On Sunday June 17, Greece held a new election to correct the fact that in the last one, on May 6, voters split their votes in such a way as to make the formation of a governing majority impossible. Now it looks as if a coalition will be built around the conservative New Democratic Party (Nea Demokratia), but how this coalition will deal with Greece's punishing economic crisis is anybody's guess.
The major dynamic leading up to Sunday's election was the galloping pace at which the left-wing SYRIZA party was advancing in the public opinion polls. SYRIZA is a heterodox leftist party which includes some former members of the Greek Communist Party but also some Trotskyites, Maoists, social democrats and others. It had surprised many by coming in second after New Democracy in the last election, leaving the social democratic Pan Hellenic Socialist Party, PASOK, in its dust.
The question now was would SYRIZA overtake ND also. A bizarrely undemocratic feature of the Greek electoral system is that the party that comes in first in parliamentary elections, even if just by one vote, is immediately awarded 50 extra seats in the 300-seat parliament. When ND came in first in April, even those 50 seats were not enough to let it head a coalition government.
Sunday's result for SYRIZA was, as Marx (Groucho) used to say, "close, but no cigar." Both SYRIZA and ND increased their popular vote. SYRIZA increased its seats in parliament by 19, to a total of 71 as opposed to the 52 it won in the last election. ND edged out SYRIZA by 1,825,609 to 1,655,053, and so came in first and won the extra 50-seat bonus, for a total of 129.
The advances for both the conservative ND and the leftist SYRIZA came mostly at the expense of PASOK, which dropped by eight seats to only 33 in the new parliament. This was voter punishment of PASOK for having presided over the start of the current financial crisis, and having accepted the austerity program imposed by foreign creditors.
Very bad news was the overtly fascist Golden Dawn party saw only a very slight reduction in its popular vote of 425,980, and retained 18 of the 21 seats it had won in May. Golden Dawn celebrated this victory by an orgy of hooliganism featuring violence against leftists and immigrants.
The Greek Communist Party, KKE, saw severe losses. Its popular vote dropped somewhat from the last election, but this was reflected in a reduction of parliamentary seats from 26 to 12.
The previous ultra-right parliamentary party, LAOS (Popular Orthodox Rally), wiped out on May 6, did not succeed in re-entering parliament.
Alexis Tsipras, the leader of SYRIZA, made it clear that his party will not join a government which is committed to the austerity program, so New Democracy leader Antonis Samaras went shopping to smaller parties. On Wednesday, it was announced that a coalition will be formed of New Democracy, PASOK and the Democratic Left, with Samaras as prime minister.
Why did New Democracy edge out SYRIZA? Both had said they would prefer to keep Greece within the Euro zone, and both had promised to try to negotiate changes to soften the austerity program. In contrast, the KKE had openly called for Greek withdrawal from the Euro and the European Union (as well as NATO) no matter what the consequences. Public opinion polls had shown that Greek voters, though very angry with the parties that had got their country into its present straits - New Democracy and PASOK - were also afraid of the consequences of leaving, or being kicked out, of the Euro zone.
But the most important question is: What happens now? Greece is an economic basket case and its creditors, including the "troika" (International Monetary Fund, Central Bank of Europe and European Commission) and the Germans and other wealthy European states, are saying that they will offer little or no flexibility on the terms of the austerity programs that they have imposed in exchange for bailout loans. German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble has said that it would be a pity if Greece left the Euro zone, but that if that is inevitable, so be it.
But new factors that have emerged include the spread of the financial and economic contagion from Greece, Ireland and Portugal to Spain and most likely also Italy, the latter two being much larger economies than the first three combined. And many economic commentators, not only on the left, point out that trying to get out of a depression by shrinking the economy is deranged: That just intensifies the problem.
It will now be seen whether France, the United States and other powerful countries can persuade the Germans to back off their intransigent position on austerity, and what this will mean for the Greek situation specifically.
Photo: Greeks wave banners of the left-wing SYRIZA party, June 14 in Athens. bluto blutarski // CC 2.0