How the shift within the electorate was consolidated after European elections in 2014
by YIANNIS MAVRIS
The elections of 25 January, which ended the five-year cycle of the Memorandum period in Greece, are proving to be an event of historical importance for the domestic political scene, while their international resonance is no less significant. The “experimental” process of demolishing representative parliamentary democracy, which was attempted, has been suspended.
Since 2010, the attitudes of public opinion towards the Memorandum policies of austerity had remained for the most part negative (70% against, just 30% for). At no time did these austerity policies manage to gain social consensus, despite the fact that the parties implementing them (including Democratic Left) received the votes of a large segment of the electorate. Disproving all the post-modern talk, the political rift between the “pro-Memorandum” and “anti-Memorandum” blocs is still deep and has redefined the historical Left-Right political axis with new content.
The social dissatisfaction generated by the implementation of neoliberal austerity policies was expressed at the polls for the first time in 2012. Then, it led to the collapse of the old two-party system and thrust the Left to the forefront of the political stage for the first time in 60 years. In the period 2012-2014, social dissatisfaction took on the form of a strong and broadly diverse surge in electoral support for SYRIZA.
1. Electoral rematch
The 2015 electoral contest was the “revenge” for 2012; a derivative and a follow-up of the fierce political clash that marked the two rounds of elections at the time.
The recent contest has more similarities with the 2009 elections (before the Memorandum). Indeed, on the basis of the time series of Public Issue’s monthly political surveys, it can be seen that this time, in contrast with the 2012 election result, there was a reduction in electoral volatility, along with a decline in anti-party vote. Another evidence was the strengthening of the new two-partyism, with estimated electoral support for the two main parties reverting to the levels of 2010. (As it turned out, SYRIZA and New Democracy received 64.2% of the vote in total, compared to 56.6% in June 2012 and just 35.6% in May).
Despite analyses that insisted on concealing reality, with talk of “shifting sands” and an “inability to forecast”, the surge in support for SYRIZA was of course not something that happened in the final days of the contest, nor even during the pre-election period. On the contrary, it had become apparent several months previously. That is to say, the main trends among the electorate had been crystallized much earlier, something which the mainstream news media did not succeed in averting.
This trend, which was shaped over many months, proved to be irreversible. Unfortunately for the government, the propagandistic attempts of the ruling coalition parties to create the (false) impression that SYRIZA’s lead in the polls “wasn’t clear” (only 2%-3%) and, consequently, that the outcome of the contest was “in the balance”, failed. The expected election winner, which – as is known – is a crucial parameter of an electoral battle, had remained unchanged since June 2014, showing quite clearly that the majority of society was perfectly aware of this fact from very early on.
2. European Elections 2014: Point of no return
In the process that resulted in the 2012 balance of political forces being overturned, European elections in May 2014 marked a point of no return. With their multifaceted manipulation: three polls (local, regional, European) simultaneously for the first time, the switching of the election date to an unsuitable time (e.g. school, university exams), various changes to the election law, but also numerous measures that curtailed and obstructed “out-of-constituency” voters’ right to vote, which effectively increased the abstention rate, the pro-Memorandum government managed to “filter the electorate” and partially “temper” social discontent. In “normal circumstances”, i.e. if the elections had not been manipulated, the expression of disapproval at the polls would have been even greater and social protest would have been manifested more vehemently. Nevertheless, the defeat of the coalition government could not be averted, while voter disapproval of ND was not confined only to the Left, but was recorded also on the Right (“right-wing protest” vote).
Due also to the phenomenon of (right) ‘tactical voting’ (“Irrespective of ideological preferences, I vote for the party that can harm my main opponent the most”) within the anti-Memorandum bloc, the main opposition party also took the Attica region, where one-third of the country’s population lives. SYRIZA’s lead in the European elections, by four percentage points, for the first time reflected the shift that had come about in the two-year period 2012-2014 and subsequently became consolidated (Figures 1 & 2).
The European elections not only confirmed this shift but also had a self-contained impact, further rallying voters in support of the rising opposition party. Public opinion now knew, on the basis of actual reality rather than opinion polls, that the opposition party was winning and the government was losing. This phenomenon is a familiar one in the election studies. An overturning of the balance of party forces in some interim election then creates a bandwagon effect in favor of the anticipated winner. Indeed, Public Issue’s first post-election estimate of voter support (July 2014) recorded the impressive momentum from the result of the European elections. SYRIZA’s lead shot up to 9% (Figure 2).
3. 2009 revisited
In Summer 2009, the decision of then prime minister Kostas Karamanlis to avoid parliamentary elections at the same time as European elections proved to be a grave political mistake. His New Democracy party lost the Euro elections in June with a difference of 4.35%. Just four months later, in October 2009, anti-government sentiment had turned into an electoral avalanche, which handed PASOK a tremendous victory at the polls and inflicted a crushing defeat on the incumbent party. The “small” difference in the European elections soared to 10.5% (43.9%-33.5%) in 2009 national elections.
In the recent European elections, not only were ND and PASOK eventually unable to avoid the strong social backlash, but the magnitude of the latter was also striking. The two parties lost a total of 828,000 votes. This made SYRIZA the leading party, with a difference of 3.85%. And in similar fashion to 2009, the momentum from the result of European elections in 2014 now worked in SYRIZA’s favor. Eight months later, the gap turned out to be 8.5 percentage points (36.3%-27.8%).
4. The Autumn correlation
At the beginning of last Autumn, four months after European elections and as a consequence of: 1) the (separate) momentum of the election result, 2) widespread disapproval of the government’s taxation policy and 3) the repeated failures of government propaganda, a strong electoral tide in favor of the main opposition party had become consolidated. In September 2014, the visible to the naked eye electoral rise of SYRIZA, +5% compared to the previous July, elevated the main opposition party to voter support levels of around 36%, which corresponded to 146 seats in parliament. In contrast, ND had fallen to around 25%, resulting in the gap increasing last September to the double-digit figure of 11%. (In passing, it is worth noting that the timely diagnosis of the overturning of the electoral balance of forces had, at the time, prompted a direct attack from the government spokeswoman, Sofia Voultepsi, who accused Public Issue of propaganda!). In November, SYRIZA’s lead reached the highest level of 11.5%, before dropping significantly in the December survey to 7%. The rekindling of scaremongering about a Grexit, statements by European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, the striking free fall of the Athens Stock Exchange over a number of days, the strange attack with Kalashnikovs against the Israeli embassy and the artificial uncertainty that was created regarding the early presidential election, which for tactical reasons necessitated the agreement of the ruling coalition leaders (Samaras, Venizelos), had a negative impact on the general political climate, just before the commencement of the process for the election of the president of the republic. Indeed, they provided a foretaste of what was to come. However, the complete failure of the government’s strategy on the presidential election and the disclosure of the unpleasant things going on behind the scenes, resulted in a rebound of electoral support for SYRIZA. According to Public Issue’s regular January survey, shortly after elections were called, i.e. at the start of the pre-election period, the balance of forces between SYRIZA and ND stood at 38%-30% and the gap was 8%, which turned out to be precisely the outcome at the polls (Figures 1 & 2).
5. Characteristics of the electoral surge
The strong anti-Memorandum electoral surge, which was shaped over the past six months in favor of the main opposition party, was –in comparison with 2012– more broadly diverse, in terms of both age and social group. With the exception of employers (27%), SYRIZA did not receive less than 30% of the vote in any socio-economic category.
1) SYRIZA succeeded in absorbing a large segment of the anti-Memorandum vote, which in 2012 had cast ballots for other party formations. Some of these voters had gone over to SYRIZA after the first election in May 2012, only to move away in the repeat election the following month, because of the massive pressure to which they were exposed and the propaganda against the left. At the same time, voters who in the post-electoral period 2012-2014 and up to the European elections continued to have reservations about SYRIZA’s ability to govern, now appeared to have overcome them.
Rallying of the anti-Memorandum vote was possible due to the relative decline of Independent Greeks, as well as of the “decapitated” Golden Dawn party, in comparison with the increase in support observed during the two-year post-election period (June 2012-September 2013). On the basis of Public Issue’s aggregate pre-election surveys data set (n=5,038), it emerges that Independent Greeks voters switching to SYRIZA represent 19% of the former’s electoral support in 2012, and in the case of Golden Dawn nearly 11%.
2) Due to the disintegration of the Center-Left (obliteration of Democratic Left, split within PASOK), a not insignificant segment of the electoral base of its two parties also turned to SYRIZA. They were voters whose anti-right sentiment outweighs any ‘conservitization’ or bowing to neoliberal ideological constructs. These voters also appear to remain unmoved by the centrist “depoliticization” proposal, as expressed by the RIVER party. And they account for 41% of Democratic Left’s voter support in 2012 and 30% of the corresponding strength of PASOK (in total, approximately 6% of the electorate).
3) The mass anti-government vote seen among the electorate, since last Autumn, was also due to a shift between camps, despite the relative rallying of ND supporters. New Democracy voters switching to SYRIZA account for almost 9% of ND’s electoral support in 2012, i.e. approximately 3% of the electorate.
6. Pre-election period: The attempt to shift the agenda
ND’s pre-existing turn to the far-right received an unhoped-for boost from the unexpected event of the terrorist attack in Paris (7/1/15). An event which the vast majority of the country’s mainstream (pro-government) media hastened to exploit in primitive, irresponsible fashion.
The events in France allowed ND to shift, at least to some extent, the political agenda from the issue of Memorandum policy and debt negotiation, to the more “favorable” (for ND) domain of “security” and immigration policy, i.e. the “weak points” of the main opposition party’s discourse. New Democracy HQ estimated, mistakenly as it turned out, that the growing fear throughout the EU, in the wake of the bloodshed in the French capital, could also have a direct impact on the pre-election climate in Greece. Prime Minister Antonis Samaras immediately linked the threat of fanatic Islamic fundamentalists with the immigration problem. He then persisted in this direction, since an attempt was made to turn into the main tack within the ranks of conservative leaders in the EU, who are also faring poorly in opinion polls.
With its campaign of intimidation and the impact of the terrorist attack in France, ND succeeded in rallying its supporters during the second week of the pre-election period, with the relevant index rising from 61.5% to 65.5% (+4%). However, this moderate rallying of support proved to be fleeting. In the end, the party’s distance from SYRIZA (the actual “gap”, 8.5%) reverted to the levels recorded in opinion polls from as early as the start of the electoral contest (8%).
7. Failure of the campaign of deception
The elections in 2012 were won through intimidation of the electorate. The impact on the election result, at the expense of SYRIZA, proved to be around 4-5%.
In the 2015 elections, spreading economic and social insecurity among the electorate was once again the main axis of the two governing parties’ election campaign. The new campaign of fear did have some impact among segments of the population which are vulnerable to propaganda, such as pensioners or housewives. And these two socio-economic categories were the ones in which ND received its biggest share of the vote (36% and 34.5% respectively), i.e. much higher than the party’s average nationwide.
However, present circumstances turned out to be quite different. This time, the scaremongering was not as persuasive as it had been two-and-a-half years ago. The government’s propaganda apart from botched also proved to be ineffective. It is open to debate whether ND managed to increase its electoral support by even 1%-2% as a result of these tactics. In 2015, far fewer citizens than in 2012 are convinced that the country is indeed in danger of going bankrupt.
In a word, the adoption and legitimization of the far right agenda, the attempt to exploit xenophobic tendencies and the effort to link immigration to the terrorist attack in France, simply did not work. The shift within society and the wave of disapproval at the polls against the government was not halted.
The reasons are numerous. In complete contrast with the prosperity of the “figures”, most people’s financial situation has not improved. The government’s spin on “surging growth” was unconvincing. The most likely explanation being that even if such growth existed, it didn’t touch them. Two-thirds of citizens (65%) did not share the prime minister’s “optimism” at all. On the contrary, their assessments regarding available household income remained extremely negative. And usually this factor proves to be unfavorable for the incumbent party.
At the same time, the propaganda missions to “mislead” citizens (Amphipolis archaeological “reality show”, fear of Grexit, presence of jihadists in Athens, etc.) did nothing to change the fact that debt negotiation constituted a key point in the social agenda of the elections. For this reason, the capacity for negotiation was a decisive voting criterion, i.e. for the choice of party. The vast majority of public opinion was not convinced about the “viability” of Greece’s debt. On the contrary, the stance in favor of negotiation, which was a key point in the arguments put forward by the main opposition party and a serious weak point for the government, rallied 7 in 10 citizens (73%).
8. ND at a strategic impasse
By cultivating anti-Muslim sentiment, pandering to the (real) anti-immigration reflexes of the Greek electorate (PM’s visit to the Evros River barbed-wire fence) and scaremongering about the “disarming of the police”, Samaras did not succeed sufficiently in rallying the electoral support of the Right camp for his party.
The redistribution of incomes and the centralization of land property, which were advanced through the Memorandum taxation policy in the period 2012-2014, brought the coalition government partners into conflict not only with the working and lower-middle classes, but also with segments of the middle and even upper classes. The “muted” protest of the Right, which openly manifested itself in the European elections and had not been detected in all its magnitude in opinion polls, was due precisely to this.
In the wake of the new single property tax (ENFIA), the rupture in relations of representation reached the point of no return. The social and electoral break-up of the Right and of ND, which has been caused by the Memorandum, continues to be strategic in nature. In the Euro elections, the political formations to the right of ND (Golden Dawn, Independent Greeks, Popular Orthodox Rally, etc.) received 17% of the vote; in January 2015 14%. The fragmentation was maintained and ND’s social isolation appears to be asphyxiating. It is characteristic that 52% of ND’s current electoral base is comprised of pensioners, while housewives account for 11%.
Moreover, as illustrated by the analysis of electoral support for The River party, especially among the upper social strata in the Attica basin, rather than rallying supporters, ND’s ideological transformation continues to repel a sizeable segment of liberal and center-right voters. It is no coincidence that The River received its highest shares of the vote in overwhelmingly upper class areas of Attica, such as Psychico (13.6%), Filothei (13.5%) and Ekali (11.7%).
Although retaining most of its previous electoral support, 40 years after its founding, the very real strategic impasse, coupled with the social and political isolation now facing ND, are problems that would appear difficult to resolve.