Monday, 7 May 2012

Greece Votes Against Austerity, Moving Closer to Default

This article may also be viewed on Newsweek's site, the Daily Beast.

GREECE’s election has brought a sea change in the country’s political dynamics that opens up the gaping prospects of an ungovernable nation, another election and even default.

Sunday’s result has ended a grand coalition of socialists and conservatives which had, since November, managed to keep the country solvent by abiding with the terms of a eurozone bailout.

Voters have now produced a parliament so hostile to the austerity and reform programme accompanying that bailout, that socialist leader Evangelos Venizelos said there is no point in attempting to continue that collaboration.

“An old-fashioned, bipartisan coalition government will not enjoy sufficient legitimacy. Nor will it have domestic or international credibility, even if it achieves a marginal parliamentary majority,” Venizelos said.

Venizelos evidently saw that a resumption of that alliance carried two problems: It would now require a third party (Pasok and New Democracy are two seats shy of an outright majority); and the very collaboration of two parties to continue a deeply unpopular bailout policy that has cost them half their popular support would raise cries of illegitimacy.

Socialists and conservatives are rightly concerned with legitimacy in this volatile political climate. New Democracy has come in first with just a fifth of the vote - nowhere near the 37 percent it would need to govern alone. It owes almost half of its parliamentary bloc to a 50-seat bonus – once a winner’s trophy, now an embarrassing distortion to Greece’s system of proportional representation.

“I asked for a strong mandate; the people decided otherwise,” conservative leader Antonis Samaras gloomily told supporters outside party headquarters. It was the first time in four decades that the winner of a Greek election has not delivered a victory speech, or been able to form one-party government. And it is the first time in 23 years that Greece is witnessing coalition talks.

In contrast, more than 40 percent of the vote went to parties that want Greece to abandon the European bailout altogether – albeit not necessarily the euro.

The party that exemplifies that trend is Syriza, or Alliance of the Radical Left with Left Socialists and Radical Ecologists. It is a once-moribund, breakaway communist party, which quadrupled its previous performance to 16.76 percent, a mere two points behind the winner.

In Syriza lies the true message of the election. It has promised to annul Greece’s two bailout loans worth $270 billion (it calls them “leaden jackets”) along with the reforms that accompany them, and cast off the European Union’s and International Monetary Fund’s financial oversight.

"The debt is the taxes the rich did not pay," it is fond of saying, and advocates a dizzyingly expensive slate of tax-and-spend policies.  Its idea is to tax the rich to the tune of 75 percent and renationalise every privatised state company including all banks (see sidebar at the end).

This would in theory pay for a reinstatement of the recently abolished national collective minimum wage, extend unemployment benefits to illegal migrants, restore the 35-year working lifetime and bring pensions up to 100 percent of salary.

The socialists have campaigned on the basis of austerity, stability, and June’s salaries and pensions being paid on time. The conservatives have campaigned on the basis of growth as the true father of state revenue. Both have supported the bailout. Syriza, on the other hand, has won enormous appeal by arguing that the bailout does not avoid bankruptcy but leads directly to it. Socialists, conservatives and their friends at the IMF want a country of limited sovereignty, it says. Some leftists believe that Berlin plans to match China’s low unit costs by outsourcing production to an impoverished Mediterranean basin.

Syriza considers even the restructuring of 200bn euro of debt in private hands as a bad thing, as it mortgages public wealth and legitimises billions in taxpayer-sponsored refinancing of banks.

Samaras has to seek alliances. He has three days to form a government. Should he fail, Syriza assumes the task. Should the process drag on two weeks, as it may, Greece would fall behind on more than 15bn euro in cuts to social spending, government restructuring and healthcare costs, failing to qualify for its June instalment. That, in turn, could lead to non-payment of salaries and pensions, driving the country closer to a social meltdown.

George Pagoulatos, legal advisor to outgoing prime minister Loukas Papademos, pointed out a contradiction in the election result that helps illustrate the extent to which this was a protest vote: While at least two thirds of Greeks have consistently been polled as wanting Greece to remain within the euro, that proportion did not vote for parties backing the bailout loan and attached programme of austerity and reform. Greece’s creditors have, since last November, drummed in the message that implementation of that programme is a condition of remaining within the eurozone.

Venizelos was the first party leader to react to the result. “We embittered the people to save the nation,” he said. “Now it is up to others to realise their promises.”

Unless Pasok agrees to rule with New Democracy and the Democratic Left – the only other forces in parliament that support the bailout – and manages to renegotiate the austerity plan, it is unlikely that this parliament will produce a government. Greece is probably looking at another election in a matter of weeks.

Syriza’s Plan

Financial Sector
1. Make European Central Bank fund social programs in member states.
2. Ban derivatives across the European Union.
3. Establish Pan-European Tobin tax. Place higher taxes on high incomes and companies.
4. Nationalise the Greek banking system and give it over to public bodies such as cooperatives, repurposing it to deliver liquidity to small and medium-sized enterprises.

1. Tax the rich at a top rate of 75 percent for incomes of half a million or more.
2. Have higher tax on companies and "ostentatious consumption". Remove tax exemptions. For example, on the church.
3. Record all estates of one million euro or more and tax them.
4. Use every available EU euro.
5. Renationalise every privatised or partly-privatised company (Hellenic Railways Organisation, Hellenic Telecommunications Organisation, Athens Water & Sewage Treatment Company, Public Power Corporation, etc.) and stop privatisations. Restructure companies to operate profitably and transparently for the state.
6. Rebuild economy along lines of high-end agricultural produce for export, renewable energy, and non-intensive, eco-friendly tourism.

Social Policy
1. Restore national collective agreement on minimum wage. Reverse the 22 percent wage cut in private sector. Extend part-time workers to full-time. Abolish part-time labour. Prohibit freelance work when the task calls for a full-time job. Fire no one from public sector. Bring back firing limits in the private sector.
2. Put the homeless in empty properties of state, church & banks.
3. Feed all students twice a day.
4. Extend full health services to poor, homeless, unemployed. Consolidate all social services. No hospital closures or mergers. Bring staff levels back up. Abolish co-payment for unemployed, students, handicapped, poor pensioners. Bring health budget to 6 percent of GDP.
5. Adjust interest and maturity on loans so monthly payment does not exceed 30 percent of income. Write off loans to those not meeting "dignified means of living".
6. Extend unemployment benefit indefinitely, extend to immigrants, and raise to 80 percent of salary for first two years.
7. Reduce (control) prices on basic goods.
8. Abolish property tax on "small" properties.
9. Make state pay Social Security system all arrears and debts from mismanagement of its assets; ensure efficient dues collection from private sector. Restore 35-year working lifetime and pension at 100 percent of salary.

6 May 2012 Election Result
  • New Democracy 18.85% and 108 seats (compared to 33.48% and 91 seats in October 2009)
  • Syriza 16.78 and 52 seats (compared to 4.6% and 13 seats in October 2009)
  • Pasok 13.18% and 41 seats (compared to 43.92% and 160 seats in October 2009)
  • Independent Greeks 10.60% and 33 seats (first entry into parliament)
  • Communist Party of Greece 8.48% and 26 seats (compared to 7.54% and 21 seats in October 2009)
  • Golden Dawn 6.97% and 21 seats (first entry into parliament)
  • Democratic Left 6.11% and 19 seats (first entry into parliament)

(Anti-bailout forces are in red, pro-bailout forces in black)

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