Fiscal Tragedy?

Greek Election: Andonis Samaras, Alexis Tspiras, and More Candidates

In many ways, it may not even matter who wins the Greek elections on June 17. According to the last published polls, the margin is too narrow to call, much like May 6, when the election failed to produce a clear winner. The parties with the highest vote count were then unable to forge a coalition despite a presidential mandate to do so, which is why Greeks are heading back to the polls this coming Sunday. But this time, the stakes are much higher. Pundits are billing the election as a referendum on the euro, but in reality, it may be entirely too late. Greece agreed to take a $167 billion bailout from the European Union and International Monetary Fund last October, but the country will still be broke by the end of July unless they can come up with $1.7 billion to cover a staggering tax-revenue shortfall caused by a financial vacuum created by cuts in pensions and job losses. If they don’t find the cash, the Greek government will stop paying state salaries and pensions, and they won’t be able to afford to import fuel, food, and medicine, meaning Sunday’s winner—if there is one—has a serious challenge to tackle at home even before heading to Brussels.

By Greek law, the last election polls are allowed to be published two weeks before voting takes place. The last polls pointed to the likelihood that 10 very different political leaders would win seats in Parliament. The highest support goes to Andonis Samaras of New Democracy and Alexis Tspiras of the Coalition of the Radical Left or SYRIZA party. New Democracy has been part of Greece’s government for decades, but they only captured 18.9 percent of the vote on May 6. Final polls put them somewhere between 22.7 and 26.1 percent ahead of Sunday’s showdown. The anti-bailout party SYRIZA garnered 16.6 percent of the vote on an anti-austerity, anti-euro platform, but pulled out of a coalition deal in the 11th hour in the days after the May vote, which paved the way for this weekend’s election. SYRIZA were polling at between 20.1 and 31.5 percent in the final published polls.

The two frontrunners couldn’t be more diverse. Samaras is a conservative 60-year-old who has campaigned on a platform to keep Greece in the euro zone while promising to make some fiscal adjustments to appease the staggering number of Greeks who are now below the poverty line because of austerity measures. Tsipras, the youngest contender at just 37, has won his support with a staunch anti-austerity platform, appealing to the thousands of Greeks who can no longer stretch their paychecks to the end of the month—if they have paychecks at all. His anti-Europe rhetoric has struck a chord with some voters and scared off others who see a return to the drachma as an instant fail. This week, he softened his stance amid rumors that his support was waning, telling a Greek television program that he remains open to “discussion” on the bailout terms—if European leaders meet Greece halfway. “If they say ‘no’ to everything, it means that they want the end of the Greek people and the euro,” he said, putting the blame on Brussels. “If Greece doesn’t get its next loan installment, the euro zone will collapse the next day.”

Many of the less popular contenders in Sunday’s battle are familiar faces on the Greek political scene. Evangelos Venizelos, 55, of the socialist PASOK party, which shared ruling power over Greece with New Democracy for years, was a strong favorite on May 6, but performed miserably, getting just 13.2 percent of the vote. Because of PASOK’s parliamentary history and Greece’s current financial debacle because of bad management, Venizelos, a former finance minister, is seen by many as past his prime. Final polls showed his support somewhere between 9.9 and 15.5 percent.

The May elections gave life to Greece’s extreme-right party, Golden Dawn, led by 55-year-old Nikolaos Michaloliakos, who received a shocking 7 percent of the vote on a promise to expel all illegal immigrants from the country and to set land mines along the borders to stop any from trying to return. Golden Dawn supports an anti-bailout, anti-euro solution and vows that Greece needs to reinvent itself. At last count, the most extreme party left on the ballot was polling at about 5.5 percent.

The rest of the lineup won’t stand much of a chance to win big, but they may hold the key to what sort of coalition Greece might come up with and how long it will last. Populist Panos Kammenos, a 46-year-old fireball who formed the Independent Greeks after bailing from New Democracy, has a somewhat schizophrenic anti-bailout, pro-euro plan for the country, telling followers that it is possible for the country to ditch the bailout agreement but remain part of the euro zone. Kammenos got 10.6 percent of the vote on May 6 and is polling slightly lower at 5.3 to 7.4 percent ahead of Sunday’s vote.

Greece’s Communist Party (or KKE) is led by 66-year-old Aleka Papariga, one of only two females among the top party leaders. She has been blamed for instigating violent anti-austerity riots through her anti-euro, anti-bailout battle cries that Greece should leave the European Union entirely. She got 8.5 percent of the vote in May and is polling between 4 and 6.3 percent in the last published surveys. Greece’s oldest political party, the Democratic Left, is currently led by 64-year-old Fotis Kouvelis who has campaigned on a pro-euro, anti-bailout agenda that includes severe spending cuts in defense, public administration and health care and a tax hike on businesses and financial institutes. They won 6.1 percent of the vote in May and have been polling slightly higher at 4.4 to 8.8 percent ahead of Sunday’s ballot.

The rest of the slate includes Giorgos Karatzaferis, 65, of the Popular Orthodox Rally or LAOS, Dora Bakoyanni, 55, of the Democratic Alliance which hopes to win favor by backing Samaras and New Democracy, and Mihalis Tremopoulos, 54, of the Ecologist Green party.

Another recent poll shows that 8 of 10 Greeks want to stay in the euro zone, even if it means tougher times ahead. Returning to a modified drachma would bring bigger problems still, not least of all a return to rationing of food, fuel and medical supplies while the new currency is put into place. That fear is lost on no one. By Sunday, many of the top party leaders will likely have struck secret deals to bring the smaller party support to the negotiating table to form a coalition that can steer Greece clear of the edge of the abyss. If they fail this time, Greece is out of chances.