With the clock quickly counting down towards election day in Greece this January 25, the two competitors for the Prime Ministerial chair are Alexis Tsipras, the fiery leader of the leftist Syriza party, and Antonis Samaras, the stoic head of the conservative New Democracy party who governed the country until the fall of the coalition last week.
All major polls have Syriza as front-runner, a fact that is putting a scare into the financial markets and creating tension among Greece’s electorate which, although wishful of a change in direction and in need of a respite from the harsh austerity “memorandum” imposed by the country’s lenders, remains leery of the party’s radical positions.
In the run-up to voting day, New Democracy continues to play a somewhat exhausted trump card, that of attempting to provoke a wave of panic among the voters without offering any realistic proposal for the amelioration of a situation that has plunged the country into a five year recession and left its citizens unemployed and in despair.
Importantly, it appears that neither of the two major parties will be able to procure an outright majority, leaving whoever prevails requiring the support, and perhaps needing to co-govern with, one or more of the smaller factions.
Of course, the potential scenarios are many. The Party of the Independent Greeks (ANEL), led by Panos Kammenos, which appeared to be in a strong position, saw its fortunes take a turn for the worse as it found itself caught up in a farcical corruption scandal when one of its outspoken members, Pavlos Chaikalis, claimed he was offered millions to help keep the Samaras government afloat. The result was a black mark on Greece’s democracy, a ridiculing of its Parliamentary institutions and a swift drop in ANEL’s popularity.
Another party that hopes to breach the 3% threshold required for Parliamentary representation is the recently created “To Potami” (The River) led by well-known journalist Stavros Theodorakis. Although it managed to secure an impressive percentage of the popular vote in European elections last May, the voters will be scrutinizing Potami much more closely this time around as it remains a group defined by a very vague political program without any parliamentary or governmental experience and devoid of any ideological platform. As it did earlier last year, the party is looking to amass a large protest vote but this may be wishful thinking given that the electorate tends to treat elections to the European Parliament very differently from national ones.
In the meantime, a new party has emerged under the tutelage of George Papandreou, son of the former Prime Minister and legendary founder of Pasok, Andreas Papandreou. The younger Papandreou had a brief stint of his own as Prime Minister in 2010, winning a strong majority after naively professing that Greece’s problems could be solved “because there is money!” Papandreou saw himself forced out after saddling the country with its first austerity “memorandum,” forever linking his name with the tactics of the “troika” of Greece’s creditors and the dire economic state of the nation.
Shortly afterwards, he would go on to lose the leadership of Pasok to its current leader and Greece’s recent Vice-President, Evangelos Venizelos. Regardless, with the backing of some old appartchiks who remain loyal to his father’s legacy and to his family, Papandreou hopes to make a comeback by securing the votes to achieve a Parliamentary presence and filling the role of power-broker in a minority government situation. The outlook for Papandreou does not appear bright, however, accused as he is, by the Greek public, of being inept during his tenure.
Finally, this brings us to the official party of the socialist movement, Pasok, under the guidance of the aforementioned Evangelos Venizelos. Venizelos was Papandreou’s Defence Minister at the time the country was initially placed under the watchful eye of the country’s triumvirate of lenders. Later, at a significant political cost to himself and his party, he entered into a coalition government with Antonis Samaras and supported the harsh terms of the “memorandum” in an effort to improve the country’s plight by rectifying its budgetary imbalance.
Venizelos would seem to be the one most likely to fill the role of “third pillar” in the elections by attracting enough support to hold the balance of power in a minority government. Although weary from many years in office, his Pasok party continues to hold staunchly to its center-left ideology. And, despite the strains of a break with its traditional Papandreou faction and the loss of the bulk of its supporters to the more radical Syriza, it remains a force that helped to guide the country in the most difficult of times.
As for Evangelos Venizelos, whose popularity may not be at its apex, he must be respected as one who made sure that Papandreou did not proceed with a potentially tragic referendum on Greece’s European membership and looked up to as the country’s most capable negotiator with respect to the upcoming deliberations on Greece’s future.
Should Syriza be ultimately elected, it should look to secure the backing of Venizelos, putting his experience to good use if it hopes to smoothly lead the transition of the country into the “post-memorandum” era.
If New Democracy is the victor, it will be unable to continue its policy of structural reform and hope to exit the “memorandum” with the support of lesser, more inexperienced partners.
In both cases, only Pasok can play the crucial role of “third pillar” with the ability to sustain a viable Greek government on January 26th.