Eight Observations from the Greek Elections (Part 1)

Electoral Map of Greece from the June 17th Elections

Source: Greek Ministry of the Interior

After the May 6th elections did not produce a majority government, Greece held new elections yesterday. Center-right New Democracy emerged as the victor, with almost 29% of the vote. The far left coalition, Syriza, which had pledged to reject the terms of the European bailout package, finished a strong second with almost 27%. As we wait for New Democracy to attempt to form a government (it could take a while), I offer a set of observations from the initial results.

1.)    Institutions matter!

Few topics and arguments get as hammered into the brains of comparative politics students as the importance of political institutions. From ethnic cooperation to economic policymaking, institutions are assumed to play a big role in politics. The electoral rule that awards fifty extra seats to the first-place party has played an important part in the Greek elections. This is a new feature of the system, implemented for the first time during the May elections (before, the award was merely forty seats) and designed to make forming governments easier for the plurality vote-getting party.

These fifty seats (151 provides the majority necessary to form a government) have more or less ensured that a new government will include New Democracy. It is perhaps unsurprising then that, as part of its platform, Syriza demanded a purely proportional system. While the presence of this rule makes crafting a government easier from a purely logistical sense, it may also inhibit some other coalitions. Given the apparent willingness of the center-left party, Pasok, to cooperate with Syriza, albeit only in a unity government, one wonders whether a Syriza-Pasok coalition government would not have been a possible, if not logical, outcome were the fifty seat rule not in a place. At the very least, the possibility of such a government would have given Pasok (or Syriza) additional leverage over New Democracy.

As amusing as these hypothetical scenarios may be, they do omit a critical additional benefit of the fifty seat rule: it makes governance possible. As a New Democracy-Pasok-Democratic Left pro-Euro coalition starts looking more likely, it will be critical for these parties to have enough political capital in parliament to enact what will likely be a set of tough reforms. The fifty seats awarded to such a coalition will make enacting those reforms much easier. Although the aforementioned coalition government would still only retain 179 out of 300 seats, the presence of the fifty seat rule ensures a much more stable coalition than would otherwise have been possible.

2.)    Political entrepreneurs: Antonis Samaras and Alexis Tsipras

Robert Dahl, whose works Yale political science graduate students are required to cite and name intramural sports teams after, introduced the concept of a “political entrepreneur” in his book Who Governs? The political entrepreneur is an especially crafty politician who uses his abilities to rally popular support behind him. In a democracy, the possibilities for such a person are limitless. As Dahl puts it:

Political resources can be pyramided in much the same way that a man who starts out in business sometimes pyramids a small investment into a corporate empire. To the political entrepreneur who has skill and drive, the political system offers unusual opportunities for pyramiding a small amount of initial resources into a sizable political holding.

Alexis Tsipras is in many ways the typical political entrepreneur. In his first election as party leader of Syriza in November 2009, Tsipras managed 4.6% of the vote and 13 seats in the parliament. As the Pasok government under George Papandreou began implementing the austerity protocols outlined in the various bailout deals struck with international actors, Tsipras seized upon anti-austerity sentiment and critiqued the Papandreou government from the far left. The blistering criticism continued under the interim unity government that followed the Papandreou government’s collapse in November 2011. Tsipras refused to participate in the unity government, believing instead that the election in May would produce a more favorable division of labor. And so it did. Syriza’s vote-share ballooned to nearly 17% (52 seats) behind Tsipras’s populist rhetoric. One month later, Syriza share grew to almost 28% (71 seats). It is not yet certain whether Tsipras would make a skilled prime minister. What is certain is his tremendous success as a political entrepreneur.

However, an exclusive focus on Tsipras misses the other entrepreneur in this election: Antonis Samaras of New Democracy. Or, at the very least, attempted entrepreneur. Indeed, his failures as an entrepreneur stand as a stark contrast to the success of Tsipras. Samaras tried to catch the same wave against Papandreou that Tsipras did. Unfortunately for him, he grossly misread the pulse of the Greek nation. True or not, Tsipras represented everything that Greeks had grown to miss from their politicians: youth, vigor, anti-cronyism, anti-austerity. Samaras, lacking these qualities, could only offer that he wasn’t Papandreou. Stathis Kalyvas succinctly summarized Samaras’s miscalculation in last week’s Foreign Affairs. It is worth quoting at length here:

For its part, ND’s chances hang on whether it can rally the voters who deserted the party in the last national elections on May 6. Those elections were an attempt, at least, at a power grab by ND’s leader, Antonis Samaras. He had built his political profile by standing in opposition to the May 2010 bailout agreement and adjustment program championed by the European Union, the European Central Bank, and the International Monetary Fund — popularly known as the troika. Then, Samaras’ moment came in November, after former Prime Minister George Papandreou called for a referendum on Greece’s euro membership. Brussels quickly threatened to withdraw support from Greece, and Papandreou, realizing that he had slipped up, threw support behind a coalition government led by the former ECB Vice President Lucas Papademos. That government successfully negotiated a debt write-down and finalized the latest adjustment with the troika. Samaras backed that government, too, on the condition that both its duration and mandate be limited. But that turnaround undermined his credibility among voters.

Samaras is widely seen as representing the corrupt and ineffective Athens political establishment that led the country to ruin. After all, Greece’s public debt and deficit significantly worsened during ND’s last tenure in government, from 2004-9. It should come as no surprise, then, that when he forced the May 6 elections, hoping to win big, he brought home the worst ND result ever: Not even one in five voters backed the party.

3.)    The rise (and fall?) of extremist parties

The arguably biggest shock of the May 6th elections, especially internationally, came from the success of Golden Dawn, a far right-wing party. Much like Syriza, Golden Dawn took advantage of anti-European sentiment in Greece to gain votes. Unlike Syriza, they took it a step farther. Golden Dawn proposed a radical anti-immigrant platform behind such charming slogans as “Greece for Greeks” and “Let’s rid this country of the stench.” This platform boosted Golden Dawn from 0.29% and no seats in the November 2009 elections to nearly 7% and 21 seats in the May 6th elections.

Golden Dawn’s actions were perhaps more shocking than its message. Reports sprung up around the country of members of the party beating immigrants. In scenes reminiscent of 1930s Germany and Italy (and Greece, to a lesser extent), small bands of Golden Dawn members took to vigilantism, claiming to protect neighborhoods from immigrant criminals. The culmination came on June 7th, when prominent Golden Dawn politician Ilias Kasidiaris attacked two female politicians (one from Syriza and one from the Communist party) on a live television show (I’ve embedded a video of the event, with English subtitles, below).

The steady vote share is evidence that Golden Dawn received fewer so-called “protest” votes than we might have expected after the May 6th result. While the Communist Party and the smaller parties that did well in May dropped to insignificance as Greeks re-considered the impact of their votes (in fact, every party, New Democracy and Syriza excepted, lost votes), Golden Dawn held steady. Despite the above assault and a month of international and domestic scorn, Golden Dawn lost only about 15,000 (of 440,000) votes and 3 (of 21) seats compared to May 6th. Moreover, Golden Dawn built its success on two important, nationalistic issues that are more long-lasting than mere anti-austerity sentiment: disenchantment with Europe, the EU, and the Euro and Greece’s immigrant population, estimated as high as a million. Until Greeks become more comfortable with their admittedly subordinate status in Europe and with their growing immigrant population, there will always be a place in the Greek electoral order for Golden Dawn.

4.)    What’s next?

Three scenarios seem possible moving forward. In the most likely of the three scenarios, a pro-euro coalition government will be formed between New Democracy, Pasok, and the Democratic Left with Samaras as prime minister. Although New Democracy and Pasok could  form a majority coalition government on their own, incorporating the Democratic Left would provide critical votes in parliament for a government likely to pursue some tough reforms. Going into Monday, the obstacles to this type of government are the politicking for various ministry positions. Indeed, it is still unclear to what extent the smaller parties would be willing to cooperate with New Democracy to form a coalition government.

This politicking could also result in a second, albeit less likely, scenario: the pro-euro coalition with a compromise candidate for prime minister (i.e. not Samaras, who has made many enemies among the other parties). Specifically this would likely be a “Papademos plus” government made up of technocrats. The scenario would come about through Pasok’s refusal to form a government under New Democracy’s auspices. Although Pasok’s leverage at just about 12% appears limited, its leader, Evangelos Venizelos, has remained adamant that a unity government between Pasok, New Democracy, Syriza, and the Democratic Left should be formed. It is unclear what Venizelos’s motives are here. However, one possibility could be that Venizelos is hoping to sabotage New Democracy’s attempt at a government. Here, Venizelos could use his position to bargain for more favorable ministries and perhaps even a non-Samaras prime minister.

Of course, Venizelos might also be sincere in his desire for a unity government, which is the third possible scenario. While possible, this scenario seems unlikely. Syriza has given no indication that they would be interested in such a government, appearing content to form a strenuous opposition to the pro-euro bloc. Similarly, New Democracy and the Democratic Left have suggested that they would not form a government with Syriza. And so, since the unity government proposal appears to be a non-starter for three of the four parties, I doubt we will see such a government formed this week.

Whatever the result of the internal politics, we will soon find out what the actual makeup of the government will be. In part two of this post, which will be up later this week, I’ll discuss the likely consequences of the formation of the government for Greece, Europe, and the world economy at large. Look for it soon right on this page (in other words, keep reading our blog!). 

For more of his musings on politics, follow William on Twitter

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3 thoughts on “Eight Observations from the Greek Elections (Part 1)

  1. Indeed, some of the similarities between Venizelos and Clegg’s situations are striking. The main difference being that Pasok has been on a downward trajectory electorally and the Lib Dems were on an upward trajectory (in this regard, Clegg reminds more of Tsipras than Venizelos). In both the British election and this one, while the outcome seems clear-cut, the process to get there is anything but. Let’s see if it finally gets done tomorrow.

    Glad you like the blog!

  2. Pingback: Eight Observations from the Greek Election (Part 2) | The Smoke-Filled Room

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