ATHENS, Greece – Furious over rising joblessness and harsh austerity, voters took out their anger on Greece's two major parties in Sunday's elections. Results indicated the first major shift in the country's political landscape in four decades, raising questions about the future of its reform program.
The radical left coalition party, SYRIZA, scored the biggest gain. SYRIZA, which opposes austerity, picked up 16.5 percent of the vote (up from 4.7 percent at the 2009 election). All together, anti-austerity parties claimed 60 percent, a major rebuke to EU mandated bailout policies.
The center-right New Democracy and socialist PASOK parties have dominated Greek politics since the fall of the military junta 38 years ago, winning close to 80 percent of the vote in most recent elections. Yesterday they took only 19.2 and 13.4 percent respectively.
The parties have jointly ruled an interim government since November 2011 under Prime Minister Lucas Papademos, but a massive protest vote has destroyed their majority.
“The only sure thing is that I’m not voting for the two big parties,” said Giannis Giarabis in Athens just before voting. “After 30 years of governing, PASOK brought us where we are. They’ve failed – I’ll vote anything else than this.”
PASOK is bearing the brunt of voter backlash over EU-IMF austerity measures implemented after it took power in 2009. This has divided the vote on the left. SYRIZA’s opposition to the severe fiscal tightening demanded as precondition to the bailout will make it a major player in the new parliament. The party's young leader, Alexis Tsipras, has said that Greece’s reliance on rescue funds has turned it into a “protectorate” of Europe.
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The Stalinist KKE Communist Party, which wants Greece out of the eurozone, also increased its vote, picking up 8.5 percent.
The extreme right also made big gains. The neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party, which is blaming the financial crisis on immigrants, has never had representatives in parliament but claimed 21 legislative seats, or 7 percent of the chamber's vote.
As ballots were cast on Sunday, voters expressed disillusion with the established parties.
“I won’t vote for any party that took part in governments of the last 20-30 years and I won’t vote for the Left – my vote is a protest vote,” said Markos, 55, a CEO of an IT company.
As the election winner, New Democracy gained a bonus 50 seats in the 300-seat parliament, taking their tally to 108, twice SYRIZA’s representation (52). The conservatives will still have a large influence over any unity government, analysts say. But the question remains for how long.
“We might still have a government where mainstream political forces account for the majority, but unless they can arrest the implosion of the Greek economy, I don’t think they will be in power for very long,” said Simon Tilford, chief economist at the Centre for the European Reform in London.
New Democracy leader, Antonis Samaris, said this week that only a single-party government can implement the deep reforms needed to arrest sovereign debt and claw Greece back from the economic abyss.
But an age of volatile coalitions is here to stay in Greece, say analysts.
“Both New Democracy and PASOK enjoyed large parliamentary majorities and widespread control of public administration over the last decade, and they still failed to implement measures that would have either prevented or tackled the crisis. The two major political parties have lost their credibility,” said Roman Gerodimos, a lecturer in global current affairs at Bournemouth University in the UK.
“Both Mr Samaras and other political leaders are going to have to accept this reality and work in the political context dictated by the Greek public.”
Some analysts worry that Samaras will not compromise on a pro-austerity coalition when making deals with the minor parties, possibly sending Greece to a second election. This would further cripple the country politically and economically.
“If Samaras does what he says … we’ll have a very long period of time that nothing in the public sector will work, which means that the lenders’ requirements won’t be met and the troika" — the IMF, EU and ECB — "will then ask for more measures, that will lead to a deeper recession,” says Dimitris Charalambis, a political scientist at the University of Athens.
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Evangelos Venizelos, leader of the socialist PASOK party, has said that Greece must remain in the euro zone and get through the tough austerity measures — including tax hikes, and cuts to wages and public spending cuts — or else regress 20 years and face bankruptcy.
Yet the rising parties from the far left like SYRIZA are virulently opposed to austerity, aligning them more with far right parties such as the nationalist, anti- bailout Independent Greeks.
Formed as a breakaway from New Democracy in February, when leader Panos Kammenos refused to agree to EU austerity terms, Independent Greeks garnered 10.6 percent of the vote, to command 33 legislative seats. SRYIZA has stated a willingness to form a collation with the party.
It’s uncertain how far such minority parties could threaten new austerity measures, due to be implemented in June, demanded by the troika of the European Central Bank, IMF and EU that have underwritten Greece’s latest loan memorandum.
The EU and the IMF stated on Sunday that Greece must carry out the reforms for the sake of its economic recovery. But SYRIZA leader Tsipras promised to reject the austerity package in its current form since the parties that agreed to it are now in the minority.
The win by pro-growth socialist François Hollande in Sunday's French presidential election will provide a further boost for Greek voters opposed to austerity.
This has caused great uncertainty in financial markets. The value of the euro dived overnight and global stocks were pulled down.
Hollande may force German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has demanded fiscal discipline in Greece, to embrace some economic stimulus instead of all- out austerity, said Theodore Pelagidis, a political scientist at the University of Piraeus.
“It depends what the coming president of France will do, what his relationship with Chancellor Merkel and the Germans will be - maybe we will have some developments concerning economic policy in Europe. There is a small window, or opportunity, a glimmer of hope.”
On Monday, however, Germany rejected the idea of renegotiating the European stability pact, which would institutionalize strict budgetary discipline. The disagreement over how to address the crisis is setting up a showdown across the euro zone.
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Braun reported from Berlin.