Angry Greek Voters Punish Leaders over Austerity at the Ballot Box

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Eurokinissi / Reuters

Head of Greece's Left Coalition party Alexis Tsipras celebrates with supporters in Athens late May 6, 2012

In a deep repudiation of European austerity policies and the lawmakers forced to impose them at home, Greeks punished their ruling parties in parliamentary elections on Sunday and turned instead to an array of anti-bailout parties on the far left and right. PASOK and New Democracy, the two parties that have dominated Greek politics for nearly 40 years, received a combined 33% of the vote — less than half what they garnered during the last elections in 2009. The conservative New Democracy party came in first with about 19% of the vote, while the Socialist PASOK party, which won in a landslide in 2009, came in third with a humbling 13.4%. With nearly all precincts reporting, the two parties won a combined 150 seats, which was not enough to form a coalition government on their own.

"There is no working state in this country," said Socrates Mavridis, a hotel clerk in the northern port city of Thessaloniki, who said he voted for Independent Greeks, a new nationalist party that opposes the bailout. "The politicians are corrupt and only care about themselves. They don't care that we have no jobs, no hope and no future."

The surprise of the night was the strong showing by Syriza, a coalition of radical left and green groups. Led by Alexis Tsipras, a young, politically savvy engineer known for shouting down pro-bailout politicians in parliament, Syriza attracted many disaffected PASOK voters and finished in second at 16.6% — its best showing ever. Tsipras, who wants to cancel the bailout loan agreement Greece's leaders have signed with euro-zone countries, told supporters late Sunday that the austerity policies of German Chancellor Angela Merkel "have suffered a crushing defeat."

Rena Dourou, a parliamentary deputy for Syriza, said she hoped other leftist parties would endorse Tsipras' proposal to form a leftist coalition of anti-bailout parties to lead the next government. "We want to send a message to Europe from the country where austerity policies started," she said as she celebrated with about 500 elated Syriza supporters outside the neoclassical Academy of Athens in the city center. "I want to emphasize that we do not want Greece to leave the eurozone. We want to stay in the eurozone so we can change the eurozone's policies, because those policies are unfair to people. But we won't stay if Europe gives us no choice but austerity."

Many Greeks blame the dominant political parties — New Democracy and PASOK — for bankrupting the country through decades of cronyism and corruption. Austerity measures pushed through to satisfy euro-zone demands have made everything worse: Unemployment has spiked to a record 21%, about 100,000 small businesses have closed and wages and pensions have been slashed. Angry gangs of hooded protesters regularly take to the streets around parliament to vent their anger, attacking banks and clashing with tear-gas-throwing riot police. The government says the number of suicides has also jumped by at least 40% in the past two years.

The social cost of austerity — the suicides, the increased homelessness, the sense that the future for entire generations of Greeks is dead — has deeply worried Aris Papadopoulos, a 36-year-old computer scientist who lives in Athens. He says he voted for Syriza because it's capable of standing up to European Union leaders who have stubbornly stuck to austerity even though it has helped destroy the Greek economy. "This has got to end before the country completely collapses," he said from a polling station in central Athens. "Everyone is going to leave for jobs abroad because there won't be anything left in Greece.

In a troubling development on Sunday, some of these angry anti-austerity voters turned to far-right parties such as Chrysi Avgi (Golden Dawn), a fascist — some say neo-Nazi — party which got just 0.23% of the vote in 2009. This time around, it received a stunning 7% percent and at least 21 seats in parliament. Golden Dawn supporters are known for their violent attacks on immigrants, especially those from Africa and South Asia, whom they blame for the rising crime in Athens. Some of the party's members also advocate for planting land mines along the border between Greece and Turkey and "cleaning" Greece of foreigners. Golden Dawn leader Nikolas Michaloliakos, who gave a Nazi salute shortly after being elected to the Athens municipal council in 2010, demanded that journalists gathered for a news conference on Sunday stand to attention when he walked in. "I'll say one thing: Veni, Vidi, Vici," he declared, borrowing the Latin phrase attributed to Julius Caesar, "I came, I saw, I conquered."

The elections, meanwhile, left the once-mighty PASOK in tatters. The Socialists have governed the country for 21 years since 1981, when founder Andreas Papandreou, a Harvard-educated economist known for his fiery populist speeches, was first elected Prime Minister. In November, the debt crisis forced his son, George Papandreou, to resign as Prime Minister and then in March, as leader of the party. Many Greeks blame PASOK and Papandreou for enacting debilitating austerity measures in order to receive the billions in bailout loans from European Union leaders that are currently keeping the country from going bankrupt. The new PASOK leader, Evangelos Venizelos, a combative constitutional lawyer who had recently served as finance minister, had campaigned hard to keep his party from hemorrhaging voters. Late Sunday night, he looked defeated. "God of Greece, help us," he said. "We knew that we would pay the price, having taken an emotionally and politically unbearable position to take the measures that are necessary."

Now, the tremendous task of putting together a governing coalition begins. As the party with the highest number of votes, New Democracy has three days to find partners to form a government. A grim-looking Antonis Samaras, the party's leader, told supporters after the election that he was ready to form a government of "national salvation with two exclusive aims: For Greece to remain in the euro and to amend the terms of the loan agreements so there is economic growth and relief for Greek society."

If he can't put together a government, then Syriza and PASOK will have opportunities to gain a voice. Tsipras says it will ask leftist parties to unite, while Venizelos says he'd like to see a coalition of at least three parties with a "European" orientation, regardless of where they stand on the bailout. If the parties can't agree on a new government, Greece will have to hold elections again. And that would mean even more instability in a country already tearing at the seams as the economic crisis continues to deepen.