by YIANNIS MAVRIS
In Greece, perhaps more than in any other country, the political repercussions of the economic crisis have been momentous. The collapse of the two-party system in the elections of 2012, as a result of three years of tough measures under the terms of the bailout Memorandum, brought to the surface a very deep crisis of representation, leading to sweeping new political alignments. One year later, the developments and transformations taking place within the country’s old and new political parties are continuing at an undiminished pace. In recent times, the formation of some new ‘party’ has been announced on an almost monthly basis, whilst the likelihood of a reappearance in the next elections of the ‘pulverization’ seen in the May elections is returning. However, the real fact that has been obscured is the discrediting and dramatic contraction of the institutional role of the political parties, in the framework of the new political system that is emerging, namely a grossly enfeebled, almost virtual parliamentarianism.
Collapse of the two-party system in Greece
After 1974, the successive alternation in power of the two government parties, which has taken place five times, had institutionally consolidated (with the help of electoral laws) the two-party system as a form of political regime. For the past 30 years, voter support for the Greek two-party system (PASOK, New Democracy) had stood at levels of 80%-85%, which internationally can be compared only to the historical tradition of the Anglo-Saxon countries. Two-partyism also served to attenuate social discontent, with a critical segment of the electorate each time switching from one party to the other. In 2009, ‘middle-ground’ voters, i.e. those who had at times cast their ballot for both government parties, accounted for almost 25% of the electorate.
However, the country’s accession to the Memorandum put an end to this historically consolidated function of the two-party system. The summary procedures for ratifying ‘emergency’ legislation (acts of legislative content, urgency procedure, omnibus bills), imposed as part of the loan agreements, essentially resulted in parliament’s self-abolition and utter contempt for its members, who were no longer able to appear in public without being jeered or even physically threatened.
The open convergence of the two biggest parties in their support for and commitment to the Memorandum was sealed by their support for the government of an appointed (non-elected) prime minister (November 2011 – April 2012). But the shaping of a ‘single pro-Memorandum party’ and the imposition of a coalition government, effectively answerable to the so-called ‘Troika’ (EC, IMF, ECB) rather than the Greek parliament, were self-undermining for their position. The established functioning of the two-party system became ‘blocked’.
The two-year period 2010-2012
In the two-year period 2010-2012, opinion polls had recorded citizens’ strong opposition to the Memorandum. From May 2010, public condemnation of the bailout deal ranged steadily between 60% and 75%, before reaching 79% in February 2012 when parliament voted on the second Memorandum(figure 1).The election result simply confirmed this and at the same time revealed the lack of legitimacy of its policies.
From as early as the beginning of 2011, the social demand for elections grew continuously. In public opinion polls in April 2012 the need to hold elections was voiced by 67% of respondents, compared to just 25% one year earlier, finally exceeding 70%(figure 2). The risk of an uncontrolled social explosion, similar to that of 1965 [the so-called sidewalk (“pezodromio”) in the slang of older Greek conservative politicians], was very real and the domestic political system knew it. In effect, the May elections were imposed ‘from below’.
Given the strong support for parliamentarianism among the dominated classes in Greece, it was easier for social discontent to find an outlet through the expression of disapproval at the polls, as opposed to open social protest (which was manifested, but on a comparatively small scale). As expected, the ‘punishment’ dished out to the two government parties in the elections was unprecedented. In the elections of 6 May 2012, neither of the two main parties managed to win more than 19% of the vote. In the fragmented political landscape that emerged, efforts to form a viable majority failed. Electorally, the old two-party system literally fell apart. In May, voter support for two-partyism, just 32%, was not even half the percentage won by both parties in aggregate two-and-a-half years previously (77.4%). PASOK was punished more severely for Greece’s recourse to the IMF and the signing of the first Memorandum two years earlier.
In the repeat elections held six weeks later, the coalition of the three governing parties (ND, PASOK, DIMAR) in total received less than 3 million votes, i.e. less than 30% of the eligible electorate and approximately 35% of the actual electorate.
The historical dimensions of the electoral shift
In May, the two parties with the largest share of the vote (now ND and SYRIZA in aggregate) polled just 35.6%. This is the lowest support for two-partyism ever recorded in an electoral contest in Greece since 1926 (figure 3). Such percentages can be compared only to those seen in the first elections after the civil war, in 1950, 62 years earlier. Indeed, in terms of percentages and all things considered, the fragmentation of the party system in May 2012, even when compared to the historical precedent of 1950, proved to be equally intense if not greater.
When one takes into account that the elections in 1950 were the first representative elections held in Greece after the interwar dictatorship, the German occupation and the civil war, one can easily comprehend not only the magnitude but also the historical importance of the electoral shift that has taken place. In 1950, party fragmentation appeared to be the political result of a stormy decade and three years of civil war (1946-1949). In 2012, it was the result of the implementation of the Memorandum over the three-year period 2010-2012; of a new and ‘unilateral civil war’ now waged against the dominated classes, with the aim of overturning the social compromise attained during the period following the dictatorship that ended in 1974.
The new polarization
The two parliamentary elections of 2012 ushered in a new historical period of a transitional nature which continues today. The old two-partyism, which collapsed, is gradually being replaced by a new party system, namely a now shrunken (for the past six months, total voter support for the two parties remains below 58%) and finely balanced – for the time being – two-partyism, with ND and SYRIZA hovering constantly between 27.5% and 29.5%.
At the same time, it is quite apparent that the neoliberal offensive launched by the implementation of the political and economic policies of the Memorandum, as the ruling classes’ response to the crisis, has deeply divided Greek society. The social and class polarization caused by the Memorandum was clearly reflected in the voting results of the June elections (figure 4). Such social differentiation in the voter base of the parties had not been seen since the 1980s. The importance of class voting, which had declined significantly in the past two decades, appears to be re-emerging. The polarization has brought a new cleavage in the Greek party system, between pro-Memorandum and anti-Memorandum forces, which continues even today to cut across the Left/Right divide. It is on the basis of this twin rift that the new party system is being formed and the two strongest poles of the political scene will become organized.
So far, one pole has been represented by the three-party government coalition that brings together ND, which has shifted further to the right, and the other two (PASOK, DIMAR), essentially cadre parties of liberal social democracy, which undertook to expand the government’s legitimacy in the direction of the Left. The convergence of these forces, which continues – at least prior to the crisis caused by the closure of state broadcaster ERT – to prevail politically, expresses the pro-Memorandum social bloc, the new social alliance of the ruling classes which is being forged in the midst of the crisis.
On the opposite pole, SYRIZA constitutes the (vulnerable) parliamentary expression of an enlarged social aggregation of middle and working class wage earners, but also of a sizeable segment of social categories which have been impoverished and brought together by the economic crisis, such as young people, the unemployed and the disadvantaged classes.
The election outlook in Greece
The parties of the present government were supported, in the main, by the least dynamic, non-productive and most aged segment of the electorate. ND’s electoral victory was based more on intimidation of the electorate. It was a vote of acquiescence, without the necessary ideological consensus. The social legitimation secured by the new government was limited from the outset. In these conditions, the authoritarian turn taken by the government (a new authoritarian statism) and the adoption of forms of a strategy of tension were more or less expected. The implementation and completion of the program set out in the Memorandum can continue only through centralized decision making, escalating suppression of social protest, the increased curtailment of democratic rights (ERT) and even closer supervision.
According to the ‘manuals’ of the relevant international organizations, the next stage will involve efforts toward institutional consolidation of the changes, what Naomi Klein has called “insulation of reforms”. Constitutional revision, changes to the electoral law, even the prospect of enlarging the electorate (or more precisely, changing it) by giving the vote to overseas Greeks, will be on the agenda of political and economic contention. These political transformations lead to the further bypassing of representation and the strengthening of the role of mass media and propaganda. They also lead to the institutional degradation of the electoral process and the withdrawal of a large segment of citizens from the electorate. The danger is all too apparent.
In the years that follow, social confrontation over elections and democracy will inevitably escalate. The balance of forces does not favor the dominated classes, though this does not mean one can predict the outcome of the confrontation. As conditions are currently taking shape, the next elections may prove to be just as or even more polarized than those held last June.
The metric, that figure 4 is based on, was first used by Elias Ioakimoglou (http://www.ioakimoglou.net/)
Date of publication: 19/06/2013
Publication: Newspaper “ΕΦΗΜΕΡΙΔΑ ΤΩΝ ΣΥΝΤΑΚΤΩΝ”