Greek politics gets far too interesting

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Recent electoral events in Greece appear to have been lightly attended to by the usual English-speaking chattering classes, so I thought I'd fill in.

First, there was a national legislative election on Sunday, and the result was fairly dramatic. The ruling left-of-centre PASOK party was comprehensively trounced. The right-of-centre New Democratic Party (yes, a right-leaning NDP, very amusing to all Canadians) gained a bit. Those are also the only two parties, as far as I can tell, that were committed to continuing the austerity/bailout policies.

The remainder of the seat-winners were parties with an anti-austerity bent, as far as I can tell. The Greek Communist party (KKE; a party that consistently gains a bit less than 10% of the popular vote) made modest gains. The even-more-left Coalition of the Radical Left (SYRIZA) made huge gains, getting 17% of the popular vote and more than quadrupling its seat count, having been far less popular than the KKE in the previous election.

More dramatically, two new parties that were anti-austerity splinter groups from PASOK and the NDP both picked up seats, and a minor right-wing party affiliated with a pro-Orthodox Church message and accused of crypto-fascism (LAOS) was wiped out of parliament. It was effectively replaced by the rather more fascistic Golden Dawn party, whose members flash the Roman salute (really, Greeks?) and whose logo hints at both the Greek Key pattern and a swastika. It's an impressive bit of graphic design, if you'll forgive me a Sobchakian moment of admiration.

What does it mean? Well, the NDP won the most seats, so they got the first shot at forming a governing coalition, and failed. SYRIZA is the next up, and I'm not sure if they will form government or not; they're trying as I write this.

(A quick aside: Ekathimerini is a pretty good source for English-language news about Greece; they're the local arm of the International Herald Tribune, which is to say they're the local arm of the New York Times, and the go-to English-language newspaper in Greece.)

At the risk of getting instantly overtaken by events, I expect that there are two completely intractable divisions in the Greek parliament: pro-bailout versus anti-austerity parties, and fascists and communists.

The most natural coalition is the two pro-austerity parties, but they don't have a majority between them; the anti-austerity parties have the majority, but only if the fascists, communists, and super-communists are willing to pull together. I'm skeptical that will be possible for even the single issue of sticking it to the IMF and the Eurozone bailout nations. I believe this if only because all three parties come from historic backgrounds that preach, more or less explicitly, that "the worse the better." It is possible the Greeks will have to go back to the ballot box before this legislature sits.

As for what will happen, even if the Greeks hold a new election, I believe this result (and the national sentiment) will push Greece to reject any further bailout compromises, which will very likely lead them to default, which will very likely lead them to exit the euro. The Greeks, unless the polls have changed since I last checked, are still very enthusiastic about the Euro in theory. But the Greek attitude to the Euro is like Elizabeth Taylor's attitude towards marrying: enthusiasm untempered by any evidence of commitment.

Meanwhile, they are still running a current account deficit, which means that even if their interest payments were zero, they would still have a deficit, which means (given that a defaulting country as virtually no access to credit markets) they'd have to cut spending or raise taxes (likely both). In other words, austerity either way.

The Greek exit out of the Eurozone seems all but certain to me, quite possibly before the Fall, for the simple reason that the Greeks have grown weary of the bailout conditions. I predict they will like what comes next even less.