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In Greece, The Election May Have Been The Easy Part

Two men read newspaper headlines in Athens on Monday as conservative Greek lawmakers raced to form a government a day after parliamentary elections.
Andreas Solaro
AFP/Getty Images
Two men read newspaper headlines in Athens on Monday as conservative Greek lawmakers raced to form a government a day after parliamentary elections.

European leaders and global markets expressed relief after Greek conservatives' narrow parliamentary election victory over leftists who had vowed to ditch the tough austerity terms of an international bailout.

But the next government will have to deal with a polarized society and with widespread anger at wage and job cutbacks that have targeted the middle class and spared an entrenched political and business elite.

The conservative New Democracy party won just under 30 percent of Sunday's vote and now starts talks to find partners to form a new government. Negotiations could be difficult. New Democracy leader Antonis Samaras has already ruled out meeting with Alexis Tsipras, the leader of Syriza, which finished a close second.

That leftist party came out of nowhere in just a few weeks, riding a wave of discontent over austerity and political corruption. Syriza had vowed to seek new and less punishing conditions from Greece's European lenders.

Even Samaras acknowledges that the bailout terms are too tough and says he wants to renegotiate them.

"We will work together with our partners in Europe in order to supplement the current policy mix with growth enhancement policies," he said in his first public post-election statement. "We are determined to do what it takes and do it fast."

Contrary to past elections in less economically dire times, there was little celebration Sunday night in Athens by New Democracy supporters. Outside the party's kiosk in Syntagma Square, people milled around, but there were few smiles.

Activist Mirton Kiroussi says there's no reason to cheer. "We are all very concerned about the next day. We are not sure what is going to happen; we just hope," she says.

Like most Greeks, Kiroussi is angered by more than two years of budget cuts and tax hikes that have brought the Greek economy to a standstill and pushed 30 percent of the population under the poverty line. She now hopes Greece's EU partners will sweeten the medicine.

"This program that we have to stick to is very strict, and it has caused a lot of damage to Greek people," she says. "So we will really demand renegotiation, and we hope they will give us this."

But many political analysts say the next government is likely to be weak. As one commentator put it, the leftist Syriza — with the anti-austerity wind in its sails — will be a powerful opposition force.

Greeting his supporters, party leader Alexis Tsipras vowed that Syriza will be present at all developments. And he sent a message to EU leaders who openly intervened in the election campaign, urging Greeks not to vote for the anti-austerity party.

"Today, millions of eyes in the whole Europe are turned here. Brussels knows they can no longer insist on these tough austerity conditions. It's a big conquest that we deliver to the people of Europe," Tsipras said. "The future does not belong to those who terrorize but to those who hope."

Future developments depend on whether the EU partners are willing to renegotiate, and early signals are not encouraging. Germany has said Greece has to implement the bailout agreement, and concessions are likely to be limited.

German officials view Greece's election results as a victory for their austerity-first policies. However, many analysts stress that a majority of Greeks — 55 percent — voted for parties that oppose the bailout conditions.

Greek society remains deeply unsettled. And there's the specter of further social unrest with the unexpected success of the Golden Dawn party, many of whose members express neo-Nazi sympathies. The ultra right-wing party — which was virtually nonexistent two months ago — won about 7 percent of the vote and will put 18 deputies in Parliament.

New Democracy's success may prove a Pyrrhic victory.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Sylvia Poggioli is senior European correspondent for NPR's International Desk covering political, economic, and cultural news in Italy, the Vatican, Western Europe, and the Balkans. Poggioli's on-air reporting and analysis have encompassed the fall of communism in Eastern Europe, the turbulent civil war in the former Yugoslavia, and how immigration has transformed European societies.