It’s not surprising that Greek investors would be spooked by the idea of political turmoil that could replace Greece’s center-right coalition government with a radical leftist one as soon as February.
That possibility became much more likely yesterday, when Greek prime minister Antonis Samaras brought forward a presidential election to replace Karolos Papoulias, the 85-year-old incumbent and a founder of PASOK (Panhellenic Socialist Movement – Πανελλήνιο Σοσιαλιστικό Κίνημα), Greece’s traditional center-left party, whose second five-year term was due to expire in March 2015. Greece’s presidency, a chiefly ceremonial office like in many European parliamentary systems, is determined indirectly by the Hellenic Parliament (Βουλή των Ελλήνων), not directly through national elections.
Samaras’s decision only moves up the presidential vote by two months. Samaras leads a coalition government of his own center-right New Democracy (Νέα Δημοκρατία) and its former rival PASOK. If the coalition fails to elect a president, it will trigger the government’s collapse, bringing forward parliamentary elections that would otherwise take place in June 2016.
The prospect of early elections and the possibility that SYRIZA (the Coalition of the Radical Left — Συνασπισμός Ριζοσπαστικής Αριστεράς) and its charismatic leader, Alexis Tsipras (pictured above), could be running Greece’s economic policy within weeks was enough to send the Athens stock exchange tumbling by 12.78% on Tuesday, the largest single-day drop since 1987, as analysts went berserk explaining that a potential SYRIZA victory could spell doom not just to the European but to the global economy:
“Greece in the next 6 weeks may prove to be more important for global markets than Russia/Ukraine was in 2014,” said Charles Robertson, chief economist at Renaissance Capital. “A possible [SYRIZA] election victory may force the eurozone to choose between a fiscal union (debt write off for Greece) or the first Euro exit.”
Though voters might be weary of seven years of economic pain, Greece’s economy is actually growing at one of the highest rates in the eurozone, which is struggling with low growth and deflationary pressure. At a time when most Europeans have reason to be wary of 2015, Greeks should be confident that their economy has bottomed out, and employment and GDP growth should continue to improve in 2015 and beyond. In the long-term perspective, it’s a great time for stronger investment in Greece, not panic and divestment.
There’s reason to believe that Tsipras, once in power, would act responsibly. SYRIZA, and not PASOK, is now the standard bearer of the opposition left in Greece, but Tsipras has moderated some of his more firebrand positions. Though he is arguably the loudest critics of eurozone austerity, he is more solicitous of the investor class today than he’s ever been. Tsipras still wants to restructure Greece’s public debt (still a staggering 174% of GDP) by forcing a renegotiation that could lead to a haircut or other modification. Tsipras and his economic advisers have nevertheless committed a potential SYRIZA government to budget discipline, even while promising to ameliorate the worst of the drastic cuts to social welfare spending required under the terms of Greece’s two bailouts worth €110 billion and €130 billion, respectively, from the ‘troika’ of the European Central Bank, the European Commission and the International Monetary Fund. Reassuringly, however, Tsipras has essentially promised he will not default on Greek debt and he will not attempt to leave the eurozone.
Tsipiras is probably correct that Greece’s debt burden is not sustainable. He’s also probably right that Brussels and Berlin would cave to renegotiating that debt if the alternative is a return to the ‘Grexit’ speculation and the financial market turmoil of 2012 when the ECB is trying to wage its own fight to expand the central bank’s reflationary ‘quantitative easing’ efforts. The upside for Tsipras, if he wins a new election, is that SYRIZA would likely take credit for Greece’s economic progress just as it’s beginning to emerge from the nadir of its recessionary cycle.