After Greece’s elections, everything suddenly looks very different. But it remains unclear whether anything much will actually change.
Greece’s elections last Sunday are a historic low for the country’s two traditionally dominant parties, PASOK and Nea Demokratia (ND), which have ruled the country since the collapse of the Junta in 1974. Together they garnered only 32% of the vote. To put this result in perspective, one has to consider that their combined total was less than what ND alone received three years ago—when it was beaten into second place by PASOK!
According to polling companies, the collapse of support for the two main parties accelerated in the last week leading to the election. This is why the final result—and especially the strong showing for the Coalition of the Radical Left (SYRIZA), which ended up as Greece’s second strongest party with close to 17% of the vote—was hard to anticipate. (SYRIZA got a final boost once it proposed a “Government of the Left” and—given the popularity of its young leader—managed to position itself as a more modern left-wing party than the Greek Communist Party (KKE), whose vote stagnated compared to the 2009 elections.) Less unexpected was the electoral success of the Independent Hellenes (10.6%) on the right and the Golden Dawn on the far right (7%, a 2400% increase from its 2009 tally!).
What all four of these parties have in common is their absolute rejection of the terms of Greece’s bailout. Other than that one single fact, their political platforms could not be farther apart. It is highly unlikely that they’ll be able to form a joint government.
In fact, if one takes into account the latest statements by various party leaders, any coalition government now seems highly unlikely. ND and PASOK, with 108 and 41 seats respectively, aren’t strong enough to govern alone—even if they could reach an agreement on a common agenda. Given the anti-bailout stance of four out of the seven parties elected to parliament, the only remaining hope now is that the Democratic Left party (DIMAR) could join ND and PASOK. But as of now, DIMAR’s president, Fotis Kouvelis, shows no signs of being willing to cooperate with PASOK and ND. Nothing is decided yet, but the next few days will determine whether Greece will delay further elections and form a makeshift coalition government—a coalition government that may lend the country an appearance of stability for a few weeks, but is likely to be stillborn—or whether there will be new elections in June.
Another thing to note is is that the current electoral law produces odd and hardly representative results. For instance, ND received 2 percentage points more than the Coalition of the Radical Left. But this resulted in the party gaining 56 more parliamentary seats. This difference is explained by a 50-seat bonus that the current electoral law gives the party with the most votes in order to ensure stable governments. Clearly, however, this law was created for an electoral landscape dominted by two large parties, and is now outmoded.
It is also interesting to note that, because a party has to garner at least 3% of the vote to enter parliament in Greece, more than 19% of the electorate supported parties that did not ultimately make it into parliament. These include: Popular Orthodox Rally-LAOS, Democratic Alliance, DRASI (Action), Dimiourgia Xana (Recreate Greece), Social Agreement (Koinoniki Symfonia), and the Green Party (Oikologoi Prasinoi). So extreme is the fragmentation of Greece’s party system now that the parties that did not manage to enter parliament collectively received a higher percentage of the vote than the party with the most votes—a party that nevertheless received 108, as opposed to zero, seats in parliament! (The liberal parties who failed to enter parliament in this election—Democratic Alliance, DRASI, and Dimiourgia Xana—would be able to form a relatively strong center-right faction in parliament if they formed an alliance for future elections.)
Many messages could be drawn from this mess. For one, Greeks turned against the two established parties in part because they are no longer able to uphold their end of the bargain in the traditional “patronage contract,” which rewards their reliable supporters with favors from public coffers. For another, Greeks voted against austerity measures. And yet they voted—at least nominally—in favor of a European future. This may appear extremely contradictory, but for many voters and party leaders it is not. Time will tell if theirs—Europe: yes; Austerity: no—is a realistic aspiration.
The paradoxical truth is that the result, while to a great extent a protest vote, was for many a vote of hope: hope for something different. In any case, we should not consider these results as solidified partisan identities on the part of the voters. According to pre-election polls, many voters decided their votes in the last days leading up to the election. On top of this, there are people who—especially after learning the results—had second thoughts about the parties they had ended up voting for. This is the most volatile the Greek party system has been since the early 1950s. The result of the next elections could look very different.
Combining the Greek result with the friction in Franco-German relations that will likely result from Francois Hollande’s electoral victory in France, it is little wonder that European leaders have so far remained largely silent about Greece’s elections. Before they react to the result, they want to see whether a stable government can be formed. For now, it looks unlikely that Greece will be able to form such a stable government. The outcome of the Greek elections therefore increases uncertainty about the Euro’s future. The markets will most likely react negatively and remain volatile until things clear out.
Since the election everything looks different. But it remains to be seen whether anything much has actually changed.
Harris Mylonas is an Assistant Professor of Political Science and International Affairs at George Washington University and an Academy Scholar at the Harvard Academy for International and Area Studies. Akis Georgakellos is a Political Analyst/Strategy consultant and a directing partner at Stratego—a Greek company.
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