The Greek elections of 17 June have been considered as the most crucial since the restoration of Democracy in 1974. Many expats –myself included- shared this view and for this reason returned to Greece to cast their vote.
These elections had, inevitably perhaps, the character of a referendum for Greece’s position within the Eurozone (the European orientation of the country more generally, I would add); or to be more precise this was the general perception within Greece and abroad. In this binary logic the pro-Euro camp was championed by Nea Dimokratia (the conservative party) and the anti-austerity camp championed by SYRIZA (a radical leftist party, the surprise of the May elections).
This categorisation was in my view simplistic for the following reasons:
Firstly it should be remembered that the Greek elections had a significant contextual difference from similar democratic processes in other countries of the EU periphery (such as the Spanish elections or the recent Irish referendum) that added a substantial layer of complexity to the former when compared with the latter. This is because the June elections took place in the context of fundamental reshuffle of the Greek political landscape. The two traditional parties of Government PASOK (the socialist party) and Nea Demokratia (the conservative party) that dominated Greek politics since 1974 have been widely viewed as representing an old and corrupt establishment that carried the largest part of the blame for the on-going multifaceted crisis in Greece.
This meant that voters’ preferences were not shaped only by the message carried by each party. The identity of the messenger was also a factor. In other words a large number of voters could dislike the identity of the messenger even though they would agreed with the message in principle.
Based on lengthy discussions with colleagues and friends from different walks of life I have the impression –which means that there is no scientific claim in the following observations- that there are three main groups of voters depending on how they reacted on the message - messenger equilibrium:
1) Those that focused on the message and disregarded the identity of the messenger (in the sense that they voted for a party that they would not have chosen otherwise. In my view this was the majority of voters that in the end voted for Nea Demokratia.
2) The voters who prioritised the identity of the messenger more than the message. In my view a substantial part of those who voted SYRIZA fall under this group. They were attracted by SYRIZA’s fresh “non-insider” outlook as well as by the charismatic personality and populist rhetoric of its young leader.
3) Those who took into account equally the message and the messenger. For example voters who agreed with the message of Nea Demokratia about the European orientation but tried to find other messengers.
Secondly the binary logic of the elections as a referendum on Greece’s position in the Eurozone (even with the added complexity of the identity of the messenger) is based on a presumption that the message be clear.
The message was anything but clear. Even the perceived anti-euro champion, SYRIZA had in a number of occasions declared that their preference was for Greece to remain in the Eurozone on the basis of a renegotiated deal that would restore the balance between austerity and growth. The position of renegotiation of some aspects was also part of Nea Demokratia’s manifesto. The main difference between the two parties was one of rhetoric. SYRIZA did not preclude the exit from Eurozone if European partners were unwilling to renegotiate anything (reassuring the electorate however that such a thing would be unthinkable because of the immediate negative effects for the whole of Eurozone that would ensue a GRexit).
It suffices to note at this point that Nea Demokratia followed the same rhetoric up until 8 months ago when it was the major opposition. Nea Demokratia’s rhetoric changed completely as a result of the former Prime Minister Papandreou’s threat of a referendum for the ratification of the second bail-out package. At that time Nea Demokratia was faced, for the first time, with a specific challenge that could potentially jeopardise Greece’s position in the Eurozone.
For this reason it had been suggested that in the case of a SYRIZA victory this party would be under a similar pressure to change its stance/rhetoric. The difference in this case was that SYRIZA’s reaction was deemed to be more unpredictable because SYRIZA is a coalition 12 smaller parties some of which have radical agendas and methods.
Going back to the issue of the message there is no doubt in my mind that the large majority of SYRIZA voters did not vote for it because they did not want Greece to remain in the Eurozone. Had they wanted really to turn the backs on the Eurozone and the EU as a whole they would have voted for other parties with clear anti-EU agenda, for example the Communist party.
The Demos has spoken (let’s see what he said)
According to the final count of votes:
Nea Demokratia (the conservative party) received 29,66% and 129 Parliamentary seats
SYRIZA (The radical leftist party) received 26,89% and 71 Parliamentary seats
PASOK (The socialist party) received 12,28% and 33 Parliamentary seats
Anexartitoi Ellines (right wing populist party) received 7,51% and 20 Parliamentary seats
Xrysi Aygi (extreme right) received 6,92% and 18 Parliamentary seats
DEMAR (moderate leftist party) received 6,26% and 17 Parliamentary seats
KKE (Greek Communist Party) received 4,50% and 12 Parliamentary seats
The Greek Parliament has 300 MPs. A Government is deemed to command the confidence of the Parliament if it has the support of a Parliamentary majority (at least 151 MPs). According to the Greek Constitution there is also the possibility for the formation of a Government that commands the support of at least 120 MPs if at the time of the vote of confidence in Parliament only 239 MPs are present (as a minimum).
The day after
The elections results show that the formation of a coalition Government is very likely. At the time of writing this piece the leader of the Conservative party has had a preliminary round of discussions with the Leaders of the Socialists (PASOK) and the moderate leftists (DEMAR). It is clear that SYRIZA will not form part of a grand coalition.
Although it would be arithmetically possible for Nea demokratia and PASOK to form a two party coalition that would have a comfortable majority in Parliament (162 MPs) it is also clear that such development would not be optimal.
Firstly as already mentioned these two parties are viewed in the consciousness of the electorate as representatives of the corrupt past that has been rejected by the people.
Secondly these two parties were the interlocutors with the Troika in the previous memoranda. It would be more difficult –yet not impossible- for them to articulate the need for revisiting some aspects of these agreements.
For these reasons the participation of the third partner would be really crucial both for the political legitimacy of the government in Greece in the application of tough measures in the immediate future but also for strengthening the negotiating position of the government abroad.
The unknown factor in all these is the stance that SYRIZA will decide to take as major opposition. To be more precise although SYRIZA cannot prevent the formation of a Government it can certainly affect whether the new Government will be able to govern (not by blocking legislation in Parliament but by making it non-implementable in the streets). SYRIZA has the Unions on its side and given the recent experience may decide after the anti-climax of the elections to take once again the streets. For me this is the most important dilemma that SYRIZA now faces: To consolidate its position as “the other” party in Greek politics by becoming a strong, even uncompromising opposition that functions and respects the rules of Parliamentary Democracy or whether it will give in to the temptation of taking political debate to the streets (in order to increase its percentage in the next elections; after all this practice was very successful for SYRIZA this time around).
Here is where the EU partners have a crucial role to play. I believe that they should at the earliest opportunity give a tangible token of good will towards the new government in the form of relaxation of some aspect of the agreement for example the extension of the duration of repayments. This would strengthen the Government’s position in Greece and dissuade SYRIZA from further escalation. On the other hand if the EU partners do not make any concessions then the new Government’s position would be undermined. This in turn would mean that the possibility for new elections would increase and SYRIZA’s position would be strengthened.
Some final thoughts
I still believe, despite the 7% that the fascist party of Xrysi Augi (Golden Dawn) received on Sunday that the large majority of its voters are not neo-Nazis or fascists by conviction – at least not yet. Golden Dawn has been perceived as an anti-systemic party and this fact helped it to capitalise on a general sense of dissatisfaction against the existing political system as a whole. As long as the economic and social problems remain it is likely that they will consolidate or even increase their power. Once again the rise of the far right is an issue that needs to be addressed at EU level (by trying to solve the socio-economic problems that nurture its rise).
The worrying thing for me is that violence (from the extreme right and extreme left) begins to become an acceptable (or to be more precise a tolerated) form of political expression.
My hope is that these new elections would constitute the beginning of change not only of the political landscape but also of political praxis in Greece. In the “Metapoliteusis” era -the time that followed the fall of the military junta in 1974- Greek politics were based on bi-partisan confrontational politics that often led to comfortable one party parliamentary majorities. The formation of coalition governments was the exception and normally viewed as undesirable and ineffective. The current developments show that there seems to be a slow albeit evident realisation of the benefits of conciliatory politics. It remains of course to be seen if this will last.
I think that the elections results demonstrate the truth encapsulated in the maxim “ΑΝΑΓΚΑ ΚΑΙ ΘΕΟΙ ΠΕΙΘΟΝΤΑΙ” hence the title. I strongly hope that the maxim does not refer only to the Greco-Roman deities but is also relevant to their Norse counterparts. This is necessary in order to deal with the systemic shortcomings of the Eurozone successfully and secure our common future.