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Greece heads to the polls – and the political fringes

Today's national elections in Greece could see the end to a two-party monopoly over politics as discontent over the economic crisis generates interest in smaller parties.

Nikolas Giakoumidis/AP
Greeks look at voter lists outside a polling station in Thessaloniki on Sunday, May 6.

Greeks are casting their votes today in national elections that could end a 40-year era of political stability as economic hardships drive voters toward fringe parties. 

For more than four decades, two major political forces – the socialist party PASOK and the liberal New Democracy (ND) party – have been ruling the country, collecting more than 70 percent of the elector’s vote. This time, experts are saying that it’s possible that the two parties gather less than 45 percent of the votes. 

“Historically, it’s the first time that the pillar of the political system, the bipartisanship, has been [shaken],” says Takis Kafetzis, professor of Political Science at the University of Peloponnese.

The continuous austerity measures and the sense that the political system of patronage has created a dysfunctional, corrupt state have led voters to look for something new.

"I wouldn't vote for the two parties that are primarily responsible for the Greek bankruptcy," says Aris Molfetas, a lawyer. "Their toxic governance cannot inflict change, since they have been addicted to ruling Greece through corporatocracy, bureaucracy, and corruption. They both belong in the past."

Polls show that for the first time, eight to nine parties will collect more than 3 percent of the votes, which is the threshold to enter the Parliament, but none of them will collect enough votes to form a government. 

As the polls last released for the public two week ago showed, ND is expected to get 19 percent of the votes and PASOK 14.5 percent. But according to electoral law, the first party receives a 50 seats bonus in the Parliament, which might give the two parties together a marginal majority to form a government. 

According to the polls, more than 50 percent of the votes are expected to go to six other parties. From the Left, three parties are expected to gather the 3 percent threshold needed to enter the Parliament, with the Communist Party expected to receive 8 percent, and the pro-Europe parties Syriza 7.3 percent, and Democratic Left 5.9 percent.

Alexis Tsipras, the leader of Syriza, has proposed a "Government of the Left," with the three smaller left parties uniting.  "[The people] know that with a government like that [...] first the paychecks and the pensions will be paid and then the loan sharks," Tsipras said in an interview with Ta Nea, a Greek newspaper.

But, decades of disagreement among the smaller left parties seem to be an obstacle in any talks for cooperation.  "Our differences are big," said Aleka Papariga, the General Secretary of the Communist Party. "The question is if the people want this thing. Why doesn't Kouvelis [the other left political] agree with Tsipras? Is it our responsibility?"

The rise of the fringe-parties is a result of people’s anger and it seems that voters want to take this anger and turn it into hope and a political program,” says Michalis Spourdalakis, professor of political science at the University of Athens and President of the Hellenic Political Science Association.

Far right on the rise

At the same time, the far-right is on the rise. Two parties are expected to enter the Parliament, LAOS and Golden Dawn. 

“I was a member of ND, because they did help my son get a job in the public-sector,” says Ilias Metaxas, a mini-mart owner. “I’ve had enough of their arrogance though and I’m now voting for Golden Dawn.”

Since the European Union, the IMF, and the European Central Bank administered two bailout packages to Greece, it has been pressuring for huge budget cuts and structural changes for the economy. 

Last week, the Bank of Greece published its annual report on the Greek economy, predicting a deeper recession for 2012, and high levels of unemployment. In the fourth quarter of 2011, Greece's GDP fell 7.5 percent. "The historical challenge for our country remains today, two years after the first bailout,” said Georgios Provopoulos, CEO of the Bank of Greece. “The question is between a painful reconstruction of the economy within the Eurozone and the irregular setbacks that would lead us decades back.”

French voters are also heading to the polls today in a presidential runoff vote. François Hollande, the Socialist candidate challenging President Nicolas Sarkozy, has said that the austerity measures taken by the European governments aren't working and Europe should find other ways to deal with the crisis.  

"Right now, the only thing we can hope for is that the EU changes its trajectory," says Elen Tsourounaki- Peck, an English-teacher and mother of two. "We know Greece is handled by them."

But, according to the agreement Greece has with its lenders, new austerity measures are scheduled for June.

"To a big degree we are responsible for the situation," said Onoufrios Ntovletis, a translator who is very frustrated with the political situation in the country and remained undecided in the days before the vote. "I'd like to paraphrase the Greek writer and philosopher, Nikos Kazantzakis when he said: 'I’m not afraid of anything. I don’t hope for anything. I’m free.' In Greece now, I’m afraid of everything, I don’t hope for anything, I’m not feeling free."

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