Greek Voters Punish 2 Main Parties for Economic Collapse
Louisa Gouliamaki/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
By RACHEL DONADIO and NIKI KITSANTONIS
Published: May 6, 2012
ATHENS — Greek voters appeared to radically redraw the political map on Sunday, bolstering the far left and neo-Nazi right in a wave of protest against the dominant political parties they blame for the country’s economic collapse.
The parliamentary elections were the first time that Greece’s foreign loan agreement had been put to a democratic test, and the outcome appeared clear: a rejection of the terms of the bailout and a fragmentation of the vote so severe that the front-runner is expected to have extreme difficulty in forming a government, let alone one that can either enforce or renegotiate the terms of the bailout.
The elections were seen as a pivotal test, determining both the country’s future in Europe and its prospects for economic recovery and the outcome, along with that in France, could resonate far beyond Europe, possibly leading to more upheaval in the euro zone. The early results were also a clear rebuke to European leaders that their strategy for Greece had failed.
An exit poll made public just before 9 p.m. nearly two hours after the polls closed, indicated that center-right New Democracy party was in first place with 19 to 20.5 percent of the vote, much less than the 34 percent it won in 2009. But in a major shift, the Socialists, who dominated for decades, won 44 percent of the vote in 2009 and were in power when Greece asked for foreign aid in 2010, appeared to have 13 to 14 percent of the vote, putting them behind the Coalition of the Radical Left, called Syriza, which opposes Greece’s agreement with its foreign lenders. Syriza appeared to be drawing 15.5 to 17 percent of the vote.
A projection by the Interior Ministry based on votes counted at a quarter of the country’s 20,000 polling stations broadly reflected the results of the exit poll.
The two main parties could still form a coalition if the findings of the exit poll, which was conducted by several firms on behalf of four television channels, are reflected in the official results. Representatives of the two main parties were quick to express their opposition to the prospect of a second round of elections.
The Socialists’ leader, Evangelos Venizelos, called for a national unity government, saying that a coalition with only the Socialists and New Democracy would not have legitimacy.
Mr. Venizelos said that Sunday was an “exceptionally painful day” for the Socialists. He added that the results in France showed that the “balance” in Europe was shifting and that Greek political parties that had said there was an alternative to the loan agreement had misled voters. “God of Greece, help us,” he said.
Exit polls also showed the far-right Golden Dawn party, whose symbol resembles the swastika and whose members perform Nazi salutes at rallies, attracting 5 to 8 percent of the vote, enough to enter Parliament for the first time. The ultimate expression of a protest vote, the party has gained ground by campaigning on the streets of Athens, where many residents fear a sharp rise in illegal immigration and where politicians from mainstream parties have had trouble walking for fear of violent attacks from angry voters.
In a triumphant televised statement issued after the exit polls, the party’s leader, Nikos Michaloliakos, pledged to “fight the memorandum of the junta inside and outside Parliament,” a reference to the country’s debt deal with creditors.
As he stood outside a polling station in the downtown Athens neighborhood of Agios Panteleimonas, where in the past decade the increase in the number of illegal immigrants from South Asia and Africa has changed the texture of the area, Sotirios Dimos, 43, a post office employee, said that he had always supported the Socialists, but on Sunday he voted for Golden Dawn for the first time. “The Socialists were incapable of doing anything,” he said.
He said he was upset about the economy and illegal immigration and was not concerned that the group’s neo-Nazi roots would lead to fascism in Greece. “Do you think a republic with a strong educated population can lose their freedom so easily?” he asked.
The next government in Athens, inheriting a deepening recession and facing the likelihood of social unrest, will have to enforce a loan agreement with its creditors — the European Commission, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund. The deal stipulates slashing $15.5 billion from the state budget over the next two years and completing a crucial bank recapitalization.
Yet fierce opposition to the bailout terms — tax increases and wage cuts that have seen Greece’s gross national product drop 20 percent since 2009 and unemployment hit 21 percent — has led to the implosion of the Socialist and New Democracy parties, and the rise of fringe parties on both the right and the left that oppose the loan deal.
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Anger at the wage and pension cuts imposed by the two main parties, who governed in an uneasy coalition after the previous Socialist administration collapsed in November, was evident Sunday at a polling station in Neos Kosmos, a middle-class district near central Athens. Evgenia Vogiatzi, a 45-year-old teacher and a lifelong Socialist, said that Greece was “in a state of enslavement” that had led her to support the Communist Party, which backs a return to the drachma, Greece’s old currency before it adopted the euro.
“I’ve had my salary cut 30 percent, I’m paying taxes through the nose, and they’re talking about more cuts,” Ms. Vogiatzi said. “If that’s what it takes to stay in Europe, I don’t want Europe.”
In the upper middle-class Psychiko neighborhood in Athens, many supporters of the Socialist party, known here as Pasok, said they had voted for radical-left Syriza for the first time, in protest. “I voted in anger,” said Evangelia Grillaki, 65, a retired florist. “We feel 1,000 percent betrayed. The only people who voted for Pasok are either jerks or vested interests.”
The biggest winner in the elections appeared to be Syriza, a coalition of leftist parties founded in 2004, which included splinter groups from Greece’s more hard-line Communist Party. Its campaign slogan was “They chose without us, we’re moving on without them,” and it appeared to receive the bulk of the Socialist protest vote. Led by Alexis Tsipras, an energetic 38-year-old, the party is in favor of Greece remaining in the euro zone and the European Union, unlike the Communist Party, but has opposed the loan agreement.
Describing the elections as “probably the most critical ever,” Prime Minister Lucas Papademos, a technocrat installed in November to help Greece push through changes promised to creditors by the Socialists, called for voters to think about the implications of their decision. “We must all think carefully as we are not only deciding who will govern, we are determining the country’s course for decades,” he said.
One possible outcome could be a government composed of small parties opposed to the onerous terms of a second debt deal hashed out between the previous government and creditors in February in exchange for about $170 billion euros in loans and a restructuring of the country’s privately held debt.
In any case, with up to 10 parties expected to enter Greece’s 300-seat Parliament it will be difficult to form a stable government.
The prospect of an administration at loggerheads with Greece’s creditors has rattled European officials who issued stern warnings ahead of the voting. In a statement that dominated most Greek media on the eve of elections, the German finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, said Greece would “have to bear the consequences” if its new government failed to honor pledges to creditors.
“The future government in Greece must abide by the country’s commitments,” Mr. Schäuble said Friday, reflecting broader concern in Europe about the likely impact of a Greek exit from the euro zone on larger economies such as Spain and Italy.
Representatives of the European Union and International Monetary Fund, expected back in Athens by June to discuss another $15 billion in spending cuts for the next two years, have struck a similar note, saying they expect the new government to meet the “main goals” of the agreement.
Although the two main parties have reassured the creditors that they will keep to the goals, they have also promised in campaign rallies to ease the burden on austerity weary Greeks, fearful of stoking social discontent that has led to violence. The conservative leader Antonis Samaras has vowed to cut taxes and increase low-level pensions. His socialist rival, Mr. Venizelos, the former finance minister who negotiated Greece’s deal with creditors, has pledged to spread spending cuts over the next three years rather than two.
For the moment, austerity appears to have taken a back seat to politics. Greece is spending $65 million to hold elections. The authorities say this is half the cost of the last elections in 2009. But with a hung Parliament a distinct possibility, new elections, and more election spending, are not out of the question.