ATHENS, Greece -- After making headlines for the past six years with an economic and social crisis that shows no sign of abating, Greece is headed toward a snap election. On Sept. 20, Greeks will go to the polls for the fifth vote in little more than three years and it seems all bets are off again.
Former Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras of the left-wing Syriza party handed in his resignation last month, bringing an end to the coalition government between Syriza and the Independent Greeks (ANEL) party.
Syriza won the last elections in January on an anti-austerity agenda, but changed course during months of hard negotiations with Greece’s European creditors over a new bailout deal. The Greek economy came within an inch of default during the negotiations, with banks closed and capital controls implemented.
Despite a July referendum that showed the Greek people had no appetite for Europe’s bailout proposal and the harsh terms it would impose, Tsipras eventually caved in to the creditors’ demands, paving the way for a new round of austerity measures in return for direly needed funds.
A significant part of Tsipras’ Syriza party, however, disagreed with the government’s concessions to its lenders, making Tsipras’ political position untenable. Fresh elections that will either reject Tsipras’ leadership or give him a renewed mandate to implement the terms of the bailout agreement appeared the only way forward.
With the implementation of the bailout agreement up in the air and the economy in ruins, Greece’s creditors stand on the sidelines awaiting the people's verdict
Tsipras’ Syriza party until recently formed a coalition government with the smaller right-wing ANEL party. Syriza started out in 2004 as a coalition of left-wing groups and parties. With its anti-austerity rhetoric and hard-line leftist program, the coalition grew throughout the crisis years from one with relatively small popular support into a major political force. Throughout those years, Syriza also evolved from a coalition to a unitary party, this mainly because under Greek electoral law the largest polling party receives a “bonus” of 50 parliamentary seats out of 300.
However, Syriza's fragmented background came to haunt the party recently as a significant portion of its members disagreed with Tsipras over the harsh terms of the bailout deal. Twenty-five of Syriza’s members of parliament -- most of them part of Syriza’s radical left wing -- broke away on Aug. 21 and founded the new Popular Unity party. At the moment, Syriza seems to be at a crossroads not only in terms of its future in government, but also regarding its identity as a party.
Popular Unity is led by Tsipras' former Energy minister, Panagiotis Lafazanis, who was one of the hard-line leftists of Syriza. Upon its establishment, the party was the third largest in Parliament and promised the return to the original anti-austerity program that Syriza was elected on but did not deliver -- advocating the country's exit from the eurozone and the return to the drachma. Popular Unity appears to stand a good chance of reaching the 3 percent threshold and entering into parliament, polls indicate.
New Democracy and PASOK are Greece’s traditional “parties of power.” Combined, they have ruled the country for the past 40 years.
New Democracy is Greece’s major center-right conservative party. It lost the election to PASOK in 2009 but resurfaced in 2012 as part of a coalition government with PASOK and centrist-left party DIMAR. New Democracy received 27.8 percent in the January 2015 vote. Having been part of Greece’s two previous bailouts, New Democracy is a proponent of reforms and of boosting the private sector. It is in favor of implementing the recent bailout agreement and supported Tsipras despite being the major opposition party.
Once the most popular social democratic party, PASOK has seen its support plummet during the debt crisis as many blame former PASOK leader George Papandreou for setting in motion the ongoing cycle of harsh austerity by agreeing to Greece’s first bailout agreement. Struggling to keep afloat, PASOK announced it will cooperate with the DIMAR (Democratic Left) party.
To Potami (The River), is a centrist party founded in 2014 by television journalist Stavros Theodorakis with loose social liberal and strong pro-euro views. To Potami gathered enough momentum to finish fourth in January's elections and it considers the bailout agreements a necessary step for overcoming the economic crisis. However, the party has been critical of Syriza's negotiation tactics with the creditors.
The Communist Party of Greece (KKE), the historical Marxist-Leninist Greek party, has maintained its position against austerity and calls for a Greek exit from the eurozone, arguing that all bailout agreements are imposed violently on the Greek people and spell disaster for the Greek economy and society. KKE has a solid electoral base and has been either maintaining roughly the same percentage or dropping slightly in recent elections.
With its strong anti-immigration rhetoric and aggressive speech, extremist far-right party Golden Dawn has been gaining ground in the crisis years. The party’s support, which spiked to 6.2 percent in the January election, has been mainly attributed to “protest votes” against the old political establishment. Many of Golden Dawn's prominent members, including its leader, have been jailed while awaiting trial on accusations of participating in a criminal organization and assaulting immigrants and anti-fascists.
Greece’s economic crisis is still surging. The economy is in shambles, capital controls are still in place and the unemployment rate has risen to a staggering 25 percent. How to contain the enduring crisis and its omnipresent consequences remains the burning issue of the election.
With Greece being an entry point to Europe for thousands of migrants and refugees who escape relentless wars or excruciating poverty, the country is looking for ways to handle the situation while demanding help from other EU countries. As this huge humanitarian crisis is happening in parallel to Greece’s economic crisis, the next government of Greece will also need to find viable solutions for effectively alleviating that situation.
When Tsipras handed in his resignation last month, it appeared the election would be an easy win for Syriza. Recent opinion polls, however, seem to suggest that Syriza and New Democracy are neck and neck, with New Democracy even possibly getting marginally ahead.
The most likely outcome is that whoever wins will need to form a coalition government to implement the reform measures agreed on with the creditors. Tsipras has so far rejected the idea of cooperating with New Democracy or To Potami, which he considers to be “establishment” parties.
The uncertainty over the outcome of the vote -- as no party seems to be favored spectacularly over the others -- could stir things up again and lead Greece to an unknown future. The questions persist: What will do the trick for the crisis to be resolved, and if said trick requires yet another shift in power, what will it look like?
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