It is not very often that governments decide to commit political suicide, but that is exactly what the ruling conservative party of New Democracy did when they called a snap election in Greece last month only to lose by a margin of 10 percent.
New Democracy was plunged into a massive crisis. Nineteen of their 23 original cabinet members were wiped out. Kostas Karamanlis, the leader and former prime minister, is retiring and the four contenders for his succession cannot agree on the way a new leader will be chosen.
Karamanlis called the election because, in his own words, the economy needed a package of "tough and unpopular measures" but the political climate did not permit it. What he meant by "political climate" was the fear of a new uprising like the one that shook Greece last December.
Last year school students took to the streets after a police officer shot 16 year old Alexis Gregoropoulos dead. University students occupied their colleges during 2006-2007 against privatisation. And a wave of strikes swept Greece in 2008 when the government attacked pensions.
So it was a weak, isolated government that had to respond to the crisis. The Greek banks survived last year in better shape than in many other countries. But a recession has hit the economy badly this year. Tourism, shipping and construction - the three pillars of the economy - have declined sharply. Now unemployment is rocketing.
When New Democracy formed a government in 2004 the budget deficit was 7 percent of GDP, but the economy was growing at 5 percent after massive spending on the Athens Olympic Games. Now the economy is shrinking and the deficit is expected to reach 12 percent this year. Greek capitalism may not be in a position to refinance public debt, let alone a new stimulus package.
George Papandreou, the leader of PASOK, the Greek equivalent of New Labour, won the election by sounding vaguely Keynesian and promising a €3 billion package to kick-start the economy. When taunted by the conservatives with the question, "Where will you find the money?" his reply was, "Through cuts in waste and corruption." It remains to be seen where the axe will fall, but past experience points to a new round of cuts in health, education and pensions. That U-turn, however, will not be easy. Already dock workers in Piraeus are on strike demanding that the new government cancels the privatisation of the port authority.
According to exit polls, people who define themselves as left wing voted for PASOK by a massive 62 percent. Throughout 2008 opinion polls showed that left wing parties SYRIZA and KKE could pick up 20 to 25 percent of the vote. In the election the combined vote of the left was 12.5 percent.
This can be explained. In some cases it was tactical voting to kick out the Tories. Some people were disappointed that the leaderships of SYRIZA and KKE failed to give a lead when they were riding high in opinion polls. In any case these people have not ceased to have left wing expectations because they voted for Papandreou. It will be up to the left to win them back by organising the fightback as the new government fails to deliver.
This is why it is important that a new left is making its appearance. A united front of anti-capitalists called ANTARSYA ("rebellion" in Greek, combining the words Anti-capitalist Left Cooperation) picked up 25,000 votes just six months after its appearance. This may be small in parliamentary terms but it is already providing a focus for principled, activist opposition to the gyrations of Papandreou.