Greece Votes in Elections With Euro Future at Stake

Greek Pasok Socialist Party Leader Evangelos Venizelos
Greek Pasok Socialist Party leader Evangelos Venizelos casts his ballot for the general elections at a polling station in the Greek port city of Thessaloniki. Photographer: Sakis Mitrolidis /AFP/GettyImages

Greeks are voting today in national elections that may determine whether the country has a future in the euro area.

A total of 9.85 million Greeks, including 360,000 new voters, are eligible to participate. Voting began at 7 a.m. and ends at 7 p.m. Athens time with the first exit polls expected then.

Greeks are casting ballots for the first time since the country became a byword for the European debt crisis, with polls showing many voters spurning the two main parties, socialist Pasok and New Democracy, in favor of anti-bailout groups promising an end to austerity. An inconclusive outcome to the election could mean political instability that endangers bailout funds and, ultimately, membership of the euro.

“I used to vote for Pasok but this time I voted for the communists,” George Nikolaos, 45, a construction worker, said in an interview after voting in central Athens. “We need a change away from Pasok and New Democracy to deal with the economic crisis.”

Polls suggest conservative New Democracy will place first, though without enough support to rule outright. That would leave party leader Antonis Samaras with the option of teaming up with Pasok in order to govern. The two parties, which have alternated in power since 1974, were partners in the outgoing caretaker government of Prime Minister Lucas Papademos, which secured a second rescue package earlier this year, saving Greece from financial collapse. An Interior Ministry spokeswoman said there weren’t any official voter turnout figures at 3 p.m. local time in Athens.

Vote Decides Euro

Former Finance Minister Evangelos Venizelos, Pasok’s leader, told supporters at a May 4 rally that today’s vote “will determine if we stay in Europe and the euro, if we move down a difficult but safe road.” The alternative would be to “embark on adventures that take us many decades back, leading the country to bankruptcy and mass poverty.”

Under the terms of that 130 billion-euro ($170 billion) package, which was accompanied by the biggest debt restructuring ever, international lenders expect to hear in June how Greece will achieve 11.6 billion euros of savings for 2013 and 2014.

Greece Need Stability

Samaras, 60, has appealed for support that will give him an outright victory so he can renegotiate terms for the European Union and International Monetary Fund bailout. He has promised tax cuts for businesses to boost growth and to reduce waste in the public sector. A New Democracy win would ensure the stability the country needs, he said.

“Today the Greek people are voting for the future of their children,” Samaras said after voting in town of Pylos in southwest Greece. “They are voting for stability, growth, security and justice.”

The election will measure the Greek public’s resolve to continue the reforms that the EU and IMF say are imperative. Greece’s economy will shrink for a fifth year in 2012 under the weight of pension and wage cuts and higher sales taxes.

While polls show most people don’t want to leave the euro or the EU, analysts and economists warn that support for anti-bailout parties could tilt the balance in favor of rejecting the rescue terms and threaten Greece’s membership in the euro.

A Greek exit would reignite concerns about the fate of other members of the euro area which face low growth and high debt and deficits. Fitch Ratings said in a report on May 3 that a Greek exit would spark a ratings review of all euro-area nations, with Cyprus, Ireland, Italy, Portugal and Spain probably downgraded on the risk of “contagion to banks, bond markets and capital flight.”

Rebuild Economy

Greece must choose between “an organized and painstaking effort to reconstruct the economy within the euro area,” or “regressing decades socially and economically, which would eventually lead the country out of the euro area and the European Union,” Bank of Greece Governor George Provopoulos said on April 24.

Prime Minister Papademos, speaking after he voted in Athens, said the election result will determine “the course of Greece in the next decades.”

Polls suggest as many as 10 parties may enter Parliament, underscoring fatigue over austerity and frustration with the politicians responsible for implementing it. Unemployment is almost 22 percent and for those under the age of 24 it’s almost 51 percent.

Crime, Immigration

Rising crime and illegal immigration have dominated the campaign alongside the economy, spurring support for groups like the anti-immigrant Golden Dawn, which may win seats at the federal level for the first time, and the nationalist Independent Greeks.

Final opinion polls on April 20 showed New Democracy and Pasok with about 45 percent of the total vote, with anti-bailout parties on both the left and right running with nearly the same level of support.

The Greek economy has shrunk more than 13 percent since the last election in October 2009, when former Prime Minister George Papandreou’s Pasok unseated New Democracy only to find the country’s debt had been understated. Greece’s election is being held two years after the government negotiated its first, 110 billion-euro package, from the EU and the IMF.

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