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Split Greece prepares to vote

Jannis Papadimitriou / jsSeptember 17, 2015

It hasn't happened in 60 years, but nine parties hope to win seats in Greece's parliamentary elections this Sunday. According to opinion polls, it is highly unlikely that any of them will win an absolute majority.

Griechenland Wahlkampfplakate Alexis Tsipras und Vangelis Meimarakis
Image: Getty Images/AFP/L. Gouliamaki

A total of 19 parties are vying for Greece's 300 parliamentary seats, which will be contested in a vote this Sunday. According to opinion polls, it is highly unlikely that any of them will win an absolute majority. Up until the debt standoff began in 2009, it had always been the rule in Greece that one party held the majority alone, or was able to force new elections to secure one in short order. Not least of all, such claims to power were made possible by an idiosyncrasy of the Greek electoral system, which awards the strongest party in an election with 50 bonus seats in parliament. The theory behind the system is that it helps establish stable governments and avoids long bouts of haggling over ministerial posts among parties.

In other words: Should Syriza leader Alexis Tsipras or Evangelos Maimarakis, the head of the conservatives, win by just one vote this Sunday, his party will be awarded 50 extra seats in parliament. Yet, according to polls, no party can expect to rule by itself, even with the bonus seats, simply because votes will be cast for so many different parties. "The reason that the political landscape is so splintered is the disappointment, even desperation of many people in Greece," said Jorgos Tzogopolous, political scientist and staff member at the Athens-based think tank ELIAMEP. "Young people especially are turning away from established political heavyweights and are deciding that they would prefer to vote for splitter parties - or not even vote at all."

The standing high-water mark of electoral abstinence, an astonishing 47.37 percent, was reached during the European elections of 2009 - a time when signs of the impending stalemate were unmistakable. In the following years, Tsipras was able to lure many of those nonvoters to the ballot box. It remains to be seen whether he will be able to do so this time around as his Syriza party, which governed Greece until recently, is plagued by infighting. After parliament approved new austerity measures in mid-August, dozens of Syriza MPs left the party in protest and subsequently founded their own left-wing party, Popular Unity. The Euroskeptic party, which is led by the old school communist Panagiotis Lafazanis, is eager to establish itself as a serious political power in Sunday's vote. The party has advocated dropping the euro to give Greece a genuine fresh start.

Tsipras (left) and Maimarakis didn't change many minds in this week's debateImage: Reuters/M. Karagiannis

'Repeat the mistakes'

Most members of Syriza's youth organization have withdrawn their support for Tsipras. But whether they will join Popular Unity remains unclear. "First we will deal with strategic questions and give the youth the possibility to articulate their thoughts," Ilias Panteleakos, former head of Syriza Youth, was quoted as saying in a newspaper interview. "Our first impression is that Popular Unity is likely to repeat the mistakes of the past."

The splintering of Syriza probably won't end there, however, Tzogopoulos said: Over the past few weeks, the so-called "movement of the 53" has garnered attention, and is also forming a kind of inner opposition. The group consists of 53 representatives who generally support austerity concessions, but have now more or less warned party boss Tsipras that they strongly disapprove of the implementation of individual laws in which demands for specific budget cuts are defined. "The history of leftist politics in Greece is full of polarization and separation," Tzogopoulos said.

The current party landscape illustrates that point. In addition to Syriza and Popular Unity, orthodox communists, Leninists and the Front of the Greek Anticapitalist Left are all looking to win over left-identified voters. The social democrats, however, are consolidating. The PASOK party and their former ruling coalition partners, the Democratic Left, have now been joined by former Prime Minister Giorgos Papandreou, who has disbanded the Movement of Democratic Socialists, which he launched in January. That is good news for the new leader of PASOK, Fofi Gennimata, who, according to recent polls, can realistically hope for a third-place finish.

The splintering of the political landscape stands to benefit one man in particular - one known above all as a political clown - who will now get the chance of a lifetime: Vassilis Leventis, 64 years old, is the leader of the Union of Centrists. For years he has prophesied impeding catastrophes on trashy TV programs, especially his own, which is broadcast long after midnight. Leventis has been predicting the collapse of the Greek economy, corrupt political system and establishment since 1984. Now those predictions have in large part come to pass. And voters are likely to honor such prescience: Early polling suggests that Leventis could receive over 5 percent of the vote. Currently he is polling at 3.5 percent, which is probably enough to land him in parliament.

Suddenly, Leventis has started receiving invitations for 20-minute interviews from media outlets that had ignored him for the past 30 years. He recently explained his political program as follows: "Do away with early retirement and double and triple pensions. Cut the number of parliamentarians to 150, and cut politicians' pay by 50 percent. Pensions for former politicians should be paid solely from their own pension offices. And simply do away with pensions for well-to-do Greeks with a monthly income of more than 33,000 euros ($37,500), like Australia did with its wealthy. If we enact such brave measures, Greece will be back on its feet in two months."