Across most of Europe and North America, the two-party system of alternating centre-left and centre-right governments has so far largely managed to absorb the political fall-out from the 2008 financial crisis. Despite high unemployment, savage public-spending cuts and stagnant economies, the process of ousting the incumbents—as in Britain, Iceland, Ireland, Portugal, Spain, France—or rallying to support a lesser against a greater evil, has operated as a sufficient safety valve for citizens’ discontents, even though the policies of the mainstream parties are now almost indistinguishable. To date it is only in Greece, where the economic disaster has been most far-reaching, that the two-party system has collapsed altogether, leading to new mass-political alignments. Here, the centre-left pasok and centre-right New Democracy had dominated the political scene since the ‘regime change’ to representative democracy—the Metapolitefsi—following the 1967–74 military dictatorship. But in the elections of 6 May 2012, after two years in which both pasok and nd had committed themselves to the austerity measures of the eu–ecb–imf Memoranda of Agreement, no party managed to score more than 19 per cent of the vote. In this fragmented landscape, attempts to piece together a working majority fell short. A further election was therefore called, six weeks later.
At the second time of asking, on 17 June 2012, Greek voters finally elected sufficient deputies to create a government acceptable to Berlin, Frankfurt and Brussels, under the nd’s Antonis Samaras. But the ‘grand coalition’ of nd, pasok and dimar received only 2.9m votes altogether, barely 29 per cent of the total electorate, with its support coming mainly from the elderly, pensioners and housewives, rural areas and the rich.footnote1 The June 17 poll appears to announce a new political configuration: a polarization between forces supporting the Troika’s Memoranda and those opposing them. The latter have coalesced around syriza, whose emergence as a major electoral force constitutes a further significant novelty: for the first time since the 1950s, the left is at the heart of political developments, rather than being consigned to the margins. What follows will analyse the disintegration of the two-party system in May, the June results and the rise of syriza, before providing a social, demographic and geographical breakdown of the voting patterns, the better to understand the respective support bases of the new government and its opponents.
Since the fall of the military junta in 1974, the repeated alternation of pasok and nd has been the bedrock of the liberal-democratic system. The combined support levels for the two ‘parties of government’ generally stood at 80–85 per cent, comparable only to the pattern in Anglo-Saxon countries. But amid the deepening national debt crisis, the two-party system has become profoundly discredited. Since May 2010, both nd and pasok have committed themselves to the Troika’s policy of drastic cuts in wages and social provision, as a condition for ever more expensive loans to cover the interest due to Greek, French and German banks for their past lending to nd and pasok governments—a strategy that has plunged the country into its own Great Depression, with no end in sight. Public opposition to the terms of the loan agreements has been running high—it already stood at 65–70 per cent as early as May 2010. By 2011, politicians who had summarily ratified the ‘emergency’ legislation imposed by the first Memorandum could no longer appear in public without being jeered or physically threatened. The need for legitimation lay behind pasok leader George Papandreou’s suggestion of a referendum on the Memorandum in late October 2011, leading to his ouster, orchestrated by Merkel and Sarkozy, and the installation of a pasok–nd coalition government supported by the far-right laos, under former central banker Lucas Papademos, which signed on to a second, still-more savage Memorandum of Agreement with the Troika in March 2012.
When fresh elections were finally held on 6 May 2012, the punishment dished out to the two main parties was unprecedented. In the space of just thirty months following the election of October 2009, they lost a total of 3.3 million votes—pasok 2.2 million and nd 1.1 million—a figure that represents 47 per cent of those who voted in 2009. pasok slumped to just 13.2 per cent, having secured 43.9 per cent in 2009, while nd scored only 18.9 per cent, down from 33.4 per cent in 2009. The left coalition of syriza, meanwhile, more than trebled its vote share to 16.8 per cent, while the centre-right Independent Greeks, an anti-Memorandum split from nd, scored 10.6 per cent; the Communist Party (kke) polled 8.5 per cent, the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn 7 and dimar (Democratic Left) a mere 6.1 per cent. A historic high of 19 per cent was accounted for by a mosaic of small, newly formed parties that, thanks to a constitutional 3-per-cent barrier, remained outside parliament. The official turnout was 65 per cent, a fall of 6 per cent compared to 2009.
At 32 per cent, the combined total for the two ‘parties of government’ was less than half their aggregate support in the previous elections. pasok’s vote share was even lower than the 13.4 per cent it secured on its first appearance in 1974. Similarly, nd’s vote share was the lowest ever received by the main party of the right since the interwar period. pasok was punished more severely, held to account for Greece’s recourse to the imf and the signing of the first Memorandum. But the splits within the Greek right caused by the debt crisis now became evident: the conservative bloc emerged from the May elections geographically, socially, politically and ideologically fragmented, its three main currents—the ‘popular right’, the ‘far right’ and the ‘neoliberal right’—scattered across seven different party formations.