ATHENS – The once-marginal Coalition of the Radical Left (SYRIZA) party has ridden its opposition to harsh austerity measures and promise to Greeks that “Hope is Coming,” to end a 40-year dynasty of mainstream political rule, topping the New Democracy Conservatives in critical Jan. 25 elections.
In a race that was supposed to be closer, exit polls from SKAI TV gave SYRIZA 36-39 percent; New Democracy 24-27; the new To Potami (The River) 6.5-8.5; the extremist Golden Dawn, all of whose 18 lawmakers have been arrested on criminal charges were coming in at 6-8; the KKE Communists 5-7; PASOK 4-6 percent; the Independent Greeks (ANEL) 2.5-4.5; former Premier and previous PASOK leader George Papandreou’s new Kinima; 2-3 percent, the Democratic Left 0.5-1 percent and others 3-5 percent.
The exit poll on state-run NERIT TV projected Syriza as having won with between 35.5 and 39.5 percent — or 146-158 seats, compared to Samaras’ New Democracy with 23-27 percent — or 65-75 seats.
Without safer estimates it was unclear whether SYRIZA leader Alexis Tsipras would get enough of the vote to rule outright without a coalition partner. But the moment polls closed SYRIZA supporters took to the streets in celebration.
SYRIZA needs 151 of the 300 seats in Parliament to have a government without a partner and the initial results showed it was on track to likely gain control. “We believe we’ll have a clear mandate to form a government,” Tsipras told SKAI in what was a sweeping victory.
Surveys for weeks had shown that Prime Minister Antonis Samaras and his coalition partner the once-dominant but now disappearing PASOK Socialists would pay the price for imposing big pay cuts, tax hikes, slashed pensions and worker firings as ordered by the country’s international lenders.
The Troika of the European Union-International Monetary Fund-European Central Bank (EU-IMF-ECB) had put up 240 billion ($306 billion) in two bailouts since 2010 but that came with attached Draconian conditions that Samaras, who opposed them while out of power, embraced when he won the 2012 elections.
Samaras had warned that a SYRIZA Administration would halt a looming recovery and likely force Greece out of the Eurozone if Tsipras makes good on his pledge to get the Troika to walk on half the debt if the lenders wouldn’t renegotiate the terms of the memoranda Samaras and his predecessor, former premier and previous PASOK leader George Papandreou had signed.
The anti-bailout rhetoric stirred by Tsipiras renewed doubts over Greece’s ability to emerge from its financial crisis that has seen a quarter of its economy wiped out, sent unemployment soaring and undermined the euro, the currency shared by 19 European countries.
Greece’s creditors insist the country must abide by previous commitments to continue receiving support, and investors and markets alike have been spooked by the anti-bailout rhetoric.
Greece could face bankruptcy if a solution is not found, although speculation of a Grexit — Greece leaving the euro — and a potential collapse of the currency has been far less fraught than during the last general election in 2012.
“What’s clear is we have a historic victory that sends a message that does not only concern the Greek people, but all European peoples,” SYRIZA party spokesman Panos Skourletis said on Mega television. “There is great relief among all Europeans. The only question is how big a victory it is.”
Skourletis said the election results heralded “a return of social dignity and social justice. A return to democracy. Because, beyond the wild austerity, democracy has suffered.”
Greeks have faced years of austerity measures, including cuts in wages, pensions and government spending, and tax increases. Greece’s unemployment rate is 25.5 percent.
Until recent weeks, New Democracy had been only about 3 percent behind SYRIZA as Samaras fervently tried to persuade Greeks he would keep stability but the results showed that disillusioned Greeks of all ages – from pensioners who’d see benefits slashed 30 percent and earned lump sums cut 38 percent – to the young, despairing of an unemployment rate that had been as high as 64 percent, looking anywhere for an alternative.
Tspiras provided that, an antidote to 40 years of alternating New Democracy and PASOK administrations – and now one in which they served together – bringing the country to economic ruins with wild spending binges and runaway patronage hiring in return for votes.
Tsipras – who at 40 would be Greece’s youngest Prime Minister in 150 years – is a former Communist Youth member who oversees a motley collection that also includes anarchists, Maoists, Stalinists, Leninists, Trotskyites and ecologists, but it was his mantra-like drumbeat against austerity that resonated with Greeks worn out at seeing their lives deteriorate while politicians, the rich and tax cheats escaped with near impunity.
SYRIZA narrowly lost a second decisive election in 2012 to New Democracy by 29.7-26.9 percent as Samaras warned the Leftists would take Greece out of the Eurozone, setting off a near-run on the banks. It was a tactic he used again this time but which voters didn’t buy.
WEARY OF AUSTERITY
Ahead of the vote there were late signs of a SYRIZA surge that he saw coming.
“What have five years of sacrifice got us? In a word: Nothing,” Tsipras wrote in an article Jan. 22. “All we got is despair: 1.3 million unemployed, 3 million without health insurance, and pensioners who cannot afford to buy medicine.”
SYRIZA is demanding that half the country’s bailout debt be canceled and that future repayment be linked to growth, arguing that Greece’s economy will ultimately collapse under the weight of an unsustainably high national debt that is around 175 percent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP).
The party’s success lies in offering a message of optimism, after six grueling years of recession. Its campaign slogan that “Hope is Coming” was on cardboard placards stapled to lampposts across Athens and it was bought big time by Greeks eager to punish New Democracy and PASOK for making their lives miserable.
What may have been the last straw was a hated huge raise in a single unified property tax last year called ENFIA that made permanent what was supposed to be a temporary tax first instituted by current PASOK leader Evangelos Venizelos when he was serving as Finance Minister in an administration under Papandreou.
Venizelos was made Deputy Premier/Foreign Minister by Samaras after backing worker firings but had tried to distance himself from the measures he supported with signs that it had destroyed the core constituency of the party founded by Papandreou’s father.
Papandreou, feuding with Venizelos over the party’s demise, walked away to form his own but voters largely ignored him in droves. Venizelos, eager to stay in power somehow, had reached out in recent days to SYRIZA, saying he would work with the Leftists after saying he never would.
Opponents accuse Tsipras of peddling false promises that will risk bankruptcy. Yet it appears that optimism is what many voters want to hear.
“I hope that perhaps with these upcoming elections something will change for the better,” said Athens voter Andreas Psychoulis, a tile installer who has fallen behind on tax payments. “I don’t want to cheat,” he said. “I want to pay, but I don’t have it.”
Tsipras, a civil engineer, has also banked on his image as a political renegade, rarely wearing a tie as he challenges the elite in a country where politicians typically come from a privileged background, and parliamentary seats often pass from father to son.
“I think people have got the message that Tsipras does not have connections with the major interests, those who until now have not been paying their taxes,” Nikos Pappas — Tsipras’ chief of staff — told The Associated Press.
Tsipras started his political career at age 28 as a candidate for mayor of Athens in 2006, winning a surprising 10.5 percent of the vote at a time when his party still struggled to make the 3 percent threshold needed to send representatives to parliament.
He was elected leader of the party two years later, presiding over its astonishing rise in popularity. He unified the structure of a party founded as a loose coalition of small left-wing groups and dissidents from the still proudly pro-Soviet Greek Communist Party.
Tsipras was once himself a member of the Communist youth, and the man tipped to be Greece’s next finance minister, economist Giannis Dragasakis, narrowly lost a Communist leadership contest in 1991.
(Material from the Associated Press was used in this report)
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