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Pre-Election Report: 2012 Greek Parliamentary Election

- May 6, 2012

The following pre-election report is written by Harris Mylonas, Assistant Professor of Political Science and International Affairs at George Washington University and an Academy Scholar at the Harvard Academy for International and Area Studies. His book, The Politics of Nation-Building: Making Co-Nationals, Refugees, and Minorities, is forthcoming with Cambridge University Press.

From the University of Tartu—where I am for a conference—the French and Greek elections look very distant. But CNN live on my tv screen together with facebook and twitter messages on my laptop screen serve as potent reminders of these elections—and given my origins—particularly the Greek one.

The two main parties in Greece that have dominated the party system since the end of the Greek Junta in 1974, PASOK (center left) and Nea Demokratia (center right), are likely to get enough seats to form a coalition government—possibly with one or more smaller parties. Their pleas for stability and their alarming messages about the catastrophic consequences of an anti-austerity coalition ruling the country seem to have convinced enough Greeks to vote once again for them. They will garner together around 40-45% of the vote.

The left will get altogether around 30-35% of the vote, but it is deeply fragmented between multiple parties: Coalition of Radical Left (SYRIZA), Communist Party of Greece (KKE), Democratic Left (DIMAR), Social Agreement (Koinoniki Symfonia), and Green Party (Oikologoi Prasinoi). None of the small parties on the center right have secured their entry in the parliament and will collectively receive around 7%. This latter group includes Dora Bacoyannis’ party, Democratic Alliance, Stefanos Manos with DRASI (Action), and Thanos Tzimeros with Dimiourgia Xana (Creativity Again). But parties of the right (Independent Hellenes and Popular Orthodox Rally-LAOS) and the far right (Golden Dawn) seem to be doing better, with a chance of collectively amassing around 17% of the vote share. What is harder to predict is the turnout, but it will most likely be around 75%.

For many, social media have created a parallel reality. For instance, most of my friends self-identify as moderates and reading their posts could have given me an impression that the 7% that will vote for center right will actually rule Greece on May 7th. Social media help mobilize and coordinate existing supporters, but are not well positioned to generate new supporters. Moreover, social media create a virtual reality where your friends “like” or “retweet” your opinions and eliminate any opposing voices. Slowly but surely in the end your opinion prevails. You win. But this victory has very limited external validity.

Thinking of possible coalitions is impossible if we take the party discourse at face value. Most political leaders either preclude coalition plans to solidify their base (e.g. ND) or put forward conditions for cooperation that are impossible to be met (e.g. DIMAR). However, experience tells us that the day after the election is always different. The reality of the vote and the need to govern the country will definitely put more pressure on these leaders to form a coalition. Many fear, however, that even such a coalition government—if it were to be formed—will not be able to implement the necessary reforms and the Greek people may have to vote again by the end of the summer.

The irony of this election is that the result of the French election may actually undermine the very cleavage dividing the Greek electorate. If Hollande wins in France, the Greek parties that have been in favor of the current policy mix may wake up on May 7th in an EU that the Merkel-Sarkozy consensus of how to solve the crisis has ceased to be dominant.

As Churchill put it, democracy is the worst form of government—except for all the others. This election is crucial but it will not produce a strong government. However, as the Ancient Greek saying goes, nothing bad comes without something good attached to it. In this election most Greeks made an extra effort to find out what parties stood for; parties were more frugal in their electoral promises—although the rhetoric has been more radical than before; campaigns cost less—although still a lot more than in other European countries and definitely more than it should have given the situation; and many people that until now perceived themselves as outsiders got involved in politics for the first time—even running for office, but arguably the quality of the candidates is in many cases questionable. These can be interpreted as hopeful signs that in the long run may lead to a different relationship between parties and society. A relationship that is not based on patronage but on accountability and responsibility. This could be the most important “good” emerging from this financial/political/moral crisis.