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Greeks go to the polls on Sunday to vote in the country’s fifth parliamentary election in six years after last month’s collapse of its Syriza-led government.
Left-wing Syriza, led by Alexis Tsipras, and the centre-right New Democracy are neck-and-neck in the polls with about 26 per cent of the vote each, according to forecasts, well ahead of other rivals.
Wait, Greece is back in the news? I thought that problem was fixed?
Think again. Greece averted bankruptcy and a possible exit from the eurozone by agreeing to an €86bn bailout package from the EU and other creditors. However, the crucial financial injection came at a cost: a tough and intrusive reform programme that heaps further austerity on a country whose economy has shrunk by a quarter since 2010 and where almost a third of the population now live below the poverty line.
Why another election?
Mr Tsipras, the prime minister who agreed the bailout, was elected in January on a surge of anti-austerity sentiment that propelled his Syriza party into office. So when Mr Tsipras signed the deal agreeing to yet more austerity, with bankruptcy and a Grexit as the alternative, his party splintered and he lost his majority. So he resigned, triggering an election.
Right. So is Tsipras finished?
No, although he might wish he had played things differently. When he called the election, Syriza had a 10-point lead in most polls. With a few days to go before the vote, the party is now level-pegging with the centre-right New Democracy opposition party, meaning he will almost certainly win fewer seats than he did in January.
Are voters shifting against Syriza?
It is more complicated than that. Mr Tsipras came to power partly thanks to a political awakening among Greece’s youth, who have been hit disproportionately hard by the slowdown and austerity measures. They came out strongly for Syriza in January.
But since he agreed to ditch his radicalism for EU pragmatism — and a large cheque from Brussels, although with tough conditions attached — that enthusiasm has diminished. The youth vote has splintered, with many turning to parties further to the left, or even to Golden Dawn, the far-right nationalists.
Many older voters who admired Mr Tsipras’ energy and the way he stood up to Greece’s creditors have also been put off by his advocacy of some old-fashioned command economics and his moves to cosy up to Vladimir Putin’s Russia.
So who is going to win?
Essentially, no one. Most pollsters reckon that Syriza will win the most votes, which under Greece’s electoral system would give them a 50-seat bonus when the seats are divided up. But even then it looks almost impossible that it will be enough to secure a 151-seat majority in the 300-seat parliament.
Which means a coalition government?
Almost certainly. Syriza used to govern in coalition with the Independent Greeks, a small party of nationalist conservatives. Not an obvious match for a party of left-wing radicals, but it seemed to work. However, it looks like the Independent Greeks could struggle this time, meaning Mr Tsipras will have to look elsewhere.
Smaller parties such as Pasok, To Potami and the Union of Centrists are likely to win about a dozen seats each, but their politics and views on austerity mean none are natural fits with radical Syriza. Mr Tsipras would probably face criticism if he were to do a deal with any of them, possibly resulting in a further fracturing of the party.
The elephant in the room is New Democracy, which alternated in power with the rival Pasok party for decades. New Democracy was in government during a period of explosive growth from 2004 to 2008 that was characterised by soaring borrowing and handouts to supporters in the form of public sector jobs. For these reasons it is hated by many Syriza supporters, who view it as part of the cabal of corrupt politicians and businessmen they believe sowed the seeds for Greece’s financial collapse in 2010.
Vangelis Meimarakis, below,who has led the party’s revival, repeated in a Monday night televised debate the idea of a grand coalition with Syriza, but this was rejected again by Mr Tsipras as “unnatural”. While stranger things have happened in Greek politics, such an outcome would test Syriza supporters’ patience.
What if New Democracy gets the most votes?
The task of coalition-building would certainly be simpler, with almost all the other parties supporting a pro-EU message. But it could mean more talks with Brussels over possible change to the bailout agreement, and would also mean creditors having to get to know a third different government, and a third different set of negotiators, in the space of 10 months.
A Syriza loss would also reverberate across Europe. In a month when the UK’s opposition Labour party elected the anti-austerity Jeremy Corbyn as its new leader, an election defeat for Syriza would be a blow for Europe’s political left. Other radical parties such as Podemos of Spain look to the party as a totem of the anti-austerity movement.
And Greece’s future?
Still far from certain. This will be the third national ballot in 2015, and most Greeks just want political stability. That is what the EU, ECB and IMF want too, in order for Greece to begin implementing the reforms set out in the bailout agreement, which its creditors say are needed to get the economy moving again.
Cash from Brussels has kept Greece going for now, but worries persist. A list of reforms scheduled for this year, including banks recapitalisation and foreclosures on bad loans, must be achieved before capital controls can be lifted. Although none of the major parties are against the bailout deal, it is clear that the larger the coalition majority, the more stable the future will look.
Come Monday, party negotiators will begin the task of coalition-building. Expect fireworks and further drama as political ideologies and personal egos come into conflict.