ATHENS — The unofficial results are in, and Syriza, the party of Alexis Tsipras, appears to have scored a comfortable victory in the latest Greek elections. One might wonder, given the chronicle of crisis over the last several months and years, “How can that be?” And the answers are not simple, but some of them were to be found on the streets of the Greek capital Sunday.
You see graffiti everywhere in Exarchia. Almost no surface in this Athens neighborhood, renowned for its left-leaning political activism, is free from the balloon-like lettering of political slogans and images, and the local school I have come to, which has been turned into a polling station for election day, is no exception.
Greece is having its fifth election in six years, which perhaps most damningly illustrates the turmoil this country has endured since the financial crisis began in 2008. The reason that Greeks must once again cast their votes is the loss of the governing party Syriza’s parliamentary majority in July, when it was forced to rely on the votes of opposition parties to pass the country’s third bailout package through parliament after facing mass insurrection in its own ranks. Prime Minister Tsipras decided that, once again, he needed the support of the Greek people to shore up his political base.
I arrive in the late morning. Dozens of flyers for the Greek Communist party are strewn across the sidewalk. Posters bolted to a lamppost outside the school highlight the plight of political prisoners on hunger strike and defiantly express their opposition to “the memorandum”—the bailout package. Just across the road, pasted onto a wall, are posters of Mikhail Bakunin, the Russian revolutionary anarchist. Don’t vote, he urges passers-by.
Groups of journalists and a few film crews have gathered outside the school gates, waiting for speaker of the Greek parliament, Zoi Konstantopoulou, to arrive to cast her vote. One bystander wears a T-shirt bearing the words: “Save the planet. Kill yourself.” It seems to encapsulate the somber mood.
Before Konstantopoulou turns up, however, ordinary Greek citizens are having their say. I meet Maria. She is, she tells me, voting for LEA, the Popular Unity party that formed this August from breakaway members of Syriza’s hard left unhappy at Prime Minister Tsipras signing the third bailout package, which they viewed as an abject capitulation in the face of Greece’s creditors.
“I voted for Syriza last time,” she tells me. “But they made huge mistakes. They never should have signed the memorandum.” She’s especially disillusioned about talk that Syriza may work with PASOK, the Socialist party that traded places in and out of government for decades. “This is totally unacceptable for me,” she said. “PASOK is representative of the old system. This vote is a very difficult one for me—I did it with a heavy heart, but Tsipras needs to get the message.” Is it a protest vote? I ask. “Yes,” she replies. “It will be good for LEA to get into the parliament but I don’t want to see them as a government.”
Stella, a lady in her late forties, is fed up with mainstream parties as a whole. “ I voted for the Communist Party because they’re the only party that’s been telling the truth for 30 years,” she says. “Tsipras said one thing and did another. He always knew that he would sign the memorandum, he betrayed the Greek people. The memorandum was a lie.”
A stir amongst the journalists that quickly escalates into a scrum announces the arrival of Konstantopoulou. She disappears up some stairs to vote and then on her descent urges the gathered throng onto the school’s basketball court. “Let’s shoot some hoops,” she jokes.
Surrounded by a thicket of microphones, she sets out her views with characteristic vim. “What is clear,” she says, “is that the dilemma put to the Greek people by the Troika [the triumvirate of the IMF, European Commission and European Central Bank] is to ask them: do they want democracy or the euro?”
“Greece is an unequal member of the Eurozone,” she continues. “Greeks are the victim of anti-democratic and criminal policies that carry with them the threat of a humanitarian crisis.”
As she finishes and makes her way outside I ask her if she foresees trouble ahead for Greeks. “I don’t make predictions,” she replies. “Do you think your message is being heard by the Greek people?” I continue.
“I see you’re left-handed like me,” she replies.
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About a mile away is the upmarket neighborhood of Kolonaki. It may only be a short distance from Exarchia but the two areas are light years apart. Though not in everything, it seems. As I walk up a steep hill to the voting station I see, extending several feet across the school wall where voting will take place, a painted Ronald MacDonald smoking a joint.
Here I meet Vangellis. He is voting Syriza simply because, he tells me, he too believes that all the other parties belong to the “old system.” “Yes, I accept that the people voted no [in the July referendum] and Tsipras turned around and signed the bailout anyway, but I just don’t want to vote for the old parties,” he says with vigor.
It is clear that anti-politics remains a powerful force in Greek politics and, interestingly, despite reneging on almost all of his promises to change Greece’s relationship with its creditors, people still believe that Tsipras is outside the mainstream; a stranger to the political orthodoxy that governed Greece for over 40 years.
Much of this appears to be generational. Next up I meet two elderly ladies in their late 60s, Martha and Lena. I ask who they are voting for. “New Democracy” they say in unison, before dissolving into laughter at their our own synchronicity. New Democracy, they tell me, tells the truth about the “real” situation in the country. “Tsipras lies all the time,” says Lena. “And he talks about things he knows nothing about.”
“And he’s economically illiterate,” chimes in Martha. “And,” she adds, now on a roll, “he can’t even speak Greek properly.”
As I mill around the polling station, watching people going in and out, I am struck by the realization that far fewer people seem to be voting in this election than in the July 5 referendum where polling stations were filled with people almost everywhere I went. The atmosphere is almost resigned.
As I mull this over a silver BMW pulls up and a lady emerges with her young daughter. She promises me an interview after she has finished voting. She duly obliges and minutes later returns to inform me that she voted for the Communist Party. I can barely contain my amazement (didn’t her BMW have luxury leather seats?). Yet again, however, it seems that disgust at the mainstream parties rather than ideology has played its part in her decision. “I’m fed up with all of them,” she tells me. “But voting is the one civil right you cannot do without, so here I am.”
“Tsipras did all he could,” she continues, “but at the end of the day he wasn’t strong enough; you can’t escape the Troika. The most important issue, apart from the bailout and the IMF conditions, is to see how the government can protect the middle class, which is almost impossible. We are being squeezed more and more because of almost impossibly high taxes. At the end of the day, the upper class will always benefit, regardless of the situation.” And the poor? “They will suffer, as always,” she replies.
I ask her if she is getting tired of elections. After all, this is the third time this year Greeks have had to go to the ballot box. Are politicians trying to foist responsibility on the people for tough decisions? “Absolutely,” she replies. “We have a saying: We used to have a vacation once a year and elections once every four years. Now it’s the opposite.”
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As voting closed at 7pm local time and the first exit polls were released it quickly became clear that Syriza was going to win comfortably. Despite his less than competent handling of negotiations with its creditors and it’s colossal U-turns the voters did not punish Tsipras or his party. As the evening wore on Syriza gained 35 percent of the vote, comfortably defeating its biggest rival the center-right New Democracy's 28 percent. Even more fortunately for Tsipras, the Independent Greeks, who previously governed in coalition with Syriza, gained around four percent of the vote, which would give them around 10 seats in parliament—exactly what Tsipras, just short of an overall majority, would need to form a coalition. With a tried and tested partner, the possibly painful horse trading needed to bring a new party into government seems to have been avoided. Truly it was Tsipras’ day.
The Prime Minister (as we can once again safely if not officially call him) claimed that “victory belongs to the people.”
And well he might. Despite everything, they have stuck by him during the darkest hours that 21st Century Greece has seen.