What does a Law and Justice election victory mean for Europe?

Aleks Szczerbiak

Although the outcome of Poland’s parliamentary election was determined by domestic issues, the right-wing opposition’s apparent victory could herald a substantial shift in the country’s foreign policy, with major implications for its relations with the rest of Europe. However, divisions between Polish parties on international affairs are often an extension of domestic politics by other means and experience suggests that the new government may be more Eurosceptic in its rhetoric than in practice.

Mainstream versus ‘own stream’

The strategy of the outgoing government, led by the centrist Civic Platform (PO), was to locate Poland within the so-called ‘European mainstream’ by presenting the country as a reliable and stable EU member state and adopting a positive and constructive approach towards the main European powers, especially Germany. By positioning Poland at the centre of the Union’s decision-making core it claimed that – in contrast to its predecessor, led by the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party – it was effective in promoting the country’s interests at the international level. The appointment in September 2014 of the then Polish prime minister and Civic Platform leader Donald Tusk as President of the EU Council was presented as the crowning achievement of the previous government’s strategy of projecting Poland as a ‘model’ European state at the forefront of the EU integration project.

Law and Justice, the main opposition grouping in the previous parliament and which (although the official results have not yet been announced) looks set to head up the new government, also supports Polish EU membership. However, it is, in rhetorical terms at least, a broadly anti-federalist (verging on Eurosceptic) grouping committed to opposing further European integration and defending Polish sovereignty. This is especially the case in the moral-cultural sphere where it rejects what it sees as a hegemonic EU liberal-left consensus that undermines Poland’s traditional values and national identity. Law and Justice also argues that Poland needs be more robust and assertive in advancing its national interests. Rather than simply following European mainstream politics, which it sees as being driven by Germany, it says that the country needs to re-calibrate its relationships with the major EU powers and form its ‘own stream’ that can counter-balance their influence. Indeed, since the outbreak of the eurozone crisis the party has, if anything, articulated a more fundamental, principled critique of closer European integration, suggesting that the allocation of decision making powers between Brussels and member states should be re-visited to strengthen national sovereignty in areas such as climate policy where it claims EU policies are damaging Polish industry.

Scepticism about the euro

Law and Justice’s different approach towards European integration can be seen in the party’s attitude towards Polish adoption of the euro single currency. For sure, the outgoing Civic Platform-led government toned down its earlier enthusiasm for rapid euro adoption, stressing that it did not have a target date and that this would not occur in the immediate future. Nonetheless, in spite of the turbulence in the single currency area, it remained committed to fulfilling the criteria for eurozone accession as quickly as was realistically possible, as part of its long-term strategic goal for Poland to be at the centre of the EU’s decision-making core.

On the other hand, Law and Justice argues that the country should not adopt the euro until the Polish economy is more closely aligned with the rest of the EU and that any final decision should be approved by a referendum. Indeed, the party has increasingly given the impression that, with the eurozone’s huge internal problems, it could not envisage any point in the foreseeable future when it would be advantageous for Poland to adopt the single currency. In this respect the new government will be in tune with Polish public opinion: while there is still overwhelming support for EU membership, most Poles also oppose their country joining the eurozone. During the election campaign, Law and Justice deputy leader and prime ministerial nominee Beata Szydło tried to tap into this by pledging that one of her first acts if elected will be to disband the office of government plenipotentiary responsible for Poland’s euro entry.

A more active Eastern policy?

The difference between Law and Justice and Civic Platform’s foreign policies can also be seen in their approaches to developing relations with Russia and Ukraine. Formally the two parties appear to be very similar: both supporting the idea of Poland being at the forefront of efforts to ensure that the international community adopts a robust response to Russian intervention – specifically, that EU sanctions are maintained and extended – and favouring a larger NATO presence in Central Europe. However, Law and Justice claims that the Civic Platform-led government was, notwithstanding occasional flushes of anti-Moscow rhetoric, constrained by its unwillingness to move too far beyond the EU consensus and act as a counter-balance to the major European powers which, it argues, are over-conciliatory towards Moscow. The result of this was, it argues, a failure to conduct a sufficiently active Eastern policy.

Law and Justice, therefore, wants to sharpen EU and NATO policy towards Russia. It is likely to try and use the 2016 NATO Warsaw summit to strengthen Poland’s defence infrastructure by securing a greater military presence in the country, preferably including permanently stationed US forces or military bases, and locating defensive weaponry on the Alliance’s Eastern flank; something opposed by Germany as too provocative towards Russia. A Law and Justice-led government will also try and achieve a stronger Polish presence in international negotiations on Ukraine’s future and policy towards Russia, and be more open to providing military aid to Kiev within the framework of the NATO alliance.

More broadly, Law and Justice has sought to contrast what it claims is its accurate diagnosis of Russian motives with the Civic Platform-led government’s earlier conciliatory approach towards Russian President Vladimir Putin which events in Ukraine have shown to be naïve and short-sighted. As part of this, the party has identified itself with the so-called ‘Jagiellonian policy’ promoted by the late Lech Kaczyński – twin brother of Law and Justice leader Jarosław Kaczyński, and who was the party-backed President between 2005-10 – which envisaged Poland playing the role of regional leader and building a broad military and political coalition of post-communist East-Central European states to counter Russian expansionism. The new government is likely to try and breathe new life into the Jagiellonian project by re-building alliances with other post-communist states, although this will not be easy given that some of them have even questioned the rationale behind existing EU sanctions against Russia.

Resisting EU migration quotas

More recently, Law and Justice’s different approach towards European integration could be seen in its attitudes towards the migration crisis. The outgoing Civic Platform-led government tried to strike a balance between competing domestic and international pressures. On the one hand, it was concerned to be seen to be responding to popular anxieties and defending Polish interests against EU institutions trying to impose migrants upon the country. Poland is an overwhelmingly Catholic country with very few ethnic minorities, and virtually none who are non-European, which has had little experience of the modern migrations that have transformed Western Europe. Poles are keen to avoid the kind of cultural and security problems that many of them feel West European countries have experienced through admitting large numbers of Muslim migrants, who are seen as difficult to assimilate and embedding violent extremists within their communities.

At the same time, the outgoing government came under growing pressure – both domestically from the liberal-left media and cultural establishment, and internationally from Brussels and other EU states – to play a greater role in helping to alleviate the crisis by participating in a Europe-wide burden sharing plan. As a consequence, having initially opposed the European Commission’s proposal for mandatory binding quotas for the relocation of migrants among EU states, following the wave of migration during the summer the Civic Platform administration changed its approach. Calling for what it termed ‘responsible solidarity’ with West European states, it said that Poland was ready to share the burden of the crisis by taking in larger numbers of migrants. The Civic Platform government was concerned that Poland was losing the public relations war in the Western media by coming across as one of the countries least sympathetic to the migrants’ plight. At the September EU summit, therefore, Warsaw went against its Central European allies from the ‘Visegrad’ countries (the Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovakia) on this issue and voted for the EU distribution plan, agreeing to accept 4,500-5,000 additional migrants (increasing to around 7,000 in total next year).

Law and Justice, on the other hand, has argued that Poland should resist EU pressure to take in migrants and instead make policy decisions based on Polish interests. The party has warned that there is a serious danger of making the same mistakes as many West European countries, whereby a large number of migrants who do not respect Polish laws and customs end up imposing their way of life so that Poles become ‘guests in their own country’. It has cited examples of EU states with large Muslim communities where it claims that such a scenario is already unfolding. Law and Justice argued that rather than taking in migrants the EU should concentrate on providing aid to refugee camps in the Middle East and North African regions. Not surprisingly, therefore, it accused the Civic Platform government of betraying its Central European allies and violating national sovereignty by taking decisions under EU pressure that might undermine Polish culture and security without the agreement of the nation. It argued that the figure of around 7,000 migrants was unrealistic because family members would be able to join initial arrivals and that it was naïve to believe that this quota would not be used as a precedent to force Poland to take in additional migrants in the future. A Law and Justice-led government would, therefore, oppose Poland taking in additional migrants under the EU scheme and may even try to unpick the existing deal agreed to by its predecessor.

More Eurosceptic in rhetoric than practice?

However, although the issue of Polish-EU relations has been highly contested in recent years these divisions were often not about the substance of the European integration project as such. Rather, they were simply an extension of domestic politics by other means, with Law and Justice and Civic Platform treating the EU as a so-called ‘valence’ issue where they competed over which of them was most competent to pursue a shared goal; in this case, representing and advancing Polish national interests within the Union. In fact, although a Law and Justice-led administration would be more assertive in terms of trying to carve out an independent foreign policy and more Eurosceptic in tone than its predecessor, in practice it is not likely to take any radical steps against the EU integration process. It is worth bearing in mind that when it was last in government in 2005-7 the party’s rhetorical inter-governmentalism often gave way to a more integrationist approach in practice – for example, signing Poland up to the Lisbon treaty – and that it has never opposed Polish adoption of the euro in principle. Experience, therefore, suggests that a Law and Justice government would probably be more Eurosceptic in its rhetoric than in practice.

Aleks Szczerbiak is Professor of Politics and Contemporary European Studies at the University of Sussex and Co-Convenor of the European Parties Elections and Referendums Network (EPERN). He blogs regularly about developments on the Polish political scene at: http://polishpoliticsblog.wordpress.com/.

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The strategies of Eurosceptic Members of the European Parliament

Nathalie Brack

The European project is once again in the eye of the storm. The ongoing crises have not only re-opened debates about the goal of European integration and the EU’s legitimacy but they have also increased the EU’s visibility in national political arenas. This context has contributed to engendering a new phase of opposition to the European project (Vasilopoulou 2013). And, as predicted by various scholars and commentators, Eurosceptic parties increased their share in the European Parliament (EP) in the 2014 EP elections (although the idea of a Eurosceptic ‘earthquake’ or ‘storm’ should be nuanced, see: G. Barbieri, 22 June 2015 and G. Benedetto, 17 April 2015).

While opposition to Europe at the national level has been much studied, the literature on Euroscepticism at the supranational level remains comparatively sparse (for some recent exceptions, see: Bonikowski and Gidron 2015, Brack and Costa 2012, Lynch and Whitaker 2014). In order to contribute towards filling this gap, the research that I conducted concentrates on the strategies Eurosceptics develop once elected to the EP. The aim was twofold: 1) to analyze how Eurosceptic MEPs conceive and carry out their job and 2) determine what could be the implications of their presence at the heart of the EU.

To do so, the analysis relies mainly on interviews with a sample of 65 Eurosceptic MEPs (and 30 parliamentary assistants and staff members), both right-wing and left-wing, from the margins and the mainstream, as well as the analysis of their parliamentary activities (including a qualitative content analysis of their questions and voting behavior during two years). The analysis reveals that Eurosceptic MEPs have contrasting views of their job, responsibilities, and relations to citizens, which can be summarized in four strategies: an empty-chair strategy (absentee), a noisy opposition (public orator), a limited and instrumental involvement (pragmatist), and integration into the parliamentary game (participant). Moreover, even with their increased success at the last EP elections, Eurosceptics remain too marginal and heterogeneous to deeply influence the EP’s deliberation. But that does not mean that their presence has no impact at all. Indeed, I argue that the presence of these dissenting voices can be an asset for the EP’s representativeness and the EU’s legitimacy. 

Four strategies available to Eurosceptic MEPs

In the media, Eurosceptics are often portrayed as a homogeneous group of outsiders who are either absent or seeking to disrupt the Parliament’s proceedings. This view is quite simplistic and rather normative. As shown in this research (Brack 2015) in Table 1, Eurosceptic MEPs develop four main main types of strategies: the Absentee, the Public Orator, the Pragmatist and the Participant. 

Table 1: Parliamentary activities according to Eurosceptics’ strategies (Median – 6th and 7th terms)

  Participation in Roll Call Votes (%) Reports Declarations Speeches Motions for resolution Opinions Questions Amendments
Absentees 61.88 0 0 24 0.5 0 5.5 0
Public Orators 83.6 0 0 101 2 0 101 2
Pragmatists 88.69 1 3 147 21.5 2 99 71
Participants 86.91 2 1 52.5 18 2 24.5 28.5

Data from European Parliament and Votewatch

Absentees are characterized by comparatively low involvement in the chamber and an emphasis on the national level. This is an exit strategy from parliamentary work: considering their limited capacity for action, such MEPs believe that any activities undertaken within the institution would be futile. As a result, MEPs identified as Absentee in the 6th and 7th legislatures formed a relatively homogenous group, with comparatively low attendance records and a limited involvement in any kind of parliamentary activity. While neglecting parliament, Absentees are very active at the national and local levels, where they tend to spend most of their time. They see their role as a promoter of Euroscepticism in national public opinion.

Public Orators give priority to public speaking and the delegitimisation of the Parliament. They believe that their role is to speak on behalf of Eurosceptic citizens and the vast majority of their activities consist of general accusations concerning the negative consequences of integration. Their interventions do not address the content of specific EU policies but seek to break down the so-called consensus within the assembly. Even though Public Orators are relatively present in Parliament, they are not interested in the ‘traditional’ aspects of parliamentary work. They believe their role is to oppose nearly everything since they are opposed to the Parliament’s legislative powers and, more generally, the EU. In terms of their behaviour, they form a relatively cohesive group, characterized by a lack of involvement in the legislative process and the priority given to individual action, especially speeches.

Pragmatists develop a dual strategy whereby they seek to achieve concrete results while not compromising their Eurosceptic beliefs. Like the Public Orators and Absentees, the Pragmatists are aware of belonging to a minority with little chance of having their point of view prevail. But instead of remaining in a sterile opposition, they try to find a balance between the promotion of their convictions and the pursuit of tangible results. Two categories can be distinguished: the first group emphasizes its mission of control (as watchdogs of EU institutions) while the second group is fundamentally guided by the defence of national or regional interests. Overall, Pragmatists are characterized by greater investment in the EP’s daily work, a tendency to follow the rules and a willingness to change, in a targeted and limited way, the system of which they are critical.

Participants see themselves first and foremost not as opposition players but as legislators. They want to be seen as MEPs like any others and invest the majority of their time in the chamber. Unlike Public Orators and Pragmatists, Participants not only know and respect the formal and informal parliamentary rules but adjust their behaviour to them and can occasionally disregard their Eurosceptic beliefs in order to be influential. They are particularly keen to be in charge of reports, opinions or responsibilities within committees in order to influence the legislative process. They use relatively few individual-type actions such as questions and speeches and actually do not resort to a particular type of activity, their moderation distinguishing them from the other strategies.

Eurosceptic MEPs: threat or asset for the EU?

So far, Eurosceptics haven’t had a major influence on EU decision-making and, despite their success at the 2014 elections, this is unlikely to change. That does not mean, however, that they do not have any impact at all. On the one hand, they are increasingly influential on the agenda and on the framing of EU-related debates in several national political arenas (Taggart and Szczerbiak 2013, Startin 2015). On the other hand, I argue here that rather than being portrayed as a threat, the presence of Eurosceptics in the EP could also be an asset for the EU’s legitimacy.

Indeed, the EP as the EU’s only directly elected institution has failed to build effective links between the people and the EU (Farrell and Scully, 2007) and an important proportion of the European electorate does not share the same views as their representatives on EU issues (Mattila and Raunio, 2012; Thomassen, 2012). Eurosceptic MEPs provide a channel for the expression of segments of public opinion that would otherwise remain unrepresented. Their presence and their strategies, even outsiders such as Public Orators, allows citizens’ dissatisfaction to be expressed inside the EU’s institutional system and could contribute to increasing the EP’s representativeness as an institution open to society in its diversity.

In addition to that, the presence of dissenting voices at the heart of the EU could be a source of politicization. If this politicization has not taken the form expected by neo-functionalists, prompting a constraining dissensus rather than deeper integration (Hooghe and Marks, 2009), its effects remain beneficial for the EU and its democratic nature. Eurosceptics play a key role in this politicization, leading to increased contestation and contributing to the expansion of debates from a closed elite-dominated arena to wider publics (on politicization, see De Wilde and Zürn, 2012; Statham and Trenz, 2012). Their presence could be an asset for the affirmation of the EU as a democratic political system, strengthening the role of the EP as an arena for political conflict.

However, this would require that opposition was not only expressed in the EP but also engaged with. For now, the status of opposition in the EP is still unclear and Eurosceptic MEPs face strong institutional constraints. Repeated reforms to the rules of procedure have allowed the EP to maximize its influence in the EU’s decision-making process. But it has also produced less emphasis on the representative aspects of the EP’s deliberation (Brack et al., 2014). Moreover, the EP remains a bastion of Europhiles (Mudde, 2013) and the coalition between the two main groups (with the support of the Liberals) will continue enforcing its will on the dissenters. In other words, Eurosceptics are not able to play a significant part in the legislative process in the EP or to have a blackmail potential. Whereas the 2014 election results could be interpreted as a signal or even a warning for EU elites, it seems they persist in ignoring the sceptics, which could be damaging for the EU (Usherwood and Startin 2013). The existence of an anti-system opposition within the chamber is not likely to undermine the effectiveness of the EP’s decision-making process because it has no other choice than acting within the existing institutional arrangements. But in the absence of a dialogue between the EU and its critics, the EP cannot (yet) be considered a site where opposition is engaged with. This can only strengthen the Eurosceptics’ critique of the EU.

Nathalie Brack is FNRS Post-doctoral Fellow at Cevipol, Université libre de Bruxelles in Belgium. This post is based on a longer journal article that can be found in the International Political Science Review.

Europe and the 2015 Snap Greek Elections, Round 2: Results, Patterns, and Divides

Nikoleta Kiapidou

Another general election was held in Greece on 20 September 2015. Greek people were asked to vote in an election for the fourth time since 2009, after prime minister and SYRIZA leader Alexis Tsipras resigned on 20 August. Mr Tsipras’ resignation came after only seven months in office followed by a rebellion by a significant number of SYRIZA MPs against the approval of the new austerity deal. In the previous election in January 2015, SYRIZA formed a coalition government with the minor right-wing Independent Greeks party and since then they had been negotiating for a better economic deal for the country.

However, the Greek government did not manage to avoid another bailout package being imposed by the European partners. The winning ‘No’ vote in the 2015 bailout agreement referendum also appeared also powerless – if not pointless. The one-time anti-austerity champions of SYRIZA and the Independent Greeks signed the new austerity deal and the third Memorandum was eventually approved by the Greek parliament. However, SYRIZA’s U-turn did not, in spite of what most opinion polls predicted, result in large damage for the party. Rather, SYRIZA came first with 7% lead over the second party, New Democracy, and re-formed its coalition government with the Independent Greeks. The minor parties that have become stronger since 2012, succeeded in re-securing their seats in the parliament, which now comprises eight parties in total. The far right-wing Golden Dawn once again came in as the third largest political force in the parliament and an old, previously minor centre party called the Union of Centrists gained seats for the first time since its creation in 1992. At 56.6%, voter turnout reached its lowest score ever recorded in a Greek general election.

The Results

Although some pollsters predicted a different outcome, the election results were not much different than the previous general election in January 2015. As Table 1 shows, although slightly weaker SYRIZA was still largest party securing 35.5% of the vote, finishing 7.4% ahead of New Democracy with 28.1%. Immediately after the referendum result, Antonis Samaras, the leader of New Democracy, which supported the ‘Yes’ vote, resigned and was replaced by Vagelis Meimarakis. Mr Meimarakis promoted a more relaxed popular profile but did not manage to attract enough voters. The election result left most of New Democracy’s MPs disappointed and involved in talks about ways to restore the party’s performance. On the other hand, the extreme right Golden Dawn remained third and even increased their vote share by 0.7%. The fact that Golden Dawn MPs had been held in pre-trial detention since 2013, accused of forming a criminal gang, and that just two days before the election their leader took ‘political responsibility’ for the murder of a left-wing Greek singer did not seem to affect the party’s followers.

The one-time ruling party, the social democratic PASOK party, came fourth and increased its vote share by 1.1% since January. However, this increase was largely explained by its coalition with the Democratic Left party. The latter collapsed after joining the pro-Memorandum coalition government in 2012, but apparently retained some support. The Communists maintained their share, while the centrist ‘River’ and Independent Greeks saw a decrease in their share. The River appeared particularly dissatisfied with the result and stressed its willingness to re-assess its performance. In contrast, the Independent Greeks were rather happy with the outcome and their revised co-operation agreement with SYRIZA in office, as most opinion polls showed that they would not even make it to the parliament. The last party to enter the parliament, the Union of Centrists, an old minor centrist party, secured representation for the first time since its formation more than 20 years ago. Finally, Popular Unity, which was created by the SYRIZA rebels after the approval of the third Memorandum, received only 2.9% of the vote and did not manage to gain any seats, despite their consistent anti-austerity stance. 

Table 1: The 2015 September Greek general election results (parties in parliament)

Party Vote Share % (% difference to previous election) Seats
SYRIZA 35.5 (-0.8) 145
New Democracy 28.1 (+0.3) 75
Golden Dawn 7.0 (+0.7) 18
PASOK-DIMAR 6.3 (+1.1) 17
Communist Party 5.6 (+0.1) 15
The River 4.1 (-2.0) 11
Independent Greeks 3.7 (-1.1) 10
United Centrists 3.4 (+1.6) 9

Source: Greek Ministry of Interior, ypes.gr

Long-term patterns

The main patterns that emerged from this election were not much different from what we have seen in the Greek party system since the earthquake twin elections of 2012. Figure 1 illustrates the vote share of all the parties that secured parliamentary representation in all the legislative elections held from 2009 until 2015 and reveals certain repeated patterns, namely: an updated duopoly and a highly fragmented and polarised party system.

A Revised Two-party System

Although PASOK secured some additional votes in this election, the party is now considered a one of the minor ones with no hope of going back to its glorious times in the once stable two-partism in Greece. However, the Greek party system never abandoned the familiar pattern of duopoly: the PASOK-New Democracy divide has now been replaced by the SYRIZA-New Democracy duet. Certainly, the combined vote of the two major parties does not reach the high levels that PASOK and New Democracy once secured. Nevertheless, SYRIZA and New Democracy appear as the two largest, steady competitors who still manage to secure more than 60% of the total vote and immobilise the biggest part of the left/centre-left and the right/centre-right camps respectively.

As Fragmented as it Gets

High fragmentation has been another characteristic of the Greek party system since 2012 and this was also evident in this last election. As Figure 1 shows, although only four parties managed to pass the 3% electoral threshold in 2009, this number increased to seven in 2012 and January 2015, and eight in September 2015, the highest number of parties in the history of the Greek parliament. New actors such as the Independent Greeks and the River, and old parties such as Golden Dawn and the Union of Centrists gained attention and benefited from high electoral volatility during these years. These parties not only get the opportunity to have their voice heard in parliament but were also involved in discussions about coalition formation.

A Wide Ideological Spectrum

Once again, high fragmentation went hand in hand with high levels of polarisation. As in every election held since 2012, the Greek parliament consists of parties of an extremely wide ideological spectrum. With SYRIZA moving even further to the centre-left after approving the third bailout package and New Democracy bringing together a large part of the centre-right electoral base, many of the minor parties are left with collecting the protest and extreme votes. In the post-September 2015 parliament one can find parties that range from the far left (the Communist party), and the moderate centre (the River and the Union of Centrists) through to the extreme right (Golden Dawn).

Figure 1: General election results from 2009 until 2015 in Greece (parties in parliament)

GEResults09-15

Source: Greek Ministry of Interior, ypes.gr

The Main Divides

The existence of a coalition government comprising SYRIZA and the Independent Greeks since January 2015 showed that the left-right divide of the Greek party system had further weakened under the fierce conditions of the economic crisis. A new pro-/anti-austerity debate was born around which parties competed instead. However, with SYRIZA, the previously biggest anti-austerity movement in Greece, signing the third Memorandum in spite of the ‘No’ vote in the referendum, one wonders why SYRIZA was still the biggest party and what was the purpose of remaining in a coalition with a right-wing party> The answer is the powerful combination of features that SYRIZA developed during these years, representing a new, ‘forced-to-be’ pro-austerity, and being pro-European.

The Old versus the New

The main reason behind SYRIZA’s was the effective use of the growing old/new political system divide in the Greek party system. A falling combined vote of PASOK and New Democracy, along with a significant decline in popular trust in the national political institutions, showed that the power of the old two-partism started decreasing even before the crisis began. SYRIZA capitalised on public discontent with the old political system and further promoted the division between the old and the new in Greek politics. It, therefore, tried to represent a new political force which was not associated with the scandals, corruption, and the elitism of the past. Popular dissatisfaction with the old political system was so high that even a U-turn by SYRIZA on the most salient issue of austerity was not enough to damage the party’s performance. As SYRIZA’s current coalition partner, the Independent Greeks, are also a part of the new non-corrupted political system, Mr Tsipras stated that he could even co-operate with PASOK as long as the latter let certain ‘old-PASOK’ members go. As a result, the main message of SYRIZA’s pre-election campaign ‘Let’s get rid of the old’ was what Greek people wanted to hear most.

Pro-austerity vs. ‘Forced-to-be’ Pro-Austerity

The pro-/anti-austerity divide was particularly strong from the beginning of the crisis until the 2015 January election. Nevertheless, SYRIZA’s re-election proved that this debate has taken an interesting turn. While in opposition SYRIZA burnished its anti-bailout profile, but when in office it was forced to sign the third bailout package.  However, the difference with the previous government of New Democracy and PASOK, who favoured similar deals, was that SYRIZA ‘did not fall without fighting’. Mr Tsipras presented the failed negotiations with the European actors as the ultimate struggle against the elites who blackmailed the country. After months of discussions with Europe, several impressive talks given by the former Minister of Economics, Gianis Varoufakis, and a controversial referendum, SYRIZA appeared themselves as being left with no more weapons to fight with. The Independent Greeks also followed the same logic when signing the austerity deal. Indeed, SYRIZA’s approach to its European partners, at least at the beginning of the negotiations, seemed very different from its predecessors, who seemed more willing to accept the austerity deals. SYRIZA argued that, in the end, they were forced to sign the Memorandum and Greek people liked to hear that the new political power ‘did not give up without a fight’.

The European Issue

The pro-/anti-European divide also played an interesting role in shaping party competition since SYRIZA started growing. Although it was relatively weakened from 2010 until 2012, SYRIZA’s rise led other parties – and, most importantly, New Democracy – presenting it as an anti-European force that would put Greece’s EU and Eurozone membership in danger. This pattern was particularly evident in New Democracy’s pre-election campaign in January 2015, but also in the referendum. SYRIZA’s main opponent developed a discourse of fear in case SYRIZA won the elections and Greek voters voted against the bailout package in the referendum. In both instances, the European issue gained significant ground as parties rushed to position themselves among the pro-/anti-European and pro-/anti-drachma arguments. Nevertheless, once again SYRIZA followed what most Greek people supported. As a constantly pro-European political force, SYRIZA ended any claims that it would lead the country out of the euro by accepting the third Memorandum. In what can be considered as a particularly smart move, SYRIZA managed to sign a bailout agreement without losing its popular appeal. And this could only be achieved by a party that featured these three components: being new, presenting itself as a ‘fighter’ against Europe, and yet remaining pro-European.

Nikoleta Kiapidou is a doctoral researcher at the Sussex European Institute in the Department of Politics, University of Sussex.