Two years after the crucial 2012 general elections in Greece, an upcoming snap election is going to be held again. On January 25th Greek people will be have to make a big decision: to continue with the conservative government of New Democracy or to give a chance to the leftist SYRIZA party to govern for the first time. The once stable Greek party system has gone through a significant transformation during the last five years and more changes are likely to be seen in the near future; the 2015 elections will bring about innovative patterns in Greek politics as we knew them so far.
Although it was only in office for two-and-half-years, the current Greek coalition government of New Democracy and the social democratic PASOK had to dissolve the parliament after failing to gain the majority needed for the selection of a President. The government’s candidate for President, Stavros Dimas, was supported by only 168 MPs out of 300 and 12 more were needed in order to avoid elections. According to the Greek constitution, the failure to elect a President leads automatically to general elections. Opposition parties took advantage of this rule and voted against the government’s candidate, despite the governing parties’ pledges for agreement on the matter. After the voting result, Antonis Samaras, Greek Prime Minister and New Democracy leader, accused the main opposition party SYRIZA and the extreme right-wing Golden Dawn of leading the country into early elections which the Greek people did not really want.
The Importance of the Election
Samara’s announcement about the snap election triggered an immediate chain reaction. Financial and stock markets were not happy with the news, while discussions about so-called ‘Grexit’ started straight away among European leaders and political actors in the event of SYRIZA becoming the largest party. As all the opinion polls have shown so far, the recently successful left-wing SYRIZA has maintained a lead over the well-established centre-right New Democracy, although the difference between the two is currently narrowing. Under these conditions, just as with the 2012 Greek elections, the upcoming poll is very important for both Europe and Greece.
European actors are divided between two different reactions. First, there are those who fear a far-left Greek government which will not be willing to negotiate the bailout in existing terms and will put the whole Eurozone in danger. Right after the announcement of the election, several news reports started talking about a possible ‘Grexit’ and the EU’s and Germany’s reaction to it. On the other hand, there are those who actually hope for such a far-left government to gain power in Greece. SYRIZA in government may result in an anti-austerity discourse much anticipated by the left-wing leaders of Europe, which were disappointed by Francois Hollande’s limited degree of influence. Left-wing parties that increasingly gain power in other European countries, such as Podemos in Spain, are now facing a realistic chance to winning the 2015 upcoming elections. According to these voices, this might lead to a new era of a fight against austerity, privatization plans, and Troika bailout programmes.
Certainly, the 2015 snap election in Greece is also particularly important for the country itself. The long-standing Greek two-party system was already shaken in the previous 2012 election. Back then, new patterns of fragmentation and polarization, along with a coalition government that no one would have imagined a few years ago, were the outcomes of two consecutive elections. New parties, such as Democratic Left and Independent Greeks, were created and managed to gain seats in the parliament. Extreme right-wing forces also appeared in the Greek Parliament and, of course, SYRIZA gradually became a significant political power. While the previous elections occurred in probably the most difficult time for Greece regarding its economic situation, the upcoming elections find the country in an advanced stage of the bailout agreement and proceeded negotiations with Troika. In 2012 the country was still trying to secure its position in the middle of the crisis and Greek voters were awkwardly swinging from one party to another. In 2015, voting behaviour will be a less hot-blooded process and the outcome will form a more complete picture of what transformations are really taking place in the Greek party system.
Touching on Europe, Pointing out Greece
For now, the short pre-election period has introduced a highly polarised debate between the two major opponents: New Democracy and SYRIZA. This debate is interestingly initiated by, but not shaped around, the European issue. Surely, the impact of the Eurozone crisis on Greek politics can still be seen in any type of political discussion? However, it is not Europe per se but the European issue tied up with domestically salient issues that are shaping the political game. The salient issues that started being important in previous years because of the crisis are still present, but they are used by the main parties in different ways in order to attack the opposition and attract voters.
First, New Democracy uses the European issue in two main ways: to promote its own effective crisis management when in government and to create a feeling of insecurity in case SYRIZA were to become the governing party after the January 25th poll. New Democracy’s key argument is about Antonis Samaras’ competent policy making in previous years. Successful negotiations with the Troika and the EU, and even a better financial situation for the country, were, it is argued, guaranteed because of the coalition pro-Memorandum government. At the same time, the party poses the same argument in order to attack SYRIZA. By pointing out the left-wing anti-austerity profile of SYRIZA and its leader Alexis Tsipras, New Democracy is aiming to create an environment of insecurity and fear about Greece leaving the euro and its economy collapsing if SYRIZA achieves an electoral victory.
On the other hand, SYRIZA also uses the European issue for its own purposes. Alexis Tsipras does not lose a chance to argue about the ineffectiveness of the austerity measures and bailout agreements imposed by the Troika and implemented by the Greek government. For SYRIZA, it is all about an anti-Memorandum and anti-austerity discussion. These arguments, however, are not used only against the EU’s behaviour, but also against New Democracy’s policy making during the tough economic crisis. As Alexis Tsipras claims, a victory for SYRIZA will help bring economic growth and social equality in the country, elements that vanished during the crisis because of the fruitless negotiations of the Greek governments with Europe.
For both parties, Europe means something different in the pre-election period. For New Democracy, it is a chance to praise their own profile due to its effective crisis management and attack SYRIZA for their irresponsible behaviour on the economic and European front. For SYRIZA, it is an opportunity to build on the anti-austerity sentiment among the Greek public and argue for a new era of economic development without the need for the European ties that the previous governments forced on the country.
However, the debate on the actual European issue still remains quite abstract and the discussion is hardly ever about the European integration project per se. For instance, despite the polarised pro-/anti-austerity debate, no mainstream party, except for the Communists, expresses an open anti-European or even anti-euro attitude. SYRIZA’s anti-austerity arguments focus mainly on the incompetence of the Greek government, while New Democracy’s pro-European discourse is largely about its own ability to deal with Europe efficiently. Not even the far-right Golden Dawn, which represents the most extreme views in the Greek parliament at the moment, is openly against European integration. Thus, a pure debate on Europe is not only vague and lacking in specifics, but also hardly evident at all unless linked to leading domestic policy questions. Europe thus plays a role in Greek politics mostly when it is tied up with domestic salient issues.
New Lines of Competition
While Europe is watching the developments on the Greek politics front, the increasingly polarised debate between New Democracy and SYRIZA introduced new lines of party competition in the Greek party system. With PASOK, the former centre-left main opponent of New Democracy, being now just one of the minor parties in the parliament, SYRIZA has established its dominance and evolved into the greatest political power in Greece. In addition, the new political parties that were created during the Eurozone crisis will now show whether they are capable of stabilizing their position. As the latest polls reveal, Democratic Left, which was a member of the joint coalition government in 2012, will most likely not even make it to the parliament, while the new right-wing Independent Greeks also face serious problems. The far-right Golden Dawn, some of whose MPs are in prison accused of forming a criminal gang, is likely to be a noteworthy force in the Greek Parliament. At the same time, the newly formed centrist Potami party is likely to gain a significant number of seats and be a member of the new coalition government.
Whatever happens on the day after the election one thing is certain: party competition in Greece will never be the same. Such was the impact of the Eurozone crisis on Greek politics that not only did it shake the traditional lines of competition, but it also pushed the system towards completely innovative patterns. PASOK, one of the most established centre-left parties of Europe, will hardly get more than 5%. Coalition government, while out of the picture before 2012, seems the most realistic option. Innovative governing formula with new parties joining the government is much awaited. It seems that Greece has entered a new political era which the upcoming elections are left to confirm.
Nikoleta Kiapidou (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a doctoral researcher at the Sussex European Institute in the Department of Politics, University of Sussex.
An earlier version of this post was featured on the LSE EUROPP blog.