A makeshift shrine in front of the tree in Syntagma Square where 77-year-old Dimitris Christoulas shot himself in the head April 4 is a striking reminder of the price Greeks have paid to stay in the euro zone. Dozens of notes are tacked to the trunk, and wilting flowers and stuffed toys are scattered around the base. Christoulas’s suicide note has been engraved in red on a slab of gray marble. He paid his taxes for 35 years, assuming his state pension would see him through his twilight years. But when his pension was cut under austerity measures, he gave up. “I see no other solution than this dignified end to my life, so I don’t find myself fishing through garbage cans for my sustenance. I believe that young people with no future will one day take up arms and hang the traitors of this country at Syntagma Square.”
On Sunday, Greek voters decided, however reluctantly, to stick with austerity and keep paying the price for euro-zone membership. Antonis Samaras of the pro-euro New Democracy secured 29.7 percent of the vote, just shy of what he needed to form a single-party government. This means that if he wants a majority in Parliament, he will have to form a coalition government. “The Greek people voted today to stay on the European course and remain in the euro zone,” Samaras said in his victory speech. “There will be no more adventures. Greece’s place in Europe will not be put in doubt.”
On the surface, New Democracy’s win does imply that Greece will work to keep its membership in the euro zone intact. But in no way does the win offer any solid guarantee that he can pull that off. Samaras campaigned on a pro-bailout platform, promising Greeks that he would try to renegotiate some of the strictest terms of a $164 billion European Union bailout agreement that will keep the country afloat. The bailout has kept Greece from defaulting on its loans, but the terms of the deal, referred to in Athens as “the memorandum,” have driven Greece further into recession. Job cuts under austerity measures have pushed unemployment to nearly 23 percent, with more than 50 percent of those younger than 25 out of work. Because of pension cuts and job losses, 48 percent of Greeks now live below the poverty line—and social-service cuts have meant that those people cannot get health and basic needs. “We’ve got children who are passing out at school because they haven’t eaten enough,” Athens retiree Dimitra Cordalia told The Daily Beast. “This is Europe?”
Despite the pain, staying in Europe and maintaining the euro currency is still the better option for most Greeks. Going back to the drachma would cause even more problems. Eight out of 10 Greeks want to stay in the euro zone, according to a recent poll. But even with New Democracy in charge, that might not be an option. The Greek economy is in a downward spiral, shrinking by 6.9 percent in 2011, and analysts expect it to shrink by 5.3 percent in 2012. Tourism, the country’s major business, is down by more than 15 percent. “The economy is set to contract until mid-2013 due mainly to needed fiscal retrenchment. Growth may turn positive in the second half of 2013,” according to the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
Monday, Samaras met with Greek President Karolos Papoulias, who gave him the mandate to lead the nation. Now New Democracy leaders have three days to either go forward with a minority government with just 129 seats in the 300-seat Parliament or form a coalition of former enemies to steer Greece back on track. They could also form a unity government, but Alexis Tsipras, leader of the radical-left SYRZIA Party—which won 27 percent of the vote on an anti-euro, anti-bailout platform—has said he won’t agree to that.
Instead, Tsipras has promised he will not make it easy for Samaras to fulfill his mandate. He says he plans to act as a strong opposition voice that may result in parliamentary deadlock. “Even if we didn't manage to take the first place, SYRIZIA is now the most basic body representing the average individual, the progressive, and the anti-memorandum segment of our population,” Tsipras said in his concession speech. “We will be here as the opposition. We represent a majority of people opposed to the bailout deal.”
Sunday night, SYRZIA supporters gathered at the Mouria Kafeneion, a café in the anarchist neighborhood of Exarchia in central Athens, to wait out the election results. Riot police paraded through the neighborhood in a not-so-subtle show of force, likely intended for the sake of public order. As results came in, customers ordered ouzo and yelled insults at the giant flat-screen television on the wall high above the café windows. “So nothing changes now, either way,” the café owner told The Daily Beast with a shrug as he offered up free rounds of beer to his patrons. “No better. No worse. We stay at zero.”