Two years since its last elections, and more than four years since it was first bailed out by its neighbours, Greece is poised to vote in a historic election that could usher in Europe’s first radical leftist government in a country still stricken by austerity.
Syriza, or the Coalition of the Radical Left, saw its popularity shoot up after austerity chipped away Greek peoples’ income through a heavy taxation and slashing of wages and pensions in recent years. The debt crisis wiped off a quarter of Greece’s economy in less than five years and unemployment remains around 26 per cent. Among the young, it stands at almost 60 per cent.
Syriza’s leader, Alexis Tsipras, has long argued he wants to renegotiate and write off part of the country’s massive debt, claiming the country’s programme of state-enforced austerity has made it impossible for Greece to ever repay its debt to EU lenders. Greece’s national debt stood at €320bn last year, almost €30,000 (£23,000) per resident.
Among its proposed policies, Syriza said it would nationalise Greece’s banks, restore the minimum wage back to €750 per month and abolish recent labour reforms.
European officials have recently praised Athens for its fiscal adjustment efforts and fear that Syriza in power could prove a huge setback, with commentators reviving talks of an exit from the eurozone. The IMF’s head, Christine Lagarde, said this week that such an outcome for Greece would be “devastating”.
Greece’s debt crisis is largely attributed to the management of conservative New Democracy and socialist PASOK parties which have traditionally dominated the Greek political landscape for 30 years. Since the financial woes of the country kicked in, a plethora of small parties have gained prominence in the country’s politics.
While a majority of Greeks have found Syriza’s rousing policies an attractive alternative, many voters say they are favouring Syriza just to shun the establishment and Prime Minister Antonis Samaras. Stavros Milonas, 36, is not hopeful Syriza will bring about any substantial change. “We just want to try something different, we’ve seen what the old parties have offered, so let’s just try another party,” he said.
Athina, a child psychologist, said she would also probably vote for Syriza because she identifies with their ideology. Like so many Greeks, the 35-year-old’s income nearly halved over the past few years despite working her two jobs and long 1-2 to 15-hour days. “Syriza don’t express me nor do I believe things will change with them,” she said. “Things might even get worse but at least I feel closer to their beliefs.”
While Syriza is ahead in the polls, with New Democracy trailing by between three and five per cent, it is unclear whether the left-wing party will garner enough of the votes to secure an outright win. “Syriza leads but it will be very difficult for the party to get an outright electoral win and form a powerful government,” said Mihail Sfakianakis, lead scientist at RASS polls. “We’re looking at seven parties in Parliament and Syriza will most likely have to look for allies, especially on European matters.”
A potential coalition partner is the newly founded party To Potami (“The River”), the brainchild of television presenter Stavros Theodorakis. The latest polls show this pro-European party at third place – a likely kingmaker. “I will vote for the To Potami because it has serious people with serious proposals and it is about time Greece faces reality and its problems,” explained Athens architect Sotiris Anifantis, 40.
Civil engineer Panos Kontos’s inability to make up his mind resonated among many of his compatriots. Like in previous elections, the undecided vote, an estimated one-in-10 Greeks, could have a significant impact on the electoral outcome by either strengthening Syriza’s grip on power or bolstering smaller parties.
“Syriza promises a variety of things without convincingly explaining how they’ll actually deliver and ruling New Democracy needs to go because it is part of the system that created our problems to begin with,” Mr Kontos said.
The biggest surprise of Sunday’s elections however, could be the resilience of far-right party Golden Dawn. Despite its leadership being behind bars for nearly a year and a half, the party is vying for third place according to analysts – leaving many to wonder what the extent of the party’s impact would have been had its key lawmakers been allowed to campaign.
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