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EU election: austerity will make for lively contest in Greece

Forget the hand signals, Alexis Tsipras of Syriza is a left-winger. EPA/Simela Pantzartzi

The Greek public will go to the polls on May 25 as a massively divided electorate. The obvious factor which shapes public opinion is the continuation of an economic crisis which has resulted in a six-year recession and ongoing austerity programme which has led to a massive contraction in the Greek economy and dramatic falls in levels of income and standards of living.

The divide which stems from this is between those who support the continuing austerity and reform drive within an EU/Euro context – who will mainly vote for the centre-right New Democracy party (ND) – and those opposed, and wish to see a more expansive, growth agenda based on public spending and an end to “foreign-imposed” austerity packages – who will mainly support the radical populism of the left-wing Syriza party.

This is an obvious cleavage in time of a harsh economic climate which has seen unemployment soar (especially among the youth), wages and pensions cut, and no let-up in the call for further culls and sacrifices.

But it is only one way of portraying a series of divides which characterise the Greek political agenda today and which will be evident in the final election outcome next month. This pro/anti-austerity representation of the electorate divide is also a traditional right-left divide. Supporters of the government’s adherence to the austerity/reform packages “negotiated” with the EU/IMF/ECB troika are also the traditional core voters of New Democracy and of an enduring centre-right tradition. The radical left sees Syriza as its champion, pursuing a socialist, anti-capitalist agenda, highly populist and based on a big State and big spending.

Eurosceptics to the Left

This also brings into the picture a different dimension in the race between these two parties which lead the polls which estimate that Syriza has anything up to a 2% lead over New Democracy (a remarkably small lead considering the supposed unpopularity of the government which New Democracy heads): the question of Europe. Indeed, almost paradoxically, Europe forms a big part of the political debate in the run up to the European elections of 2014.

While New Democracy adheres to Greece’s European future and membership of the Eurozone, and has acceded to the German-led agenda of cuts and restructuring in return for substantial bail-outs. Syriza – and other parties significant to the electoral outcome – diverge from this view. Syriza, sees Europe as anathema to the extent that it is imposing a foreign agenda on Greece. The party pursues rhetoric and promotes policies which are incompatible with continuing membership of the Eurozone and potentially the EU as a whole (even though its official line is that to save Greece we need to reform the EU). There is a xenophobia here which is mirrored by others such as Independent Greeks and the Communist Party (KKE), but far distant from the overt rascism of the neo-fascist Golden Dawn which has had such an impact both in Greece and across Europe in general.

Based on polls conducted from 3 to 9 April by Kapa Research, University of Macedonia, GPO and Pulse RC.

But what these parties do share is an anti-establishment agenda, targeting the “old parties” of New Democracy and PASOK (electioneering under the Olive Tree’ – Elia – platform), and holding them responsible for the maintenance of a clientilistic, nepotistic political system which they manipulated for personal gain, and mismanaged so horrendously, that the crisis was a direct result.

This is the last split in electoral term, between “old” and “new” parties/politics. And perhaps the most significant development stemming from this in the current Euroelection context is the emergence of To Potami (The River): a political movement, headed by a journalist, which is polling at up to 10% and campaigning on an anti-“old party” agenda. At the heart of the message is the idea of forging a new kind of trust between the electorate and its government based not on left-right, pro-anti ideologies but on real issues and real people.

The divisions are complex and span a wide range. It is a close race between New Democracy and Syriza with the surprising emergence of a new political force playing a significant role – and Europe actually figures quite high on the political agenda in a Euroelection!

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