On Monday Greek lawmakers failed to decide on a new president in a third and final round of voting, prompting early nationwide elections. Prime Minister Antonis Samaris, whose presidential candidate Stavros Dimas lost by 180 votes, announced the new ballot would take place on January 25.
The presidency is a largely figurehead role. Yet the elections have taken on a ominous cast and are set to further divide a nation split over the European Union’s tough financial policing since the 2008 recession. (While euro zone bailouts kept Greece – one of the E.U.’s member states most crippled by the financial crisis – from sinking entirely, they were attached to severe restrictions.) So now anti-austerity is the buzzword, with the leftist Syriza Party gaining ground in recent weeks. Recent polls show Syriza leading Samaris’ ruling New Democracy party by several points. As it gathers steam, the populist party has tempered its rhetoric somewhat – shying away from initial pledges to abandon the bailout completely. But Syriza leader Alexis Tsipras still vows his government would stop paying back Greece’s extensive debt ($393 billion) until the bailout package is renegotiated, as well as increase public spending.
Monday’s news is already negatively impacting Greece’s financial markets – the stock market fell 11% in the wake of the parliamentary vote before rebounding slightly — and could herald a dangerous backslide in a country still on the brink of financial precarity. (Greece only returned to economic growth this year). The danger here, according to regional analysts, is that the country could be thrown into another debt crisis. Samaras is warning that a Greece under Syriza could see not only bankruptcy, but a departure from the euro zone.
More broadly, the unrest in Greece will add to the momentum growing against Brussels, personified by the rise of extreme parties from both ends of the political spectrum. In France and Denmark, for example, the Front National (FN) and the Danish People’s Party (DFP) have successfully translated austerity fatigue into growing mainstream acceptance and a presence in the European Parliament. In Spain, Italy and Portugal, leftist parties that echo Syriza’s ideology have made headway as well.
It remains to be seen how far Tsipras is willing (or able) to go if his party nabs the upcoming elections. (The radical party may struggle to attract coalition partners making the creation of a government difficult.) But given the party’s consistent lead in opinion polls in recent months, a Syriza government looks probable – which would make it the first radical leftist (and anti-bailout and anti-austerity) party to come to power in the European Union’s history. A large, uncomfortable push against Brussels is looming.