Greek elections: On the razor’s edge

Greek elections: On the razor’s edge

“The Communists are coming!” he said, entering my office in haste. There was no fear or surprise in the voice of this young Rum (Istanbul Greek) who assists me in my TV reporting here in Turkey. I could even pick up his discreet joy on the prospect that Greece may turn red. But his deeper desire had nothing to do with Greek politics; it was totally personal. For him, if Greece went red his Greek wife, who hated every minute of coming and living in Istanbul, would stop trying to drag him back to Athens.

Everyone agrees that the austerity shock on Greece resulted in a bigger shock in its political landscape. The post-coup period of 1974 secured political peace in the country for almost four decades, but based on the virtual duopoly in power by the socialist PASOK and the conservative New Democracy parties, an international economic crisis and an economic-political crisis in Europe was needed to shake up the system. 

A two-and-a-half year recession and merciless austerity crushed the Greek middle classes. It exposed the inefficiency of the old political leadership and pushed the electorate to alternative political platforms. The meteoric rise of the leftist Syriza was the result, from a 4 percent grouping to a powerful social and political movement of almost 17 percent in the last elections of May 6. By claiming to have new answers to “reset the system in a fair way,” Syriza pushed the other parties into reassessing their own position and rhetoric. New parties were formed left and right. PASOK shrank and New Democracy opened its doors even to its former enemies to regain credibility under a grand conservative coalition. The inconclusive results of May 6 led to a new vote amid an increasingly loud chorus of foreign creditors, financiers, and political friends and foes who openly and often crudely interfered with the domestic electoral process in favor of the signatories of the bail-out agreements.

The real possibility of Greece leaving the eurozone and returning to drachma if its bail out agreements were not honored became a daily threat by both foreign and domestic circles. Last Saturday’s front page of the German FT went even further: “Do note to vote for that demagogue. Vote for Antonis Samaras, the leader of the conservatives,” it admonished. 

Undoubtedly things have changed since May 6. There is a President in France who looks less willing to stick to the Franco-German axis, there are serious problems in Spain and the likely next big problem in Italy has increased hopes for more lenient, development-oriented policies to be adopted in the eurozone. But everything is still in the air. Still, most Greek parties fueled hopes by promising “renegotiation” of Greece’s bail-out agreements. Syriza stuck to its initial opaque line of “canceling” agreements by a simple parliamentary vote. 

To whom will the Greeks listen? Will they put their faith in the old, as experienced managers of a new crisis? Or will they prefer the “shock of the new” never tried before, thus of doubtful results? 

It can go either way, but there was a gut feeling among Greek commentators that we may be in for a surprise. Perhaps that is why Angela Merkel decided to postpone her trip to the G-20 meeting for fourteen hours, in order to watch the Greek results from home. 

Whatever the results, the new prime minister should have a well worked out plan for fresh talks with Greece’s creditors and enough nerve for deep domestic structural reforms.

Is there any such person? We will see. But at least there is a lot of nerve among the Greek sports press, who hailed the Greek victory over Russia in the Euro games with phrases like: “Get us Merkel” or “Those who owe, that’s how they go.” At the next game Greece will probably be playing Germany. The joke is that Merkel may be watching the game live, sitting next to the Syriza leader.

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