Voters in Greece sent tremors across the eurozone on Sunday by recording a massive protest vote against EU-dictated austerity. Parties that had participated in an emergency government tasked with passing deeply unpopular belt-tightening measures in return for rescue loans to prop up the near-bankrupt Greek economy were routed at the ballot box.
Instead, with the recession-hit country lurching deeper into poverty and despair, voters backed groups on the left and right that had virulently opposed the deficit-reduction policies demanded by international creditors.
“This is a message of change, a message to Europe that a peaceful revolution has begun,” said Alexis Tsipras, who heads Syriza, a coalition of radical left and green groups that took 16.6% of the vote – the second largest share. “German chancellor Angela Merkel has to know that the politics of austerity have suffered a humiliating defeat.”
The reaction from Brussels and the Washington-based International Monetary Fund, which have provided bailouts worth €240bn, was silence.
With no single party winning enough support to form a government, a period of uncertainty lies ahead as political leaders attempt to form a coalition. Analysts did not rule out fresh elections in June if a new administration cannot be formed.
The spectre of political unrest and market turmoil prompted many to ask why the elections had taken place at all.
Voters went out of their way to “punish” mainstream parties widely blamed for years of fiscal mismanagement. “How can we vote for parties to be part of the solution when they got us in this mess in the first place?” asked Poppi Stathera, a mother of two, who said she had been out of work for the past year. “We’ve been completely destroyed. Our country is in ruins.”
Economic freefall and social disintegration also prompted Greeks to vote for the far right Chrysi Avgi (Golden Dawn), which campaigned on an anti-immigration ticket. The ultra-nationalists, who poured into the streets holding blazing torches, captured 7% of the vote – enough to place 19 deputies in the 300-seat house for the first time since the collapse of military rule in 1974.
The conservative New Democracy party came in first but with 18.9% of the vote, according to figures released by Greece’s interior ministry.
Pasok, the socialist party led by Evangelos Venizelos, the former finance minister who had been the architect of many of the unpopular policies, won 13.4%, compared to 40% in the last national poll, in 2009.
“Support for the two main parties literally nosedived in the provinces,” said Dimitris Keridis, professor of political science at Athens’ Panteion University. “We are talking about a complete collapse of the party system as we have known it, which opens up new concerns about Greece’s ability to govern itself.”
In a sign of the political tumult that lies ahead, Antonis Samaras, New Democracy’s leader, said he would seek to create a “government of national salvation” that would attempt to amend the loan agreement Greece had signed with its “troika” of creditors, the EU, European Central Bank and IMF.
“We are ready to assume the responsibility of forming a government of national salvation with two goals,” he said, “keeping [Greece] in the euro and amending the policies of the memorandum [outlining the terms of the country’s rescue loans] so that there can be development and relief for society.”
Appealing to pro-European forces to consider his offer, he added: “I understand people’s rage but our party cannot allow Greece to remain ungoverned.”
If the conservatives are unable to forge consensus, it will fall to Tsipras, as leader of the second biggest party, to try to do so. The leftist leader said he would act on his pre-election pledge to form a government of “the united left”, citing his party’s spectacular rise in the polls as proof that Greeks wanted such an administration to steer them out of the crisis.
“With their vote the Greek people have given the mandate for a new day in our country without the cruel bailout measures,” he said. “The loan agreement that was signed without their consent has been de-legitimised by popular vote.”
But the spectre of political unrest and market turmoil prompted many to question the snap poll. Athens has been told in no uncertain terms that failure to uphold the conditions of the financial rescue programs will result in a freezing of funds and default.
“It was a grave mistake to hold this election in such an atmosphere and time of crisis and before the economy was stabilized,” said Keridis. “This result couldn’t come at a worse time for Greece.”
Helena Smith, The Guardian