Too many unknowns in Greece’s critical elections
Antonis Samaras, leader of the conservative New Democracy Party, waves to his supporters during an election rally in the northern Greek city of Thessaloniki on Wednesday. (PHOTO AP, Nikolas Giakoumidis)
Greece is set to hold the most crucial elections of the last 38 years on May 6. The center left Pan-Hellenic Socialist Movement (PASOK), which received 44 percent of the total vote in 2009, and the center-right New Democracy Party (ND), which received 33 percent, are likely to be punished by the voters, who have been badly hit by the economic crisis.
A coalition government with the ND in the lead is expected to come out of the historic elections. Many here believe that an unpredictable new era replete with surprises is in store for the country after the elections. The elections are being held amidst the economic, political and social problems that Greece has been having a hard time overcoming.
Political parties are focusing on undecided voters, who appear to make up more than 20 percent of the electorate according to recent polls.
About 10 million people will vote in Greece, whose population is nearly 11 million. The country has been struggling with a nightmarish economic crisis for the past two-and-a-half years, and the hopelessness of the people and ambiguity surrounding the future has upended the political balance in the country.
The EU and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) gave Greece a bitter pill of harsh austerity measures to swallow along with a loan of 110 billion euros and another one of 130 billion euros. PASOK stayed in power as a single-party government for about two years, and the PASOK-ND coalition has been in power for the past six months. Unemployment has soared to a record 21 percent, which saw consecutive cuts in salaries and pension payments, as well as reductions to social benefits, coupled with continuous inflation. The rage felt toward the two parties has peaked ahead of the elections. In these first elections of the crisis period, 32 parties -- a record number -- will vie for seats in the 300-member parliament. The election threshold for parliamentary representation is 3 percent. Populist approaches, ever stronger statist policies, a growing culture of consumerism and a tendency to please the public sector mainly using borrowed funds have been the ills plaguing Greece for 40 years. In the period ahead, Greece will have to realize structural reforms to help the country overcome the economic crisis. The parliament that will form after the elections will include a highly colorful spread of numerous small parties, most of which are vehemently opposed to the deals with the EU and the IMF.
The country’s Turkish minority in Western Thrace is faced with double trouble. They have to struggle with the difficulties arising from the fact that they live in a region hit worst by unemployment, and also with the authorities’ unwillingness to take new initiatives to address minority issues. The Turkish minority is very pessimistic about the possibility of a coalition government tackling longstanding issues, such as the recognition of the Turkish identity, re-opening of associations that have been shut down, minority foundations, education and the status of mufti offices.
Fourteen minority representatives ran for parliament in 2009 in Western Thrace in the 2009 elections. Two PASOK minority candidates were elected to parliament from Komotini and Xhanti. In this Sunday’s elections, 18 candidates of Turkish origin are running for seats in parliament from PASOK, the ND, the Democratic Alliance (DA), the Coalition of the Radical Left (SYRIZA), the Democratic Left Party (DIMAR) and the Communist Party (KKE). The Turkish minority wants to be able to send at least two deputies to Parliament. All Turkish organizations and associations are urging their followers to go to the polls on Sunday, or else the Turkish minority might be left without any representatives in parliament.
Greece has a Turkish minority of about 150,000 people, about half of whom will vote. Far-right parties such as Golden Dawn, the Independent Greeks and the Popular Orthodox Rally are also expected to enter parliament this year, increasing the importance of minority representatives being present in parliament. The Turkish minority, which traditionally votes for PASOK and the ND, is expected to support these two parties as well as the DA and SYRIZA this year.
PASOK candidate Ahmet Hacıosman, who is currently serving in parliament, is one of the most powerful candidates in the elections. Hacıosman told Sunday’s Zaman that representation of the Turkish minority in this election is more important than ever and he hopes to continue his struggle regarding minority demands in the new parliamentary session.
The ND candidate from Komotini, Mehmet Enimoğlu, believes the economic development of Western Thrace should be given priority. He also hopes to work on short-term visa exemption for visitors from Turkey to the region, the opening up of free trade zones, the creation of new markets for farmers and the continuation of government subsidies for farming communities. He believes that a new coalition government between the ND and PASOK would be more likely to solve the problems of the Turkish minority. DA Komotini deputy İlhan Ahmet is also a powerful candidate in the city. However, recent polls indicate that the DA might fall below the 3 percent election threshold, creating confusion in the Turkish community about voting for him.
Turkish candidates who have a good chance of winning in Xanthi include Burhan Baran of PASOK, Adnan Peçenek of the ND, Hüseyin Zeybek of SYRIZA and Türkeş Hacımemiş of the DA.
PASOK’s Baran, who will have a tough time in Xanthi because of his party’s dwindling popularity in the region, believes that PASOK will be able to overcome all minority issues in the next term. He says he has full confidence that cooperation between minority associations and government agencies can solve minority issues. ND candidate Peçenek says he believes the ND’s economic program can end the country’s crisis woes. He notes that his party will support the farmer, the industry and small enterprises and will find funds for the Treasury through investments and privatization.
SYRIZA candidate Hüseyin Zeybek notes that his party’s emphasis on minority and human rights issues is important, and the party’s support for the re-opening of the Xanthi Turkish Union, which was shut down by Greek courts, is well known.
Hacımemiş of the DA believes that Dora Bakoyannis, the leader of his party, will apply her honesty and sincerity to the solution of minority problems. He believes that his party can realize minority demands such as the opening of bilingual preschools, the right to vote in muftis as opposed to their being appointed by the state and the return of property confiscated from Turkish foundations in the past. The outcomes of the election will also be decisive in terms of the relations between Greece and Turkey in the period ahead. Most experts believe that PASOK and the ND will simply shelve longstanding issues with Turkey, such as Cyprus, the Aegean and minorities, during the economic crisis.