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Facing snap elections, uncertainty grows in Greece

Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras called snap elections after parliament was unable to agree on a new president. Alexis Tsipras, leader of the far-left Syrzia party and an opponent of austerity, emerged as a leading candidate. But many fear that rejecting those policies could shake the European economy. Paul Mason of Independent Television News reports.

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  • GWEN IFILL:

    In Athens today, the Greek prime minister called snap elections after Parliament failed to agree on a new president. The contest is less than a month away, and many fear that an outright rejection of years-old and painful austerity measures could send shockwaves throughout the European economy.

    Paul Mason of Independent Television News reports.

  • PAUL MASON:

    In the Greek Parliament, they vote one by one. But by the time they had voted down the government, all eyes were on this man, Alexis Tsipras, leader of the far-left Syriza Party, submerged in a media scrum, but potentially on the brink of power.

    "The future has begun," he said. "Be optimistic, and glad."

    But the market's weren't. The Greek stock market plunged by 7 percent, and the cost of government borrowing rose. Two years ago, Tsipras was still effectively leader of a small protest party. His typical interview venue was the street. Then came austerity, imposed by Europe, resisted on the streets, increasingly with violence.

    But, as austerity drained political goodwill towards the centrist parties, today, one poll put Syriza 6 percent ahead. By 25 of January, Europe could have its first far-left government. The snap election leaves the Greek prime minister, and the whole European strategy of austerity in Greece, fighting for survival.

  • ANTONIS SAMARAS, Greek Prime Minister (through interpreter):

    What Parliament failed to do, the Greek people will now do to rid of us uncertainty and establish stability in the country.

  • PAUL MASON:

    Though there is some growth now, the Greek economy has shrunk by a quarter in five years. On depressed streets like these, where there's high unemployment, the election will be a straight fight, the entire political establishment vs. the far left and its allies, at stake, the 319 billion euros Greece still owes Europe and the IMF.

    Syriza, its economic chief told me, wants to write off half that debt and end austerity.

  • JOHN MILIOS, Economic Chief, Syriza Party:

    Austerity will end. And the debt shall be restructured for the benefit of the whole continent of the Euro Zone.

  • PAUL MASON:

    And it sounds nice in theory, but what if social chaos breaks out?

  • JOHN MILIOS:

    We think that the chaos will start if the policies of austerity continue. We see the tension in the society is enormous, that it's like a boiling water covered.

  • PAUL MASON:

    When young people rioted this month in Athens, it showed the kind of pressure Syriza would come under if it took power. Some observers think a change of government here could be the catalyst for a wider European rethink.

    COSTAS LAPAVITSAS, University of London: Europe has followed policies of austerity for six years now that are obviously wrong. They're obviously malfunctioning. The performance of Europe is much worse even than the United States. Europe needs a change of policy. But, given the current state of politics in Europe, it's unlikely to happen, unless there's a jolt. Greece might deliver that jolt.

  • PAUL MASON:

    The displays at the Athens Stock Exchange, deep in the red today, tell what the markets think of that.

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