Greece: A Vote for the Euro!—or Maybe Not …

The results of Sunday’s legislative elections in Greece have been widely hailed as a vote “for the euro,” with news services painting the elections as a virtual “referendum” on eurozone membership. Oddly enough, last fall, when then Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou proposed holding an actual referendum on eurozone membership, the move was greeted with horror by the entirety of the European establishment, and Papandreou was forced to beat a hasty retreat. (The episode is recounted in my article “Germany and the Euro Crisis” in the May/June issue of World Affairs.)

“For the euro” in the present context means, more precisely, for the austerity measures that the European powers-that-be have made clear are the condition both for European bailout funds and for continued Greek euro membership. If the elections indeed  represented a “referendum” on the euro, however, upon closer examination of the results, it is by no means obvious that the euro won.

The official winner of the elections was New Democracy: along with the Greek socialists of Pasok, one of the two parties that have traditionally dominated Greek politics. Both parties signed off on the bailout deal. On Sunday, New Democracy managed to eke out a slim victory over the anti-austerity leftist coalition Syriza. It did so, however, with less than 30 percent (29.66 percent) of the vote. Pasok obtained barely 12 percent (12.28 percent) of the vote. This represents a decline of a whopping 32 percentage points from its 44 percent score in the pre-bailout 2009 elections.

Together, the two euro-austerity parties thus garnered a mere 42 percent of the vote. It is only the peculiarities of Greek electoral law, which gives the first party past the post a 50-seat “bonus” in Parliament, that will allow the two supposed ideological rivals now to form a coalition. In the name of “national unity,” New Democracy and Pasok already formed such a coalition from November 2011 until last May under the “technocratic” leadership of Lucas Papademos. At the time, however, they could reasonably claim to represent the majority of the Greek electorate. With the majority of voters having opted on Sunday for parties that to one degree or another reject the austerity measures, this is clearly no longer the case.

In the meanwhile, the leftist splinter party, the Democratic Left (which got 6.26 percent of the vote), has announced that it will “support” the coalition government without, however, contributing ministers to it. The Democratic Left, or Dimar, has itself hitherto criticized the austerity measures and called for Greek “disengagement” from the terms of the bailout deal. Since New Democracy and Pasok do not in fact need Dimar’s votes in order to govern, this strange constellation appears to amount to a backhanded acknowledgment of the lack of democratic legitimacy from which the new New Democracy–Pasok coalition will suffer. By being both “in” the coalition and not in it, the Democratic Left perhaps hopes to be spared the popular wrath that has thus far befallen every Greek party that has risked lending its support to the bailout deal.


John Rosenthal writes on European politics and transatlantic security issues. You can follow his work at www.trans-int.com or on Facebook.

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