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.
The biggest loser, though, was PASOK, which nose-dived from 44 percent to 13 percent -- a drop of 70 percent. As disgruntled as voters are with ND, Sunday's tallies send a clear message that most Greeks blame PASOK for their current woes.
Two winners were the nationalist Independent Greeks, which was formed only in the past two months but still managed to win 11 percent of the vote, and the fascist Golden Dawn, which also emerged from out of the blue to earn 7 percent of the vote. The surprise showing for Golden Dawn, an avowedly neo-Nazi group whose leader promised to instill "fear" in his political adversaries, in many ways is already overshadowing the coverage of the results around the world.
Despite these gains on the right, though, the biggest winner was SYRIZA, on the left, which with a jump from 5 percent to 17 percent went from the periphery of Parliament to the mainstream. As a result, SYRIZA is in a position to offer Greek society something it has not seen since the 1960s: a viable third party.
Greece's left would have even been in the majority had its two other major left-wing parties -- KKE and the Democratic Left (DA) -- been willing to join forces with SYRIZA heading into the elections. The two parties secured 8 and 6 percent of the vote, respectively, which when combined with SYRIZA's 17 percent would have given the left an insurmountable 31 percent. Their disagreements, however, paved the way for ND to earn first bite at governance, while leaving KKE and DA marginalized as power brokers.
What does all this mean for Greece looking forward? Obviously, the immediate answer will depend on whether ND can form a ruling coalition. If it can, it looks like Greece will continue to implement austerity measures -- albeit perhaps at a more cautious pace and with modified terms -- in hopes of keeping the vault door to future bailout funds open.
But time is short. Under Greek law, if the first-place party cannot form a government within three days, the mandate goes to the second-place party. (The third-place party also gets a shot, if necessary, three days after that.)
That said, there's no reason to panic just yet. Even if SYRIZA earns the mandate and manages to somehow seize the reins of power, the changes in Greek policy will hardly be "radical," as the Coalition of the Radical Left's name misleadingly implies. The party's young, charismatic leader, Alexis Tsipras, has made it clear that he has no intentions of withdrawing Greece from the eurozone, let alone the European Union. Instead, we should expect a more nuanced approach to economic revitalization, which would likely include an aggressive renegotiation of the bailout terms currently in place between Greece and the "troika" composed of the EU, the European Central Bank, and the IMF, as well as a demand for more public investment in lieu of loans.
The more troubling scenario, of course, is that none of the top three parties is able to form a coalition government, which will throw Greece right back into political turmoil and force another round of elections in June. Should that happen, we might see an additional undercutting of the two traditionally dominant parties as Greeks bank further on the fringe forces of the political spectrum. At a time when more than one in 20 Greek adults is turning to a neo-Nazi party for solutions, continued uncertainty could translate into greater extremism -- especially a disavowal of established liberal-institutionalist safeguards and a promotion of dangerous nationalist causes. That's something that could pose a long-term threat not only to Greece, but to all of Europe.
For years, Greek politicians sacrificed the public's welfare for political -- and sometimes personal -- gain. The May 6 elections were a loud, clear rejection of this practice. The voters spoke -- and they resoundingly demanded improved leadership, with greater accountability.
If Greece's new legislators are prudent, they'll heed the call of their constituents, for anything less could risk transforming the cradle of democracy into Europe's cradle of despair.