The danger of a Greek exit from the euro zone has been narrowly averted after the national election on Sunday. The poll results, however, show a society with deep divisions that cannot be papered over.
The voting figures show the centre-right New Democracy party secured 29.7% of the vote, less than 3 percentage points ahead of the anti-bailout and anti-austerity radical left party Syriza. The once formidable socialist party, Pasok, came third with 12.3% of the vote. Between them, the pro-European Union (EU) and pro-bailout parties (New Democracy plus Pasok) command just 42% votes. In a democracy, this may be sufficient to form a government, but the legitimacy of the coalition is suspect.
This, however, is not a Greek problem alone. Since the Treaty of Rome more than 50 years ago, virtually every single measure that centralizes power in the continent has been defeated at the ballot. Rulers of different European countries have overcome this problem by indirect means. In their hearts, citizens of European countries have deep-seated reservations against creating a centre of power in Brussels. The Greek vote is just one reflection of this tendency, even if it has the added dimension of being held in an economic crisis to form a clear-headed government.
Newspapers with front page stories about the results of the Greek elections hang from a display stand outside a street kiosk in Athens, Greece, on Monday. Bloomberg
At one level EU leaders realize that prodding Greece too far on the path of reforms may lead to a rebellion and, finally, exit. Even the pro-bailout leaders realize the difficult situation they are in. One senior adviser to the New Democracy leader Antonis Samaras told Reuters: “If there is no change in the policy mix, we’re going to have a social explosion even if you bring Jesus Christ to govern this country.” There’s merit in rethinking the painful austerity measures that have created serious social dislocations in Greece.
That is something even hardline German leaders, who are resistant to any renegotiation in Greece’s bailout package, understand. But even if some amount of spending power is restored to the new government, Greece still has to pay its huge debts and restore economic growth if normal life is to return there. If squaring a circle is a geometrical impossibility, restoring growth while paying off debts on the Greek scale will be an economic miracle. The problem of managing European unity has just begun.
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