As feared, the May 6 parliamentary election failed to produce a clear winner or even enough like-minded parties to cobble together a coalition government. Sixty percent of the populace voted — voting is technically mandatory — with the others protested by not voting. Seven of the 32 parties on the ballot gained enough votes (3%) to win a seat in the parliament. In the anger and desperation of the moment, the two parties on the fringes experienced new levels of success. The KKE got 8.5% (26 seats), up from probably 6% in 2009 and a bunch of neo-nazis who never before had a seat gained 7% of the vote for 21 seats. The big story was that the leftist party Syriza came in second, displacing the center-left party Pasok that has led Greece for most of the last 40 years and that had won a disproportionate majority of the seats in the 2009 election.
The leaders of each of the top three parties tried in turn to form a coalition government and then the president of the Republic tried mightily for 3 days to convince party leaders to agree to a coalition for the good of the country. After the 9 days provided by the constitution for attempts at coalition-building, the president then called a new election for 17 June, and appointed the chief judge of the highest court as interim Prime Minister, also as specified by the constitution. The elected parliament was sworn in on Wednesday and dissolved the next day, the shortest parliament in Greek history, and Thursday afternoon, Greece swore in its 184th Prime Minister since 1822, the 3rd in the last 6 months.
The news media focused its attention on the most sensational aspect of the election, and Andrew said that on his way to work the next morning he heard it reported that nazis were in power in Greece. Chrisi Avgi (Golden Dawn) is a gang of rabid anti-immigrant thugs that has gained popularity in the poor neighborhoods of central Athens as a result of the government’s total failure to address illegal immigration. The land border with Turkey has been left generally unguarded and every night several hundred immigrants, mostly Pakistani, simply walk across the border and into Europe. While the Greek government makes only showpiece attempts to detain and return the immigrants, the western European countries are much more serious about it. Strangely, however, EU law provides that immigrants detained in western Europe are not returned to their native countries but to the European nation they first entered. So Athens has been packed with immigrants from both east and west. They are living 40-50 to an apartment, they peddle bootlegs, knock-offs, and crap novelties in the tourist areas, infuriating already hard-pressed legitimate shopkeepers and, since there are no jobs, there’s a lot of crime in the poor neighborhoods. Athenians are freaked out about the situation and, in this volatile environment a group of vigilantes has gained considerable popularity by filling in for absent law enforcement. For those of us who can’t imagine how the Nazis could have risen to power in Germany, this is a very instructive case study.
In the shock of Chrisi Avgi’s election to parliament, it was discovered that there is an EU law that prohibits a neo-nazi party from holding seats in any EU-member parliament. Chrisi Avgi quickly backed off its claim to be a neo-nazi party in response. They have, however, repeatedly used photos of Third Reich leadership in their party literature, they greet each other with the nazi salute, and they use a swastika knock-off for their party symbol so no one is deceived and one of these days we’ll see a clear and unequivocal ruling from the EU. I hope.
The more important story of the election is the rise to power of Syriza — an acronym for Coalition of the Radical Left in Greek. And they are left. Not center-left, not socialist, but left-left. They have a young, charismatic, clever leader who has capitalized on the population’s misery after a succession of wage and pension reductions by telling people what they want to hear — that they can reject the austerity provisions of the financial rescue agreement but still receive the rescue funds. Despite my cynicism, Alexis Tsipras has been remarkably candid in his campaigning. He has a 5 point program that includes rejecting the terms of the rescue package and nationalizing the banks. In my view, his flaw is that he has promoted the fiction that the euro zone cannot afford to let Greece default and ditch the euro. I think the euro zone has spent the last 2 years preparing for the eventuality of a Greek default and exit from the euro zone, and has firewalled itself well enough to have a bottom line approach to the problem.
We may well have a chance to find out who is right but the public discussion has now evolved to the point that most believe that a vote for Syriza is a vote against the euro zone. This will make for a pretty pure referendum on the issue, although the pro-euro parties are now saying they will insist on a softening of the austerity measures and launch a campaign to stimulate growth. I doubt there is nearly as much negotiating room or stimulus money as the public would like to believe (or will be led to believe) but this new election will be essentially a choice between austerity in the euro zone and default with a return to the drachma.
Despite the need to open envelopes and tally the results from paper ballots, election results were delivered very quickly on the evening of the election, with an official website providing the results of the tabulation parsed in a variety of ways. If the same contractor is used, the evening of 17 June should be riveting. Also, I note with pleasure that so far, there are no campaign ads on TV. The government provides the campaign funds and I guess the new administration will have to decide whether to disperse additional funds. I’m hoping they opt for austerity.