June 17, 2012
Imagine the pass we would have reached if the future of Britain turned on elections for Coventry city council. The eurozone has reached a comparable position, as the eyes of a continent trained on a ballot in one small corner of a vast economy, representing a mere 3% of the total. The choice of a government is of natural importance to the 11 million Greeks. But one weird consequence of the zone's lethal rigidity is that world statesmen, financial colossuses and fearful millions beyond all got obsessed with Sunday's knife-edge vote.
Greeks waited on Sunday night to learn if two, three or four points separated the conservative New Democracy from the leftist Syriza, but the important numbers for daily life are no longer measured in percentages. They come in great ugly fractions – the full one-fifth of output that has gone up in smoke, the quarter that has been hacked off many pensions and the half of young adults who are unemployed. As the world found out the hard way in the 1930s and is now discovering afresh, there is quite simply a limit to how much austerity people will swallow. The Greeks reject the strangulation of livelihood that they can see all around them, but are also determined to cling to the euro and avoid lurching back to a Balkan past. To survive, the big parties had to fit themselves around these basic contours.
After all, Sunday confirmed the collapse of social democracy in the form of Pasok and also saw a substantial vote sustained for the neo-Nazis of Golden Dawn. Despite being led by the divisive Antonis Samaras, ND thus felt obliged to demand a sweetening of the harsh bailout which it has championed. Even then, it ended down several points on its bad loss of 2009. If it is victory, it's not victory as we know it – hence the immediate spin about a grand coalition. Syriza, meanwhile, which in 2009 was a fringe coalition of malcontents ranging from Greens to Trotskyites, has toned down its Brussels bashing. Its charismatic leader, Alexis Tsipras, penned FT op-eds swearing to stick in the euro, as he trod a path from obscurity to the brink of victory in a couple of months.