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.
The radical overturning of the previous balance of forces in May also demonstrated the bankruptcy of the electoral system. The present ‘qualified proportional representation’ awards the party with the highest vote tally a preposterous bonus of 50 parliamentary seats (previously 40, till the nd government of Kostas Karamanlis increased it in 2008). The logic of this was to ensure a working majority for the leading party, effectively allowing it to enter office by winning 38–39 per cent of the vote. But in the fragmented electoral landscape of May 2012, the distortions of this system became even more apparent: with 19 per cent of the vote, nd won 58 seats in proportional terms, but as the leading party doubled its number of mps to 108, out of a total of 300. syriza, with 17 per cent, had only 50 mps. Moreover, the 3-per-cent threshold meant that the one-fifth of the electorate who voted for small parties were left without political representation. This too helped to lower the percentage required for the party finishing first to form a majority, which now stood at 32.7 per cent. However, nd’s poor performance and the electoral collapse of pasok meant that the two parties’ combined score, at 32.1 per cent, was still below this limit—hence their inability to form a government.
The May electoral success of syriza generated a burst of enthusiasm for the party, bringing in turn a rapid surge in voter support. The upward trend continued until the end of May, with public support reaching a level of 32 per cent—an increase of more than 10 percentage points in the space of a month—before declining sharply over the following fortnight, when syriza lost an estimated 4–5 per cent, to obtain just under 27 per cent on June 17. Why was its electoral momentum checked, and then partially reversed? syriza’s gains had come primarily at the expense of the Communist Party (kke) and smaller left-wing groupings, but also to some extent from a segment of conservative anti-Memorandum voters; the announcement of syriza’s programme on 1 June likely deterred the latter constituency, especially the points on immigration and policing—calling for guarantees of human rights in immigrant-detention centres, the facilitation of immigrant family reunion, demilitarization of the coast guard, and prohibitions on the use of masks or firearms against demonstrators. As we shall see, abstentions, especially among impoverished younger voters and domestic migrants living far from the constituencies where they were registered, also had a disproportionate effect on syriza’s vote, perhaps accounting for as much as 1.5 per cent of nd’s victory margin.