On Sunday, the Greek electorate held its nose and voted for reform and austerity, for Europe and the euro. It was a vote based largely on fear of the alternative – not exactly a confidence inspiring motive, but at least it produced a workable result that Greece’s creditors should support.
Voters indeed faced a painful choice: Reelect the corrupt and clientelistic mainstream parties that, after having bankrupted Greece, now promise to thoroughly reform themselves and the country; or follow the siren songs of leftwing extremists who promise gain without pain, bailouts without conditions, and euro membership without solvency.
Caught between a rock and a hard place, they slightly favored the center-right New Democracy party, that, led by Antonis Saramas, came in at around 30 percent. The anti-bailout, anti-German, and nationalistic leftwing utopian group called Syriza, led by Alexis Tsipra, was not far behind, with about 27 percent of the vote. As the victor, Mr. Samaras should now be able to form a government together with pro-bailout coalition partners, among them the rival Pasok, a center-left party.
Quite obviously, this is not a vote of confidence in the old guard – just recognition of the lack of responsible alternatives. The electorate has not forgotten that New Democracy and Pasok have spent decades promising everything to everybody and then giving as much to as many people as the cash machine called the European Union would allow them to borrow on a credit card.
The voters have also not forgotten that even after the crash more than two years ago, both parties still tried to protect their main constituencies from the harsh realities of life after the debt bubble had burst.
After spending and borrowing for so long, the old guard now lives on borrowed time. And because that guard has taken some important steps toward reform (cutting government spending, including a bloated pension system) and because the alternative could doom European unity, Europe and the International Monetary Fund must now help Greece’s leaders make the best of that time.
New Democracy promised voters to renegotiate the timelines of Greek commitments to creditors. This demand is reasonable.
First, Greece has already fallen behind on its commitments agreed in an International Monetary Fund program in March. That is largely due to the electoral uncertainty. It should not be held against the Greeks.
Second, nobody suggests reneging on the commitments themselves. Structural reforms continue to be necessary for Greece to return to economic growth. But Greece also needs time. This is a country that does not run an effective tax collection system and cannot rely on a complete register of deeds. Administrative structures cannot be reformed overnight. Greece will be dependent on Europe for many years to come, and the creditors must understand what they are in for.
This is the third vote in Europe within the last few weeks, and it points to an emerging pattern of moderation. In France, voters installed a center-left Socialist parliament and elected a new Socialist President, François Hollande. He wants to adjust – but not end – Europe’s strategy of bailouts in exchange for reforms. In an Irish referendum, voters said “yes” to European budget constraints.
As much as electorates are sick of austerity and tired of hearing of the inherent necessities of the 17-nation currency zone, they think the alternatives to the coordinated European policies are worse.
Populism is not seen as a viable choice. Europeans know what they are defending. Alarmists can write fiery commentary about the impending demise of the euro or all of Europe, but, in fact, the moderate center still holds.
Nonetheless, the pro-European integrationists should not feel all that relieved. In the Greek election as much as in the Irish referendum, fear trumped anger. Only when, one day, vision trumps fear will Europe be saved for good.