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What Next in Greece?

The disintegration of Greece’s political status quo has shaken Greek society – and the political and administrative elite – to their core. The new elections that will be held on June 17th will be the first to be conducted in several decades without a bipolar political system in place – at least not the one we have come to know since 1974. The ‘clientele’ system is giving way to a more individualized and complicated approach, more a function of realism and ideology than patronage.

What has become a perennial fear of the ramifications of a potential exit from the EU has magnified fundamental concerns about the Greek economy’s ability to function and grow. Greeks are currently split between those who believe they still have something to lose versus those who believe separation from the EU is the only thing that will permit Greece to grow, and thus, recover. Although all but two parliamentary parties claim they want to see Greece remain within the EU, the average man in the street has a much more diverse orientation, which will surely end up impacting the composition of the next government, and its stability.

It is clear that the domination of the neo-liberal New Democracy party (ND) and the social-democratic Pasok has come to an end, however, the dust has yet to settle. Post-elections polls show great shifts among parties with little in common except for general direction. It is important to remember that European integration has been the driving force behind Greece’s overall economic growth since the mid-1970s, which most Greeks view as a national achievement, albeit with much collective sacrifice. But it was really only at the end of the 1990s when the average person started experiencing the benefits of economic development.

Though not entirely understood by people abroad, the anger being expressed in Greece is not only being caused by the harsh and unproductive austerity measures of the past two years, but by a frustration that has steadily been building up for a good portion of society – they see all those years of anticipation and sacrifice not only going to waste but now producing similar challenges Greeks faced in the 1950s and 60s. It is almost as if a half-century of progress is being wiped away before their eyes.

Greek politicians have been blamed for a number of things, the most important among them is rarely mentioned in debates however – and that is the fact that politicians never really explained to the people how the international system works: credit ratings and bonds can cause as much damage to a state as to a business or an individual, massive public expenditures require sufficient demand to pay for it, and loans must ultimately be repaid. The average Greek came to learn how the contemporary credit system operates after the fact, through harsh austerity measures. Hence, it is not surprising that parties such as the far-right Golden Dawn, the leftist Syriza or the populist Independent Greeks (Anexartitoi Hellines) have emerged as the winners of the last elections.

That said, new polls are now suggesting that a new bipolar system is about to emerge, with the left as the counterforce in a wider neo-liberal camp, led by ND on the other side. Pasok is now being squeezed between the two poles. Many domestic analysts suggest that after the elections – and with Pasok holding a major conference after the summer – the party may change in a big way, with a new name, new orientation and, above all, new people in most of its key positions. It is quite possible that after a government is formed (possibly with the participation of Pasok), the party’s leader (Ev. Venizelos) will attempt to reinvent it into a contemporary, European social-democratic or social-liberal party, closer in ideological terms to the UK’s Liberal than Labour party. Pasok may, in the end, come to represent a good portion of the political spectrum in the center.

New polls show either ND or Syriza leading, each with percentages ranging between 20 and 25%. The polarization of the current election campaign leaves no great space for smaller parties, specifically those that just missed the 3% threshold required for parliamentary representation in the May elections. The question remains which smaller parties will merge with the two main opponents and how this will translate into parliamentary seats.

Bearing in mind that much of the voting of the recent election was a result of anger and great concern for the future, it should be said that the majority of the population in Greece is not traditionally leftist and ultimately does want to remain part of the EU. Purely leftist parties garnered about 35% of the vote. Given that most of the eligible voters who chose not to vote came from the two main parties, a unified left can only emerge as the winner if the rest of the voters split among the many remaining parties, which is not going to happen. Also, as the communists will not cooperate with any of the other parties, a Syriza-led government will be difficult to be formed. If Syriza comes in second, it is almost certain that the next government will be led by ND, will include Pasok, and is likely to gather perhaps 40% of the vote.

Less than a month is now remaining to the June elections and as things progress Syriza has secured only the cooperation of DIMAR (Democratic Left, led by the moderate European-leftist, F. Kouvelis). However, DIMAR has claimed that it may cooperate with ND and Pasok if they promise to renegotiate the Memorandum terms. Former ND minister Panos Kamenos’ Independent Greeks (Anexartitoi Ellines) party is likely to play a role in the event a wider coalition government will need to be formed. As things stand, however, the prevailing analysis is that ND along with Pasok and possibly a combination of smaller centre-right parties will form a government, however unstable it may turn out to be.

Ironically, the multi-faceted political system many in Greece had long wanted has arrived at a time when it will exacerbate existing problems and create new problems – at what must be the worst possible time for political turmoil to occur. But if this turmoil creates a new, sustainable political system that does not suffer from the many inherent flaws of the existing system, many in Greece will say it was a good thing. The jury will be out for some time, however, as Greece, and the rest of Europe, continue to work their way through this difficult time.