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.

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