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Sand Dunes in the Greek Landscape: Party Politics and Political Coalitions in Times of Crisis

- June 11, 2013

Greek parliament_Athens_Greece_Mylonas
[Photo Credit: Harris Mylonas]

The following is a guest post from Akis Georgakellos, a Political Analyst/Strategy consultant and a directing partner at Stratego, a Greek strategy and communication company, and Harris Mylonas, an Assistant Professor of Political Science and International Affairs at George Washington University and the author of The Politics of Nation-Building (Cambridge University Press, 2012).


People across the world know about the great financial crisis that has shaken up the US, the EU as a whole, and Greece in particular. They can also imagine that it was followed by a deep social crisis. A year has passed since the June elections and despite a growing sense of stabilization (political and economic) the situation remains grave for most citizens. Beneath all these realities there are crucial political developments in Greece and one thing is certain, the landscape is currently filled with sand dunes.

The political system has never been more volatile in the past 39 years, following Greece’s transition to democracy. Established political parties have shattered into pieces, former dominant cleavages have become obsolete, and political certainties of the past have been forgotten. Age old sworn enemies are now collaborating, one-party governments – a norm in Greek politics – appear to be a thing of the past, the life of governments rarely approaches the full four year period, and the traditional two-party system is delegitimized. For the first time – at least since 1958 – a party on the left is a serious contenter for first place in the next election, one of the most extreme right wing parties in Europe is rapidly accumulating power, new political parties are being formed, and the electorate appears to be constantly changing its mind – at least based on the electoral results and opinion polling. These developments deserve a closer look.

  • The memorandum/anti-memorandum cleavage is still the dominant cleavage in Greek society. In other words, the country’s political forces are roughly divided between those that support the reforms and measures described in the loan agreements signed between Greece, the IMF and the European Central Bank/EU and those that oppose these reforms and measures and even want to declare Greece’s debt illegitimate. The current coalition government includes the pro-Memorandum political forces (ND, PASOK and DIMAR); while the other four parties in the parliament oppose it (SYRIZA- Coalition of the Radical Left, Independent Hellenes, Golden Dawn and KKE-Communist Party of Greece). Interestingly, the two main poles of the current political system (center right ND and left-wing SYRIZA) have not had consistent positions with respect to this question. Prime Minister Samaras (then head of the main opposition party, ND) initially opposed the first memorandum (in 2010), but has become the leading voice in the pro-memorandum camp. According to polls, Samaras gained and sustained popularity since the November Eurogroup agreement on the Greek debt. Alexis Tsipras, head of the main opposition party (SYRIZA), has been consistently anti-memorandum, but has significantly toned down the radicalism of his party’s program and discourse.
  • In such a volatile and novel context old cleavages and slogans of the past have been marginalized. Even classic analytical tools such as the left-right axis of ideological placement and the related labels may be still used as shortcuts for the non-initiated, but hardly hold any water. In the midst of very difficult realities, the electorate seems motivated by a mix of pragmatism and anger. But one thing is certain: the voters have largely disentangled themselves from—often inherited—partisan IDs. It is not uncommon to meet people that are choosing between a left and a right wing party—something unheard of in the past. Citizens are, however, more likely to be clear on the memorandum/anti-memorandum debate. A related crosscutting cleavage is the one between the voters that see the EU as the only way out of the crisis and those that do not see this as a necessary element of the solution to the crisis. There are politicians and parties that are anti-memorandum but pro-Europe, for instance. This may appear extremely contradictory, but for many voters and party leaders it is not. Time will tell if theirs – Europe: yes; Austerity: no – is a realistic aspiration. Another important political demand is the punishment of the old political establishment for its wrongdoings, which seems to be present across the political spectrum.
  • PASOK (center-left party) and ND, the two main rivals that took turns in government and dominated the political system for four decades, are both members in the same coalition government. There is a precedent from the late 1980s of an unexpected alliance between the center-right and the left; but that government had specific competencies. What brought PASOK and ND together was their agreement that Greece must remain in the European family and thus honor the obligations it signed in the various Memoranda. The result, however, is a counterintuitive coalition government that would correspond to the Conservative party governing with Labour in the UK or the Democrats with the Republicans in the US. And this in a political system that has traditionally had an extremely polarized electorate. The fact that PASOK and ND are today in a coalition government is a sign of the strength of the memorandum/anti-memorandum cleavage.
  • This alliance is also linked to the electoral results for the two parties.  PASOK deteriorated from approximately 44 percent in the 2009 election to a mere 12 percent in the June 2012 elections. In recent opinion polls, PASOK shrunk at 6.4 percent (MRB, June 2013). ND also experienced serious fluctuations in its electoral returns. In 2009, its historical low point was 33.5 percent of the vote share, but although it was in opposition in the May 2012 election, it received only 18.8 percent. ND bounced back to 29.6 percent in the June 2012 election, which followed the May one because no government could be formed from the existing Parliament. In late 2012, ND appeared to be in the second position in opinion polls, but since the early 2013 polls the tables turned and ND has an edge over SYRIZA. In the most recent poll ND is projected at 2.3 percentage points ahead of SYRIZA, with 27.9 percent.

The fact that PASOK and ND jointly received 32 percent of the vote share in the May election, a particularly low percentage that they hardly ever received even on their own in the past, is enough proof of the – possibly permanent – decay of the traditional two-party system of the past four decades. In fact, PASOK’s decline in recent polls has made some ponder whether it will make it into parliament in the next elections.

  • Greece’s two-party system appears to have been replaced by a fragmented political system. From PASOK-ND we have moved to a ND-SYRIZA competition. Important differences exist between the two different eras. The ideological distance between the two parties is larger today than in the recent past. In the traditional two-party system the parties competed for one party governments while today this seems highly unlikely. We are facing a fragmented political system where any winner will have to form a coalition government.
  • The Greek political system, a system of one party governments for decades, today already has its second three party coalition government in a period that amounts to a little over a year. In both coalition governments, we have PASOK and ND as main partners. The first coalition government  had the popular right LAOS (Popular Orthodox Rally) as the third partner, and the current euro-friendly government has left wing DIMAR (Democratic Left) support, respectively. This coalition pattern is yet another piece of evidence supporting the centrality of the memorandum/anti-memorandum cleavage in the current juncture.
  • In place of a system of governmental stability and relatively stable political personnel in the past year, we had two elections and new faces entering the political scene. Following the 2009 election, we had two more elections in 2012, while it is not unlikely to have another in the not so distant future. More alarming is the fact that in less than a year, Greece had 4 different PMs: Papandreou (PASOK’s former President), Papademos (led the first coalition government in 2011), Pikramenos (interim PM that led Greece to the June 2012 election), and the current PM Antonis Samaras (President of ND). Another sign of volatility is depicted through the constant changes in the Ministry of Finance, which has changed hands five times in three years.
  • The memorandum/anti-memorandum cleavage has given a boost to former “small parties”. Today’s main opposition party, SYRIZA, skyrocketed from 4.6 percent in the 2009 election to 26.9 percent one month later, while its vote share has fluctuated between 25 to 28 percent in recent polls.

More spectacular has been Golden Dawn’s electoral fortune – this party is considered to be one of the most extreme right wing parties in Europe. Golden Dawn sky rocketed from 0.3 percent in 2009 to a stunning 7 percent in 2012, increasing its vote share by 2400 percent, and it is currently running third in the polls. In the most recent poll Golden Dawn is projected at 13.4 percent, making it the party with most gains since the June election.

Despite the boost that the left overall has received from the financial crisis, the Communist Party of Greece (KKE) did not end up benefiting proportionately. Maybe the party’s consistent but traditional ideological stance has not been attuned to the extraordinary times. Thus, KKE experienced a rise from 7.5 percent in 2009 to 8.5 percent in May 2012, but a decline to 4.5 percent in the June election – a result of the polarization between ND and SYRIZA, which was now successfully posing as a potentially governing left wing party. KKE is currently polling at 5.8 percent, an important increase of its projected vote share that coincides with a change in its leadership after 22 years!

What all these parties have in common is their absolute rejection of the terms of Greece’s bailout – other than that their political platforms could not be farther apart.

  • New parties were created and others are currently being incubated across the whole political spectrum.  On the left, DIMAR (6.2 percent in the elections, polling at similar levels, and one of the three parties supporting the coalition government) was the result of the split within Synaspismos – a predecessor to SYRIZA – during 2010. In the liberal camp, we saw three newly established political parties running in the May 2012 elections (Democratic Alliance, Recreate Greece, and Drasi) and receiving collectively approximately 8.5 percent of the vote share. But due to the 3 percent threshold in the Greek electoral law, none of these liberal parties entered Parliament. A month later in the June election, Democratic Alliance was integrated into ND, while the other two liberal parties joined forces in the election. These two parties do not appear to be maintaining their vote share in recent polls.

A new party has emerged in the center left from PASOK’s ashes. Former Minister of Health with PASOK, Andreas Loverdos, founded Pact for New Greece, which is squarely positioned in a pro-Europe and pro-Memorandum camp but with a critical stance.

Another more recent splinter party on the left is that created by the former head of Synaspismos, Alekos Alavanos, called Plan B, which openly advocates the return to the Greek drachma and opposes the austerity measures.

On the right, Independent Hellenes, a splinter party from ND comprised MPs that opposed the memoranda, received 10.6 percent in the May and 7.5 percent in the June elections – the latter being closer to the percentage at which they are currently polling. Recently, however, there has been internal turmoil in this party.

Overall, rumors for new parties are omnipresent, including even one by former PM George Papandreou,  but it is hard to tell if these are hot air or not – a not uncommon feature in a country where conspiracy theories abound.

  • Given the extraordinary circumstances, expectedly volatility characterizes not just the electorate, but also the MPs themselves. In recent years, resignations and removals of MPs from parliamentary groups became very common – especially during important votes. In this context, we can no longer safely predict the outcome before the actual vote.  As one example, in the last Parliament there was an MP that changed three parliamentary groups (he moved from ND, to LAOS, to Democratic Alliance). One more sign of the crystallization of the memorandum/anti-memorandum cleavage is that the moves across parties follow this cleavage and—in some cases—are even produced by it.
  • An important unknown is the impact that scandals involving prominent political figures can have on the developments in the political arena.  For instance, a former Defense Minister and the Mayor of the second largest city in Greece are in prison while the former Minister of Finance, Giorgos Papakonstantinou, is currently being investigated for tampering with a list of possible tax evaders.  An exacerbating factor, however, is that these developments are occurring in a society full of rage toward anything that reminds of the old political establishment and with no clear signs of relief.

A Glimpse into the Future

The legitimacy of the Greek political system has been undermined. Without wanting to exaggerate things, it is a fact that verbal and even physical attacks against political figures have occurred with uncomfortable frequency. Let us just say that this is not a good period to declare that you are a politician. Significantly, specific parties are accused as tolerating and/or encouraging violence.

At the same time, however, we do have some signs that new respected figures are emerging in various realms of social life; but again, this process is filtered through the lens one has over the new main cleavage we discussed above. The radicalization of society is helping the electoral fortune of both the left and the extreme right. Counterintuitive is the electoral rise of the left and the simultaneous rise of approval ratings for privatizations and reversing tenure in the public sector in opinion polls. The electorate is under pressure of uncertainty about the future, rapid aggravation of the economic situation and deterioration in quality of life.

Undoubtedly, the current cleavage between the memorandum and anti-memorandum camps is dominant but it will ultimately dissipate; the important question is what will take its place as the new dominant cleavage. Clearly, any new cleavage is likely to involve diverging visions for achieving economic growth, reducing unemployment, Greece’s role in the EU, the role of the state in the economy, holding the old political establishment accountable, and establishing social order.

The optimistic scenario is that Greece will be saved and a new political class will emerge from this crisis. This new political class will most likely be representing figures—political, business, social entrepreneurs—that dealt well with the challenges of the crisis. Together with this new political class, a new mentality will capture the collective imaginary of the Greek people and a less corrupt social contract will emerge. The pessimistic scenario involves a prolonged period of uncertainty, decay and social unrest.