The political limits of Grecovery

July 31
A SYRIZA rally in front of the Parliament. Credit: Harris Mylonas
A SYRIZA rally in front of the Parliament. (Harris Mylonas)

Joshua Tucker: Continuing our series of Monkey Cage Election Reports, the following is a guest post from political scientists Akis Georgakellos of Stratego and Harris Mylonas of George Washington University. For more, see this related piece in the June issue of Perspectives on Politics (available for free for next two weeks) by Mylonas on democratic politics in times of austerity.

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Elections to the European Parliament were conducted in 28 E.U. member states. In Greece, however, there were triple elections: European, regional and municipal. As we predicted in a Monkey Cage Post-Election Report, volatility and fluidity characterized the May 2014 elections. At first glance, the results of these triple elections appear contradictory. However, they represent a coherently volatile situation, with many new political parties and candidates entering the political arena and growing popularity of extreme views.

The “memorandum” vs. “anti-memorandum” policy cleavage (referring to the memoranda signed between the troika (IMF-ECB-E.U.) and the Greek government at the height of the Greek financial crisis) that was dominant in the 2012 elections persisted in 2014, but with a twist. The argument has changed from an issue of being “for or against” to one about whether the memorandum is  “over or not.” Irrespective of this transformation in content, the positioning of the various political parties with respect to the bailout plan for Greece continues to operate as an important political dividing line.

These developments paint a complex picture of a country attempting to deal with an unprecedented financial and economic crisis. To consider the political limits of Grecovery, we need to take a closer look at these electoral results.

European Parliament election

Although the Coalition of the Radical Left, SYRIZA, the main opposition party led by Alexis Tsipras, came first in national elections for the first time in Greek history, one cannot speak of a complete reversal in the political landscape. There are several facts to back this claim:

1. SYRIZA’s absolute percentage (26.6 percent) of the vote is low, the second lowest that a first party has received in national level elections.

2. The difference between SYRIZA and New Democracy (ND) (3.87 percent) is not a landslide victory. The picture is mixed if we look at prior European elections.

3. SYRIZA may have finished first but the two governing coalition partners together received 4.15 percent more than SYRIZA. To be sure, in a parliamentary election, they would still have significantly fewer MPs because the electoral law gives a 50-seat bonus to the first party. Nonetheless, SYRIZA’s claim of being more popular than the government is questionable.

Caption: Electoral Results in Greek national elections since 2009 Source: www.ypes.gr
Electoral Results in Greek national elections since 2009; Source: www.ypes.gr

The coalition partner, PASOK, collaborated with other small political parties to form the relatively successful “Olive Tree – Democratic Alignment.” While 8 percent is nothing for the once dominant political party to crow about, it is a result that prevented what many had predicted: PASOK’s dissolution.

Golden Dawn, the extreme right-wing party that has made global headlines, is the only party that has consistently increased its vote share since 2009. The party came in third with 9.39 percent despite the fact that (or, according to some, because) the head of the party and some of its members remain imprisoned. It should be noted that while there are peculiarities of the Greek case, the rise of the extreme right in Greece follows a general trend of far-right parties doing well in European elections, including in France, the U.K.,  Denmark and Hungary.

The River, a new party without a traditional political position, had a remarkable trajectory. It is a party that was established approximately two months before the elections and still managed to garner 6.6 percent of the vote. It proclaimed to be outside the Left-Center-Right axis, and to symbolize something “new.”  Paradoxically, the attacks against this party as “apolitical” broadcast its actual message.

The Communist Party seems to have kept its support, without achieving an impressive rise in its vote share. It is definitely the party that has been affected the most by the rise of SYRIZA, since the two parties are competing for left voters.

On the center-left side of the political spectrum, Democratic Left (DIMAR) recorded an even greater loss, from 6.2 percent in 2012 to 1.2 percent, squeezed between SYRIZA and PASOK/Olive tree. The turning point for DIMAR was its withdrawal from the government in June 2013. Up to that point, DIMAR represented people on the left demanding a more sensitive social policy but not opposing the reforms designated in the memoranda signed between the troika and the Greek government. Thus, in the latest election, the choice for center-left voters was to either vote for “Olive Tree” if they liked the government’s policy or SYRIZA if they were opposed to it.

The parties of the “populist right” recorded a serious but fragmented electoral power. Independent Greeks, LAOS and the Union for the Homeland and the People — a new party founded by four prominent ND MPs — cumulatively received 7.2 percent. This percentage can be interpreted in two distinct ways: as an important pool of voters for ND in the next critical election, or as voters who have left ND for good and are seeking viable alternatives.

Local government elections

In contrast with the results of European Parliament elections, ND dominated the regional elections, winning in 7 out of 13. SYRIZA won only two regions, but one of them was the largest: Attiki. This victory is destined to function as a case study for governance by the left.

Fluidity and volatility was further demonstrated in municipal elections. For the first time, none of the winners in the five largest municipalities were officially supported by one of the two major parties. This is yet another sign that voters are thirsty for change.

From the local elections, another crucial conclusion can be drawn: SYRIZA appears to experience problems in constructing alliances, even with the parties of the left.

Government reshuffle, electoral law and presidential election

Following the elections, the government was faced with a choice between intensifying the reform effort or working for  “electoral readiness.” It selected the latter path. To be sure, the government’s rationale may be that winning the next election is a prerequisite for any reform effort to continue. Thus, the PM, Antonis Samarasremoved several ministers who spearheaded tough reforms to appease the affected constituencies and at the same time assigned ministerial posts to figures that can appeal to ND’s right. ND operates as if the moderate, Europe-oriented and reform-focused part of the electorate is locked in and that the party can risk a right-wing tilt. Whether this calculation is accurate remains to be seen.

An important exception to the “electoral readiness” choice is the appointment of Gikas Hardouvelis — a close associate of former PM Kostas Simitis — to the most sensitive governmental post, the Ministry of Finance. Finally, PASOK significantly strengthened its presence in the government with this reshuffle.

To conclude, there is no clear hegemonic bloc in Greek politics today. The significant electoral rise of SYRIZA is still not large enough to become some sort of electoral “tsunami.” Instead, we see internal dissent in certain matters, as well as signs of inability to form alliances with other political forces. This will become particularly relevant when it comes to the March 2015 presidential election that requires a significant parliamentary majority to pass (200 out of 300 in the first two rounds and 180 in the third round of voting). Short of this, Greece will hold new parliamentary elections.

What does the future hold? ND has to choose between two paths: hold surprise elections in the fall or attempt to form a presidential majority in early 2015. Whether the troika will give the coalition government a “breather” or it will insist on a tough policy will shape developments. PASOK, as coalition partner, will have to decide whether to stay its course or take a more populist and/or left turn — possibly thinking of a post-election cooperation with SYRIZA. The main opposition party, SYRIZA, is demanding elections with an eye to post-election collaboration possibilities. The enigma is whether SYRIZA — if elected — will keep its promises and radically change the current policy or not. Grecovery is not merely a financial or economic issue: The limits of forced reform are sociopolitical.

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Andrew Gelman · July 31