The colours of disintegration: interpreting the 2012 elections in Greece

Economic depression is as ever a catalyst for change. This map of the terrain launches a series of analyses of the Greek elections and their European ripple effect, as the two parties that have dominated Greek politics since the downfall of the Junta face a “shellacking” and the far right waits in the wings

Iannis Carras
30 April 2012

France is not the only country voting on May 6. On the periphery, but for two years at the epi-centre of the earthquake shaking Europe, Greeks are voting in what may well prove to be the most significant election in a generation. Significant because PASOK and New Democracy, the two parties that have dominated Greek politics since the downfall of the Junta (1967-1974) look set for what we now call a “shellacking”, shedding votes to a spectrum of smaller parties: red, green, orange and black. And significant because the degree and nature of their defeat will have repercussions not only for the future of EU-IMF policies in Greece, and hence for the livelihood of all Greeks, but will also contribute to shaping the political and economic landscape of the European Union as a whole.

Finally, in a worrying parallel to France and other countries of the centre, the xenophobic and nationalist right looks set to surge. As openDemocracy opens a new series to interpret the elections in Greece; let us set out here the parameters of success and failure for each of the competing factions in turn. 

Stability personified 

Based on a law of 2004, modified in 2008, Greece allocates seats in parliament on the basis of a system of reinforced proportional representation. Two hundred and fifty seats are apportioned just about proportionately to those parties passing a 3% threshold, and the remaining fifty are automatically allocated to the first party.

Thus to achieve an overall majority, the first party needs to win 101 of the 250 seats apportioned proportionately, a crucial variable affecting the proportion of the vote needed for an overall majority being the total number of votes for parties that do not reach the 3% threshold.

George Papandreou's PASOK won an overall majority in the parliamentary elections of 2009, winning 43.9% of the vote and 160 seats. In the elections of 2007 and 2004, Constantine Karamalis' New Democracy had achieved 41.8% and 45.4% of the vote respectively, gaining a majority of seats in parliament on both occasions.

With the exception of 1996, this will be the first election since 1952 in which neither the government nor the opposition will be led by a member of the Papandreou or Karamalis families. Further, the combined votes of the two main parties have hovered around or above 80% in all elections since 1977. This, despite proportional representation, is stability personified: a cult of family combined with a system of rotating party-centred patronage.

Economic depression is, as ever, a catalyst for change. Opinion polls are not published in Greece during election campaigns, but the latest polls reveal New Democracy led by Antonis Samaras coming first with around 23%, followed by PASOK led by the former Minister of Economics Euaggelos Venizelos with  around 19% of the vote. No single party can achieve an overall majority of seats with such limited popular appeal. What might this mean for Greece? 

Behemoth and Leviathan 

PASOK and New Democracy are the status-quo parties: in governing Greece since the Junta they filled the bureaucracy with “homines Pasoki” and “homines Neodemokrati”, to paraphrase one  recent satirical film by Stavros Tsiolis. It is unsurprising that many Greeks would want to punish them for the country's current plight. Though they claim that they will implement the necessary EU policies to help Greece emerge from the crisis, they have used their dominant position in the outgoing parliament to vote through yet more funding for political parties; and their concrete proposals for growth seem to be based largely on the construction sector.


'Dear Greeks, keep calm and pick your vote' - an image being shared widely on social media.Source: Tumblr/Hellinco

Part of their success over the last decades is due to their ability, while acting out similar roles in office, to alternate the roles of government and opposition. New Democracy's leader, a maverick Messenian who in 1993 brought down a previous New Democracy government in protest against its policy of rapprochement with FYR Macedonia, seemed, over the last two years, to be performing this fox trot with panache. However, intense EU pressure throughout 2011 forced him to participate in a government of national unity and sign up to the EU stability pact, a change of stance that cost New Democracy some 10% in the polls, one third of its support. The EU might be lauded for showing up Samaras' reverse turns; at the same time, EU tactics constitute the proximate cause for the rise in support for the parties of the far right.


Fear of the alternatives, particularly fear of the consequences of anarchy and the default that would ensue, combined with patronage networks in rural and semi-rural areas will, however, work in New Democracy's and PASOK's favour. Given the crisis, success for these status-quo parties must be seen as achieving a combined total of over 50% of the national vote. This would represent a drop of almost 30% from their 2009 result; still, the majority of Greeks would have spoken up in favour of staying the course. To continue in government, PASOK and New Democracy need a majority in parliament, not a majority of the votes; and given the proliferation of small parties they can probably achieve this with a combined share of around 40%, representing a loss of almost half their electorate.

New Democracy and PASOK limping home to prolong their unhappy cohabitation therefore still remains the most likely outcome. Without some signs of improvement in the Greek economy, however, it is improbable that such a coalition could survive a full term; in any case, much would depend on the economic policies pursued on a pan-European level. Whether such a coalition would provide a new lease of life for reform, or serve as a swan-song for the old regime, will be the fundamental question Greek voters are called to answer as they head for the ballot box.

Socialism, yesterday and tomorrow 

For those who view the crisis in Greece as a crisis of capitalism, often focusing on the use of the common currency area and free trade by the countries of the centre to capture periphery markets, the parties of the left offer a real alternative. These parties stress the responsibility of elites for high rates of tax evasion. Though the Communist Party of Greece (KKE) is at times represented as  unreformed, it has an active trade union and student movement, and has proved to be effective in peacefully channeling the resentment of large parts of Greek society. The Communists favour Greece's exit from the Euro and the European Union, but do not believe that these policies are viable in the immediate short term. SYRIZA led by the dynamic Alexis Tsipras has taken a hard line against EU-IMF “neo-liberalism”, and encouraged civil disobedience. Tsipras has called for a government of all parties opposed to the EU-IMF memorandum. According to opinion polls these two parties will achieve about 12% each. The small radical left party ANTARSYA argues for an immediate exit from the Euro and the European Union and a restructuring of Greek society to emphasise production in worker collectives. It is forecast to win between 1 and 2% of the vote. The combined total of the left is therefore likely to be about 26% of the electorate, not counting the more moderate Democratic Left and the Greens (Oikologoi Prasinoi). To set this in historical perspective, the highest percentage the left has ever achieved was when the United Democratic Left garnered 24.4% of the vote in the elections of 1958. 

Somewhere on the spectrum between the left and the liberals lie two smaller parties, the Democratic Left, a splinter group that objected to SYRIZA's hard line tactics, polling at around 8% and the Greens at 3%. These are pro-European parties, noted for their commitment to civic liberties, pro-immigration and environmentally conscious. Both argue for Eurobonds and alterations in the EU-IMF memorandum to promote balanced growth. Both are against widespread privatisation and construction. Many of their voters are disappointed supporters of the former Prime Minister George Papandreou, though, like Papandreou, they have at times been suspected of seeming all things to all men. The rationale for their standing for election separately remains a mystery. Still, entry of the Greens into Greek parliament for the first time will constitute a major success for the party; in fact these parties may hold the balance of power if PASOK and New Democracy fail to gain 50% of the seats, and the Liberal parties fail to enter parliament. 


The liberal parties represent one of the major imponderables in the Greek election. These are the preferred parties for those who view PASOK and New Democracy's policies leading to a bloated and inefficient public sector as the root cause of the Greek crisis, while being generally in favour of civil liberties and controlled immigration. Stefanos Manos' Drasi-Liberal Alliance and Dora Bakoyianni's Democratic Alliance stand an outside chance of entering parliament, each polling at just under 3%. In fact, the two parties play to rather different audiences: Drasi-Liberal Alliance, which has the tacit support of the Mayor of Thessaloniki, is a party of young business people eager to downsize the public sector, though the party is also noted for its hard line against the interests of the construction sector. The Democratic Alliance draws on older networks of support, particularly in Crete where the former Prime Minister Constantine Mitsotakis, Bakoyianni's father, remains popular. Both parties have stated that they could work with PASOK and New Democracy in a government of national unity.

Nationalism and the far right 

The biggest winners on May 6 are likely to be the parties of the right. Panos Kammenos, who deserted New Democracy following Samaras' show of support for the EU-IMF memorandum leads the nationalist Independent Greeks. Kammenos' propaganda is however largely directed against  Germany and the EU. Tellingly, he chose to found his party at Distomo, site of a war crime in Nazi-occupied Greece. Without a real programme, the party feeds off hurt pride and the rhetoric of punishment. The increase in Independent Greek's support has been astonishing and it could garner anything up to 10% of the vote, drawing not only from the right but also from segments of the nationalist left. 

LAOS, a party that has championed a hard stance on immigration has been represented in parliament since 2007. In 2009 it gained 5.5% of the vote. In 2011 its leader George Karatzaferis chose to participate in Lucas Papademos' national unity “salvation” government, a number of LAOS cadres serving as ministers. LAOS' supporters have however proved less than forgiving of this stance. With its popularity in free fall, Karatzaferis deserted the coalition. Split and demoralised, LAOS is now fighting for survival. But the precedent LAOS set has important implications: following Karatzaferis' mistakes, it is almost impossible to imagine any party of similar persuasions supporting governments of national unity. The neo-fascist Chryse Avge, translated as Golden Dawn, has filled the gap left by LAOS: in overtly racist language immigrants are presented as the cause for Greece's woes. Chryse Avge, whose campaign slogan is “we are against everyone”, may enter parliament for the first time, garnering up to 5% of the vote. Such extreme positions have not, thus far, been represented in Greece's legislature: 'Europeanisation', let it be noted, comes in many guises. 

Dead-end sentimentalism or new directions? 

All predictions are risky, after all, the Greek people have not spoken yet: but what might be signified by all this fury? Just possibly nothing: following the elections on May 6, Greece is likely to be ruled by a coalition of PASOK, New Democracy and one or two other parties, very similar to the outgoing Papademos administration. Brighter colours, and more of them, should not in themselves be equated with seismic shifts in Greece's political system...

Still, all cannot remain the same. Greece has not experienced a hung parliament since 1989. The number of new faces in the incoming parliament will be unprecedented. More significantly, this is likely to be the first election in which discontent at policies pursued by Greek governments over the last decades will be clearly expressed. Finally, something fundamental seems to be altering in the relationship between Greece's electorate and its parliamentary institutions. The negative response to George Papandreou's push for a referendum brought home to ordinary Greeks the degree to which their political institutions are not sovereign. As Angela Merkel and Nicholas Sarkozy dictated it, Greeks had to accept EU-IMF policies or alternatively abandon the Eurozone, even, potentially, the EU. The message was clear: short of pushing this nuclear button, the EU has taken over the field where real politics play out. Greeks may vote for better or worse managers, and for better or worse mediators in their relationship with the EU; alternatively, they may vote for politicians of sentiment: for flag-wavers and for feel-gooders, to no purpose. Though the Greek elections of 2012 may show up many colours, two feelings are likely to predominate: fear and rage. The fear of anarchy and the rage of a desperate and disillusioned people. Whatever the results, it is unlikely that this will be the people's last word.

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