The insurgent leftist Syriza party secured a momentous election victory in Greece on Sunday night, throwing down a challenge to European governments determined to resist its demands for extensive debt relief and an end to austerity.
With 99.8 per cent of votes counted, Syriza led New Democrcy, the ruling centre-right party, by 36.3 per cent to 27.8 per cent, giving Syriza a projected 149 seats — two short of an absolute majority. The far-right Golden Dawn party was third with 6.3 per cent, and the centre-left To Potami (“The River”) fourth with 6.1 per cent.
A Syriza government free of the need for coalition allies would strengthen the leverage of the party’s militant far-left wing — and see the eurozone’s most explicitly anti-austerity government in power since the financial crisis erupted in 2008. Led by Alexis Tsipras, the party’s 40-year-old leader, it would also give Greece one of the most leftwing governments seen in a European democracy since the second world war.
The Syriza leader said on Sunday evening: “Greece is turning a page, it’s leaving behind five years of humiliation and misery . . . We are putting together a government of social deliverance to carry out our programme and negotiate with Europe.”
“The verdict of the Greek people ends, beyond any doubt, the vicious circle of austerity in our country.”
The euro rose 0.1 per cent to $1.1210 at 7:08am in London after sliding to $1.1098, the weakest level since September 2003.
The precise make-up of Greece’s next government will be unclear until Mr Tsipras and other party leaders have consulted this week with Karolos Papoulias, the outgoing head of state.
Syriza officials said they expect Mr Tsipras to be sworn in on Monday and have a government in place by Wednesday morning.
Mr Tsipras is due to meet Independent Greeks leader Panos Kammenos at 10.30am (0830 GMT), Reuters reported, and also expects to talk to the heads of two other parties, To Potami and the communist KKE, a sign he may look for their support even if they do not join a formal coalition.
It is likely to be the first time in more than 40 years that neither New Democracy nor the Pasok socialist party will be in power.
The incumbent prime minister Antonis Samaras rang Mr Tsipras to congratulate him on his victory, a Syriza spokesman said.
Syriza’s challenge to financial orthodoxy and the political establishment will inspire like-minded European movements such as Podemos, a Spanish leftwing party whose leader, Pablo Iglesias, flew to Greece to support Mr Tsipras in his election campaign.
Other eurozone leaders have taken note of a pragmatic tone struck by Mr Tsipras in some campaign statements, but they are concerned about Syriza’s lack of governmental experience and the influence of its ultra-leftists.
Mr Tsipras will be under intense pressure from Greece’s EU and International Monetary Fund creditors, who own most of the nation’s foreign debt, to abide by the reform commitments of previous Greek governments in return for more assistance. But he will be facing no less intense demands from Syriza’s hard-left factions to drive as hard a bargain as possible with Greece’s creditors.
Germany, backed by other northern European governments, opposes even a partial cancellation of Greek debt. They will be reluctant to approve lesser forms of debt relief, such as an extension of payment maturities and lower interest rates, unless Greece continues to pursue fiscal rigour and reforms of the economy and public administration.
Germany’s central bank president, Jens Weidmann, said on Sunday he hoped the new Greek government would continue to tackle its structural problems. “I hope the new government won’t call into question what is expected and what has already been achieved,” he said.
Finnish Foreign Minister Erkki Tuomioja said he believed the result would change the debate in Europe and put more emphasis on growth and employment. “This is a slap at what I see as a very rightwing economic policy in Europe,” Mr Tuomioja, a Social Democrat, told the website of the Helsingin Sanomat newspaper.
“Mr Tsipras will now have to manage very tricky financial and political challenges. The situation is likely to get worse before it gets better,” said Mujtaba Rahman of Eurasia Group, a risk consultancy.
Mr Tsipras’s options appear limited because Greece’s funding needs in 2015-16 amount to roughly €28bn, of which €4.3bn fall due in March and another €6.5bn in July and August.
Greek banks rely on the European Central Bank for favourable funding arrangements, which the ECB has warned it will halt without a new agreement between Athens and its creditors. Meanwhile, Greece will not benefit from the ECB’s government bond purchase initiative, announced last week, until at least July because the central bank already owns a stock of Greek debt close to its self-imposed limit.
Mr Tsipras is adamant that he wants Greece to stay in the eurozone — a stance supported by a majority of Greeks — and has no intention of proclaiming a unilateral repudiation of debts. He has proposed holding a European conference to settle debt issues, along the lines of the 1953 London conference that wrote off German debt and provided a platform for West Germany’s postwar “economic miracle”.
In what was Greece’s third general election since May 2012, voters turned to Syriza in frustration at mainstream centre-left, centre-right and technocratic governments that presided over a six-year economic slump. A quarter of the workforce is unemployed, average pensions have fallen by 40 per cent in value and hundreds of thousands of Greece’s 11m people are on the breadline.
In an interview published on Saturday, Mr Tsipras said Greece’s economy “would be safe in Syriza’s hands”, adding that a Syriza government’s first priority would be to launch a €2bn welfare package to assist about 35 per cent of the population living in poverty.