Sunday, June 17th was a historic day. Even Google doodled about it:
On the 17th, Greece held a second set of elections, six weeks after the previous set in which no party received a majority.
So here’s what happened as I understand it. All this information comes from people we’ve spoken to and articles I’ve read. Please note I have simplified some aspects of this, but my hope is that in doing so I have not detracted from the essence of the particulars.
In November 2011, former Prime Minister George Papandreou called for a referendum to be held over Greece’s continued commitment the euro. Papandreou later called off the referendum due to political pressure and as a result he resigned. This ushered in an interim government headed by Lucas Papademos which lasted until elections in May 2012.
The May elections resulted in no political party winning the majority of seats in Parliament, which is required by the Greek constitution to form a government. The three largest parties had an opportunity to form a simple majority by aligning but they did not do so. The constitution called for Parliament to be dissolved and new elections scheduled, and these elections happened on June 17th.
This election, as Greeks described it, put to vote the public’s commitment to the euro. Voters had a hard choice between continuing with harsh austerity measures or the unknowns of returning to the drachma. Regardless of their votes, social unrest and economic instability are here to stay.
The three main political parties:
New Democracy is a pro-bailout/austerity conservative party.
Syriza is a radical left, anti-bailout/austerity party. The word “syriza” references a Greek word meaning “back to the roots”.
Pasok is a socialist party, which had long ruled Greece.
In the May election, New Democracy received 19%, Syriza received 17%, and Pasok received 13%.
In Sunday’s election, New Democracy received 30%, Syriza received 27%, and Pasok received 12%.
Both elections reflect a minority victory for New Democracy, which is a party notionally committed to keeping Greece in the euro by sustaining a national austerity program. This program has reduced the nation’s economy by 20% since 2007, and promises to cut wages and pensions by another 15% next year.
A Greek political pundit said that for Syriza, this was the best possible outcome. They didn’t win which means they won’t have to run the country, but they proved that they are a viable opponent to ND. Syriza, founded in 2004, was not taken seriously until a couple of years ago, and now their popularity is undeniable.
If Syriza had won an outright majority, Greece would have likely exited the euro zone and defaulted on its loans. Abandoning the euro surely sounds dramatic and it would have likely sent the world financial system into turmoil, but it’s important to note that Greece has a history of corruption and tax-evasion that seems to have burdened its EU partners.
We’ve been told that Greece will run out of money by the end of July. Can’t quite wrap my mind around that. Sunday’s elections added to their debt, and if a third set of elections is called for, that will surely run them dry. Let alone all other costs that are, you know, necessary to run a country.
Since no party won a majority, no single party will have enough seats to govern by itself and New Democracy must now form a coalition. On Sunday evening, Pasok (socialist party) announced that they would not join a coalition with ND (center-right) unless Syriza (radical left) did so. This coalition, if I’m not mistaken, is supposed to be formed by tomorrow, Wednesday the 20th. If they do not form a coalition, they will schedule a third set of elections in six weeks.
Fortunately for us (and primarily our worried parents) this means that at least for the next 35 days in this global seminar, the euro will remain Greece’s currency and the drachma will not make a comeback. Greece’s troubles are certainly still present but they are not being dealt with until they have a functioning government again and it’s not clear whether that will happen during our time here.
Perhaps the strangest part of being in Athens during tumultuous times is the fact that we’re simultaneously learning about Greek history, simultaneously visiting the Acropolis, simultaneously (and constantly) hearing from Greeks how there’s was the city that fashioned democracy. It seems an unfortunate paradox that we can so praise their origins and treat their current state as a cancer.
Hopefully this served as a clear, inoffensive, and relatively concise explanation of the Greek political climate.
Over and out,