As a fresh election lies ahead for Greece after the inconclusive results of the previous vote in early May, and the consequent failure of parties to form a coalition government, there arise one certainty and several questions. The certainty is that the forthcoming election is to determine Greece’s future inside the Eurozone. Among the most pressing questions are: How are Greeks going to vote this time around? Will the new election produce a government at all? And, what kind of a government is that most likely to be?
Last month’s election (see Table 1 for electoral results) may not have produced a government but has recast the political landscape in dramatic ways. Five such changes are particularly noteworthy.
The first radical change concerns the destruction of Greece’s two-party system, which for over thirty years had allowed center-left PASOK and center-right New Democracy (ND) to alternate regularly in office, thus relegating minor parties to the political margins. The breakup of the old system has now resulted in the fragmentation of political forces, which are now scattered along an ideological spectrum extending from extreme left to extreme right. The second significant outcome of the May elections was the abject failure of liberal anti-statist forces to enter parliament, largely because of their inability to cooperate. Although, when put together, parties representing political liberalism won 9.5% of the total vote, none of them could clear the 3 percent hurdle that is necessary for winning parliamentary seats. As a result, no parliamentary party can be said to represent political liberalism, clear and full. The third development has been the political bankruptcy of PASOK, a party that often served as a pivot for Greek politics and which had thrived on its firm grip on the state as well as the legacy of the Papandreou family. Although the decline of that party had for some time been a foregone conclusion, it was the current fiscal crisis that gave it the fatal blow as its occurrence at once revealed both the size of public debt and George Papandreou’s inability to govern. The fourth outcome of the May election was the rise on both the left and the right of the political spectrum of new maverick politicians with significant charismatic potential. Alexis Tsipras of radical-left Syriza and Panos Kammenos of the nationalist-right Independent Greeks, in common distinguishing themselves for their promises of a radical break with past politics and major policy shifts, especially with regard to Greece’s loan agreements. Each of them also seeks to introduce new symbolic norms, political discourse, and moral values. The fifth, and most disturbing, outcome of the May election has been the emergence of a Greek nativist party that managed to win a robust 7% of the total vote and thus enter Parliament. This is highly flammable political material that could set rickety Greek politics ablaze.
Such changes in the political landscape will not, however, be the only ones when Greek voters go to the polls on June 17. Participation rates and mass psychology will also be different. In the previous contest, abstention stood at an historic high of 34.9% as a large part of a dispirited and politically disenchanted electorate did not turn out to vote. This time, with the stakes being higher for Greece’s future, participation will be higher, albeit with a different voting psychology. In May, people voted with their hearts rather than their minds. Exhausted by the protracted social unrest that began in December 2008 and continued intermittently during the ill-fated governments of George Papandreou and Lukas Papademos, Greeks did not vote on the basis of ideologies, programs, or policy platforms, which, in any case, were in short supply; instead, their vote was “a spasm of fury” (The Economist, May 7, 2012) against the mainstream parties and the harsh austerity measures Greece must adopt to stay in the euro. This time, however, voting will be governed by fear for the country’s future prospects.
How are Greek voters going to vote? All in all, irrespective of individual party preferences, voters are offered three broad options, each represented by a group of parties: Old populist, new populist, and non-democratic ones (see chart below presenting the fault lines of Greece’s current party system; the numbers in the concentric cycles indicate the cumulative percentage of electoral strength in May 2012 for the parties belonging in each group). Each of the three groups includes parties of both left and right hues; interestingly, too, each and all parties across the spectrum have strong statist reflexes.
The group of old populists, first, consists predominantly of the two mainstream parties, ND and PASOK, that have alternatively ruled Greece for over three decades and are now broadly thought of as being the culprits of all political maladies. With some caution, one could also include in this group the small but electorally significant Democratic Left (DL), whose party base consists mostly of social democrats defecting from PASOK. All three parties have vowed to keep Greece in the Eurozone by respecting most of what has been agreed between previous Greek governments and foreign creditors. However, as most reforms require a diminished state and market liberalization, it is still doubtful whether those parties will eventually have the temerity to go against their statist instincts and promote liberal reforms.
The group of new populists includes Syriza on the radical left and the Independent Greeks on the ultra-conservative right. Despite obvious ideological differences, both parties use an essentially similar populist discourse demanding the outright rejection of Greece’s bailout package and the abolition of all austerity measures. They pit the Greek people against the (domestic and foreign) rich, the private banking system, and foreign powers, especially Germany. Although generally supportive of Greece’s membership in the EU but rather fuzzy on the question of keeping the euro, both parties campaign on tearing up the country’s deal with its creditors, while calling for widespread nationalizations and self-sustained economic growth.
Finally, the group of non-democratic forces includes the Communist Party of Greece (KKE), a self-proclaimed “revolutionary party organization fighting for the overthrow of capitalism and the building of a socialist-communist society” (15th Party Congress, May 1996), and Golden Dawn (GD), a nativist, nationalist movement plainly animated by the Nazi ideology and fighting against the “foreign and domestic corrupt political oligarchy”. Both these parties stand against free markets and demand Greece’s immediate withdrawal from the EU and the Eurozone. As polls show, in the elections on June 17 the strength of both non-democratic parties will decline, whether out of opportunism (as many former KKE supporters will flee to Syriza) or out of fear (of a neo-Nazi menace).
As elections approach, chances are that no party will be able to form a single-party majority government, which will make a coalition government necessary. Still, as Greek electoral law awards the party that comes first 50 bonus seats in the country’s 300-seat parliament, whether that party is ND or Syriza will be crucial. In either case, with so many Montagues and Capulets arrayed on the Greek public square, forming a government will not be easy. There are three scenarios.
If Syriza comes first, it will try to forge either a left coalition or an anti-bailout one, none of which seems however plausible. Bringing together the parties of the left, including PASOK, means bringing to the table old political foes, bridging deep political and cultural differences, and fusing clashing ideological and policy platforms. Tsipras has campaigned on the complete rejection of the bailout but has no clear policy to suggest to the disparate forces on the left. A second option for Syriza would be to attempt an anti-austerity coalition but this would involve an alliance with the ultra-right neo-populist Independent Greeks. Tsipras has said that he would accept support from that party if there were a possibility of forming a government that would oppose the bailout terms. Yet, as recent polls show, the Independent Greeks seem to lose fast much of the electoral capital they gained last May.
If ND wins the election, it will likely seek to form a majority government with PASOK and, possibly, DL, and then try to materialize the terms of the bailout agreement. Numbers of seats won by each party will certainly be a critical factor for building such a coalition government, especially since PASOK’s vote is expected to shrink even further since the last elections. On the other hand, no cooperation seems to be feasible within the broader right and especially between ND and the Independent Greeks. Be that as it may, the coalition to be shaped under ND’s leadership will consist of mainstream statist parties undertaking the job to reform the state, liberalize the markets, and restart the economy.
There is, finally, the possibility that all attempts to form a viable coalition government collapse, which raises the possibility of yet another round of elections.
Of the three foregoing scenarios, the first and the third would be disastrous for Greece. However unlikely at present, the formation of a government opposed to austerity would inevitably come into conflict with the so-called Troika (EU, IMF, ECB) over austerity targets and debt payments, thus risking Greece’s exit from the Eurozone. A similar risk is raised in the case Greece fails to form a government following the elections on June 17. Therefore, the least worst of existing options for Greece is a political coalition of the traditional parties in the hope they gradually turn reformist under international and European pressure.