Expect a Samaris / Tsipras showdown if Greece holds new June elections

Alexis Tsipras, the leader of the leftist SYRIZA (the Coalition of the Radical Left — Συνασπισμός Ριζοσπαστικής Αριστεράς) has not yet concluded that he cannot form a government, but it seems increasingly unlikely.  If he fails, Evangelos Venizelos, the former finance minister and leader of PASOK (Panhellenic Socialist Movement – Πανελλήνιο Σοσιαλιστικό Κίνημα) will yet have an opportunity to form a coalition.  If Venizelos fails, Greece’s leaders will have one last opportunity to form a ‘national unity’ government.

All things being equal, however, as neither the pro-bailout nor the anti-bailout forces seem to be able to summon enough strength to form a government, it certainly looks exceedingly likely that Greek voters will go to the polls again in June.

So who wins and who loses in the event of a second election?

Since Sunday’s election we have the learned the answers to two key questions:

First, how strong is the vote of the pro-bailout forces?  Essentially, this is the combined support of Greece’s two longstanding standard-bearers of the center-left and center-right, PASOK and New Democracy (Νέα Δημοκρατία).

The answer is… not very strong at all.  Although ND won the most votes in the election, it commanded just under 19%.  PASOK won just 13% and finished in third place well below SYRIZA.  The result was nearly a record low for each party — not even one-third of voters.

Secondly, among the (many) anti-bailout parties, which party would command the most strength?  At one point during the campaign, each of SYRIZA, KKE (Greece’s communist party), the Democratic Left (another pro-euro, anti-bailout group) and the Independent Greeks (an anti-bailout right wing party) were each commanding just over 10% of support in polls.  And, of course, the radioactive neo-fascist Golden Dawn party won nearly 7% in Sunday’s vote as well.  Together, that’s five parties that won enough support to enter the Hellenic parliament in a country that, even in 2009, featured much more of a two-party political system.

By outpacing the other anti-bailout parties, and by doing so in a way that humiliated PASOK and came close to overtaking New Democracy as well, Tsipras’s SYRIZA has demonstrated itself as the strongest anti-austerity option — it has demonstrated that it has more momentum than any other party today in highly fragmented Greece.

Instead of the free-for-all nature that characterized the first election, I expect the second election to be much more of a showdown between Tsipras, as the unofficial leader of the anti-bailout forces, and the ND’s leader, Antonis Samaras, as the unofficial leader of the pro-bailout forces.

Indeed, the outline of that showdown has already emerged as parties wrangle over potential coalitions: Tsipras has demanded that any SYRIZA-led coalition revoke the prior bailout deal with foreign creditors, the International Monetary Fund and various European Union institutions, in hopes of renegotiating some debt relief and a less aggressive schedule of spending cuts.  Samaras has responded by accusing Tsipras of endangering Greece’s euro membership.

Also, in a country where many of the same names continually emerge within the political class, the 38-year-old Tsipras cuts a brash contrast to the 60-year old Samaras, who served as foreign minister and finance minister in the 1980s and whose uncle was a longtime member of the Greek parliament.  I don’t believe that dynamic will be a deciding factor, but it will make the contrast ever more striking.

Samaras will presumably make the full-throated argument for the bailout, and the accompanying harsh budget cuts, as painful but necessary, the only way forward if Greece wants to avoid a full-throated default on its public debt and if it wants to retain the euro as its currency.

Meanwhile, I expect many of the anti-bailout voters to coalesce around SYRIZA.  Just yesterday, Fotis Kouvelis, the leader of the Democratic Left, agreed to support a SYRIZA-led anti-bailout coalition.  If the two groups formally join to contest a second election (the Democratic Left split from SYRIZA only in 2010), they would stand a very good chance of winning the most votes and therefore, be entitled to a “winner’s bonus” of 50 seats in the Hellenic parliament (the other 250 seats are awarded on the basis of proportional representation to all parties that receive at least 3% of the vote).

Even if not, anti-bailout voters will see SYRIZA as the most strategic vote, and I would expect many Democratic Left voters to migrate toward making a strategic SYRIZA vote.  Likewise, although the KKE has refused to enter any coalition (it would pull Greece out the eurozone and return to the drachma), it would not be surprising to see Tsipras peel off KKE supporters as well.  It may even be possible for Tsipras to appeal to the voters of the Independent Greeks on a broad anti-bailout platform.

Right now, it seems like the biggest loser in any new election would be PASOK.  Greeks who are willing to vote in support of a pro-bailout party may be scared into voting for New Democracy; meanwhile, the most ardent leftists in PASOK, who watched with fright as the longtime champion of the Greek left caved to ever more brutal austerity measures, will be sorely tempted to cast their lot with SYRIZA.

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