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What the Greek election tells us about Europe

A political consensus shattered.

A Greek election poster in Athens
A couple walk passed and election poster of the Democratic Alliance party in Athens, 3 May 2012. Credit: Getty Images

Greece is infamous for its earthquakes and the political earthquake caused by yesterday’s elections will have far reaching consequences.

As the final results are coming through it is evident that the political consensus that ruled Greece for the past 35 years has been shattered. The bi-polar political system that enjoyed vast support in electoral contest after electoral contest has been defeated. No party has managed to secure as much as 20 per cent of the vote.

The two political parties that have dominated government and managed the county’s fortunes since the end of the junta in the mid-1970s have been obliterated. The Conservatives struggled to reach 19 per cent and the Socialists have been pushed to third place with some 14 per cent of the vote. As a result a radical Communist party has become the second biggest political force in the country and, put together, all communist parties have won about a third of the vote.

Seven parties in total will enter parliament, delivering a very fragmented political landscape. Worst of all, a fascist party -- regularly linked to racist attacks -- has been handed 21 seats.

The fallout is clear and immediate. The majority of Greeks have voted for parties that reject the terms of the bailout agreed only a few months ago. With it they reject the policy of austerity and the economic stagnation it is causing. As a result the lending arrangements that form part of the bail-ut and keep Greece afloat are put in question, together with the country’s ability to pay its way and remain within the Eurozone and the EU.

The fragmented and inconclusive verdict delivered at the polls yesterday makes it very hard for a government to be formed. The two main parties do not have the votes to create a stable coalition. Meanwhile, the anti-bailout parties range from the far right to the far left , rendering an anti-bailout coalition impossible.

Consequently the country faces 11 days of political haggling between seven very diverse political forces. The possibility of another round of elections cannot be ruled out. All this creates a sense of instability and uncertainty at a time when the country needs leadership.

But the fallout goes beyond the narrow borders of a country in the south-east corner of Europe. Its Eurozone partners and the markets alike are looking closely, fully aware that a possible Greek default will have devastating effects for the European banking sector and a Greek exit from the Eurozone will undermine the process of European integration.

But the repercussions of the Greek vote go further than that. This is a damning verdict for the policy of austerity that has become dogma across the EU. Greeks remain pro-European, the vast majority of the parties entering parliament support the country’s place at the heart of the process of European integration. What they reject is the political and economic orthodoxy that currently governs the EU.

They are not alone. The result of the Greek parliamentary elections should be seen in conjunction with the result of the French presidential election and the British local elections.

In every electoral contest voters opted for politicians and political parties that advocate a different kind of remedy for Europe’s economic malaise. There is a rejection of conservative political and the neo-liberal economic policies that have dominated the political discourse in the past few years and a preference towards growth-producing policies of public investment.

But there is also a rejection of an EU that seems more pre-occupied with bailing out the banking sector than creating jobs for its people. A healthy banking sector is imperative for a the health and wealth of the European economy but the sentiment as expressed by left-wing victories in Greece, France and Britain is that the EU should work for its people first.

Young Greeks and Spaniards locked in long-term unemployment, young Brits unable to afford their own home feel disappointed and disenfranchised, so much so that some of them are turning to extreme, nationalist and xenophobic parties.

But the victories of pro-European parties across Europe over the past few days show that the people of Europe have not abandoned the idea of European unity. They send a message though that they want an alternative political and economic model to govern the fortunes of their continent.

It is now imperative for European leaders to abandon short-sighted and fragmenting economic policies, based on national remedies of competitive austerity, and pursue pan-European solutions that will integrate the European economy further, invest more at the European level, creating economies of scale and providing the EU as a whole with the opportunity to pull its recourses together and invest in research and education, high-end technology, green energy, telecommunications infrastructure and all the elements of the economy of the future that will pull the continent out of the current state of economic stagnation.

The EU and its members are at cross-roads, they have the choice between breaking apart and going back to the pre-war model of nationalism and nation-state conflict or pushing forward together, creating a stronger, more unified EU that can provide collective solutions for the common problems faced by its peoples.

The magnitude of the challenges we face demands unity and common purpose. We have the vehicle to deliver the solutions that will benefit Europe as a whole. It is time we make the most of it.