What to Know About the Greek Election

Jack Moore
Greece Syriza Europe EU Election

As campaigning comes to an end ahead of Sunday's Greek election, a number of polls suggest that the vote sits on a knife edge between former Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras's left-wing Syriza party and Vangelis Meimarakis's conservative opposition New Democracy party.

The Greek public in January's election chose Syriza as its leading party in a coalition government, a decision that was followed by several dramatic months of negotiation between Brussels and Athens over Greece's debt crisis. Syriza leader Tsipras last month was forced to accept a third bailout deal with the country's Eurozone creditors in order to release a new tranche of bailout funds, in return for deep public sector cuts to prevent the country defaulting on its debt.

This contradicted his earlier position that he would never accept austerity measures imposed by "the troika"—the European Central Bank (ECB), the European Commission and the International Monetary Fund (IMF)—on the Greek people.

The agreement came after Greece missed a $1.6bn scheduled bailout repayment at the end of June, and after a huge political victory for Tsipras in July's referendum, in which the Greek people voted "No" to earlier terms offered by the creditors. Once the new terms were agreed upon, Tsipras felt obliged to resign as Greek prime minister and called early elections.

Here's what we should expect from the September 20 election, Greece's fifth in six years.

What is at stake?

There is much confusion and uncertainty among the Greek population over which party they should trust to lead the country forward, as opinion polls demonstrate. Syriza is painting the New Democracy party as the old guard, part of a kleptocracy that cannot be trusted. New Democracy is campaigning on the line that the leftist party is incompetent and that the Greek people need stability and a plan to move forward as part of the European Union.

However, despite some smaller policy differences, both parties have agreed to implement the game-changing terms of the new bailout.

"In a sense, their hands are tied, so in the immediate period, in policy terms, it would seem to be that there is almost nothing at stake," says Kevin Featherstone, professor of Contemporary Greek Studies at the London School of Economics.

However, in the medium term, after the bailout conditions have been implemented in Greece, both parties will be advocating for different policies from the European Union. Syriza is the party riding on a wave of anti-EU feeling, promising to challenge the bloc's leadership, while New Democracy is pledging to work with the union to bring a sense of stability back to a country beset by division and economic insecurity.

What could the result be?

If the polls are to be believed, New Democracy has retrieved enough support from Syriza to set up an unpredictable vote on Sunday.

A coalition is the most likely outcome on Sunday, with neither party holding the poll numbers to secure the majority needed to solely govern the country. If New Democracy wins, it could form a broad coalition with centre-left parties Pasok and To Potami, leaving Syriza as the main opposition party, with only the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn as the other significant opposition player. Syriza has also pledged to work with the two centre-left parties in the event that it needs their support to form a ruling coalition.

Analysts agree that a coalition for either party supported by both of the smaller centre-left parties is the most likely outcome. "Based on current polling this government would have around 160 to 170 seats in parliament, so a majority of 10 to 20. Not huge but enough to govern," says Raoul Ruparel, co-director at Open Europe.

New Democracy Tsipras Greece Election

Was it a mistake for Tsipras to call the election?

Following the bailout agreement, Tsipras attempted to catch New Democracy's temporary leader Meimarakis off guard by calling an early election. It was not expected that Meimarakis would run as the party's leader going forward, but he has surpassed expectations and conducted a successful campaign to climb back to neck and neck with the leftist party.

"By any reasonable judgment, the campaign has proved to be a mistake for Syriza," says Featherstone. "A very popular prime minister went into the election and gambling that his personal popularity will see him through. All of the polls suggest it is on a knife edge and suggests that he has gambled wrongly."

If Tsipras's gamble fails, Syriza as a party may split—it already lost 25 members of parliament before the election who defected to form their own party, Laiki Enotita (Popular Unity)—or it may offer both Tsipras and the young, factionalised party an opportunity to regroup, redefine itself and come again in the future, says Ruparel.

In the event that Syriza loses, is it finished as a political party?

With a number of its MPs already defecting, a loss to New Democracy just eight months after coming to power in Greece raises the prospects of the party splintering and becoming a fringe element.

While it is far from certain that the party will split, there will surely be a period of turbulence in the event of a defeat, but analysts believe that the radical party will survive any post-election fallout.

"If they are not in government, I would have thought that the party will go through a lot of blood-letting and rancour," Weatherstone says. "After a period of infighting and instability, I think there is still life left in Syriza, as it could form the main opposition and it has a populist, nationalist appeal."

How will the result impact the country's debt crisis?

In the short term, all of the parties support the bailout and its implementation, so the European Union, the Greek people and Athens' creditors already know the policy toward the debt crisis going forward.

Their hands are virtually tied by the agreement and there is little they can do to alter this regardless of the election result, says Featherstone.

However, with the implementation of the bailout terms and a possible stabilisation of the Greek economy, the country could win over its European partners again after losing much credibility during the summer's wrangling on the bailout terms.

In the longer term, there will be key negotiations later this year over debt relief and the parties will likely have different approaches to the talks. The restructuring of Greece's colossal debt, which runs into the billions, could be shaped by whoever marches to victory on Sunday.

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