Greece's Left Wing Tries To Form A Government

May 8, 2012
Originally published on May 9, 2012 7:07 pm

In debt-burdened Greece, the president has given a left-wing coalition a mandate to form a new government, but it faces an uphill battle following an election in which no single party was dominant.

The Coalition of the Radical Left, known as Syriza, vehemently opposes the austerity program imposed by international creditors.

Syriza finished second in the vote Sunday, when Greek voters decisively rejected the tough conditions for international bailouts.

After receiving the mandate, Syriza's young leader, Alexis Tsipras, called for a moratorium on Greece's debt repayments.

The "voters' verdict renders the bailout deal null and void," he said. "The debt crisis is not just a Greek problem. A European solution must be found through the creation of an international auditing body."

The statement was not welcome in global markets, but in Greece it has deep resonance.

Although no party won enough seats to form a government on its own, Syriza won nearly 17 percent of the vote. It now has up to three days to form a government, a messy task with no foregone conclusion.

In fact, most analysts agree these elections did not produce a viable government, and the country seems headed toward another ballot in coming weeks.

Tsipras' goal, they say, is to forge a broader anti-austerity front that could score an outright victory in the next elections.

Nothing To Lose

Syriza's showing — behind the center-right New Democracy — was the big surprise in an election that destroyed a four-decades-old entrenched two-party system.

Political analyst Stelios Kouloglou says that in a country where 1 million people are out of work and youth unemployment is close to 50 percent, Greeks voted massively for the party that called the bailout terms "barbaric."

"Syriza is a vote for a party that gives a hope," he says. "Whether this hope is realistic or not, they don't care; it is a hope."

Many observers outside Greece saw the vote punishing the pro-bailout parties — the country's two major parties, New Democracy and Pasok — as a biting-the-hand-that-feeds-you syndrome in a country on the verge of bankruptcy.

But Nick Malkoutzis, deputy editor of the Kathimerini English-language daily newspaper, says that when Greeks are told they're facing at least three more years of austerity and beyond that another decade of bad times, they feel they've got nothing to lose.

"Disposable income dropping 25 percent in a year, taxes going up by 25 percent, unemployment doubling in a year — that is going to have an effect on society, on people's desire to express themselves politically," Malkoutzis says.

More than other Europeans, he says, Greeks believe the bailouts favored European banks.

"A lot of people have become convinced the European Union is making a priority of saving banks and that taxpayers are paying the price," Malkoutzis says.

Referendum On Economic Policies

Sunday's election was the first time Greek voters were in the position to pass judgment on economic policies that have upended their lives.

Malkoutzis says the vote was a game-changer.

"Whatever government we have, it will have to be one that challenges the terms of the bailout, that asks for less onerous terms, that asks for more time, that asks perhaps for more assistance," he says.

In the meantime, the country has entered a collision course with its creditors.

But Maria Firogeni, who voted for Syriza, senses a new mood in Europe after the French elections ousted Nicolas Sarkozy — who along with Germany's Angela Merkel championed the austerity approach to resolving the debt crisis. She hopes Greece will no longer be an international pariah.

"We believe that maybe things will change for all for Europe, and especially for us, because we are in a very bad position," Firogeni says. "We are the black sheep of Europe, it is very bad for us."

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Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And I'm Audie Cornish.

We turn now to the political chaos in Greece. In Sunday's election, no party won enough seats to form a government, so each of the top three vote-getters has the opportunity to create a coalition. Yesterday, one party called New Democracy tried and failed. Today, the president gave the mandate to the coalition of the radical left, known as Syriza. It won nearly 17 percent of the vote from Greeks who reject austerity measures.

NPR's Sylvia Poggioli has more from Athens.

SYLVIA POGGIOLI BYLINE: After receiving the mandate, Syriza's young leader, Alexis Tsipras, called for a moratorium on Greece's debt repayments.

ALEXIS TSIPRAS: (Foreign language spoken)

BYLINE: He said the voters' verdict renders the bailout deal null and void. The statement sent shivers through global markets, but here in Greece it has deep resonance. Syriza came in second - the big surprise in an election that destroyed a four-decades-old entrenched two-party system.

Political analyst Stelios Kouloglou says that in a country where one million are out of work and youth unemployment is close to 50 percent, Greeks voted massively for the party that called that called German-dictated bailout terms barbaric.

STELIOS KOULOGLOU: And Syriza is a vote for a party that gives hope. Whether this hope is realistic or not, they don't care - it's hope.

BYLINE: Many observers outside Greece saw the vote punishing the pro-bailout parties as a biting-the-hand-that-feeds-you syndrome in a country on the verge of bankruptcy. But Nick Malkoutzis, deputy editor of the Kathimerini English-language daily, sitting in an Athens cafe, says when Greeks are told they're facing at least three more years of austerity and beyond that another decade of bad times, they feel they've got nothing to lose.

NICK MALKOUTZIS: You know, disposable income dropping 25 percent in a year, taxes going up by around 25 percent, unemployment doubling in a year, that's going to have an effect on society. It's going to have effect on people's desire to express themselves politically.

BYLINE: More than other Europeans, Malkoutzis says, Greeks believe the bailouts favored European banks.

MALKOUTZIS: A lot of people have become convinced that the European Union making a priority of saving banks and that taxpayers are paying the price of that.

BYLINE: After five years of recession, Sunday's election was the first time Greeks could pass judgment on economic policies that have devastated their lives.

Malkoutzis says the vote was a game-changer.

MALKOUTZIS: Whatever government we have, it will have to be one that challenges the terms of the bailout.

BYLINE: Analysts agree these elections did not produce a viable government, and the country seems headed towards another ballot in coming weeks. The goal of Alexis Tsipras, the leftist leader, is to forge a broader anti-austerity front that could come in first next time.

In the meantime, the country has entered a collision course with its creditors. But Maria Firogeni, who voted for Syriza, senses a new mood in Europe after the French elections, and hopes Greece will no longer be an international pariah.

MARIA FIROGENI: We believe that maybe things will change for all for Europe, and especially for us, because we are in a very bad position. We are the black sheep of Europe.

BYLINE: A very bad place to be, says Firogeni.

Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Athens. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.