Political horse-trading over the next few days will decide the shape of Greece’s next government, as the pro-Europe 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 support the bailout deal, warding off an immediate new crisis in the eurozone. But they also rewarded parties of the radical left and extreme right, marking a new polarisation in political views.
Antonis Samaras, leader of the conservative New Democracy, hailed his win as a victory for Greece and for Europe. He said: “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 “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 the nation cope with its euro debt.
Greece’s lenders had insisted the two bailouts, totalling €240 billion ($301 billion) , be honoured or funds would be cut off, bankrupting Greece and forcing it out of the eurozone. This could mean the end of the euro and global financial chaos.
But Greeks had protested fiercely against the harshness of the measures and an obscure party, the radical left Syriza, has sprung into prominence on the back of promises to tear up the memorandum over the bailout.
Syriza came a close second, increasing its share of the vote to more than 27 per cent. New Democracy won 29.4 per cent.
The German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, congratulated Greek’s pro-bailout conservative leader on his victory and told him she is confident Athens will abide by its European pledges.
Germany – Europe’s biggest economy – has been a large contributor to Greece’s two multibillion-euro rescue packages and a key advocate of demanding tough, and highly unpopular, austerity and reform measures in exchange.
Meanwhile, weekend elections in France gave the socialists an easy absolute parliamentary majority, strengthening the position of the socialist President, Francois Hollande, in debates about the future of Europe.
European leaders had delayed leaving for a G20 summit in Mexico to see the Greek election result. 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, who stood as a candidate for the Democratic Left.
Mr Papaioannou, former chairman of the National Commission for Human Rights, told the Herald the strong result for the 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 in May was clearly not an aberration, and voters could not claim they did not know what they were voting for.
These included an incident in which party a spokesman slapped a woman MP on television, racist attacks, and a threat by party MP Ilias Panagiotaros to raid hospitals and kindergartens and throw immigrants and their children onto the street so that 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 Sydney Morning Herald 19 June 2012.