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Close to the edge

Greece may sleepwalk itself out of the eurozone. With a general election looming large, all political parties are positioning themselves with empty promises and overheated rhetoric.

Elections in Greece resemble a lottery: No single political party can safely predict the outcome, but they all expect to win them. The current presidential election is a lottery of a different nature as all parties involved may stand to lose something.

The setup of the electoral process is a by-product of the recent history of the country. Prior to 1974, the head of state was a member of the royal family. Kings often sparked political crises; the last one, in 1965, prepared the ground for a military coup.

Democracy was restored in 1974, and lawmakers, hoping to avert future crises, bestowed the new head of state with restricted powers which were further curtailed in the 1980s. A supermajority of three fifths of the Parliament’s 300 MPs was set as the threshold for electing presidents in order to ensure that the latter would be august figures widely respected across the political spectrum who would steer away from trouble.

Victims of their own uncompromising rhetoric

But what was designed as a mechanism supposedly facilitating consensus has turned into an opportunity for friction. More than once, the presidential election has been used as an excuse to justify a general election.

This has now happened once again. The government brought forward the presidential election to avoid a prolonged period of political instability. In the first two rounds of the election, it has already failed to secure the number of votes needed to get its candidate elected. If it doesn’t succeed in the third round on Monday, a general election will be held in early 2015, and the next Parliament will have the power to elect a president with a simple majority.

If there is a general election, however, it may produce a different government. According to all polls, Syriza, a Leftist party, will win, although it may need to partner up with one or more parties.

Syriza is an old party disguised in a new garb – or the opposite. In stark contrast to other protest movements in Europe, such as Podemos in Spain and the Five Star Movement in Italy, it has a long history that goes back to the schism within the Greek Communist Party in 1968 between hardliners and reformists. In the 1970s and 1980s, it had a loose connection to Eurocommunism. After the collapse of the USSR, old-fashioned Marxists and activists of all shapes and sizes joined its ranks to form a loose and sometimes rambunctious coalition. Even today there is latent tension between its pragmatic cadres, Syriza’s “realos”, and those of Communist or activist origin. The outcome of this internal power struggle may determine the party’s stance over the next few months.

The economic crisis and the charismatic leadership of Alexis Tsipras saw Syriza swell its electoral base from 5% in the 2009 general election to 27% in 2012. As polls show, its current electoral clientele consists, among others, of civil servants and young unemployed and self-employed Greeks who saw their fortunes being wiped out during the crisis.

However, the same polls show that even a critical mass of Syriza supporters do not want a general election, worried that this could lead to Greece’s exit from the eurozone. This concern is shared by the party’s “realos”, although this is scarcely admitted in public. An election in 2015 or 2016 may find the country in a better economic situation such that Syriza would be able to handle it without risking the country’s position in the eurozone.

The main ruling party, the conservative New Democracy, is a victim of its own sins. Unable to carry out painful reforms and bring negotiations with the troika that represents Greece’s lenders to fruition, Prime Minister Antonis Samaras is making a last-ditch effort to stay in power by invoking the possibility of a “Grexit” if Syriza wins the election. Its government partner, the Socialist party, is in an ever worse position, having seen its electoral base shrink from 44% in 2009 to just 13% in 2012, and possibly less in the next election.

All parties are victims of their own uncompromising rhetoric. Syriza insists on the necessity of a general election, but were it to form the next government, it would have to engage in complicated negotiations with the EU that even some of its own cadres prefer to avoid. This is the perennial drama of Greek, or perhaps all, politicians: Realism loses elections; empty promises win them. A few years ago, Samaras used the same rhetoric to come to power – in some cases even the same phraseology – that Syriza employs today, only to stumble upon the same difficulties that previous governments faced.

The majority wants to stay in the eurozone

The ultimate danger or boon, depending on the point of view, is that Greece may sleepwalk out of the eurozone. The majority of the electorate wants the country to stay in, but there is no consensus on how this can be achieved. The political agenda is dominated by those who want to get rid of the troika – no matter what.

One possible way out of this impasse is a last-minute agreement. There is speculation that independent MPs, or even the ruling parties, will put forward a new candidate, possibly from the Left, and will thus secure the necessary number of votes, although Samaras has denied this. Instead, he has promised that if a president is elected, he will reshuffle his government to include politicians from other parties and call an election in 2015. Syriza has rejected his offer, but others may accept at the last minute. This would save Samaras’ government, the seats of many independent MPs, and perhaps even Syriza’s lead. If not, a general election will be unavoidable.

Read more in this debate: Adam Donen, Jasper Finkeldey, Andreas Moring.


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