A big weekend for Europe as France and Greece head to the polls

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Conservative supporters during a pre-election rally in the town of Thessaloniki, Greece.
Conservative supporters during a pre-election rally in the town of Thessaloniki, Greece. Photo: Reuters

All eyes have been on France, but there’s another election on Sunday, in Greece, that could have just as big an impact. For a small country, Greece has already caused more than its share of angst in the Eurozone. If the polls are right, and Greece is left with (at best) a dysfunctional Government or (at worst) no Government at all, the over-used metaphors of Greek drama and Greek tragedy may be rolled out all over again.

Distrust of politicians and political parties is spreading all over Europe, but nowhere as much as Greece. When the Greeks last voted in 2009 the two big parties, New Democracy on the right and PASOK on the left, won 78% of the vote between them. This time they’re likely to get between 35 and 40%. So even if these old enemies were to get together to form a national Government, they still might not have a parliamentary majority.

Leader of the New Democracy conservatives party Samaras is cheered by supporters during a pre-election rally in Athens.
Leader of the New Democracy conservatives party Samaras is cheered by supporters during a pre-election rally in Athens. Credit: Reuters

A minority coalition of two ideological opposed parties, battered by the competing demands of eight or more small parties from the extreme right and left, trying to impose yet another round of swingeing spending cuts, in the middle of a recession so deep that it’s really a depression. Quite a scenario.

As if this might not be unstable enough, only the two big parties are committed to the cuts and reforms demanded by Europe in return for the €240bn in bailout money, and even PASOK and New Democracy are making (hopelessly optimistic) promises about being able to renegotiate those conditions after the election. Most of the small parties say they’ll scrap the whole bailout agreement, some even saying they want out of the Euro for good measure.

There’s a real chance that the Greek Parliament will be so hopelessly divided that the country will be, almost literally, ungovernable. They might then have to go back for another general election next month. It seems absurd, but don’t rule it out.

A protester runs away from police during a violent anti-austerity demonstration in central Athens
A protester runs away from police during a violent anti-austerity demonstration in central Athens Credit: Reuters

All the polling information is necessarily vague because under Greek law opinion polling is illegal in the two weeks before an election. You could argue that the two weeks before an election is the only really useful time to conduct opinion polls, but there we are. At least in France they only ban polls in the 24 hours before the ballot boxes open, which means that those published today will be the last.

Three of the big pollsters, LH2, IFOP and CSA put the gap between Hollande and Sarkozy at six points, 53-47%. Two others, Opinion Way and Ipsos, caused a minor stir last night with the smallest margin since the campaign began, just 5% with 52.5-47.5%, but the picture is pretty static. It seems that the months of campaigning in France have changed very few minds. Hollande’s lead has been solid for months, so much so that senior figures close to Sarkozy have been privately conceding that the race is lost.

Official campaign posters for Nicolas Sarkozy (R) and Francois Hollande.
Official campaign posters for Nicolas Sarkozy (R) and Francois Hollande. Credit: Reuters

So it will be a different Europe we wake up to on Monday morning. A likely return to instability on the southern edge, and an unknown quantity right at its heart. If these were normal times, Europe would take upheavals in France and Greece in its stride. But these are what the Chinese call "interesting times", and they may be about to get a whole lot more interesting.