Tag Archives: bailout

Spain readies for historic, four-way election on December 20

Spain's new young king, Felipe VI, may ultimately shape his country's new country from the Palacio Real if the unprecedented four-way race leaves no party with a majority after December 20.
Spain’s new young king, Felipe VI, may ultimately shape his country’s future from the Palacio Real if the unprecedented four-way race leaves no party with a majority after December 20.

Five days before the Christmas holiday, Spanish voters will go to the polls to choose a new government in an election that’s being hailed as the country’s most important since 1982.Spain_Flag_Icon

Indeed, voter turnout may well exceed the 80% levels not seen since 1982, when Spain had only just emerged from its Francoist dictatorship and was four years away from joining the European Economic Community, the predecessor to today’s European Union. Moreover, it will also be the first general election to take place under Felipe VI, whose father Juan Carlos I abdicated in June 2014 after guiding the country’s transition to democracy in the mid-1970s.

But what makes the December 20 election so unique is that economic crisis has shattered Spain’s stable two-party electoral tradition, leaving a four-way free-for-all that could force unwieldy coalitions or a minority government at a time when the country has only just started its economic recovery. Distrust in both major parties, moreover, has opened the way for a popular far-left movement at the national level and greater discord at the regional level, most notably in Catalonia, where support for the independence movement is growing. No matter who wins power in the eurozone’s fourth-largest economy, the next Spanish government will face difficult decisions about GDP growth, lingering unemployment, and federalism and possible constitutional change.

For decades, Spanish elections were essentially, at the national level, a fight between the conservative Partido Popular (PP, the People’s Party) and the center-left Partido Socialista Obrero Español (PSOE, Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party). In the most recent 2011 election, the PP won 186 seats in the 350-member Congreso de los Diputados (Congress of Deputies), the Spanish parliament’s lower house, while the PSOE won 110 seats.

Both parties can point to massive successes over the past three decades. Under longtime PSOE prime minister Felipe González, Spain consolidated its liberal democracy and benefited greatly from closer economic and financial ties to Europe, while Barcelona’s emergence as the host of the 1992 Summer Olympics catapulted it into a world-class city. Under conservative prime minister José María Aznar, Spain joined the core of western European countries as a founding member of the eurozone in 2002 and developed widening security ties with the United States. When the PSOE returned to power in 2004 under José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, the government enacted same-sex marriage in 2005 and later negotiated a peaceful ceasefire with the paramilitary Basque nationalist group Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (ETA).

The pain in Spain

Widespread anti-austerity protests, spearheaded by the 'indignados' movements mobilized even before the previous elections in 2011. (El País / Carlos Rosillo)
Widespread anti-austerity protests, spearheaded by the ‘indignados’ movements mobilized even before the previous elections in 2011. (El País / Carlos Rosillo)

But the global financial crisis of 2008-09 and subsequent eurozone crisis of 2010 knocked Spain off its pedestal.

Not unlike Florida, Nevada and parts of California in the United States, property values in Spain fell as rapidly as they once climbed, and an economy driven by construction and easy credit sputtered to near-depression levels of contraction. Despite running a more parsimonious fiscal policy in the 2000s than even Germany, Zapatero’s government soon found its expenses far exceeding revenues, and his government engaged in a series of tax increases and spending cuts.

The Spanish electorate ousted Zapatero in December 2011, ushering the People’s Party back to power under Mariano Rajoy, whose main goal was to prevent Spain from needing to seek an emergency bailout. Despite some scares over the Spanish banking system in 2012, Rajoy succeeded in keeping Spain bailout-free, but at the cost of ever greater spending cuts and tax hikes. The Rajoy government’s tough fiscal medicine, to some degree, has worked. Yields on Spanish 10-year debt have steadily fallen from a high of over 7.2% in July 2012 to less than 1.8% today. For a country without economic expansion since 2008, the Spanish economy returned to fragile growth in 2014, and it maintained growth throughout 2015 — notching 1% growth in the second quarter of this year and 0.8% in the third.

But voters are not enthusiastic about the prospects of reelecting Rajoy, a leader who never quite managed to win over Spanish hearts. Spain’s unemployment rate today is still 21.2%, a drop from the record-high 26.9% level recorded in early 2013. But that’s still a far higher jobless rate than anywhere else in the European Union (with the exception of Greece).

In the 2008 election, before the bottom fell out of the Spanish economy, the two major parties together won 83.8% of the vote. By 2011, that percentage fell to 73.4%. If polls are correct, that percentage could fall below 50% on Sunday, as both the PP and the PSOE struggle against the surging popularity of the anti-austerity Podemos (‘We can’) on the left and the liberal, federalist Ciudadanos (C’s, Citizens) on the right.

If the election were held today, the PP would win around 110 seats, the PSOE around  90, and Podemos and Ciudadanos would each win around 60, leaving none of them with a clear majority. The uncertainty of the four-way race has both energized the electorate (in  a manner reminiscent to those first early elections in the post-dictatorship era) and enhanced the chances of post-election uncertainty that both Greece and Portugal have endured this year.  Continue reading Spain readies for historic, four-way election on December 20

Why no one actually won Portugal’s parliamentary elections

Portugal's prime minister Pedro Passos Coelho celebrates Sunday's victory, even though it may turn out to be bittersweet. (Facebook)
Portugal’s prime minister Pedro Passos Coelho celebrates Sunday’s victory, even though it may turn out to be bittersweet. (Facebook)

The headline from Sunday’s Portuguese parliamentary election results highlighted the fact that the country’s center-right government won despite the fact that it implemented an unpopular bailout program that entailed difficult spending cuts and tax increases.portugal flag

That’s true, of course, and the electoral coalition of prime minister Pedro Passos Coelho did emerge with the largest share of the vote. Later this week, it’s expected that he will receive a mandate to form a new government from Portugal’s president Aníbal Cavaco Silva.


RELATED: Portugal holds first post-bailout elections


With neither of Portugal’s mainstream parties able to win a majority of seats in the country’s 230-member, unicameral Assembleia da República (Assembly of the Republic), early elections seem certain to follow in due course. Though it’s likely that Passos Coelho’s center-right coalition, Portugal à Frente (Portugal Ahead) will indeed form a minority government, it will need the support of its chief opponent, the center-left Partido Socialista (PS, Socialist Party) to pass next year’s budget and other key measures. With the country no longer subject to the term of its prior bailout program, and with the economy set to grow for the second consecutive year in 2015, the Socialists will almost certainly demand a high price in exchange for support, including some relief from the austerity measures of the past half-decade.

portugal15 portugalassembly

A disagreement, however, could lead the country to a snap vote, perhaps as soon as next summer. While no new elections can follow for six months, no minority government since the end of the Salazar-era military dictatorship in 1974 has been able to hold onto power for a full four-year term.

In truth, no one won Portugal’s elections, and turnout dropped from 5.59 million (around 58%) in 2011, then a record low since the return of democracy, to just 5.38 million on Sunday (around 57%). The center-right’s ‘victory’ is as Pyrrhic as they come, the center-left’s modest gains belie doubts about past performance, and radical leftists haven’t received the same welcome as in crisis-struck Spain or Greece.
Continue reading Why no one actually won Portugal’s parliamentary elections

Portugal holds first post-bailout elections

António Costa, the popular former mayor of Lisbon, campaigns earlier this week. (Facebook)

Portugal might be the only place in crisis-plagued Europe where politics still feel like they’re stuck in the year 2000.portugal flag

There’s no virulent anti-austerity party like Podemos (the far-left movement of indignados in neighboring Spain) or the plucky SYRIZA of Greek prime minister Alexis Tspiras.

There’s no citizen’s movement of the kind that powers Beppe Grillo’s Five-Star Movement in Italy or Czech finance minister and businessman Andrej Babiš’s ANO.

There’s no anti-EU group like Nigel Farage’s UKIP or the eurosceptic Alternative for Germany.

There’s not even an anti-immigrant force like the far-right parties of Scandinavia or Marine Le Pen’s Front national in France.

It’s still a country that only last year returned to GDP growth after four years of recession in the past half-decade, a country with a 13% unemployment rate, a country that has hemorrhaged hundreds of thousands of educated graduates to jobs elsewhere in Europe and the Lusophone world. Portugal concluded its €78 billion bailout in May 2014 ahead of schedule (and without needing a second bailout) after a program of income tax and VAT increases and cuts to social spending, wages, benefits, unemployment benefits and public-sector jobs.

Still, no one seems incredibly angry in Portugal about any of this.

Portuguese prime minister Pedro Passos Coelho and his deputy and foreign minister, Paulo Portas, campaign for reelection for their center-right government. (Facebook)
Portuguese prime minister Pedro Passos Coelho and his deputy and foreign minister, Paulo Portas, campaign for reelection for their center-right government. (Facebook)

That’s perhaps one reason why the current center-right government, headed by prime minister Pedro Passos Coelho, has such a good chance of at winning reelection on October 4, when voters will elect the 230 members of Portugal’s unicameral Assembleia da República (Assembly of the Republic).  Polls show that his center-right electoral coalition, anchored by the Partido Social Democrata (PSD, Social Democratic Party), will win the largest share of the vote. That’s probably only because Passos Coelho was smart enough to join forces with his junior governing partner, the more socially conservative Centro Democrático e Social – Partido Popular (CDS-PP, Democratic and Social Center — People’s Party).

Together, the coalition now holds a narrow lead over the opposition center-left Partido Socialista (PS, Socialist Party), led by the charismatic former mayor of the Portuguese capital of Lisbon, António Costa, who has served as a minister in several administrations, most recently as interior minister in the cabinet of now-disgraced former prime minister José Sócrates.

Although the forces of the united Portuguese right will likely fall far short of their 2011 electoral victory, the Socialists will likewise not achieve the same clear victory of the 2009 election. While that means the newly united Portuguese right is favored to win a narrow victory, it also means that no single party will have a majority in the National Assembly.

Another explanation for the election’s conundrums?

No one really cares.  Continue reading Portugal holds first post-bailout elections

Greek election results: Tsipras and streamlined SYRIZA return to power


Alexis Tspiras’s victory in Sunday’s snap elections in Greece is reminiscent of Richard Wagner’s four-opera marathon Ring cycle — at the end of hours of drama, the ring ends up more or less right where it began, with the Rhinemaidens.Greece Flag Icon

So it was in Greece, where voters have faced a tumultuous eight months under the first Tsipras government that began when Tspiras led the fiercely anti-austerity SYRIZA (the Coalition of the Radical Left — Συνασπισμός Ριζοσπαστικής Αριστεράς) to a near-landslide win in January’s parliamentary elections.

Influenced by hardline academic Yanis Varoufakis, his initial finance minister, Tsipras tried (and failed) to extract concessions from European lenders with respect to the often harsh conditions tied to Greece’s first two bailouts. Back in January, Tsipras promised Greek voters that he would reduce the country’s austerity conditions while keeping Greece within the eurozone. However, with a looming default to the International Monetary Fund in late June, Tsipras called a July 5 referendum to give voters a chance to weigh in on the terms that eurozone finance ministers were offering Greece in exchange for extending its second bailout.

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RELATED: Why this weekend’s election in Greece doesn’t really matter

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Though Tsipras won a resounding “No/Oxi” against the bailout deal, the political victory came at a cost. His government was forced to introduce capital controls within hours of calling the referendum,  and Greece officially defaulted on its IMF payment. During the nine-day referendum campaign, Greece’s financial condition deteriorated so much that Greece faced its most serious risk in five years of being pushed out of the eurozone. Dismissing Varoufakis in favor of the more moderate Euclid Tsakalotos, Tsipras reversed course and ultimately entered talks for a third bailout of €86 billion, with at least a vague, face-saving promise to consider debt relief later this year. The new bailout, in turn, led to a massive rebellion within SYRIZA, so much so that Tsipras needed opposition support to enact the key parliamentary votes on the third bailout. By the end of the summer, former energy minister Panagiotis Lafazanis and 24 far-left SYRIZA MPs, including the fiery parliamentary speaker Zoe Konstantopoulou, split into a new party, Popular Unity (LE, Λαϊκή Ενότητα), dedicated to reintroducing the drachma.

As a result, Tsipras called snap elections for September 20 as a way of winning an electoral mandate for his considerable volte face and as a way of consolidating his control over the increasingly centrist SYRIZA, purged of its far-left wing.

So, after all of that, what happened?

Not much. Despite a turnout that was around 800,000 lower than in January, the end result was a Hellenic parliament that now looks almost exactly the same as it did when Tsipras resigned late last month to call elections. Defying polls that showed SYRIZA tied with the center-right New Democracy (ND, Νέα Δημοκρατία), Tsipras’s party (newly purged of its anti-bailout rebels) defeated ND by a margin of over 7% — SYRIZA lost just 0.88% support versus the January result, ND gained merely 0.29%.


That was enough for SYRIZA to win 145 seats, just a loss of four from January, and strong enough that Tsipras will continue to govern with the same junior partner,  the ‘anti-austerity,’ right-wing nationalist Independent Greeks (ANEL, Ανεξάρτητοι Έλληνες). Despite fears that ANEL’s support would fall below the 3% threshold to enter parliament, the party cleared the hurdle and will lose just seven seats.


Together, it’s enough for a fragile majority, but the best news for Tsipras is that the SYRIZA rebels in Popular Unity fell just short of the 3% hurdle.

What does that mean for Greece’s future? Continue reading Greek election results: Tsipras and streamlined SYRIZA return to power

Why this weekend’s election in Greece doesn’t really matter

meimarakis-tsipras-Photo credit to International Balkan News Agency.

In the televised debate earlier this week, Greece’s recent prime minister Alexis Tsipras dismissed the idea of a grand coalition as ‘unnatural,’ arguing that Greek voters would have to choose between a progressive coalition or a conservative coalition.Greece Flag Icon

Tsipras, however, is wrong.

Greek voters aren’t choosing much of anything at all. Greece is essentially now a fiscal ward of the eurozone’s finance ministers, and the next Greek parliament’s composition will not be much different than the current one, a mix of left-wing and right-wing legislators who committed to implementing the EU-mandated bailout program, despite their misgivings, because the alternative would be much worse.

Whether the recent prime minister Alexis Tsipras, leader of SYRIZA (Συνασπισμός Ριζοσπαστικής Αριστεράς, the Coalition of the Radical Left), or the opposition leader Vangelis Meimarakis (pictured above, left, with Tsipras), head of conservative  New Democracy (ND, Νέα Δημοκρατία) leads that effort doesn’t actually matter all that much.

In substance, it’s the choice between orange-flavored sorbet or tangerine-flavored sorbet.

Neither leader will truly be in charge of Greece’s fiscal policy, because that is already being set by eurozone finance ministers in Brussels and Berlin. The best that the next prime minister can hope for is some form of debt relief — eurozone leaders will discuss the matter in October, and economists believe that some form of debt relief (even if that just means extending Greece’s repayment period) will be necessary, despite strident political opposition in countries like Germany, Finland and The Netherlands.

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RELATED: Greece to vote in September snap elections

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The election is now a dead heat — polls show that the Tsipras-led rump of SYRIZA is essentially tied with New Democracy. Though the 300-member Hellenic Parliament is generally determined by proportional representation, the winner of Sunday’s election gains a ‘bonus’ of 50 seats, so even a narrow win means a windfall for the first-placed party.

But the question is chiefly one of style and symbolism — and which leader the electorate believes can lead Greece through the bailout in the most efficient and painless manner in light of the constraints any government will face in charting its own fiscal policy course. Continue reading Why this weekend’s election in Greece doesn’t really matter

Greece to vote in September snap elections


Ballot-worn and crisis-weary Greeks will go to the polls for the third time in nine months in what amounts to a fresh referendum on the country’s third European bailout.Greece Flag Icon

Facing a growing insurgency in his own government as he implements the terms of a new European Union-backed bailout of up to €96 billion, prime minister Alexis Tsipras will dissolve the Hellenic Parliament and call early elections for September 20 — in an autumn where Turkey, just across the Aegean Sea, is also likely to hold snap elections after the apparent failure of coalition talks.

There’s already been a disproportionately large amount of ink spilled on poor Greece in 2015. With the first disbursement of the country’s third bailout accomplished, though, there’s probably no better time for Tsipras to go to the electorate. The early expectation is that Tsipras will survive the elections and govern with a more stable and likely centrist majority. But if you’ve learned anything about Greek politics this year, it’s that you should expect the unexpected twists and turns of a country that’s struggling culturally, economically and politically to exit crisis mode.

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RELATED: Both Greece and Turkey could be headed
for autumn snap elections

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From anti-austerity crusade in January to a third bailout in July 


Tsipras (pictured above), the leader of SYRIZA (Συνασπισμός Ριζοσπαστικής Αριστεράς, the Coalition of the Radical Left), won election in January on a pledge to reduce the terms of Greece’s memorandum and provide relief from the effects of a half-decade of austerity imposed on Greece’s fiscal policy — all without endangering Greek membership in the eurozone. After months of talks, headed by his outspoken one-time finance minister Yanis Varoufakis, it became clear that Greece did not have the political leverage that Tsipras hoped would force a more lenient deal for his country. By the end of June, it was clear that the eurozone’s finance ministers had no appetite for extending Greece’s second bailout program without additional concessions to cut Greece’s still-bloated public sector and to reform its economy.

Tsipras then hastily called a referendum for July 5, campaigning against the latest deal on offer by the Europeans, and the ‘no’ campaign (‘oxi‘) won a stronger-than-expected victory, despite closing Greece’s banks and imposing capital controls that restricted daily ATM withdrawals, at their nadir, to just €60.

Despite the referendum, Tsipras returned to the negotiating table and ultimately accepted a proposal for the third bailout — with terms even tougher than those rejected in the July 5 referendum. Tsipras, who dismissed Varoufakis as his finance minister hours after the referendum, argued that Greece had to choose between two tough choices — austerity tied to yet another bailout program or the insolvency and financial chaos that would result from a disorderly exit from the eurozone. Tsipras essentially admitted at the time that he had no ‘plan B,’ and that his country lacked the foreign reserves to establish a new currency in the event of ‘Grexit.’

Leftist rebels increasingly split from SYRIZA over bailout

SYRIZA, until recently a loose coalition of leftists ranging from mildly anti-austerity centrists to former communists, almost immediately split over whether to accept the third bailout, in spite of the chaotic alternative. In particular, Varoufakis and then-energy minister Panagiotis Lafazanis, the leader of Left Platform (Αριστερή Πλάτφορμα), have been vocal critics of the deal, and parliamentary speaker Zoe Konstantopoulou attacked it vociferously in several key votes.

For the past month, however, Tsipras has pushed through the terms of the third bailout with dwindling support from his own party, and opposition MPs have kept his government and the bailout afloat. SYRIZA controls 149 of 300 seats in the parliament, and its junior governing partner, the nationalist right-wing and anti-austerity Independent Greeks (ANEL, Ανεξάρτητοι Έλληνες), control just 13 more seats. But by last week, support from within Tsipras’s coalition dropped to below 120.

Ultimately, Tsipras wants to call snap elections because he can’t function indefinitely with a government that refuses to deliver him a majority. By calling a fresh vote, Tsipras hopes to win a mandate for his new approach and for the new bailout program, though even Tsipras himself has grumbled that its terms will continue to retard Greek GDP growth and employment, keeping Greece stuck in its six-year economic depression.

There are no reliable August polls, but surveys from the summer show that SYRIZA, under Tsipras’s leadership, still commands a massive majority of around 40% compared to just 20% for the center-right opposition, New Democracy (ND, Νέα Δημοκρατία).

But we have no polls that show what might happen if, as seems likely, Left Platform splits formally from SYRIZA. This is a crucial question because the party that wins the most votes in an election also wins a ‘bonus’ of 50 MPs. So if Left Platform steals a significant share of SYRIZA’s voters, another third party — most likely New Democracy — could win the election with a much smaller share of the vote.

Tsipras is a wily campaigner, though, and he should benefit from the fact that for the first six months of his premiership, he engaged in substantial brinksmanship in pursuit of a better deal for Greece.

He failed.

So the challenge for Varoufakis and Left Platform will be to describe how they would otherwise succeed — and how a eurozone exit would make life easier for Greece’s poor and its shrinking middle class. After all, Varoufakis and Lafazanis were key players in Tspiras’s government until July. At some point, voters will realize that the SYRIZA rebels have little more to offer than Greece’s Communist Party (KKE, Κομμουνιστικό Κόμμα Ελλάδας), which won only 5.5% in the January election. Tspiras, having followed Varoufakis’s advice, brought his country to the edge of Grexit. Tsipras will argue that Left Platform and the Greek Communists offer no solution that will keep Greece in the eurozone, and he’ll have the political scars of the last six months to prove it.

The state of Greece’s center-right and center-left opposition

Ultimately, however, Tsipras’s greatest threat may come from the right, which encompasses not just the traditional Greek right, but the center and the center-left as well. They will argue that Tsipras’s hardball negotiation tactics not only failed, but needlessly disrupted a nascent economic recovery and led to the flight of billions of deposits from Greek banks. And that’s not incorrect. But Tsipras will argue that, unlike his predecessors, conservative Antonis Samaras and leftist George Papandreou, he fought for Greek sovereignty in the face of the eurozone’s unelected officials and tried to reintroduce the democratic voice of the Greek people into the debate over Greece’s economic future.

Moreover, by calling snap elections so soon, Tsipras also hopes he can win a mandate before even more economic pain befalls voters from the additional pension cuts and an increase in Greece’s VAT required under the new bailout.

With former prime minister Antonis Samaras’s resignation after the July referendum, New Democracy has removed one of the most toxic figures in Greek politics from its leadership. But its acting leader, Vangelis Meimarakis, in office for six weeks, hardly seems prepared for the sudden challenge of unseating Tsipras. Nor does Fofi Gennimata, the leader of Greece’s once-dominant center-left party, PASOK (Panhellenic Socialist Movement — Πανελλήνιο Σοσιαλιστικό Κίνημα). She’s held the PASOK leadership only since June 14.


Tsipras’s most credible opponent will be centrist Stavros Theodorakis, a former television reporter and commentator who founded To Potami (Το Ποτάμι, which means ‘The River’), a centrist, pro-European party, in February 2014. Theodorakis (pictured above) harshly condemned Tsipras’s decision to call a referendum over extending Greece’s bailout, but he has nevertheless supported Tsipras’s efforts to enact Greece’s new bailout since mid-July. As a more pragmatic and centrist ‘Tsipras 2.0’ is emerging, the distance between him and Theodorakis is shrinking.

If Tsipras wins, that means he will look towards To Potami as a coalition partner in his next government; until then, however, he will be fighting with Theodorakis over the same pool of centrist and center-left voters.

Though the Independent Greeks have backed Tsipras throughout the ups and downs of the last seven months, it’s not clear how such an anti-austerity party will hold onto its support after having embraced a new bailout memorandum. Its leader, defense minister Panos Kammenos, could face an uphill battle in selling the bailout deal. If ANEL collapses, however, it could be to the gain of Golden Dawn (Χρυσή Αυγή), a eurosceptic, anti-bailout, anti-immigrant and neo-fascist group that vies with To Potami for third place in the polls, typically with between 5% and 8% support.

Both Greece, Turkey could be headed for snap elections


August may be among the most quiet periods of the year for world politics, especially in Europe as workers spend weeks away on holiday. Greece Flag IconTurkey

But events earlier this week made it very likely that two Mediterranean countries could hold snap elections later this year, adding greater political uncertainty to a European electoral calendar that will see elections for a new Labour leader in the United Kingdom next month, a new regional government in Catalunya (with implications for the Catalan independence movement) and new national governments in Portugal, Poland and Spain.

Greece’s troubled far-left government may call a vote of confidence as it begins implementing the country’s third bailout package, finalized with European leaders last weekend despite onerous conditions that could retard economic growth for years. The bailout and its aftermath could split prime minister Alexis Tsipras’s ruling SYRIZA (Συνασπισμός Ριζοσπαστικής Αριστεράς, the Coalition of the Radical Left). With far-left SYRIZA rebels already opposed to the bailout and with other opposition parties refusing to prop up Tsipras’s government, Greece could be forced to hold its second election since January, when SYRIZA first swept to power.

Across the Aegean Sea, Turkey may find itself forced to hold a repeat election after the ruling Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi (AKP, the Justice and Development Party) of president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and prime minister Ahmet Davutoğlu (pictured above) apparently failed to find common ground with Turkey’s two largest opposition parties, leaving it just shy of a majority in the Turkish parliament. Without a working majority, Erdoğan may be forced to call a new election by August 23, when Davutoğlu’s mandate to form a coalition government expires. Continue reading Both Greece, Turkey could be headed for snap elections

If Grexit comes, Greece will have wasted five years in depression


Photo credit to Orestis Panagiotou / EPA.

If you think the past nine days have been tense, just wait.Greece Flag Icon

For all the uncertainty and mistrust that have characterized Greek-EU relations since Greek prime minister Alexis Tsipras suddenly announced a snap referendum last Friday, the week ahead promises to reach ever dizzying heights of suspense after Greek voters delivered a strong endorsement to Tsipras by rejecting the terms of the most recent deal on offer from the Eurogroup — over 61% of the electorate voted no (or ‘oxi’). The result, whether Tsipras admits it or not, essentially begins the process by which Greece will eventually leave the eurozone.

There are no winners here.

Tsipras and the far-left SYRIZA (Συνασπισμός Ριζοσπαστικής Αριστεράς, the Coalition of the Radical Left) took power after January’s parliamentary elections on the mutually incompatible pledge of keeping Greece in the eurozone while demanding more lenient conditions from the country’s creditors. In so doing, Tspiras miscalculated European goodwill. It wasn’t unreasonable for Tsipras and finance minister Yanis Varoufakis to argue that Greece’s debt load is unsustainable. Moreover, even plenty of orthodox economists, including many at the International Monetary Fund, one of Greece’s creditors, admit that years of austerity have exacerbated economic conditions — GDP contraction of nearly 30% since 2008, a 26% unemployment rate and a nearly 50% youth unemployment rate. But the erratic and amateurish approach of the Greek government, capped by Tsipras’s 11th-hour decision to call the July 5th referendum, destroyed what little goodwill remained for his government.

There’s still time — even now — for Greece and the rest of Europe to reach a deal. But the complete lack of trust between Tsipras’s government and the entirety of the rest of the eurozone’s leadership makes it much less likely to happen. The complete breakdown in trust between Tsipras and even sympathetic European leaders must certainly rank among the most troubling casualties of the past nine days. Continue reading If Grexit comes, Greece will have wasted five years in depression

IMF report backs up Tsipras in Greek referendum


Did the International Monetary Fund’s latest proposal just basically admit Greek prime minister Alexis Tsipras is right? Greece needs, under still-optimistic growth projections, at least € 50 billion through 2018 and debt restructuring. If Berlin admitted this even a week ago, we’d have avoided a lot of trauma. So while the Greek government is still amateur-hour, Tsipras, finance minister Yanis Varoufakis (picutred above with IMF managing director Christine Lagarde) and the rest are fundamentally correct — Greece can’t meet its debt burden.Greece Flag Icon

All of this should have been easily foreseeable five years ago. The answer is that this deal, like the eurozone’s creation in the 1990s, was more about politics than economics. I don’t know if that means ‘nai’ or ‘oxi’ or what ‘nai’ or ‘oxi’ generally even mean anymore.

As Schäuble sneers, Greeks agree four-month debt deal

schaublePhoto credit to Bloomberg News.

If you want to know which side ‘thinks it won’ in today’s temporary deal between Greece and the Eurogroup, you need look no further than the extraordinary statement from German finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble, who essentially spiked the ball in Greece’s face after winning a key concession from its new anti-austerity government that it would honor existing Greek commitments to its creditors in exchange for a four-month extension of its bailout program:Greece Flag Icon

“Being in government is a date with reality, and reality is often not as nice as a dream,” the conservative veteran said, stressing Athens would get no aid payments until its bailout program was properly completed. “The Greeks certainly will have a difficult time to explain the deal to their voters.”

Even if you think the Greek government had little leverage to force the Eurogroup to accept its demands and even if you think today’s temporary deal is at least a step on the path to a stronger Greece within the eurozone, I can’t think of a statement from any European leader more at odds with reality and basic political acumen since the out-of-touch musings of former French president Valéry Giscard d’Estaing in 2004 and 2005, when he was in charge of the process to enact a constitution for the European Union, a process that died when France itself rejected the constitution in a referendum.

It’s as if Schäuble (pictured above with Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis) actively wants to feed the notion that Germany dominates European policymaking. His comments might play well in Munich or Stuttgart, but they’ll be poisonous in Madrid and Athens, and cause some amount of indignation in capitals like Paris and Dublin. 

Imagine a different response, whereby German chancellor Angela Merkel delivered a statement that, even while holding steady against concessions to the Greek government, acknowledged Greece’s economic suffering and acknowledged that the Berlin-led bailouts have caused more harm than anticipated — an admission, by the way, that the International Monetary Fund was already making years ago.

A German Europe, and a divided Europe

Greece is in a depression that’s now lasted six years and runs deeper than the Great Depression of the 1930s in either Europe or the United States. Unemployment is rife in Spain, so much so that an untested anti-austerity group, Podemos, now leads polls for the general election later this year. Italy, for now, has placed its trust in its young Tuscan prime minister Matteo Renzi, who seems to have far more commitment to reform than ability to carry it out. Romania and Bulgaria, despite responsible budget policies, are being hollowed out by depopulation and migration to wealthier EU countries.

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RELATED: What a Eurogroup-brokered deal with Greece might look like

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Europe’s best and brightest are leaving economically depressed regions and countries, and they’re heading to London. To Amsterdam. To Frankfurt. That’s left national governments responsible for fiscal commitments to social welfare, education and health care. While its most ambitious citizens look abroad for careers, these national governments find their revenues shrinking and their obligations increasing. Continue reading As Schäuble sneers, Greeks agree four-month debt deal

What a Eurogroup-brokered deal with Greece might look like


At times this week, it has felt nearly like the European Union was brokering a bailout of Ukrainian debt, while working to negotiate a ceasefire with Greece.European_UnionGreece Flag Icon

But as Greece’s new left-wing government and the Eurogroup, the collection of eurozone finance ministers, work over the weekend for a new Greek debt deal to float Greece’s treasury for the next two years (or thereabouts), there are glimmers of hope on both sides that a deal might possibly emerge. Negotiations continue as the February 28 deadline approaches, when Greece’s current bailout program is scheduled to end.

So what might that deal ultimately be? Above all, any deal that attempts to put Greece on a long-term path to prosperity needs to start from the notion that its debt burden of nearly 175% of GDP growth is simply unsustainable. You might not hear that in public from figures like German chancellor Angela Merkel, German finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble, European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker or Eurogroup president and Dutch finance minister Jeroen Dijsselbloem, but it’s likely another story in private.

No matter how many cuts successive governments make to future budgets, the cost of servicing that debt will cripple its ability to provide the same level of public services to Greek citizens — especially at a time when unemployment remains so high. (Not everyone has the view, however, that the Greek debt burden is so incredibly unsustainable).

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RELATED: A Russian bailout may have always been Plan B for Tsipras

RELATED: Seven lessons from the Greek election results

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Here’s an outline of what to expect — perhaps as soon as early Monday morning: Continue reading What a Eurogroup-brokered deal with Greece might look like

Seven lessons from the Greek election results


Greece’s voters have effected a political earthquake in making leftist Alexis Tspiras their new prime minister, delivering a near-majority to the far-left and giving the European Union its first full-throated anti-austerity government since the onset of the eurozone’s sovereign debt crisis in 2009-10.Greece Flag Icon

Tsipras’s party, SYRIZA (the Coalition of the Radical Left — Συνασπισμός Ριζοσπαστικής Αριστεράς), is now the most left-wing governing party in the European Union and, with the exception of economist Yiannis Dragasakis, who served as deputy finance minister in a short-lived technocratic government a quarter-century ago, it’s a party with no significant governing experience.


hellenicparliamentDespite a 50-seat ‘winner’s bonus’ for SYRIZA, which significantly outpolled New Democracy, the party fell just short of an outright majority in Greece’s unicameral Hellenic Parliament (Βουλή των Ελλήνων). Earlier, today, however, Tsipras announced that he would form an alliance with the Independent Greeks (ANEL, Ανεξάρτητοι Έλληνες), an anti-austerity spinoff from New Democracy. Its leader, Panos Kammenos, last week scoffed that Europe is governed by ‘neo-Nazi Germans,’ and he is something of a loose cannon on the Greek political scene, and he has sometimes veered toward nationalist and even anti-Semitic rhetoric. Like Tsipras, he has brutally denounced the conditions of Greece’s two bailouts over the past half-decade, but he agrees on little else with the country’s new leftist prime minister.

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RELATED: EU should give Tsipras a chance to govern

RELATED: Meet Greece’s new economic policymakers

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So what should you make of the fast-moving events in Greece and the aftermath of Sunday’s elections? Here are seven key lessons.

Continue reading Seven lessons from the Greek election results

Meet Greece’s new economic policymakers


With the Greek far left set to take power after Sunday’s staggering parliamentary elections, its next prime minister Alexis Tspiras will be just one of many key figures who will now become the central players in the latest chapter of the European Union’s economic policy debate.Greece Flag Icon

After Tspiras, no one will be more important than the economic advisers to whom the new government will entrust its attempt to reverse Greek economic policy and to negotiate debt relief from skeptical European Union leaders and international bondholders.

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RELATED: EU should give Tsipras a chance to govern

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Among the chief economic advisers to Tsipras and the soon-to-be-governing SYRIZA (the Coalition of the Radical Left, Συνασπισμός Ριζοσπαστικής Αριστεράς) are a handful of colorful personalities, from moderates to Marxists, all of whom will shape Greek economic policy in the years ahead.

Varoufakis: the political neophyte and telegenic economics professor

Yanis Varoufakis, an economics professor at the University of Athens, is widely tipped to become Greece’s next finance minister or, at the very least, lead the new government in negotiations with the troika — the European Central Bank, European Commission and the International Monetary Fund — and other EU leaders. Until very recently, Varoufakis was an outsider to Greek politics. He’s not a politician and, until recently, was a visiting professor at the University of Texas in Austin.

Varoufakis, however, was invited to run for a parliamentary seat by SYRIZA’s leaders. His international profile (Varoufakisis half Australian) and fluent English skills mean that he could soothe international markets as the chief economic spokesperson for Greece’s new government. A former adviser to George Papandreou in the early 2000s, Varoukakis has been a strident critic of the austerity measures that, first Papandreou and, since 2012, outgoing prime minister Antonis Samaras have accepted as conditions for Greece’s two bailouts, totaling €240 billion. In his announcement that he would stand as a candidate for the Hellenic Parliament, he compared that austerity to ‘fiscal waterboarding’:

Instead of discussing, in the European Union’s fora, the nature of our systemic crisis, the powers-that-be were busy fiscally waterboarding proud nations, letting them take a few short breaths before submerging them again into the waters of illiquidity.

Somewhat unusually for a European finance minister, Varoufakis has not shied away from criticizing the United States. Three years ago, Varoufakis wrote a book, The Global Minotaur, that paints a menacing portrait of the role of US economic policy vis-à-vis the rest of the world and American workers. Continue reading Meet Greece’s new economic policymakers

EU should give Tsipras a chance to govern


With his sweeping victory today in Greece, Alexis Tspiras has led the far left to its only victory since his country’s return to democratic rule in 1974.Greece Flag Icon

In so doing, Tsipras (pictured above) and the socialist SYRIZA (the Coalition of the Radical Left, Συνασπισμός Ριζοσπαστικής Αριστεράς) have upended the political order in a country that, for more than four decades, shifted between the rule of political elites on both the center-right and the center-left, often hailing from two or three dozen well-connected families. Tsipras’s victory today is as much the defeat of that Greek political elite on both the left and right, which cumulatively share responsibility for irresponsible budget policies and widespread corruption in government.

More recently, they have also shared responsibility for the Greek bailout that ceded significant control over Greek fiscal policy to the ‘troika’ of the International Monetary Fund, the European Central Bank and the European Commission. Center-left prime minister George Papandreou (himself the son of a prime minister) accepted the first bailout in his term, between 2009 and 2011. Since 2012, a grand coalition headed by center-right prime minister Antonis Samaras and center-left deputy prime minister Evangelos Venizelos, have also accepted the increasingly onerous demands of the troika in exchange for the funding that has floated Greece’s treasury since the eurozone crisis of 2010.

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RELATED: What to expect from Greece’s January 25 snap elections

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Tsipras, at age 40, emerged in the lead-up to the 2012 parliamentary elections, by consolidating support on the Greek left in his denunciations of the grinding course of austerity that accompanied Greece’s humiliating bailout. Then, Greece was only in its third consecutive year of recession and, remarkably, the unemployment rate was actually lower then (24.8%) than it is today (25.8%), with the country nominally back on the path to GDP growth.

But for all the smoke of the election campaign, and for all Tsipras’s fiery rhetoric, the reality is that Tsipras and SYRIZA have spent the past three years moderating their positions and preparing for the day when Tspiras would lead the next Greek government, which may prove more ‘pragmatic left’ than ‘radical left.’

In 2012, Tspiras was ambivalent (at best) about Greece’s eurozone membership. Today, however, Tspiras is adamant, along with a wide majority of the Greek electorate, that Greece must retain the single currency. Whereas SYRIZA once mused about defaulting on greek debt and ripping up the ‘memorandum’ of stipulations that governs the country’s two bailouts, which totals €240 billion, the party now pledges to renegotiate Greece’s debt burden with EU leaders in an orderly manner. Though Tspiras and other SYRIZA leaders are committed to reversing the grinding austerity of the past six years, they will seek to do so in the context of a balanced budget (as opposed to the 4% to 5% surplus that outgoing prime minister Antonis Samaras hoped to achieve).

Tsipras, in short, will govern more like a social democrat than a democratic socialist. As prime minister, with the full weight on government on his shoulders, Tspiras will be hard-pressed to deliver appreciable relief from six years of austerity, recession and unemployment. To devote more funding for public services and boost growth will require a very different skill set than the campaign oratory of the past three years.  Continue reading EU should give Tsipras a chance to govern

What to expect from Greece’s January 25 snap elections


With the failure of Greece’s parliament to elect a president after a third and final vote this morning, prime minister Antonis Samaras will dissolve the parliament and schedule early elections — most likely on January 25.Greece Flag Icon

It will be the first election since June 2012, when Samaras’s center-right New Democracy (Νέα Δημοκρατία) narrowly defeated the hard-left SYRIZA (the Coalition of the Radical Left — Συνασπισμός Ριζοσπαστικής Αριστεράς). According to just about every poll, SYRIZA holds a lead of between 3% and 7% against New Democracy.

Expect a tough Samaras-Tsipras fight for first place

Samaras is a wily and seasoned campaigner, and he will undoubtedly cast himself as the guardian of Greece’s long-term stability. On Monday morning, he was lashing out at ‘political terrorism,’ and warning that a SYRIZA victory would allow Greece’s sacrifices to go to waste. SYRIZA will face sustained criticism — some justified, some overblown — from just about every quarter in Europe that it and its leader, Alexis Tspiras, are dangerous ideologues whose policies could force Greece out of the eurozone in 2015. Already, publications like The Guardian are referring to Greece being ‘plunged into crisis.’ Expect the fear-mongering about the consequences of a SYRIZA victory to be on par with efforts by the British political establishment and business community in the fraught week leading up to the Scottish independence referendum. It’s by no means certain that SYRIZA’s narrow single-digit lead will survive that kind of onslaught.

The fight between SYRIZA and New Democracy is so important because the first-place finisher in the election will not only win the largest share of seats in the 300-member Hellenic Parliament (Βουλή των Ελλήνων), but also a 50-seat ‘bonus’ meant to provide the winning party with enough seats to form a working majority government. Over the next few days, it will be worth watching to see whether SYRIZA or New Democracy convince any other smaller parties to merge, because the marginal value of even a one-vote victory in Greek elections is so consequential.

Since 2012, Greek economic conditions are slightly improved. Greece’s GDP is set to grow by between 1.0% and 1.4% in 2014, following six consecutive years of contraction, and there’s every reason to believe it will continue to expand in 2015. The government even attempted a reasonably successful bond sale in April, and Greece’s staggering unemployment rate is now just 25.7%, down from its high of 28%.

Nevertheless, the dual cuts of budget austerity and economic depression have, understandably perhaps, left the Greek electorate weary of renewing a mandate for austerity, and the uncertainty over the country’s political future has pushed 10-year bond yields to an unsustainable 8.5%.

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Greece’s ‘bailout’ questions remain unsolved

Fueling that uncertainty is Greece’s planned exit from its bailout program in February 2015, just days after the election.

Continue reading What to expect from Greece’s January 25 snap elections