ATHENS – With Greece starting to get back on its feet financially – if still a little wobbly – there’s a chance it could all be undone if a new President isn’t elected in February, 2015.
The ruling parties of Prime Minister Antonis Samaras’ New Democracy Conservatives and its partner the PASOK Socialists together have 155 seats in the 300-member Parliament but need 180 to get their man (it will be a man) elected.
If the poll-leading major opposition Coalition of the Radical Left (SYRIZA) succeeds in thwarting the choice, early national elections will be held with the party promising to revise the terms of two bailouts of 240 billion euros ($306 billion) in international bailouts or walk away from what the country owes.
That would leave the country broke and likely unable to borrow from the markets, creating another Greek dilemma: Greeks electing a party that could leave them without salaries or pensions.
Veteran journalist Nicholas Gage, who grew up in Greece and was the New York Times’ correspondent in Athens from 1977-80, wrote about it in the paper in a piece that drew an ominous picture of the country unraveling if SYRIZA wins.
He said that Prime Minister and New Democracy Conservative leader Antonis Samaras is getting Greece back on its feet economically, while acknowledging that many difficulties remain, particularly for people hit hard by harsh austerity measures imposed on orders of the Troika of the European Union-International Monetary Fund-European Central Bank (EU-IMF-ECB).
Detailing how wild overspending by successive governments of New Democracy and PASOK largely created the crisis they are now charged with solving, Gage wrote that, “Over the past two years Greece seems to have undergone a profound sea change.”
He said that the brutal pay cuts, tax hikes, slashed pensions and worker firings – while creating hundreds of protests, strikes and riots – have now been mostly begrudgingly accepted by Greeks who believe the alternative is to be left with nothing.
“Surprisingly, all these afflictions have been accepted with considerable equanimity,” he added, noting that SYRIZA shows strength based on its anti-austerity stance: but with voters nonetheless believing more in Samaras than the Leftist leader, Alexis Tsipras.
Gage asked hypothetically: “What has brought about such forbearance in a people Thucydides described as ‘born into the world to take no rest themselves and to give none to others’”?
Besides believing there’d be no money left to pay salaries and pensions already slashed 30 percent and more except for those like Parliament workers mostly exempted, he said there was a more compelling answer.
“A second, and perhaps key, reason is that the strict economic policies of the government have begun to bear fruit and better days now seem possible,” he said, citing a primary budget surplus in the first half of the year of 2.28 million euros, a painfully slow decline in record unemployment, record-breaking tourism, an upgrade in the credit rating and – after six years of decline – a slow return to growth, which prompted a jubilant Samaras to declare that, “Greece is back!”
“Do the resolve of the Greek government and the stoicism of the Greek people show that a new political maturity has descended upon the country?” Gage wrote.
“For now it seems so, but the abyss is looming into view once again as the country moves inexorably toward another crisis next February, when the Parliament must assemble a 60 percent majority to elect a new President,” he said.
Political uncertainty when Samaras was elected two years ago led to an outflow of 23 billion euros from the banks and Gage said a number of analysts believe that if SYRZA wins it could be four times that, a level unable to be backfilled by the European Central Bank.
“The vacuum of currency would bring Greece to technical bankruptcy. The hard-won gains of the past two years would vanish. Access to loans would disappear. The faltering economy would come to a standstill, and the only recourse for Greece would be to return to the drachma, a disastrous move for a country that imports much of the goods it consumes,” he put it.
He urged lawmakers, including those who oppose the government, to go along with the ruling parties and support the choice for President to keep political stability.
If so, he said, “A new sense of responsibility in the country may have a chance to take root and lead the Greek people to a promising future. If they don’t, the recent hardships Greeks have faced will pale in comparison with the troubles ahead.”