In this post, Spyridon Plakoudas, a second-year PhD student in the Department of Politics and International Relations at Reading, analyses the outcome of last weekend’s parliamentary elections in Greece.
The May 2012 deputy elections in Greece have stimulated interest in the political affairs of a small nation susceptible to political crises. Labelled the most crucial elections in modern Greek political history, the results of the ballot validated only partially that characterisation. Certainly, these elections witnessed a war of ideas: the pro-austerity parties propagated reputedly the only reliable exit strategy from the economic quagmire, whereas their political rivals propagated an allegedly decent response to the concession of national sovereignty to Greece’s foreign lenders.
The elections confirmed the decline of the once dominant two-party political system. Already enervated by chronic scandals of corruption and cronyism, the two erstwhile governing parties – the Centre-Right New Democracy and the Centre-Left PASOK – suffered the consequences of enforcing an unpopular economic program of austerity. At first sight, the anti-austerity parties outpolled the pro-austerity parties. Encapsulated under the politically vague category of an “anti-agreement” (αντι-μνημονιακός) orientation, that heterogeneous array of parties includes representatives from a wide political spectrum. A coalition of extreme and moderate Leftist constituencies (SYRIZA) and a nationalist and populist Rightist party (Independent Greeks) occupied the second and fourth positions respectively. Despite their ideological differences, they converge on an “anti-agreement” character that vacillates rather unconvincingly between promises to renounce the austerity agreements and pledges to keep Greece within the Eurozone. While the Communists (KKE) with their consistent, yet sterile, anti-EU and anti-Eurozone declarations acquired the fifth position, a moderate Leftist party (Democratic Left) that evangelises implausibly a possible renegotiation of the economic agreements with a simultaneous pro-Eurozone orientation came seventh. The far-Right Golden Dawn, a party that preaches an anti-immigration rhetoric occupied the sixth position.
The two previously dominant political parties recorded their worst electoral performance since their establishment in the post-dictatorial era. Acquiring just 33% of the votes, the two staunchly “pro-agreement” (μνημονιακός) parties constitute an outvoted minority. The voters “punished” the “pro-memorandum” Rightist and Centre-rightist parties, four of which (LAOS, Democratic Alliance, Recreate Greece, and Action) failed to cross the 3% electoral threshold.
Nonetheless, a scrutiny of the political parties’ structure unveils, apart from their often contradictory or even unrealisable statements, a quite uniform characteristic: an opportunistic re-alignment of the “pro-agreement” parties’ voters and members. Even the anti-austerity political parties have yet to acquire widespread legitimacy in the eyes of the rancorous population since three parties incorporated former MPs of the erstwhile governing parties, the principal culprits of the economic crisis. Although the vast majority of Greeks resent the perceived external intrusion in Greek affairs by the IMF and the EU, a substantial proportion feel unrepresented by the existing political organisations – even the anti-austerity ones that rebuke “external intervention”. Over one third of the registered voters abstained, the majority of whom constitute disappointed voters of the previously dominant parties. This specific category also includes younger people who have already migrated abroad in search of a brighter future, epitomising the moral bankruptcy of the current political system.
It might be argued that the dichotomy between Left and Right – which has dominated Greek political since the restoration of democracy in 1974 – has now been superseded by the opposition between the pro-austerity and anti-austerity parties. Yet such simplistic categorisations do not wholly reflect the political reality. The major urban centres and younger generations voted predominantly for the anti-austerity parties, a development explained principally by the high unemployment rates and the more organised setting of social and political networking (especially via the internet-based media). The small and medium urban centres and the countryside, affected less by the socio-economic crisis and influenced notably by clientistic networks and family or historical traditions, voted generally for pro-austerity parties, though their power diminished markedly. Regional variations in the popular vote exemplify the salience, though reduced, of clientism. The exponential rise of the far-Right, which occupied the sixth place, deserves special reference. The unchecked stream of illegal immigrants and their disproportionate participation in crime, in conjunction with high unemployment and poverty rates, have caused anti-immigration sentiments in the majority of the population (especially in the cities) that the neo-Nazi party, Golden Dawn, capitalized on.
The issue of governance remains unsolved. Though the first party receives a premium of 50 seats, the two pro-austerity parties secured only 149 seats, just two seats short of the required parliamentary majority. Even if the two parties coalesce – as they have over recent months behind the technocratic government led by Lucas Papademos – they need the political support of the moderate Democratic Left to acquire parliamentary majority; yet, the Democratic Left remains sceptical and appeals for the co-option of SYRIZA in an executive scheme. A coalition of all the anti-austerity parties except Golden Dawn – the creation of which would be a Herculean if not an impossible task given their almost unbridgeable ideological and political differences – also lacks a parliamentary majority. Though the President of the Republic typically delegates a governmental mandate for a coalition government to the first four political leaders by order of priority, the coalition “experiment” will probably prove unsuccessful and new elections will be proclaimed. While the declarations of the anti-austerity parties impress a receptive audience that observes the abrupt decline of a third of the populace below the poverty line, such rhetoric – often permeated by populist hyperboles – raises scepticism in the IMF and the EU. The two pro-austerity parties receive explicit, often untactful, support from Washington and Brussels; yet, they cannot convince the population’s majority about their economic program. The inability to establish a coalition government that the partners in Europe would trust will undoubtedly impede the required economic reforms and policies, and aggravate the socio-economic crisis; far worse, the most severe catastrophes of Hellenism have occurred during such political crises.
In summary, the population voted for anti-austerity political parties both out of desperation for the economy’s death rattle and out of attachment to populist overstatements: addicted to a way of living subsidized principally by external debt, the voters reacted sentimentally to “punish” the politicians responsible for the socio-economic Armageddon. Though weakened, the two erstwhile dominant parties still possess experience in statecraft and vast resources, an advantage in the clientistic relations with the population. Worsening socio-economic crisis and warnings from the IMF and EU might convince voters in the impending elections – especially those who abstained this time – to return to the two formerly dominant parties. Alternatively, such events might reinforce the anti-austerity parties. Time will tell whether last weekend’s elections reflected a short-term spasm of anger or marked a milestone in Greek political history.