Yes to negotiation, no to retreat, no to elections

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How the political climate and the parties’ influence are shaping up, four months after elections

 

Analysis
by YIANNIS MAVRIS

The radical change in the political climate ushered in by parliamentary elections on 25/1/15 continues, four months later, to determine the political scene and the relative strength of the parties. Despite the undoubted exacerbation of the social climate and, in particular, the worsening of expectations among households with regard to income and the outlook for the economy, the unprecedented – by Greek standards – post-electoral rallying of support for the new government remains strong (“rally around the flag effect”).

Support holding steady

This picture is shaped by the trends recorded in a number of indices of Public Issue’s Political Barometer (PB) for May: 1) The sense of national pride, which was boosted by the elections (86% in last February’s survey), remains strong today (84%). 2) Despite the growing conviction in Greek society that the country’s partners/lenders, not Greece, are “gaining more” from the negotiation, the government’s handling of the issue continues – at the present time – to have the approval of 54% of citizens (63% the previous month, -9% – Figure 1). 3) Both the prime minister’s popularity (77%, -1%) and his perceived competence as premier (63%, +1%) remain steady at very high levels, suggesting that the post-electoral acceptance of Alexis Tsipras is shared by a majority of citizens and transcends party lines. 4) The number of respondents who are satisfied with the government, although decreasing, nevertheless continues to stand at very high levels of over 40% (44%), indeed four times higher than the satisfaction rating for the main opposition party (just 11%). 5) The finance minister (Yanis Varufakis), despite the difficult position in which he has found himself in the communication war, continues to enjoy a high level of social trust (59%) and he remains the most popular finance minister of the period 2009-2015.

Figure 1

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No to retreat…

The asphyxiating pressure being exerted on the Greek government by domestic and international news media has not managed to weaken support among the majority of citizens for an “unyielding” negotiation with the country’s lenders. Almost 6 in 10 citizens (59%) express the belief that the government should not give in to the pressure from the lenders (Figure 2). Indeed, 4 in 10 (43%) are quite adamant on this point, saying that (“should definitely” not yield). On the other hand, almost 4 in 10 (37%) of citizens are in favor of “concessions”, but only 2 in 10 (19%) are strongly in favor (should definitely make “concessions”).

As expected, a higher percentage of voters of the anti-Memorandum bloc (SYRIZA, Communist Party of Greece, Independent Greeks, Golden Dawn) adopt the “unyielding” line. As for SYRIZA’s electoral base specifically, among those who voted for the party in January 2015 the proportion rejecting the idea that the government should back down is 78% (nearly 8 in 10), while – and this perhaps has even greater political significance – among the party’s enlarged, since January 2015, electoral base, i.e. its present voters, the corresponding proportion is 81%. In contrast, retreat is advocated by high percentages of voters in the pro-Memorandum bloc: PASOK (79%), New Democracy (76%) and Potami (57%).

Figure 2

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… and no to elections

Citizens’ attitudes towards the holding of elections are recorded in the Barometer by two indices:

a) The first refers to the general necessity of holding elections at the present time. (This question has been included in the PB since 2007). When this index registers high percentages in favor of holding elections, then it may reasonably be considered that there is indeed social pressure “from below”, a (pressing) social demand for political change. In this sense, it constitutes an important measure of a government’s social legitimation. It is interesting to note at this point that in August 2010, four months after George Papandreou signed the first Memorandum, the proportion of citizens in favor of elections was also very low (16%). Even one year after the signing, up to spring 2011, the figure never exceeded 25%. It swelled only after the “Indignants” movement and reached a historic high level of social “pressure” for elections (71%) two years later, shortly before elections in May 2012. Today, in contrast, the electorate’s opposition to the holding of elections is universal. More specifically, just 9% are of the opinion that the country needs elections, while 9 in 10 citizens (89%) are against the holding of elections (93% among current SYRIZA voters). On the basis of Public Issue’s available time series for the period 2007-2015, this percentage constitutes a historic high level of opposition to the holding of elections (Figure 3). Clearly, this fact has considerable political importance, for in Greek electoral history it is rare for a government to enjoy such a high degree of social legitimation.

Figure 3

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b) A second indication of public attitudes towards elections is provided by the opinion as to how the decision should be taken, following a possible agreement with the country’s partners/lenders. According to the survey, the majority of citizens (56%, 6 in 10) would like to see any agreement ratified by the present parliament (Figure 4). The holding of a referendum is preferred by only one-third (34%), while the option of new elections, as an alternative solution, is rejected, with support of just 6%. It is worth noting that among SYRIZA voters, parliamentary ratification (45%) and a referendum (46%) have roughly the same levels of support.

Figure 4

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The interpretation of these social attitudes is very simple. The electorate spoke four months ago and the new government was given a clear mandate: to end the Memorandum policies and the country’s social disintegration.

Electoral dominance of SYRIZA

On the basis of Public Issue’s vote estimate, SYRIZA’s electoral support in May stands at 48.5% and ND’s at 21%. The post-electoral rallying of support for the government created a new stream of voter support for SYRIZA, which has strengthened its electoral dominance by at least 10% relative to the election result (36.34%). Four months on, this increased voter support continues to hold at unprecedented historical levels, comparable only to 1974 and 1981 (Figure 5). This post-electoral momentum, which is recorded in all opinion polls without exception, cannot be easily concealed, even if voting intention alone is deceptively presented “including undecideds, abstainers and refusals”… Whoever believes that citizens change parties as if they were changing shirts, or that electoral swings occur because that’s what television wants, are just deceiving themselves.

Figure 5

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ND: Weak opposition and weak succession

Four months after its crushing election defeat, the picture of the main opposition party continues to be one of disintegration. Over 7 in 10 citizens (74%) and almost 1 in 2 New Democracy supporters (46%) believe that the party is moving in the “wrong direction”. Its voter support has fallen dramatically to the levels of May 2012. The fact that the strategic character of its defeat is now understood by a broad segment of party officials is clearly not resolving the impasse in which ND has found itself. The very deep, multifaceted crisis it is facing cannot be remedied by melodramatic imaginings and confrontation in “high tones”, either in parliament or in television studios, which appear to be the venue of choice for the party’s most prominent and ambitious politicians.

Nor, of course, can the crisis be remedied with a simple change of leadership, which is considered imperative by the great majority (62%) of the electorate, though not by the same high majority of the party’s supporters. In fact, the issue of ND’s leadership succession is deeply and dangerously dividing the party’s electoral base. For although 52% of those who voted for ND in January believe a change of leader is necessary, a sizeable 42% disagree. Moreover, among the party’s present (remaining) voters, the percentages are reversed: 54% believe there is no reason for a leadership change and only 41% consider it necessary.

However, the most serious issue is that no senior ND politician appears – at the present time – to have the undivided support of the party’s voters, or even a higher approval rating than the current leader. Indeed, both among ND voters in parliamentary elections earlier this year (with 31%) and the party’s current voters (with 44%), Antonis Samaras continues to be regarded as the “best leader for ND”, with a clear gap to his nearest rivals Kostas Karamanlis (17% and 15% respectively) and Dora Bakoyannis (13%, 13%). It should also be noted that among other prospective candidates for leader, not one is broadly accepted among the conservative electoral base (on the basis of spontaneous responses to a relevant open-type question).

The pro-Europe front

But the opposition parties, with their “unconditional” support for the demands of the country’s lenders and “at any cost” pro-Europeanism are also proving to be ideologically weak and politically ineffective. The majority of the electorate remains rallied around the government. They support its negotiating efforts, whatever they may be, and are “irritated” by the various attacks launched by the news media, which they regard as “hostile” to the government. It thus becomes clear why pro-Europeanism in such conditions has little resonance and why it has resulted in the electoral and political confinement of the Center-Left forces, particularly its main – at present – expression as a party, Potami.

It is self-evident that the current political trends cannot predetermine either the terms or the consequences of an “honorable compromise” with the country’s lenders, let alone how this might be “assimilated” by the electorate. On the other hand, the facts to date clearly show that the prime minister and the present government are the indisputable dominant political force in the country. To those outside the country, this may also mean the only credible interlocutor, without whose participation no one will be in a position to guarantee the “mutually beneficial agreement”.

See also, Political Barometer 144, May 2015