Wary Europe Watches Vote in Greece for Signs of Protest
ATHENS — This time, there are no predictions of doom, no anguished fretting out of Washington or Berlin that Greek national elections could unravel the European economic order. That was the mood in 2012, when the fate of the euro seemed to hang on the whims of an angry Greek electorate that, in the end, voted to stay the course in the euro zone.
The dynamics seem reversed as Greeks return to the polls this weekend for European parliamentary elections. The balloting, from Thursday through Sunday, is supposed to represent another developmental step in the broader European political project, but an expected protest vote across Europe means that the impact may be greater on national politics.
In Greece, the vote has become a de facto referendum on the governing coalition and a test of whether ordinary citizens believe the government’s assertion that the country is finally on the upswing. Polls are showing the left-wing opposition party, Syriza, in a tight contest with New Democracy, the center-right party that leads the government.
“If the margin is large, on the order of 5 percent or more, this could be destabilizing,” said Harry Papasotiriou, a political science professor at Panteion University in Athens, adding that voters may use the European parliamentary races to send a message to the Greek government. “People can vent their emotions in a protest vote.”
European leaders, concerned with political stability in Greece, are watching warily. The Greek stock and bond markets have wobbled in recent days amid concerns that a subpar showing by New Democracy could bring pressure for new national elections, which are not scheduled until 2016.
Greek politics is still defined by the bailout from the so-called troika of foreign creditors: the European Central Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the European Commission. The bailout prevented the country from going bankrupt but inflicted punishing terms that have contributed to record unemployment.
Prime Minister Antonis Samaras has argued that Greece is now clawing its way toward recovery, with some economists forecasting a return to growth by the end of the year.
On the campaign trail, New Democracy leaders say Greece must maintain political stability or the sacrifices made during the bailout — and the seeds of recovery — could be jeopardized.
“Instability is bad for the economy,” warned Health Minister Adonis Georgiadis, arguing that a Syriza victory could be destabilizing. “You have to explain to people the consequences of their choice.”
Two years ago, Syriza championed the anti-austerity sentiment and threatened, if elected, to reject the terms of the bailout — a worrying stance for European leaders. New Democracy narrowly won and cobbled together an awkward coalition government with its Socialist rival, Pasok, and a third party, Democratic Left. The rest of Europe exhaled.
Now, with Syriza in a tight race, the party’s telegenic leader, Alexis Tsipras, is again framing the European election as a referendum on the bailout agreement, brushing off talk of possible political instability. Mr. Tsipras is running for a seat on the European Commission, though analysts say he does not expect to win and is instead trying to cultivate a leftist, anti-austerity movement across Europe. His real goal is to win in Greece, where he says a Syriza victory would be a no-confidence vote in the government and in New Democracy.
"We are confident that the results in the European elections will show they are far behind Syriza,” said Yiannis Milios, a top strategist and Syriza lawmaker, who argues that the government’s economic program has punished ordinary people but rewarded the wealthy. “We have the concentration of wealth in a few hands. We have wage earners losing their rights.”
The shape of the election in Greece is especially unpredictable because of the range of parties pushing starkly different populist messages. Pasok, the party that dominated Greek politics for decades, is trailing badly in the polls; many analysts believe it is in a death spiral that could endanger the government coalition.
A new centrist party, To Potami, or “The River,” has emerged in recent months, led by a popular television journalist, Stavros Theodorakis. After a flurry of news media attention, To Potami has hit a plateau in polls. But Mr. Theodorakis has tried to tap into the broad public disgust with the established parties.
“The people have been exhausted from this and do not listen anymore,” he said in an interview. “They are tired of these dogmas.”
The biggest wild card is Golden Dawn, the far-right party with an anti-immigrant, neo-fascist ideology. Last year, the government led a sweeping crackdown, labeling the group a criminal organization (rather than a political party) and arresting its leader and five members of Parliament. The crackdown was expected to prevent Golden Dawn from competing in the European elections — except that this month Greece’s Supreme Court ruled that the party could.
With its angry, nationalist message, Golden Dawn has tapped into the broad public fury over the country’s economic collapse. Two years ago, it stunned the political establishment with a strong fifth-place finish and has been polling in third or fourth place this time.
“It will be terrible if they end up being the third party,” said Professor Papasotiriou, who also works for a think tank linked to New Democracy. “It would be very bad for Greece.”