This blog post is based on the author’s talk at the panel debate organised by the LSE’s Hellenic Observatory at the LSE on 5 February 2015. The podcast of the entire event is available here.
On 25 January 2015 SYRIZA (Coalition of the Radical Left) beat its main rival (the conservative Nea Dimokratia) decisively (36.34 against 27.81 per cent respectively) thus securing the first victory ever for a party of the radical Left in Greece. However, SYRIZA did not manage to secure an outright majority in the Greek Parliament (149 out of a total of 300 seats, despite benefiting from the 50-seat bonus). Alexis Tsipras, SYRIZA’s leader and the country’s new Prime Minister, swiftly reached an agreement to form a coalition government with the hardline nationalist Independent Greeks on the basis of their shared visceral opposition to austerity. Together they control 162 seats in Greece’s unicameral parliament. This was undoubtedly a ‘change election’ also because almost half of parliamentary seats are now in the hands of completely new MPs. The clearest message is the rejection of austerity since at least four of the seven parties that are now represented in Parliament are of this view irrespective of motives, rhetoric or even counter-proposals.
While SYRIZA is the clear winner and this was a ‘change election’, it is also clear that it came close to an outright majority in parliament primarily because of the electoral system. In other words, the trend towards coalition governments does not appear to be weakening; quite the opposite is true. This indicates that Greek voters, far from looking for new Messiahs, wanted to reward SYRIZA’s transition to more moderate views, a process that started just before the 2012 elections and is still ongoing, but they did not want to revert to the crushing majorities that they used to give to either the centre-right New Democracy or the centre-left PASOK that have alternated in power since 1974. There is anecdotal evidence that indicates that, even before the election – ordinary voters did not expect a SYRIZA-led government to change everything.
SYRIZA’s victory is not down to a strategic decision to please a particular segment of the population. In fact, a survey conducted by Kapa Research indicates that support for SYRIZA is quite broad with SYRIZA beating its main opponent in all age groups except the over 65s, all categories of occupations except entrepreneurs and pensioners, all levels of education and across the gender.
These elections have also confirmed that the fascist Golden Dawn is here to stay. The Greek voters who claimed they ‘did not know what it was about’ in 2012 cannot rely on this anyway dubious excuse at least since the murder of the rapper and anti-fascist activist Pavlos Fyssas. On the flip side, this is not a negative development since one can begin to solve the problem only once one has accepted there is a problem that needs solving. It is worth noting that once again support for Golden Dawn among Athenian police is much higher than it is at the national level.
What are the implications for the Greek party system?
As regards the implications of these elections for the Greek party system, two developments stand out. First, the neoliberally-minded version of social democracy as encountered in Greece in the form of PASOK is dead and buried. PASOK’s share of the vote dropped from almost 44 per cent (and an outright majority) in 2009 to 4.68 and just 13 MPs in 2015. Whether SYRIZA will keep reforming itself and thus become a proper social democratic party remains to be seen. What is certain is that the realities that Greece faces are so harsh, that SYRIZA is likely to follow PASOK’s example and modernise itself while in government though in SYRIZA’s case this process commenced a while ago. This is likely to be difficult in SYRIZA’s case because of the prevailing culture of opposition that permeates key segments of the coalition that is SYRIZA. Also, it is early to say whether ND will become a normal party of the centre-right or whether it will stick to the outgoing PM Samaras’s nationalist populism.
What are the implications for the Eurozone?
These may be very significant. As Pierre Moscovici (Commissioner in charge of economic and monetary affairs) noted on 5 February 2015, governments need room for manoeuver after elections. Otherwise what is the point of voting in the EU? The increasing parliamentarisation of the EU (which is an extremely positive and important development) was never meant to lead to the weakening of parliamentary democracy as it developed at the national level over the past century or two but if the current German government is as intransigent as it is reported to be, it will end up badly damaging both. If national elections cannot lead to any change of any kind, why would or should citizens vote in European elections given the prevailing emphasis on ‘the rules’ and a particular understanding of them?
SYRIZA is also the first party to win a democratic election inside the Eurozone on the basis of a platform that explicitly challenges the prevailing obsession with austerity. In doing so, it has every right to draw attention to the fact that – to the extent that it has been implemented – the programme currently in place has not reduced the debt burden. The debt burden has actually grown to 175 per cent of GDP. The trouble is that if those who support the current programme in Berlin, Frankfurt and elsewhere appear to give concessions, they know very well that political change in Spain is likely to follow in a way that will deal an even bigger blow to austerity, in a country that has a much bigger economy and much smaller debt than Greece. That is something they want to avoid and is also the single biggest obstacle for SYRIZA’s efforts-The Telegraph todays claims that other European leaders would like SYRIZA to fail ‘and be seen to fail’. On the other hand, SYRIZA is explicitly committed to balanced primary budgets. This makes SYRIZA a far more difficult opponent to deal with especially if the new government is given the time to show whether they are serious about the kind of structural reform that the country needs, i.e. dramatically improving tax collection, radically reforming the justice and tax systems, fighting corruption, taking on the vested interests that keep the cost of public procurement artificially high, dealing with the negative consequences of transfer pricing abuses, etc.
In short, while SYRIZA’s moderate message (including the determination to keep Greece inside the Eurozone) is a source of optimism, those who hold the levers of power know that if SYRIZA is allowed to have its way or at least part thereof, what is really at stake is the viability of the TINA doctrine.
Dionyssis Dimitrakopoulos is a senior lecturer in politics at Birkbeck