Greece: The Election and Its Aftermath

by George_East on May 8, 2012

Sunday’s joy at the election of Francois Hollande is tempered with the knowledge that the results of the election in Greece are likely to have a far more immediate and profound effect than those in France.    I wrote last week that the polls pointed to a potentially seismic election result, as the voters were likely to reject in record numbers the two mainstream parties of the left (PASOK) and the right (New Democracy) for parties running on expressly anti-austerity programmes.

The actual result turned out to even more catastrophic for the parties of Lucas Papademos’ unelected technocratic pro-austerity coalition than the polls suggested.   The polls had pointed to  New Democracy polling something in the low 20s.  In fact Antonis Samaras (who had done so much to push for an early election) led his party to 18.8% of the votes. PASOK had an even worse result, achieving a mere 13.18% of the vote and ending in third position for the first time since democracy was restored in 1974.

The total for New Democracy and PASOK combined was therefore less than 32% of the vote.  A measure of how great this collapse has been, can be gleaned from the fact that the previous lowest combined totals for the hitherto two ruling parties of Greece was 79% in 2009.

The Coalition of the Radical Left (SYRIZA) beat PASOK into second place with 16.77%  (as against opinion polls suggesting a result of 10-14%).   If one adds to SYRIZA’s total, the votes of the two other parties of the anti-austerity left:  the unreformed (ie pre-1989 style) Greek Communist Party, the KKE achieved 8.48% and the SYRIZA splinter party, Democratic Left 6.1%, there was total vote for the anti-austerity radical left of 31.35%.

On the far right, the truly terrifying neo-Nazi Golden Dawn came sixth with 6.97% of the vote.  This result is in part explained by the breathtakingly stupid decision of the nationalist/Greek Orthodox far right LAOS party to enter the Papademos’ coalition and as a result failing to obtain the necessary 3% to gain representation in the Greek parliament.

Finally, the anti-austerity New Democracy splinter party of the centre right, the Independent Greeks won 10.6% of the vote.

On a left v right basis amongst those parties who achieved parliamentary representation, the total figures are 44.53% (ie anti-austerity left + PASOK) for the left and 36.37% for the right (the remaining vote went to parties who did not achieve the 3% threshold).  This calculation though includes  Golden Dawn who all indications are that, rightly, New Democracy and Independent Greeks won’t go anywhere near with a very large  barge poll. Without Golden Dawn the parties of the centre right have a whisker below 30% of the vote.

On a pro-austerity v anti-austerity basis the  figure are: 32% for pro-austerity parties against 49.02% for anti-austerity parties.  However, as a result of the 50 seat bonus for being the largest party under Greek electoral law, New Democracy (108 seats) + PASOK (41 seats) together are only two seats away from a majority.  New Democracy would have only had 58 seats on a pure proportional basis, and have effectively doubled their representation as a result of the 50 seat bonus.  If such a grand coalition was to come about (possibly with the support of the Independent Greeks) then this glaring disparity between an electorate which has overwhelmingly rejected austerity and the make up of the government is likely to lead to an immediate crisis of democratic legitimacy.   Antonis Samaris announced this morning that he has been unable to achieve a majority in his initial discussions.   It can be concluded from this that the Independent Greeks are not willing to play ball (perhaps unsurprising given that it was the New Democracy leadership’s insistence on backing the austerity measures that led to the creation of the party in the first place).  It may also reflect a nervousness within PASOK about the ability of its leadership to hold the party together given the challenge it now faces from its left.

SYRIZA’s leader, Alexis Tspiras is now attempting to form a Coalition.  Under the Greek constitution he has three days to do so.   The Democratic Left (19 seats) have indicated that they would be willing to serve in a coalition with Tspiras but with SYRIZA’s 52 seats this only takes him to 71 seats.   Given the distorting effect of New Democracy’s  50 seat bonus, a Tspiras-led coalition would effectively require him to get all of the parties of the left (including PASOK) and the Independent Greeks on board.  Given the fractiousness on the Greek left (particularly the far left) and given that the Independent Greeks are a splinter group from New Democracy (some with nationalist right tendencies) this seems a tall order in the extreme.

Tspiras is absolutely clear about what he is seeking.  He has today declared the bail out agreement with the EU ‘null and void’.   His conditions for forming a government include the cancellation of all measures which will impoverish Greeks further (reductions in the minimum wage, pensions etc), cancellation of all measures which undermine workers’ rights, an abolition of the 50 seat bonus, an investigation into the Greek banking sector and a moratorium on all debt repayments until a special committee into the causes of the deficit has reported.  To say that this is a platform which is likely to cause the political leaders of Europe and the markets the jitters, is obviously a massive understatement.

The far more likely outcome at this point would appear to be a further election sometime in June but clearly at the moment it is difficult to see why it would produce a more decisive result.  It is certainly difficult to see how the mainstream centre left and centre right parties will perform significantly better.  Given Greece’s history of political violence and dictatorship, there is a real risk that this begins to play out on the streets if the political deadlock cannot be broken.

There is a huge lesson in this for Europe as a whole and Europe’s Centre Left parties in particular.  In 2009 PASOK inherited an economy about which the outgoing New Democracy government had lied to international markets.  Its debt and deficit were far higher than had been previously declared, not least in part because of Goldman Sachs advised off-balance sheet accounting.  This was a difficult inheritance.  However, the acceptance of brutal austerity measures designed in Berlin and Brussels, meant that a party founded on the protection of ordinary citizens was perceived (rightly) to be partly the cause of their misery.    The left can never succeed by implementing in bad times the programme of the economic right. This is as true now as it was for Ramsay MacDonald’s Labour government in 1931.  It is a recipe for its own destruction.

Georges Papandreou, to his credit, understood  that the imposition of austerity measures from without was not possible without the consent of the Greek people.  They had not voted for these measures. Last November he proposed a referendum on the bail out package. We on these pages were one of a tiny number of voices who supported that call.    The reaction from European leaders was for all intents and purposes a coup by meeting.  Papandreou was no longer an acceptable member of the club and had to go if bail out monies were to be provided.    The Greek political establishment meekly accepted this and the unelected banker, Lucas Papademos, was appointed to head up a coalition to impose those very measures without any mandate from the Greek people.     The backlash to this was predictable and predicted.

Europe as a whole and Angela Merkel in particular need to listen hard to what has happened, otherwise the election result in Greece on Sunday may only be the beginning of something truly disastrous.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Mike Killingworth May 9, 2012 at 6:32 am

If, by “the beginning of something truly disastrous” you mean the overthrow of democracy in Greece (and other southern European countries in the Euro, in due course) I’d say this was pretty much inevitable.

It will then be observed that those countries which have relapsed into dictatorship have a higher growth rate than the ones which remain democracies…

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