EDITORIAL: Greece stays in the game - for now
GREECE's victory over Russia on Saturday to reach the Euro 2012 quarterfinals inevitably drew comparisons with the following day's crucial elections. Would the beleaguered nation emerge as a winner by choosing to accept the terms of its financial bail-out and stay in the euro zone or vote against austerity measures and be bundled out of the currency union?
It was a neat metaphor but not a particularly accurate one. In the event, the majority of the Greek people opted for pro-bail-out parties, but only just. And, unlike in international football competitions, squeaking through by a single goal does not make you the big winner in international politics. The closest you can come to making the soccer analogy work is to note that Greece has become remarkably adept at kicking the can down the road.
Alexis Tsipras, leader of the anti-austerity Syriza party, which garnered 26,9% of the vote compared with New Democracy's 29,7%, is now exceptionally well positioned to benefit politically in future. If the austerity measures that came with the international bail-out package continue to be applied in their current form and ordinary Greeks' lives become even more miserable, there is every prospect that Syriza will gain more supporters and eventually become the biggest party in Greece's parliament.
On the other hand, if the troika monitoring Greece's adherence to the terms of the bail-out - the European Commission, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the European Central Bank - soften their approach, Mr Tsipras can legitimately claim the credit after taking a hard line against austerity during the election campaign. Not bad for a party that was struggling with support in the single figures before the economic crisis struck.
The question now on analysts' minds is how much the troika may concede to reward the Greek people for agreeing to take their bitter medicine for a little longer in the hope that it will eventually prove a cure for their sovereign debt disease. Messages have been mixed, with the IMF and some European Union officials indicating they are prepared to make some compromises, including lower interest rates and less onerous austerity conditions. But Germany, which holds most of the cards in the euro zone, has made it clear that there will be no free lunch; a little more time to reach targets, perhaps, but in the words of Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle: "The substance of the reforms is not negotiable."
New Democracy leader Antonis Samaras, who initially opposed the bail-out packages and is considered a reluctant convert to austerity as a means of at least achieving a primary budget surplus in Greece, is between a rock and a hard place. Even if he manages to form a government in coalition with the socialist Pasok party and the terms of the bail-out are eased, he will still have to deal with real social hardship and simmering public anger that could boil over at any time.
Oddly, the resounding victory of French President Francois Hollande's socialist party in the weekend's parliamentary election could work to Mr Samaras's benefit. The socialists have vowed to reverse the austerity measures put in place by former president Nicolas Sarkozy, and cut the deficit and boost growth by taxing the rich and spending more, a risky strategy that could backfire and land France with even more sovereign debt.
Mr Samaras is not alone in taking a keen interest in how Mr Hollande fares. The austerity versus growth debate is raging the world over, so France is something of a guinea pig. The Greek people, meanwhile, will be looking forward to Friday's Euro 2012 quarterfinal match in Gdansk, where their unpredictable and occasionally undisciplined national team is up against the clinically efficient and unforgiving German side. Perhaps there will prove to be something to the football metaphor after all.
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