weeks.
These included party spokesman Ilias Kasidiaris slapping a woman MP on national television, several racist attacks and a threat by party MP Ilias Pangiotaros to raid hospitals and kindergartens and throw immigrants and their children onto the street so Greeks could take their places.
Mr Papaioannou said: “In my view the top priority now is that we have to see what we can do with the fact that there will be strong neo-Nazi representation in the next parliament.”

First published in The Age.