by Dr Theofanis Exadaktylos
The results of last Sunday’s elections in Greece reveal not only the deep fragmentation of the political system in Greece but also a polarized electoral environment within Greek society. Clearly the outcome of the elections signals the willingness of the Greeks to remain within the Eurozone and within the European Union structures, but also sends a stronger message domestically to the political establishment that the period of single-party governments is long gone. The electorate desires cooperation at different levels not only to overcome the crisis but also to build a safer future within the European architecture. At the same time there is a strong momentum against the austerity measures that cannot be overlooked by the forthcoming government and this will pose a considerable threat to the reforms and the implementation of the required measures by the bailout agreement. This means that the new government will face strong opposition (even on the streets) and will have to seek a more general consensus but also, push forward an agenda of renegotiation of the memorandum with the Troika.
There are a number of dimensions that we need to take into consideration regarding the outcome of the vote. This repeat election massaged the numbers in terms of seats in order to allow a government to emerge that is pro-bailout and pro-Europe; in this sense the people gave an answer as to what type of government they want: one that builds on cross-party cooperation. Perhaps the politics of fear worked there, but at the same time the strong support for the Radical Left (SYRIZA) reveals that there is a good chunk of the population that was not afraid of the unknown. This reveals the deep economic recession and pessimism that roams the population, in the sense that people feel they have nothing else to lose. At same time it uncovers new cleavages within society, most notable among the center-periphery and young-old in terms of their voting preferences and experiences of the crisis.
Finally, there is a strong international dimension to all this. There was worldwide pressure on the electorate to ‘vote in the correct way’ as perceived externally. This was apparent in the polarization between the pro-bailout and anti-bailout camps: the intervention in the last few days (cf. the statements by European and international leaders as well as the articles in the international media, especially from Germany) was quite direct. In the Greek mentality, this can work both ways: on the one hand, it can convince Greeks to vote in a certain way to protect the international image and credibility of the country; and on the other hand, it may have pushed certain voters to vote in a radical way with the message of domestic sovereignty and ownership of the electoral result.
Looking at the results themselves there are certain notable findings:
New Democracy managed to get close to 30% effectively gaining enough seats in parliament so as to require as few coalition partners as possible. Yet, effectively, the New Democracy leader will seek a wider consensus to ring-fence the position of the country within the EU and to have enough backing to push for a renegotiation of some of the terms of the bailout agreement.
SYRIZA managed to increase its percentages to a number that can be easily mishandled. Now, the electorate will begin to treat them as a party that has the potential to govern (rather than a marginal anti-systemic party). We have seen a change of rhetoric from the previous election to this one which signals their desire to capture the middle ground in Greek politics. However, they have chosen the path of remaining in opposition consciously as they are also afraid to get in the driver’s seat with untested practices and too much rhetoric that may not be easily translated into policy.
PASOK managed to retain more or less its previous percentages still losing out and still facing an overly unfair share of the blame for the current situation. At the same time, we see that this is now an unprecedented opportunity for the party to make a clean break with the past and reorganize to reflect the new dynamics within society. After all, this is the truly middle-class party and most of its previous voters have defected to SYRIZA. This will be the target of its leader.
KKE the Greek communists saw their support diminishing, which also alludes to their loss of touch with societal needs.
Independent Greeks lost considerable ground especially towards New Democracy but also to the far right, which also reveals that this party that emerged out of the blue has lost its initial momentum and will perhaps experience declining results, a kind of firework effect.
Democratic Left maintained its share of the vote and appears to be an interesting new feature in Greek politics as a left wing party that incorporates values of social democracy under a European context, and which will perhaps act as a balancing coalition partner to austerity measures.
LAOS has vaporized mainly due to the rise of the Golden Dawn party of the extreme right. The neo-fascist Golden Dawn is now incorporating voters on issues of illegal migration and racism, which are newly legitimized phenomena on the Greek political system. What their results allow us to assume in a safe way is that they have now solidified their footing in parliament despite all the negative portrayal by the media and all the incidents that took place in the meantime (punching of a communist MP on live television, racial attacks on immigrants etc.). This is indeed the phenomenon that in my opinion is most surprising. However, it has also become the reality in Greek politics and should be the one to watch out for.
So now what? In my opinion the government that will be formulated after the coalition talks will have a hard time in passing measures of austerity. It will face strong opposition on a daily basis from a number of different parties of the political spectrum left and right, making it hard to even conduct day-to-day operations. This means that the stability of the new government is at stake. The coalition may not last long but it needs to last until Europe manages a unified response to the crisis. At the same time, its life cycle will depend on the responses of Europe in terms of their flexibility to renegotiate the terms of the agreement, as well as the redesigning of the institutional architecture of the European project to reflect a stronger political union, especially as more and more countries require some form of bailing out, albeit at different degrees and for different reasons.
Dr Exadaktylos is a Lecturer in European Politics at the School of Politics, University of Surrey.