Greece 2012 – Second Coming
Legislative elections were held in Greece on June 17, 2012. All 300 members of Greece’s unicameral legislature, the Vouli ton Ellinon, were up for reelection. This election comes only a bit more than a month after a previous general election, on May 6, proved inconclusive as no government could be formed based on the election’s results.
For a quick reminder, Greece uses a modified and basically rigged form of proportional representation. There is a 3% threshold for representation in Parliament, and seats are distributed to 56 electoral constituencies (48 of which are multi-member) through rules which nobody bothers understanding. The most important aspect of Greek electoral law, however, is the “majority bonus”, which awards 50 seats to the party which wins the most votes. This means that a party can win an absolute majority in Parliament with only 39% of the vote. The remainder of the seats will be distributed proportionally to parties who have won over 3% of the vote on the basis of valid votes and excluding votes cast for parties which did not meet the threshold. Voting is compulsory in Greece but the law is not strictly enforced, turnout reached a record low of only 65% in May.
These elections, like the last elections in May, remain, of course, heavily conditioned by Greece’s economic situation. The Greek economy remains on the verge of collapse, still crumbling under the weight of recession and a public debt crisis of phenomenal proportions. The country’s economy remains mired in recession with little prospect for recovery in the near future, and the successive austerity packages imposed on Athens by its foreign creditors have created a dangerous climate of social tensions, political radicalization and a total loss of faith or confidence in traditional democratic institutions.
The general elections on May 6 confirmed the ire of Greek voters towards their traditional political leaders and the explosion of Greece’s old two-party system. The two old parties, the conservative New Democracy (ND) and the old centre-left Socialists (PASOK) won only 32% of the vote together, and ND emerged as the largest party with only 18.9% of the vote. ND was crippled; PASOK was almost utterly destroyed. Smaller parties, almost all of them fairly ‘radical’ in their attitudes towards the successive EU-IMF imposed austerity and bailouts, were the main beneficiaries. SYRIZA, a ‘radical’ left-wing party who campaigned on a platform supporting Euro membership but visceral opposition to the terms of the bailout, won 16.8% and placed a strong second behind ND. The hardline Communists won 26 seats, but far more worryingly, the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn (XA) party won 7% of the vote and 21 seats.
These results, which gave no majority to ‘pro-austerity’ ND and PASOK, meant that no stable government could possibly be formed. SYRIZA was unwilling to cooperate with PASOK, while it was unable to gather support to form an anti-austerity coalition with other anti-austerity parties – given that one of them are outright Nazis and the other are crackpot Stalinists who hate SYRIZA, this is no surprise. As per Greek law, when government formation talks failed, the President was forced to call for snap elections and appoint an interim technical government to manage the day-to-day affairs of the country.
In any other country, this would make for amusing and entertaining politics, but in Greece, the stakes are so high. The country’s economy is teetering on the edge of collapse. Its foreign creditors have temporarily halted their loans to the country and warn that they could suspend them if political stability is not restored. The government is struggling to pay public sector wages and pensions, and the entire healthcare system is collapsing. There are fears that Greece will invariably be forced to default and eventually leave the Eurozone entirely, which would entail a deep economic collapse in Greece and likely across Europe. These fears have sparked a mini bank-run, with a large number of persons withdrawing their cash, in Euros, from their banks.
This election evolved into a straight contest between ND and SYRIZA, who emerged in May as the top leaders of their respective camps: the pro-austerity and anti-austerity camps, that is. For opponents of the austerity-inducing bailout packages and left-wingers, SYRIZA has become the sole credible alternative which is willing to govern. The party’s leader, Alexis Tsipras, a young and fiery populist, has struck a chord with his simple and appealing message of keeping Greece in the Eurozone while basically scrapping the austerity policies. Tsipras boldly argues that accepting the bailout terms is not a precondition for Greece staying in the Eurozone. He wants to boost the collapsing economy through consumption. His main promises include an audit of the public debt, nationalizing main banks, an increase in retirement pensions, unemployment benefits and the minimum wage, abolishing tax loopholes for ship owners and the creation of many new jobs in the public sector. You can find details about the platform here.
This election has been billed as a referendum on Greek membership in the Eurozone, though it would be more accurate to style it as a referendum on the bailout conditions. A vast majority of Greek voters support the Euro, but on the other hand, an equally large majority of voters oppose the austerity measures which have been imposed on the country. SYRIZA has been able to profit from these conflicting attitudes, which are, in reality, fairly contradictory. It has presented itself as pro-European, but radically anti-austerity. In reality, however, can SYRIZA realistically hope that Greece remains the Eurozone when Germany, Brussels and the IMF have shown no willingness to reopen or renegotiate the austerity deal, and seem willing and/or resigned to “let Greece go”?
As much as Tsipras’ campaign was bold, confident and fiery; ND led a cautious campaign. ND has emerged as the main representative of pro-austerity forces, and its leader, Antonis Samaras, has played it very cautious in this go-around. Gone are the various populist vote-winning promises of the last election, rather it has preferred to run a campaign urging voters to be realistic about Greece’s European future and warning that a SYRIZA victory would spell ruin for Greece (as the country would risk returning to the drachma in a disorderly fashion). ND managed to form an electoral alliance with the small liberal DISY, led by a former ND cabinet minister, which won 2.6% and no seats in the last election. In the same spectrum, PASOK, found itself trying desperately to prevent an electoral armageddon for the party. ND’s emergence as the anti-SYRIZA, pro-austerity party has seriously marginalized PASOK, which has played an even more low-key campaign. At this point in time, PASOK is fighting for its political survival.
Other anti-austerity parties also found themselves marginalized in this campaign. This is especially true for the KKE, which, somewhat to my surprise, started the campaign at a much lower level than where it was in May. It appears as if even KKE’s usually loyal voters opted to vote for SYRIZA, as the KKE continued to refuse any role in any government majority. Similarly, the right-wing anti-austerity Independent Greeks (ANEL) also entered the campaign at somewhat lower levels of support. Finally, the neo-Nazi XA also lost a good share of their May 6 vote during the campaign, likely because they were unable to resist the media spotlight which ended up scaring away a lot of its first time voters. During the campaign, at a TV debate, a XA candidate physically attacked a Communist candidate.
Turnout was 62.47%, a new all-time low after having already reached a previous all-time low (65%) in May. Once again, the economic crisis has not just worked to the benefit of the old third parties and new political actors, but has also significantly increased the number of non-voters in a country where turnout was usually well over 70% in the past. Political institutions, parties and politicians have lost a great deal of legitimacy and trust with the advent of the economic crisis. In contrast, only 0.99% of votes were blank or invalid, down from 2.58% in May. Results were as follows:
ND-DISY 29.66% (+8.26%) winning 129 seats (+21)
SYRIZA 26.89% (+10.11%) winning 71 seats (+19)
PASOK 12.28% (-0.9%) winning 33 seats (-8)
ANEL 7.51% (-3.1%) winning 20 seats (-13)
XA 6.92% (-0.05%) winning 18 seats (-3)
DIMAR 6.25% (+0.15%) winning 17 seats (-2)
KKE 4.5% (-3.98%) winning 12 seats (-14)
(total below threshold: 5.98%)
DX-Drasi 1.59% (-2.36%) winning 0 seats (nc)
LAOS 1.58% (-1.32%) winning 0 seats (nc)
Greens 0.88% (-2.05%) winning 0 seats (nc)
All others below 0.5% 1.93% (-4.69%) winning 0 seats (nc)
IGraphics.gr has a wonderful interactive map, which can hardly be beaten.
In this unofficial referendum over Greece’s economic future, the centre-right ND – which is generally pro-austerity (regardless of whatever posturing they do) and favourable to the gist of the EU-IMF bailout – narrowly won the election.
The first election in May was really a massive free for all, and a dictionary definition for protest voting (or voting with the middle finger) taken to its fullest extent. Many voters, in May, let out their anger and frustration with their country’s economic state by casting their votes for new (or old) small parties, many of which did not pass the 3% threshold for representation. While there were still two general competing ‘ideologies’ in May – pro and anti-austerity, both camps were divided between their various ‘factions’ and avatars (and there are many – from neoliberals to ND-PASOK’s old patronage machines; or from Stalinists to outright Nazis), and nobody really emerged as a clear winner.
This month, while protest voting, to be sure, was still a major factor, voters didn’t use their middle fingers all that much and, in large part, votes coalesced around ND and SYRIZA – which had emerged in May as the strongest pro and anti-austerity parties respectively. Fears about the country’s future economic and political prospects played a much greater role in this campaign, and after the disastrous experience of May, there was a much stronger motivator to vote for parties which could form a stable government.
The result was that both ND and SYRIZA significantly increased their support compared to the May election. ND, which represented the generally ‘pro-austerity’ or, perhaps more accurately (given that Samaras didn’t exactly sing the praises of austerity in the campaign) a vaguely pro-memorandum, centre-right anti-SYRIZA party, gained about 8.3% compared to what it and DISY (Bakoyannis’ small liberal splinter from ND which joined ND ahead of these snap elections) won in May. In doing so, it killed off any chances which the new liberal and clearly pro-austerity DX-Drasi alliance might have had (if the two parties had ran together in May they would have won seats) of doing well in this election. It must have taken votes from PASOK – though PASOK is at a point where its remaining voters are probably born-and-bred parochially Socialist – but also from the right-wing but anti-austerity ANEL (by fear of a radical left government?) and the. LAOS, the “old” (and far more pleasant – how things have changed!) far-right party, lost all its seats in May and lost another 1% of its May popular vote, likely to ND. There has always been some symmetry between the two parties, given that ND – regardless of what the clueless media writes – has always had a soft nationalist side to it.
In practical terms, the election results gave 162 seats – a bare 11 seat absolute majority – to ND and PASOK, historically the bitter enemies of Greek politics, but forced towards reconciliation as moderate pro-memorandum parties by the forceful emergence of the likes of SYRIZA, ANEL and XA. PASOK, in a last bid to appear as still vaguely left-leaning, announced that it would not participate in a government without SYRIZA (arguing that a ND-PASOK government weighing only 42% of voters would be illegitimate – but PASOK won its majority in 2009 with only 43%…), but, unsurprisingly, it threw this weird posturing out the window and will swallow its pride and form government with Samaras, complemented by DIMAR, a small moderate left-wing and vaguely pro-Eurozone party. This new ND-PASOK-DIMAR coalition holds 179 seats, a much more comfortable 28 seat majority.
Besides ND, SYRIZA was, of course, the other main winner of this election. Strong from a close second place finish in May, SYRIZA clearly established itself as the left-wing party of choice for those voters who opposed austerity or the EU-IMF bailout. Because this election was a must-win contest for both ND and SYRIZA, the latter’s very narrow defeat will definitely be a bit disappointing for them, but in the wider realm of things, this is a spectacular result for a party which was polling only 4% as recently as 2009-2010. Alexis Tsipras has gone from the young (unknown outside of Greece) leader of an also-ran third party which seemed destined to continued marginalization to the vocal, charismatic and fiery leader of the main anti-austerity force in the Greek political and economic crisis, with international recognition and a very strong following at home. Tsipras will now have the chance to prove himself and his fairly young and relatively unknown or misunderstood party as the main opposition in the new Parliament. Of course, in these conditions, opposition is a much more lucrative position in the long-term than being government. If Tsipras and SYRIZA prove themselves to be credible and competent in opposition, they are promised an even greater future, in political and electoral terms.
What SYRIZA did is quite spectacular. Indeed, it has done what so many non-dominant socialist left-wing parties in Europe (notably the IU in Spain) have always dreamt of: outrunning the dominant social democratic centre-left parties and replacing them as the dominant force of the ideological left. It took an economic depression of phenomenal proportion and a social and political crisis for SYRIZA to achieve this, but it has perhaps irrevocably changed Greek politics. It must now live up to expectations, but that is much more easily done when one can reap the luxuries of opposition.
Interestingly, the results of these elections show a little move back towards a two-and-a-half party system, though weaker than the old system which prevailed since the fall of the Colonels. ND has remained the main right-wing – or more accurately, the pro-memorandum party – in this system, but SYRIZA has seemingly, for now at least, replaced PASOK as the main left-wing party; while PASOK could be relegated to the position of perennial third, formerly occupied by the KKE.
PASOK’s results could have been much worse, considering that it has absolutely nothing going for it at this point. It remains a discredited party, both by the left and right, since its last stay in power; it is no longer one of the top two parties of Greek politics (unlike ND), meaning that it is no longer a patronage party; and it has a very hard time finding a voice, hesitating between maintaining appearances as even remotely left-leaning or playing along with ND in a game in which it would be marginalized and dwarfed by ND. The party lost about 1% of its vote compared to an already disastrous performance in May, and ends up with a new record low, which places it below 13% of the vote. It would be interesting to analyse who are PASOK’s last remaining voters, resisting the SYRIZA onslaught, but from my (admittedly cursory) knowledge, my hypothesis is that, like in May, PASOK has been limited to core, rock-ribbed base of ancestral or traditional PASOK voters, not necessarily (and in fact, probably not) left-leaning in ideology.
ANEL, a populist right-wing, nationalist and anti-austerity, won over 10% of the vote in May, boosted by its charismatic rabble-rousing leader, Panos Kammenos, a former ND cabinet minister. Nowadays, it has little in common with ND, which it generally brands as traitors, and ironically has far more in common – at least as far as opposition to austerity is concerned – with SYRIZA (though ANEL has an added nationalist-conservative and anti-German rhetoric which SYRIZA does not have). It lost a bit over 3% of the votes compared to the May election. The party is rather thin on substance, banking heavily on its charismatic populist leader, so its star was set to fade after its great performance in the very protest-oriented May election. Once again, the mood in the May election was a free-for-all attitude of protest voting, with little concern for the formation of a stable government. In the government negotiations in May, ANEL played its role in creating the deadlock, by refusing to work with the ‘traitors’ (ND and PASOK) although I believe it would have agreed to work with SYRIZA if an anti-austerity cabinet without the Nazis and the KKE had had a majority. In this election, the concern of forming a stable government and the resulting re-polarization of the election around ND and SYRIZA likely had a significant impact on ANEL’s vote, which is probably not as rock-ribbed anti-system as XA’s vote is. It is hard to say, with my cursory knowledge, where its lost voters went given the general incompatibility with both ND (on the issue of austerity and the memorandum) and SYRIZA (on general ideology and nationalism), although I would bet more towards ND.
Perhaps most interesting and surprising was XA’s performance. The neo-Nazi party held its vote remarkably well, losing less than a tenth of percentage point in the end, when most polls had shown that the party, which won 6.97% in May, would win a somewhat lower share of the vote (4-6%). Most had thought that the recent media spotlight on XA’s various insanities – like the physical assault on a KKE deputy or its open Nazism – would throw cold water on some voters who voted for XA without exactly knowing what XA really was. I would wager that it was less XA’s repulsive ideology than its general anti-system, anti-establishment, radical nationalist and populist rhetoric which won it that many votes. However, clearly – but fairly understandably – there must be a large share of “shy Nazi” voters who do not want to admit to a XA vote, but who nonetheless vote for XA in the secrecy of the voting booth. It would seem as if those who voted XA in May – and almost all of them had not previously voted for the party – were resolutely anti-system, and were unmoved by the various attacks on the party (likely believing Michaloliakos when he raves about a media conspiracy to silence him) and the calls for a stable majority. In very large part, they confirmed their vote in this election.
DIMAR was the only smaller party to see an increase in its vote share, although only minimally. Given its history but perhaps most importantly its position on the political spectrum as a moderate and fairly social democratic party which supports a renegotiation of the memorandum only with a guarantee that Greece will remain in the Eurozone, its voters, a lot of whom must have come from PASOK’s 2009 electorate, were perhaps less attracted to Tsipras’ more radical creed of scrapping the memorandum and the unspoken risk of leaving the Eurozone as a result. The party’s actual views and positions on the issue remain rather vague, because they aren’t totally anti-austerity but certainly are not as pro-austerity/memorandum as ND is portrayed to be. Nonetheless, the party has taken the (politically courageous) decision of supporting (without joining) Antonis Samaras’ new government, thus forming a ND-PASOK-DIMAR coalition of sorts which DIMAR had kind of rejected in May.
This election was an unmitigated disaster for the KKE, which saw its support nearly cut in half and reduced to its lowest results in at least 20 years. In May, the KKE had won a good but not great result, which they, of course, interpreted as a sign that the Revolution was around the corner and that they could continue playing its Stalinist games. The KKE has been locked in its archaic ideology and style since the 1990s, without ever suffering excessively from it, given that it could count on a base of voters which were likely ideologically or socially attached to the KKE without being too displeased by its attitude of constant opposition and its perennial use of Stalinist language. Until this year, the KKE never really faced a very strong challenge in its own backyard on the left, but in establishing himself and SYRIZA as a dominant political force, Tsipras has also managed to strike what could be a mortal blow to the KKE.
Tsipras presented himself as a credible and fairly realistic but still clearly left-wing alternative, notably with his proposals for a major stimulus/recovery plan. This is more than what can be said for the KKE, which played its role in the May deadlock by continuing its Stalinist antics and keeping up with its vociferous hatred for the “opportunists” (SYRIZA). The image which KKE gave off right after the May election was of an obviously archaic party which actually had little in the way of credible policy and categorically refused to partake in the country’s governance. It seems as if even its own usually loyal voters saw this image and reacted negatively to it, by abandoning, in large part, the KKE in favour of a strategic vote for SYRIZA, the ‘credible’ left-wing and anti-memorandum option. The KKE responded to this situation by branding SYRIZA as an opportunist bourgeois force, in cahoots with foreign powers and global finance. And, of course, the KKE’s assessment of these elections is that its poor result is due to outside forces, blackmail, intimidation and fear; certainly not to its own faults!
The major re-polarization of this election was most apparent with parties who did not pass the 3% threshold. Together, they won over 19% in May and formed the largest “political force” when combined. Only a month later, they weighed a mere 6%. All these ‘third parties’ which had ran in May lost a significant amount of their votes, further proving that May was very much a massive free-for-all election. The new liberal alliance formed by DX and Drasi, which would have won seats in May had they run together, won only 1.6% of the vote, clearly marginalized and hence crushed by re-polarization around ND. LAOS continued its descent into the abyss, losing 1.3% of the vote and being reduced to a paltry 1.6%. SYRIZA’s pressure was very heavy on the Greens, who had toyed with the idea of running on a joint slate with SYRIZA. They probably should have, judging by their results: 0.9% against 2.9% in May, erasing three years of slow gains by the Greek Greens. Another party which suffered particularly heavily from SYRIZA’s gains was ANTARSYA, a small far-left outfit with a wonderful name (Anticapitalist Left Cooperation for the Overthrow), which won 1.2% in May but only 0.3% this month.
The geography of this election was broadly similar to that of the May election, except that PASOK came first in no district this month. SYRIZA’s map clearly shows the extent to which the party has recouped much of PASOK’s old base – and now parts of the KKE base. Crete, the historical bastion of PASOK, saw all four prefectures back SYRIZA in this election, though PASOK still pulled over 20% in two of these prefectures. In the urbanized conglomeration of Attica (Athens, Piraeus and their suburbs), SYRIZA has emerged, once again, as the main force – particularly in the Piraeus and Athens’ working-class suburbs, though not in Athens proper (ND came first in the traditionally conservative city). PASOK, in turn, was once again obliterated in Attica, the country’s premier industrial region, and obviously the region which has seen the most of the social unrest which has shaken the country in the recent years. XA won some of its best results (9-10% in some parts, peaking at 14-16%) in Attica.
Antonis Samaras’ new government will probably not include any PASOK or DIMAR cabinet ministers, both parties having announced that they would only provide parliamentary backing to the new government. The new government faces a daunting task, held hostage by a wrecked economy and a state apparatus on the verge of collapse. This new cabinet will be greeted by a sigh of relief by decision makers in Berlin, Brussels but also Paris and Washington, given that ND is far more likely to adhere to the EU-IMF’s bailout conditions. Samaras has pledged a renegotiation of the most onerous parts of the deal, and creditors have shown some willingness in reopening some parts of the deal. However, Samaras is left with very little leeway here, and will probably need to quickly acquiesce to more stringent conditions. ND’s defeat does not necessarily eliminate the risk of a Greek exit from the Eurozone – far from it – nor does it ensure that the worst is behind.
Besides some phenomenally huge economic challenges, the new government also faces an uncertain political situation and the real risk of continued social unrest. While SYRIZA has promised resolutely tough opposition and warned that ND will not be able to renegotiate the bailout deal, ND is backed by two parties who, having contributed no ministers to the cabinet could be ready to pull the plug if they feel things are not going their way. In the end, this government’s lifespan could end up being pretty short, and Greek voters might return to the polls as early as next year. The government will also face pressure from the street, where social unrest will certainly continue as Samaras will eventually be forced to agree to more tough austerity medicine in return for more bailout money to keep the country’s government afloat.
In electoral terms (and this is what this blog is all about after all!), the future prospects of all parties – especially the governing parties – will be heavily dependent on Greece’s economic performance in the coming months. If the situation worsens or even remains the same, which is unfortunately the most likely option at this point, the government could be hitting high unpopularity numbers very quickly, its partners could be looking to pull the plug to save their own turfs while SYRIZA could be standing to be the happy beneficiaries. If the situation somehow starts improving, the government could certainly benefit.
The country’s future might be marginally brighter than in May, but even then, Greece’s future – socially, economically and probably politically – still looks very bleak.