ATHENS –In a political thriller that was too close to call after the initial exit polls, the pro-austerity New Democracy Conservatives were projected to win the critical June 17 elections, edging out the anti-austerity Coalition of the Radical Left (SYRIZA) but without enough of the vote to form a government without forming a coalition.
The bitter battle pitted New Democracy leader Antonis Samaras against SYRIZA’s Alexis Tsipras, who had vowed to tear up a bailout deal that Samaras signed with international lenders in return for rescue loans, but at the price of big pay cuts and tax hikes for Greek workers and slashed pensions.
By late night, with about 60 percent of the vote in, New Democracy had registered 30.14 percent to 26.46 percent for SYRIZA, while the PASOK Socialists had 12.52 percent, the parties repeating their 1-2-3 finish in the stalemated May 6 elections which failed to give any party enough of the vote to form a government before coalition talks collapsed and a second round of voting was set. More than 38 percent of Greeks didn’t vote, a sign of their displeasure with the political system and a government that had imposed harsh austerity measures on them.
Tsipras called Samaras to congratulate him but later rejected any notion of dealing with New Democracy or PASOK. “We shall be present in any developments from the position of the main opposition,” he said, stressing that that “everyone must know that the measures of austerity and the selling off of state property will not be able to move forward because they lack popular legitimacy.”
The results should bring a sigh of relief to Greece’s lenders, the Troika of the European Union-International Monetary Fund-European Central Bank (EU-IMF-ECB) who provided Greece with an initial bailout two years ago of $152 billion and approved a second in February for $173 billion more, but said it depended on Greece continuing with more reforms, including privatization and another $15 billion in cuts.
Samaras told a news conference that, “This is a victory for Europe,” reiterating his campaign warnings that a SYRIZA victory could have pushed Greece out of the Eurozone and back to the ancient drachma and ruin. “The Greek people voted today to stay on the European course and remain in the Eurozone… there will be no more adventures, Greece’s place in Europe will not be put in doubt,” Samaras said. He said voters chose “policies that will bring jobs, growth, justice and security.” By midnight Athens time, he was already reported to be trying to form a government and reaching out to other parties.
The ballot was watched closely in Europe and around the world and was posed as a referendum as to whether Greeks would return the parties who had cut their pay and raised their taxes but said they could keep Greece in the Eurozone, or whether anti-austerity parties would prevail.
PASOK’s new leader, Evangelos Venizelos, said any coalition has to include SYRIZA as some 57 percent of Greeks had voted against austerity and the two once-dominant parties. Greeks had been protesting, striking and rioting for two years against austerity but in the end believed Samaras’ doomsday predictions of an economic Armageddon unless pro-austerity parties won, although he said he would now try to renegotiate some of the terms of the deal he and Venizelos signed when sharing a brief hybrid government.
None of the party leaders said Greece could afford a third election and more political and economic uncertainty but some analysts said a government without anti-austerity voices would not last. “Today the Greek people can and should ensure the cohesion of society and the unity of the nation,” Venizelos said. “Tomorrow we can and must have a government. No other scenario except a government of shared national responsibility will offer the solution that this country needs,” he added.
The numbers showed that the two traditional ruling parties of New Democracy and PASOK had enough seats to control Parliament and could rule in tandem again, leaving out the five parties opposed to the harsh conditions. Under Greek election laws, New Democracy, which would have won only 80 seats in the 300-member Parliament, would get a 50-seat bonus to take 130 seats, while PASOK would have 33 seats, giving the dominant parties 163 seats, easily enough to control the body and form a government. SYRIZA would have 70 seats but no power, despite its impressive showing.
The Independent Greeks party formed of New Democracy outcasts were running fourth, with 7.43 percent, just ahead of the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn, which had 6.95 percent, more than 6.2 percent it got in May. Despite its leaders denial of the Holocaust, attacks on immigrants authorities said were conducted by its members, and the spectacle of its spokesman throwing water at a rival female politician and slapping another on live television, Golden Dawn’s vote increased and it was running fifth, ahead of the Democratic Left at 6.06 percent, while the KKE Communists were seventh with 4.5 percent, the last party crossing the 3 percent threshold needed to gain seats in Parliament. Based on the last exit poll numbers, the Independent Greeks would have 20 seats; Golden Dawn, 19; the Democratic Left, 16; and KKE, 12.
Tsipras had vowed to tear up the memorandum that Samaras and Venizelos signed with the Troika, and as the Leftist leader rose in the polls before the vote, Samaras and Venizelos quickly shifted gears and said they, too, wanted to renegotiate some of the terms of the deal they supported and signed. The Troika has insisted, however, that the next government must adhere to reforms or face the money pipeline being shut off.
Unlike the May 6 elections, in which New Democracy won but with only 18.8 percent of the vote and PASOK was third with just 13.2 percent – not enough to form a coalition without a third party – this time they together could control enough seats in Parliament to work together again despite their ideological differences.
Samaras had said before the elections that Greece needed a government to prevent a third election and that the rival parties had to set aside their differences and work together. The two dominant parties only last month were repudiated but now were on the verge of being able to rule Greece again, as they have for the last 38 years with alternating administrations in which they packed public payrolls with hundreds of thousands of unneeded workers in return for votes. That helped create the country’s staggering $460 billion debt and the need for international aid.
Nikos Xydakis, a political analyst and an editor at the newspaper Kathimerini, outlined the dilemma Greeks faced. He told The New York Times that the choice was difficult for beleaguered Greeks, who had protested, struck and rioted for two years to no avail. “There’s the party of fear and the party of despair,” he said. “The despairing ones vote for SYRIZA and they hope maybe they can change something. The people of the middle class that still have something to lose, some deposits or their houses or they still have a job, they are afraid and maybe they will go to New Democracy.” But he added there was still a crucial problem, that New Democracy “is very corrupt and very weak. They don’t have the moral and the political gravitas” to lead.