The following is a guest post from Akis Georgakellos, a Political Analyst/Strategy consultant and a directing partner at Stratego, a Greek strategy and communication company, and Harris Mylonas, an Assistant Professor of Political Science and International Affairs at George Washington University and the author of The Politics of Nation-Building (Cambridge University Press, 2012).
People across the world know about the great financial crisis that has shaken up the US, the EU as a whole, and Greece in particular. They can also imagine that it was followed by a deep social crisis. A year has passed since the June elections and despite a growing sense of stabilization (political and economic) the situation remains grave for most citizens. Beneath all these realities there are crucial political developments in Greece and one thing is certain, the landscape is currently filled with sand dunes.
The political system has never been more volatile in the past 39 years, following Greece’s transition to democracy. Established political parties have shattered into pieces, former dominant cleavages have become obsolete, and political certainties of the past have been forgotten. Age old sworn enemies are now collaborating, one-party governments – a norm in Greek politics – appear to be a thing of the past, the life of governments rarely approaches the full four year period, and the traditional two-party system is delegitimized. For the first time – at least since 1958 – a party on the left is a serious contenter for first place in the next election, one of the most extreme right wing parties in Europe is rapidly accumulating power, new political parties are being formed, and the electorate appears to be constantly changing its mind – at least based on the electoral results and opinion polling. These developments deserve a closer look.
- The memorandum/anti-memorandum cleavage is still the dominant cleavage in Greek society. In other words, the country’s political forces are roughly divided between those that support the reforms and measures described in the loan agreements signed between Greece, the IMF and the European Central Bank/EU and those that oppose these reforms and measures and even want to declare Greece’s debt illegitimate. The current coalition government includes the pro-Memorandum political forces (ND, PASOK and DIMAR); while the other four parties in the parliament oppose it (SYRIZA- Coalition of the Radical Left, Independent Hellenes, Golden Dawn and KKE-Communist Party of Greece). Interestingly, the two main poles of the current political system (center right ND and left-wing SYRIZA) have not had consistent positions with respect to this question. Prime Minister Samaras (then head of the main opposition party, ND) initially opposed the first memorandum (in 2010), but has become the leading voice in the pro-memorandum camp. According to polls, Samaras gained and sustained popularity since the November Eurogroup agreement on the Greek debt. Alexis Tsipras, head of the main opposition party (SYRIZA), has been consistently anti-memorandum, but has significantly toned down the radicalism of his party’s program and discourse.
- In such a volatile and novel context old cleavages and slogans of the past have been marginalized. Even classic analytical tools such as the left-right axis of ideological placement and the related labels may be still used as shortcuts for the non-initiated, but hardly hold any water. In the midst of very difficult realities, the electorate seems motivated by a mix of pragmatism and anger. But one thing is certain: the voters have largely disentangled themselves from—often inherited—partisan IDs. It is not uncommon to meet people that are choosing between a left and a right wing party—something unheard of in the past. Citizens are, however, more likely to be clear on the memorandum/anti-memorandum debate. A related crosscutting cleavage is the one between the voters that see the EU as the only way out of the crisis and those that do not see this as a necessary element of the solution to the crisis. There are politicians and parties that are anti-memorandum but pro-Europe, for instance. 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. Another important political demand is the punishment of the old political establishment for its wrongdoings, which seems to be present across the political spectrum.
- PASOK (center-left party) and ND, the two main rivals that took turns in government and dominated the political system for four decades, are both members in the same coalition government. There is a precedent from the late 1980s of an unexpected alliance between the center-right and the left; but that government had specific competencies. What brought PASOK and ND together was their agreement that Greece must remain in the European family and thus honor the obligations it signed in the various Memoranda. The result, however, is a counterintuitive coalition government that would correspond to the Conservative party governing with Labour in the UK or the Democrats with the Republicans in the US. And this in a political system that has traditionally had an extremely polarized electorate. The fact that PASOK and ND are today in a coalition government is a sign of the strength of the memorandum/anti-memorandum cleavage.
- This alliance is also linked to the electoral results for the two parties. PASOK deteriorated from approximately 44 percent in the 2009 election to a mere 12 percent in the June 2012 elections. In recent opinion polls, PASOK shrunk at 6.4 percent (MRB, June 2013). ND also experienced serious fluctuations in its electoral returns. In 2009, its historical low point was 33.5 percent of the vote share, but although it was in opposition in the May 2012 election, it received only 18.8 percent. ND bounced back to 29.6 percent in the June 2012 election, which followed the May one because no government could be formed from the existing Parliament. In late 2012, ND appeared to be in the second position in opinion polls, but since the early 2013 polls the tables turned and ND has an edge over SYRIZA. In the most recent poll ND is projected at 2.3 percentage points ahead of SYRIZA, with 27.9 percent.