What has been the impact of the Eurozone Crisis on the Greek Party System: Evidence from the 2015 Greek National Election

Nikoleta Kiapidou

The 2015 Greek national election confirmed the radical transformations which the Greek party system has been undergoing since 2009. The outcome of the election showed that the trends which were traced throughout the Eurozone crisis and became much apparent in the elections that took place from 2012-2015 revealed new patterns of party support in Greek politics. First, a new two-party competition between the radical left SYRIZA and centre-right New Democracy replaced the old divide between New Democracy and the social democratic PASOK, as PASOK became the weakest party in parliament. The debate between the two major parties as well as political debate on the whole has been characterised by the new salient issue over which parties have been competing throughout the years of the crisis: the pro-/anti-austerity divide. Also, new parties have managed not only to gain seats (such as To Potami), but also to join the coalition government (such as DIMAR and the Independent Greeks). Moreover, we find a much more fragmented Greek parliament which consists of a high number of political parties that cover a particularly broad range of positions on the Left-Right scale. In the same vein, right-wing extremism has steadily gained ground in Greek politics, as Golden Dawn’s electoral performance has secured its place at the heart of the party system. Moreover, coalition governments appear to have been a new norm that Greek people seem to expect from elections.

The Results 

Table 1: 2015 Greek national election results (parties in parliament) 

Party Vote share (%) Seats
SYRIZA 36.3 149
New Democracy 27.8 76
Golden Dawn 6.3 17
To Potami (The River) 6.1 17
KKE 5.5 15
Independent Greeks 4.8 13
PASOK 4.7 13

Source: Greek Ministry of Interior, http://www.ypes.gr

As Table 1 shows, the election results gave SYRIZA the upper hand over the two previously dominant parties: New Democracy and PASOK. The party managed to become the strongest power in parliament by achieving an impressive 36.3% of the votes that no party had managed to reach in the previous elections that took place during the crisis. New Democracy became the second largest party with 27.8% and remained the main opponent to SYRIZA. The extreme right-wing Golden Dawn became the third party with 6.3%. The party continued attracting a significant base of supporters, bearing in mind that some Golden Dawn MPs are in prison awaiting trial on charges of belonging to a criminal gang, and therefore, unable to run any kind of pre-election campaign. The new centrist party, To Potami (The River), managed to secure fourth place after its initial success in the 2014 European Parliament elections. The Communist Party (KKE) became the fifth party with 5.5%, which is much lower than the vote share it got in the previous 2012 May elections (8.5%). Despite what most opinion polls predicted, the right-wing Independent Greeks not only secured seats in parliament, but also became the sixth largest party even finishing ahead of PASOK. PASOK had an extremely disappointing performance (4.7%) and became the last party to gain seats. This result confirmed the gradual meltdown of one of the biggest parties in Greece and one of the most stable centre-left parties in Europe.

The day after the election saw SYRIZA rapidly forming a coalition government with the Independent Greeks. This came as no surprise since both parties had expressed their willingness to co-operate in case SYRIZA did not reach the 151 seats required by the Greek constitution for a single-party government. SYRIZA missed the chance of having the absolute majority by just two seats, in spite of securing the bonus of 50 seats that the Greek electoral law offers to the strongest party in parliament.

Patterns of change in the Greek Party System 

These results showed that the changes that were identified in the 2012 national and 2014 EP elections are now something more than trends; they are the established patterns of the Greek party system under the conditions of the crisis. Figure 1 illustrates the development of voter support for the main political parties from 2004-2015. Although it had an impressive performance in the 2009 election, PASOK’s collapse started immediately after the crisis began and resulted in it being the last party to gain seats in parliament in 2015. New Democracy’s performance is also disappointing, although the party kept its position as the main opposition party. SYRIZA, a party that had no more than 5% support from 2004-2009, raised its level of support by more than 30% in 2015 compared to 2009. Several new parties were created and managed to affect political developments by offering a wide range of opposition alternatives to Greek voters as well as being potential coalition partners to the major parties. At the same time, Golden Dawn’s ultra right-wing positions did not prevent the party from turning into a stable political power.

Figure 1. Vote share of the main Greek parties in the Greek National Elections from 2004 to 2015.

Vote share of the main Greek parties in the Greek National Elections from 2004 to 2015

Source: Greek Ministry of Interior, http://www.ypes.gr

In particular, five main patterns can be identified in the Greek party system during the Eurozone crisis:

  1. A familiar two-party debate but with new opponents

Before the Eurozone crisis began, percentages of 35-45% support were familiar to the major Greek parties, PASOK and New Democracy. However, during the crisis the highest vote share achieved was 29.7% by New Democracy in June 2012. SYRIZA managed to bring back high voter support when getting 36.3% in 2015. At the same time, New Democracy performed much better in 2015 than it did in the May 2012 election. Since the Greek public are familiar with a two-party system, the new debate between SYRIZA and New Democracy seems to fit in to well-known Greek political standards. The previously strongest opponent to New Democracy, PASOK, was replaced by SYRIZA. Thus, a familiar pattern which was much weakened in the beginning of the crisis, has found its place back to the centre of Greek politics.

  1. A fragmented Greek parliament

Despite the growing power of SYRIZA and the relatively good performance of New Democracy in 2015, the Greek parliament once again consisted of a significant number of political parties. New parties that were created during the crisis, such as The Potami and Independent Greeks, have become key players in the political arena, particularly in terms of being potential partners of the coalition government. Older, well-established parties, such as KKE and PASOK could still secure seats in parliament. Although the coalition potential of Golden Dawn is completely out of the picture, the party is also considered a significant power in Greek politics. New alternatives have been offered to, as well as demanded by, the Greek electorate, which has been supporting a wide range of political actors throughout the crisis.

  1. Wide range of ideological positions and right-wing extremism

This wide range of parties is not only evident in the number of parties, but also in their ideological positions. An extremely broad range of ideological views can be traced in parliament from 2012 until today. Naturally, one of the parties that pulls this range to the extreme is Golden Dawn, which has seen a stable performance of around 6.5% support throughout these years. In fact, a trend towards more right-wing positions was already identified in the 2009 election when the minor right-wing nationalist party LAOS gained seats. Although LAOS disappeared in the following elections, the trend continued. Greek voters seem to have acquired an ongoing appetite for right-wing extremism.

  1. The pro-/anti-Memorandum divide 

Despite the large scale of ideological positions in the Greek party system, the main political debate has not been developed in pure ideological terms. A new issue that emerged during the crisis, particularly in the Southern European countries, dominated the political discussion in Greece. The pro-/anti-austerity divide managed to create such deep divisions between parties, that it brought together opponents who would not co-operate under different circumstances; first New Democracy and PASOK, and then SYRIZA and the Independent Greeks. When austerity reached such a high level of salience, ideology became a secondary issue.

  1. Coalition formation

All the above led to the last new pattern in Greek politics during the crisis: a change from absolute majority single-party governments to coalition formation. Even if SYRIZA managed to gain the two seats needed for an absolute majority, it would remain a weak single-party government. While coalition governments were an unfamiliar pattern for the Greek people, it has been the norm since 2012. This new shift has made parties compete in completely different terms than before; major parties are involved in constant attempts to secure coalition partners and minor parties are trying to play the ‘coalition potential’ card in the best way possible.

These patterns have characterised Greek politics from the beginning of the crisis until the present day and they were verified by the 2015 election results. Clearly, they developed in Greece under extremely difficult economic and social conditions. Whether they have managed to develop deep roots in the Greek party system remains to be seen.

Nikoleta Kiapidou (N.Kiapidou@sussex.ac.uk) is a doctoral researcher at the Sussex European Institute in the Department of Politics, University of Sussex.

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