All eyes on Greece as the nation votes

Votes cast at a voting centre in the Southern suburbs

Votes cast at a voting centre in the Southern suburbs

Athens’s central squares on Thursday night were transformed as Greece’s major political parties jostled for position in their final major public rallies before Sunday’s election.

In a scene so ironic it seemed for a moment to have been set out on purpose, the current centre-right government party of New Democracy was forced to share Syntagma square with the Communist party, KKE, albeit at different times of the day.

Less than a mile away lies the run-down square of Omonia, situated in a severely neglected part of the city plagued by drug use, rough sleepers, prostitutes, petty criminals and shabby buildings. It was here that the left-wing Syriza’s  Alexis Tsipras chose to hold his political rally.

Tens of thousands of people crammed into the square that is usually deserted after dark to hear his rallying cry of the coming of hope and change in Greece and Europe. Once a fringe party, Syriza’s lead in the 2012 elections caused total panic with their hardline stance against austerity.

Then, no one party had been able to form a government, leading to a second round of elections in the same year. In the space between the two events, spooked by rumours of a Grexit if Syriza came to power, voters backed off and their lead slipped.

This time, with the markets reassured about the possibility of Greece leaving the Eurozone, things are different. In a country as austerity weary as Greece, limping along exhausted with no finish line in sight, the voting public has put its weight behind Syriza more as a means to punish New Democracy than out of a real belief in Syriza’s promises.

Austerity, much despised by the Greek public, was meant to offer a way out of the country’s financial mess. Instead, several years down the line, things are barely any better. In the last few years, Greece has received a total of  EUR 227 billion in money from the EU and IMF. No other nation has received as much in the last few years.

Detailed analysis of where the money went, showing that 32% went to paying maturing debt, 19% to Greek Banks recapitalisation and 16% to interest payments, only added fuel to the fire.

Since 2008, the country’s economy has shrunk almost 25%, with the Greek stock market losing a whopping 84% of its value. Unemployment rose to 26%, millions of Greek households were dragged below the poverty line and the birth rate declined while child mortality rose.

The austerity measures imposed by a troika of the IMF, EC and ECB turned a European Union country into a shadow of its former self, and this outcome is what Syriza and other parties like it latched onto to propel themselves up the opinion polls.

In December 2014, after failing to satisfy their latest demands, the troika had given Samaras’ government an extension to the bailout terms into early 2015. With presidential elections scheduled for February, this presented a problem to the current prime minister who was seeking to show the public the success of his plan while still in office.

If the parliament of Greece fails to elect a president after three rounds of voting, Greek law states that general elections must then be held. If this scenario played out after the troika’s next bailout meeting, Samaras would have to walk away without any of the glory of being the leader that brought Greece back from the brink of disaster.

So he took a gamble and brought the presidential election forward to December, thus triggering early elections in the process.

The public response was immediate, and Syriza led the polls from the beginning by a margin of around 3%. The last polls, released last Friday, showed that the lead had widened to 6%. As of Saturday, Greek law prohibits any more polls being issued and calls for all campaigning to cease. This window of silence, the eye of the storm, is meant to allow the public time to reflect and make up their own minds without being swayed.

In a country where 22% of the voting public is aged 70 and over, Syriza’s campaign has stood out. It has been slick, modern and heavily sold the message of hope in response to New Democracy’s increasingly panicked scaremongering.

Syriza’s electorate is by and large under 30. Their campaign has embraced social media, and their campaign website is in both Greek and English. Greece’s disillusioned youth have embraced them with gusto. They have set social media alight with various hashtags, including #ftanei, meaning enough in Greek to voice their frustration at the decimation of their futures, and #sexyAlexi in homage to Syriza’s charismatic leader.

Their problem in the eyes of nervous lawmakers and economists in Europe, however, is the same anti-bailout stance that has rocketed them to popularity.

No political party has so far offered a viable alternative to austerity, Syriza included.

I spoke to Kevin Featherstone, the LSE’s Eleftherios Venizelos Professor of Contemporary Greek Studies and  Director of the Hellenic Observatory who said “Greece needs further debt relief, of some type, in order to help the return to growth and avoid crippling constraints.  More and more economists would recognise that something of this kind is in the interests of both Greece and the euro-zone.”

“The other agenda is of the need for domestic structural reform to improve the efficiency and effective of public administration. This last agenda is one that has been inadequately taken up in Greece and one that SYRIZA seems to oppose. But it is crucial to enabling Greece to converge more with the EU and to become more competitive.  Without this second agenda, the credibility of Greece’s claims on the first are seriously undermined.”

The world’s media have descended on downtown Athens, awaiting the first poll results which are expected to be available from 21:00 on Sunday night. Over 800 journalists from around 76 media outlets are in the city to cover the events as they unfold. As the world watches, this tiny Mediterranean nation that sent waves through the financial markets will wonder if Monday morning will see them counting the cost of their gamble.

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