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Looking for answers to Greece's impossible multiple choice

By Nick Malkoutzis

Greece is trying to complete a multiple-choice test in which all the answers are wrong. Sunday’s elections could have hardly produced a more fragmented result, one from which you can add up the numbers any way you want but not get the response you’re looking for. Efforts to form a unity government are due to fall flat -- barring a last-minute successful intervention from President Karolos Papoulias. They seemed doomed to failure because none of the parties are taking on board constructive messages from the election result.

Representatives of the Coalition of the Radical Left (SYRIZA) and the Independent Greeks, as well as others, have suggested that Sunday’s outcome is proof that 68 percent of voters reject the terms of the EU-IMF bailout. In fact, so emboldened by his party’s remarkable surge to 16.78 percent, SYRIZA leader Alexis Tsipras is poised to write to EU officials to declare the loan deal null and void because of the way people voted on Sunday. This is presumptuous on behalf of the leftist leader.

It’s true that PASOK and New Democracy, the two that signed the latest loan agreement, only gathered a combined record low of 32 percent but that doesn’t mean that every other vote was cast as a flat rejection of the bailout mechanism.

Democratic Left, which won 6.11 percent of the vote, has asked for Greece to disengage from the memorandum but has not asked for an immediate rejection. After all, remaining in the eurozone is one of the party’s red lines. That’s why its leader, Fotis Kouvelis, has given only qualified support to Tsipras, saying he would back a SYRIZA administration only if it’s a majority government.

Tsipras also includes in his calculations the unusually high number of votes that went to parties that failed to enter Parliament. This reached 19 percent but cannot be claimed, en masse, as an anti-bailout block. In fact, it includes three liberal parties -- Drasi, Democratic Alliance and Dimiourgia Xana (Creativity Again) -- that have not called for the EU-IMF memorandum to be scrapped straight away. Combined, support for these parties accounts for 6.5 percent of the vote. In fact, two of these parties, Drasi and Democratic Alliance, are reported to be in talks to join forces if new elections are held.

Then there is the Popular Orthodox Rally (LAOS), which gained 2.9 percent on Sunday. LAOS backed the first memorandum but bailed out of the coalition government in February before having to vote in favor of the second loan deal. The quixotic nature of its leader, Giorgis Karatzaferis, means that there is no guarantee LAOS would gravitate to an anti-memorandum camp.

The largest party to fail to enter Parliament was the Ecologist Greens with 2.93 percent. Tsipras met with the EcoGreens on Tuesday and his attempt to attract their support was rebuffed. “We can’t hide behind an anti-memorandum framework,” said party leader Ioanna Kontouli. “Our proposals don’t just say ‘no’, they also provide a roadmap for exiting the crisis,” she added, in what is likely to be the most mature and incisive comment of this post-election period.

That leaves SYRIZA to count on the support of 20 tiny parties ranging from Marxist-Leninists to a joke group that had a porn star as its leading candidate. The largest of these parties is the anti-capitalist ANTARSYA, which drew 1.19 percent of the vote. Adding all these parties together gives you about 6.50 percent.

Given that SYRIZA would certainly not count the 7 percent of far-right Chrysi Avgi (Golden Dawn) in its anti-memorandum front, it’s hard to see how Tsipras how can claim to write to EU officials on behalf of a majority of Greek people. As tangible as people’s anger with the current situation is, the camp that has a clear anti-memorandum position does not make up a majority. Adding the percentages of SYRIZA, the Independent Greeks and the Communist Party (KKE), gives you 35.86. Even the 6.50 percent of the anti-parliamentary parties is not enough to take it over 50 percent.

There is a reason that the message from these elections is so unclear. It’s because they were not just an expression of utter frustration with the crisis and austerity measures, they also reflected Greeks’ exasperation with the two parties that governed the country since 1974.

Support for New Democracy and PASOK had been declining since 2000 but the crisis has acted as a particle accelerator for Greece’s political transition. It laid bare the lies and failures of the big two parties and made it abundantly obvious that they had run out of ideas about how to set the country on a new course and navigate through the crisis. Sunday was the first opportunity for people en masse to express disdain for ND and PASOK. Even for those who want Greece to remain in the euro (opinion polls suggest they are a clear majority) found it difficult to reward two spent and crumbling parties with their votes on Sunday. Surveys over the last few days indicate that voters fled ND and PASOK for a wide range of parties, not just those who were most vehemently opposed to the terms of the bailout.

If one were to plot a graph of these elections, the results would lie at the point where four decades of disappointment and false dawns met almost three years of crisis, recession and austerity.

SYRIZA has gained on both axes. As a relatively new party, it has not been tainted in the same way as other elements of the Greek political establishment. As a coalition, it has been able to weave together the views of Marxists and social democrats when ND and PASOK became unwieldy monoliths. Under the leadership of Alexis Tsipras, a young man in old-world Greek politics, it has been able to begin a conversation with younger voters who have been consistently ignored by other parties.

SYRIZA has also grabbed the political opportunity provided by the crisis. Tsipras has worked hard for that 16.78 percent. He has spent time with protesters on the street, with workers in factories, with struggling pensioners and the unemployed. He went to all the places that politicians from ND and PASOK feared to tread. In an environment where protest against austerity needed an outlet, SYRIZA provided it. Each tear gas canister tossed into Syntagma Square sent more voters scurrying to the leftists. Along with the Independent Greeks, they profited most from the Indignant movement last summer. When that collapsed, participants needed a new tent to gather under.

Greece is going through a complex crisis, one that is part economic, part political, part societal and part cultural. After almost three years of austerity measures, constant speculation, unending uncertainty and complex economics, many Greeks are seeking straightforward answers. SYRIZA has provided this by sticking to the position that Greece does not need to abide by the terms of its loan agreement, that it can call a debt moratorium and be given breathing space to restore its economy to growth.

What SYRIZA has not focused on is structural reforms and an overhaul of the public administration. These two issues are so inextricably linked to what led Greece to this point and where it might be able to go from here that no party can truly claim to be progressive or to reflect the wishes of the majority of Greeks unless it addresses them. Equally, SYRIZA has been just as remiss as ND and PASOK in setting out a strategy for exiting the crisis that is based on remodeling the Greek economy.

It is guilty, as the EcoGreens suggested, of overlooking all this for a hit-and-hope strategy that is based on calling the troika’s bluff. SYRIZA claims that a rejection of the bailout terms and a unilateral default would not trigger Greece’s exit from the eurozone because it would be too costly for the other members. This is the equivalent of entering a one-way street driving a clunker and not being worried about crashing into the oncoming juggernaut because it will be more expensive for the other guy to fix his vehicle. Greece cannot pin its hopes on this, nor can the election result be interpreted as advocating such tactics.

Also, there is no use in Tsipras using his exploratory mandate to appeal to unions and other groups. Greece is running out of money and anxiety about a possible euro exit is growing. A potential future prime minister should not be seen to be ignoring these concerns, especially in favor of trying to build alliances ahead of new elections. On Wednesday, the Primary School Teachers’ Federation (DOE), along with several other unions, declined to meet with Tsipras, who risks looking like a high-school kid that’s out of his depth.

His actions are fodder for New Democracy leader Antonis Samaras, who sees a risky Tsipras as a great way to rally support for his disintegrating party. Samaras will try to play on Greeks’ fears ahead of possible new elections but it’s not clear if this will be a constructive tactic for him or not. Greeks have lived through more than two years of constant fear and threats about what may be around the corner. It may be that they’re immune to it now.

Samaras also misses the message from these elections if he believes he can continue the partisan pattern of the past. Stepping up the rhetoric against the left and extending appeals to Karatzaferis and Dora Bakoyannis to return to the conservative fold reeks of desperation and regression. Samaras had a chance to show that he deserved the mantle of prime minister that he has sought since taking over ND in 2009 but he gave back the mandate to form a unity government within five hours of receiving it. If Greece is going to get a government at these or the next elections, it needs leaders who are able to compromise, collate and unite. It took Samaras just a few hours to confirm that he’s not such a leader.

If an answer to Greece’s multiple choice is to be found, then surely it must come from as many parties as possible working together on a formula to keep Greece in the euro and to relax the austerity that has a chokehold on the country’s economy. New Democracy, PASOK, Democratic Left and SYRIZA all have views on this. There is room for them to agree. It requires a level of cooperation that Greek politics has rarely known but if there is one message to take from Sunday’s results, it’s that Greeks want to leave the past behind. They’ve given their answer, it’s now up to their leaders to find a response. [Kathimerini English Edition] , Wednesday May 9, 2012 (22:14)  
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