Sunday's elections in Greece have shaken markets around the world, fearful that a country suddenly thrust into political chaos won't be able to pay its crushing debts and might even exit the euro. No wonder: They also mark a leap into the unknown for Greece itself. For 35 years, two political parties have dominated the game: the conservative New Democracy (ND) party and the centrist Panhellenic Socialist Movement (PASOK). But this Sunday's national elections hit Greece like an earthquake, shifting the tectonic plates that lay beneath the surface of the Greek political landscape.
Not since the 1977 national elections has a party other than ND or PASOK emerged as one of the top two contenders. Yet, angered over a declining economy, cuts in pay and pensions, rising unemployment, and deepening corruption, a significant portion of the Greek public embraced a "throw the bums out" approach to this past weekend's parliamentary elections. As a result, in a massive protest vote, the previously marginal Coalition of the Radical Left (SYRIZA) was flung into second place.
Now, for the two traditional parties of the Greek political system to stay in power, they will likely be forced to form another volatile ND-PASOK coalition government. But with the Greek public directing its ire at the political establishment, both parties' future hangs in the balance, and so too might the liberal, pro-European Union platform they've promoted since the fall of the military dictatorship in 1974.
At first glance, this might not seem so obvious. After all, in absolute terms, ND was the winner of the election, securing more votes than any other party. As a result, ND is the first party to receive the mandate to form a coalition government. Moreover, because it secured a plurality of the vote, ND gets an exclusive "winner's bonus": 50 extra seats in the 300-person Parliament.
As any good student of governance will tell you, however, all politics is relative. As such, the winner of the latest ballot showdown in Greece in relative terms was SYRIZA. The numbers leave no other conclusion.
In the 2009 elections, PASOK won 44 percent of the vote, giving it a majority in Parliament thanks to the winner's bonus, which was then only 40 seats. ND came in second place with 33 percent, making it the main opposition party. Only three other parties captured more than the prerequisite 3 percent of the popular vote required to earn seats in Parliament: the Communist Party of Greece (KKE) with 8 percent, the Popular Orthodox Rally (LAOS) with 6 percent, and SYRIZA with 5 percent.
This year's elections, in contrast, represent a stunning victory for the left. For starters, no party secured over 20 percent of the vote. Although ND has been certified as the winner of the contest, with a decline from 33 percent to 19 percent of the vote, the party's steep drop in support is embarrassing.