Elections in Greece
Instead of the traditional left-right division, Greek political landscape is increasingly divided according to the parties’ attitudes towards austerity measures.
On May 6, just less than six months after the coalition government of technocrat Lucas Papademos succeeded that of beleaguered prime minister George Papandreou in order to initiate the reforms agreed at the Eurozone summit on October 26, 2011, Greek voters went to the polls to elect a new parliament and government against a rather gloomy backdrop.
The path to the polls
The sovereign debt crisis had exacerbated the contraction of the economy and the increase of unemployment (now affecting one in every three young people). The desperate attempts of the last Panhellenic Socialist Movement (PASOK) and the subsequent tripartite coalition government to raise revenues through hastily concocted tax, levy and contribution packages, which targeted groups whose incomes have traditionally been transparent and accessible to the revenue authorities, had renewed demands for a more equitable distribution of the tax burden. The failure to reign on a small but not negligible part of the population that has shielded its assets and income from tax collection through exploiting legal loopholes by failing to declare them or by moving them offshore was seen by many as a sign of chronic incompetence, corruption and unwillingness to reform.
But even where attempts to reform were introduced, the two last governments found themselves externally pitted against powerful interests and internally divided as the issue of reform has been extremely controversial. Plans to reduce the number of public sector employees – or even to provide an accurate head count of public sector workers – met with a fierce reaction from trade unions, opposition parties and even deputies and ministers in the government camp. The drive to reform higher education by introducing more accountability and fiduciary responsibility into the sector attracted fierce opposition and a refusal to implement the new law on the part of university authorities, leading to a highly controversial U-turn by the government. Similarly, efforts to open closed professions (taxi drivers, pharmacists, notaries, lawyers and doctors) were derailed from within the coalition government whose standing was further tried when the leader of the junior partner in it – the far-right Popular Orthodox Rally (LAOS) – withdrew his support and denounced the second bailout agreement with the Troika as a sell-out of Greek sovereignty. A Troika-backed revision of employment legislation abolishing nationally negotiated contracts and substantially reducing the minimum wage was met with fury not only from civil servants but also from private sector employees who already enjoyed far less favourable employment, job security and pension terms and whose incomes had substantially been reduced since the introduction of the government austerity programme.
The anatomy of the protest movement
Peering under the surface of the apparent unanimity of the ‘indignant’ movement in the run-up to the elections, one could see a series of contradictory readings of the situation among the public. The prospect of structural reform was unwelcome for many, while others saw its indecisive implementation as the issue. Some condemned the unwillingness of the main parties to introduce measures that would affect their traditional clients employed in the broader public sector; others considered any change of policy on the part of the largest parties potentially catastrophic. The election results indicate that the expression of these diverse grievances and fears largely adopted the language of rejection of the party system. Despite their substantially different positions, those dependent on the continued existence of a state providing employment opportunities or other privileges; those who could successfully navigate through the maze of corruption and extract benefits from it and therefore had a stake in the threatened status quo; those advocating reform; more ‘privileged’ public sector employees; underprivileged private sector workers and the unemployed identified PASOK and Nea Dimokratia (ND) – the two parties that have alternated in office since the restoration of democracy in 1974 – together with the party system that bore their stamp, as the culprits for the predicament(s).
A polarised political landscape
Another significant issue that occupied centre stage in the debate was the desirability of the bailout agreement which the previous governments had signed with the EU/ECB/IMF Troika. As early as 2009 all political parties, with the exception of PASOK, had been against the proposed reforms in the public sector and therefore de facto positioned themselves against the terms of the bailout package extended to Greece. But PASOK too had not adopted a clear position, making positive noises internationally but dragging its feet when structural reforms had to be implemented at home. And although its main rival ND was eventually convinced to shed its uncompromising anti-reform rhetoric and join the Papademos coalition government, it still remained ambivalent and was unable – just like PASOK – to control the centrifugal forces that set in motion the fragmentation of the party system as the May elections approached.
In the anti-bailout discourse, the bailout issue was invested with nationalistic rhetoric. Its rejection was described as a patriotic duty, as an end to national humiliation or to colonial exploitation. Those arguing for adherence to the country’s obligations were often represented as traitors who lacked patriotic credentials not only by populist right-wing politicians who usually excelled in the use of the nationalist idiom, but also by personalities of the left such as the leader of the Coalition of the Radical Left (SYRIZA) Alexis Tsipras. In this context, the discussion often ignored the underlying reality of the government deficit and the high debt/GDP ratio, taking the form of a personal blame game and effectively externalising the responsibility for it. Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel and IMF Chief Executive Christine Lagarde were blamed for vindictiveness and, in some quarters, were represented as conspiring to depreciate Greece’s various assets to enable foreign interests to buy them cheaply. Overall, the debate polarised Greek society as it demarcated two camps with irreconcilable differences. In this context, the vote on May 6 confirmed the persistently antagonistic and non-consensual character of Greek politics. Although the ‘left’ v the ‘right’ divide that pervaded Greek politics in the post-World War II era had started to lose its salience, the sovereign debt crisis and the austerity efforts that accompanied Greece’s bailout recast the terms of the debate and divided the political landscape into those who accepted the bailout deal and those who did not. Political parties opposing the bailout agreements even contemplated the possibility of cooperation and of putting aside the traditional divide between the left and the right, as did the left-wing SYRIZA and the right-wing populist Anexartitoi Ellines (an ND splinter group) – something which had been a taboo issue in the past.
The election outcome
The election results constituted a blow to the three parties that formed the coalition government and were broadly seen as the parties that put their signatures to the bailout deal. Despite its withdrawal from the coalition government, its condemnation of the bailout package and its fierce anti-immigration discourse, the far-right LAOS did not manage to attract the crucial three percent of the vote that would have allowed it to enter the parliament. PASOK, who was associated with the acceptance of the harsh bailout terms and the slow and indecisive implementation of structural reform and who was seen as having been in power for most of the 38 years of the Third Hellenic Republic and as being responsible for a good deal of the economic mismanagement over the period, was abandoned by its traditional electoral base of public sector employees and other beneficiaries of the large and pervasive state model it had sustained. Although the party tried to suggest that a strong government could negotiate marginal improvements in the terms of the bailout package, it remained committed to the whole deal. As a result, the erstwhile dominant force in Greek politics just managed to attract a little bit more than 13 percent of the vote and 41 seats in the 300-seat parliament. Nea Dimokratia, who had insisted on holding the elections sooner rather than later in order to capitalise on its lead in the polls in late 2011, suffered a disastrous split and faced the polling day in a severely weakened state, trying to balance its pro-Eurozone discourse with reminders that it had always opposed the stark terms of the bailout package. Representing itself as a virtual outsider to the bailout negotiations yet pro-bailout by sheer necessity, the party did not convince the electorate and earned a historical low of 18.85 percent of the vote and 108 seats, benefiting from a 50-seat bonus reserved for the first party in accordance to the electoral law. It still fell far short of the 151 seats that would have allowed it to form a single-party government. PASOK and ND were therefore overwhelmingly rejected both for their support for the strict austerity terms linked to the bailout deal and for their central role on the political scene for almost four decades. They saw their combined share of the vote drop from about 77% in the previous elections to about 33% on May 6.
SYRIZA, a party consisting of 12 constituent groups ranging from Trotskyists, Maoists to Eurocommunists and the Green Left, proved to be the rising star of the contest as it came to a close second place. Under the leadership of its charismatic leader, Alexis Tsipras, SYRIZA attracted an unexpected 16.78 percent of the vote and 52 seats. There are indications that SYRIZA had not expected to hold such a pivotal role the day after the elections and had not had time to develop concrete proposals for dealing with the sovereign crisis, the economic meltdown facing Greece and the reconfigured party system which had traditionally confined the left to the realm of opposition. As public attention was directed to the new player in Greece’s political drama, SYRIZA tried to spell out an alternative vision to that of austerity, the painful restructuring of the public sector and the strict fiscal terms of the bailout package. Its emphasis on the need to factor development in the equation was not backed by concrete and credible plans as to how this was to be funded. Different party personalities engaged in advancing potential solutions, including the outright denouncement of the bailout package, the need to renegotiate it, the utilisation of bank deposits to fund development projects and a suggestion that all those whose income exceeded Ã¢â€šÂ¬20,000 should be required to lend the government Ã¢â€šÂ¬100. Different groupings within SYRIZA continued to campaign for contradictory goals such as 100,000 extra jobs in the public sector at a time when the restructuring plans attached to the bailout agreement envisaged 150,000 redundancies and for an immediate exit from the Eurozone. Sensing that their party was riding the wave of popular condemnation of the dominant bipartisan political system in Greek politics and the disastrous management of the Greek debt, the SYRIZA leadership tried to maintain its distance from the forces of the ancient regime, while upholding the bureaucratic clientelist model that was fostered by that very system. Thus the nebulous proposals of SYRIZA are accentuated by the condemnation of PASOK and ND and a refusal to contemplate entry into a coalition government with them, while promising the preservation of the vast and inefficient state sector and its function as the country’s largest employer. The official position therefore combines a commitment to the Eurozone with a rejection of the bailout terms and the continued servicing of the EU/ECB/IMF loans, although there are voices from within the party that now speak of a moral denunciation of the austerity measures imposed by the bailout agreements and its renegotiation. Despite indications of SYRIZA’s attempts to revamp its image in a way that would combine its left-wing credentials with a coherent and credible proposal, this is likely to prove to be a Herculean task as there is very little time before the next elections on 17 June and a more concrete programme would run the risk of upsetting the delicate balancing act between its various constituent tendencies that the party effectively represents.
The newly formed Anexartitoi Ellines (Independent Greeks) that brought together mainly disaffected ND MPs adopted an uncompromising, populist, anti-bailout discourse, equating the terms imposed by the EU/ECB/IMF loan agreement with a new occupation of Greece. The lack of a convincing and coherent programme of getting Greece out of its current crisis was compensated by its appeal to Greek patriotism and ability to recover without external intervention, coupled with strong anti-IMF rhetoric. This potent mixture secured the party the fourth place in terms of voter preference (10.60 percent and 33 seats). Having drawn a clear line between the forces of the ancient regime and itself, this party too remained uncompromising and refused to cooperate in the formation of a national unity government with either PASOK or ND, but it still kept the door ajar to other forces that opposed the bailout such as SYRIZA.
Perhaps Europe’s last uncompromising Stalinist party, the Communist Party of Greece (KKE), maintained its consistently negative stance towards the European Union and rejected the bailout agreement but remained largely on the margins of the debate as it had experienced considerable internal critique against its rigid ideological profile and its attitude towards political cooperation with other left-wing forces. The party that gained 8.48 percent of the vote and 26 seats is likely to experience a considerable outflow of voters towards SYRIZA which has now become the epicentre of reconfigurations in the broader left.
The openly national socialist party Chrisi Avgi, a party that had traditionally been confined to the margins of the political system and was the most known for its members’ racist attacks against immigrants, got 6.97 percent of the vote and 21 seats in the new parliament. Chrisi Avgi saw its share of the vote soar from a mere 0.29 percent of the vote in the 2009 parliamentary elections. Although there is considerable though inconclusive debate about the relative success of the party, it is plausible to suggest that it benefited from the tremors that affected the party system and the successful articulation of the issue of immigration in connection with the economic crisis and subsequent social disintegration. Leaving aside its electoral breakthrough (there are indications that the party will lose part of its vote in the forthcoming elections), it is beyond dispute that the anti-immigration discourse of Chrisi Avgi is not untypical of other parties such as LAOS, ND, Anexartitoi Ellines and to a certain extent PASOK. Moreover, Chrisi Avgi successfully linked popular concerns about rising criminality and immigration and attempted to ‘provide a local service’ by patrolling areas of high immigrant concentration and representing itself as ‘restoring order’. As governments fail to address issues of urban decay and security, to provide services for the immigrant and the established populations alike and to confront the discourse of Chrisi Avgi, far-right extremism will continue to enjoy visibility and legitimacy in some quarters of the electorate, particularly the young, of whom slightly less than 15 percent seem to have voted for the party according to provisional data.
Finally, Dimokratiki Aristera (DIMAR), formed after a split in SYRIZA in 2010, entered the parliament with 6.11 percent of the vote and 19 MPs. DIMAR has tried to articulate a modernising democratic socialist discourse, recognising the need for reforms that would be inspired by social justice and would enable Greece to continue participation in the process of European integration. The election results could have given this small left-wing party a key role in the formation of a modernising coalition government with ND and PASOK or even possibly with SYRIZA, but SYRIZA’s decision to keep its distance from the forces of the ancient regime tied DIMAR’s hands as its association with them would have discredited its reform strategy and plunge the party to oblivion.
Overall, the outcome of the elections on May 6 reflected the impact of the crisis in a variety of ways. It revealed a deeply polarised society. It provided a vehicle for the expression of resistance to the reform and austerity programme, but also a verdict on the fate of the party system and its main players. It gave expression to widespread societal insecurity exacerbated by the crisis and made clear that denying the institutionalisation of racism and not addressing its root causes would no longer do. And, perhaps more importantly, it demonstrated that the political leadership is risk averse and has failed to live up to the circumstances, to send unambiguous messages and to negotiate an optimal outcome. The Greek electorate must therefore give a new verdict on June 17 – just a few days before the depletion of government funds – not only for a way out of the debt crisis, but also for an indication of what kind of society will emerge from the turmoil.