by YIANNIS MAVRIS
The importance of the upcoming elections
The forthcoming elections are of historical importance and will close the cycle of the Memorandum period. The elections on 25 January will register the reaction of Greek society to what it has endured for the past five years. The social dissatisfaction that has accumulated during the years of implementation of neoliberal policies has clearly (to every well-intentioned analyst) taken on the form of a strong and broadly diverse surge in electoral support for SYRIZA. The magnitude of this surge looks quite likely – today – to result in an albeit slim parliamentary majority.
The expected election winner, which has become firmly established in opinion polls (Figure 5), and which, as is known, is a crucial parameter of an electoral battle, clearly shows that the majority of the public is perfectly aware of this fact. At the same time, it explains why the news media deliberately and systematically conceal this particular survey finding.
The assessment that trends within the electorate have crystallized is also supported by a series of indices measured over time by Public Issue’s political barometer. These indices substantiate the view that the upcoming electoral contest resembles more the 2009 elections (before the Memorandum) than the double elections of 2012, when the previous party system collapsed. Indeed, in contrast with the 2012 election result, today one can see: a reduction in so-called electoral volatility, a decrease in the total of undecideds, abstainers and refusals, along with a decline in anti-party votes, while the intention to abstain remains roughly at the levels of 2009 parliamentary elections. The considerable strengthening of the new two-partyism, whose influence has reverted to the levels of summer 2010 (SYRIZA and ND currently account for 68% of the vote), is working in the same direction.
The vaudeville-like nature of government propaganda (“the gap has narrowed”) and the operetta titled “The undecideds will decide the elections” are simply not enough to conceal the fact that this trend – which has been shaped over many months – is not reversible.
Characteristics of the surge
Today, the strong electoral surge in favor of the main opposition party appears to be broadly diverse.
1) SYRIZA is succeeding in rallying and now absorbing a significant segment of the “anti-Memorandum” vote, which in 2012 had cast ballots for other (right) party groupings. One set of these voters turned to SYRIZA after the first national elections in May 2012, but turned away in repeat elections the following month, on account of the unbearable pressure to which they were subjected and the propaganda against SYRIZA. At the same time, voters who in the two-year post-election period 2012-2014 and up until the European elections continued to have reservations about the main opposition party’s capacity to govern, now appear to have overcome them.
SYRIZA’s ability to rally the “anti-Memorandum” vote has been made possible on the one hand by the entrenchment of Independent Greeks and, on the other, by the (legal) “decapitation” of Golden Dawn. Current voter support for the former party, which is estimated at 3% (against 3.5% in 2014 European elections and 7.5% in June 2012 parliamentary elections) has fallen, with the result that the party’s representation in parliament is under threat, while the reduced(?) electoral support for Golden Dawn is presently estimated at 5.5% (against 9.4% in 2014 European elections and 6.9% in June 2012 parliamentary elections). On the basis of Public Issue’s current survey, it emerges that voters switching from Independent Greeks to SYRIZA represent 16% of the former’s 2012 electoral strength, and in the case of Golden Dawn almost 19%.
2) Due to the open crisis and multiple break-up of the center-left party formations (PASOK, DIMAR), a not insignificant portion of the two parties’ electoral base is also turning to SYRIZA. They are voters whose anti-right sentiment outweighs any ‘conservitization’ or bowing to neoliberal ideological constructs. These voters, who are also not moved by the “centrist depoliticisation” proposal, as expressed by the RIVER party, account for 31% of DIMAR’s support in 2012 and 26% of PASOK’s strength (in total, approximately 5% of the electorate).
3) The mass anti-government vote among the electorate, which has been seen since Autumn, continues to be due also to a shift between camps, despite the relative rallying of ND supporters. New Democracy voters switching to SYRIZA account for almost 12% of ND’s electoral support in 2012, i.e. approximately 3.5% of the electorate.
Momentum from 2014 European elections
In the process during which the balance of political forces was overturned, European elections last May marked a turning point.
With the multifaceted manipulation of the elections: three polls (local, regional, European), the switching of the election date, 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. The parliamentary turnabout that had taken place was revealed in the European elections by SYRIZA taking the lead with four percentage points. Since then, that lead, further strengthened by victory in the Attica Region, where one-third of the population lives, has been consolidated (Figure 6).
The European elections on the one hand confirmed the shift within the electorate and, on the other, served to further rally support for the rising opposition party. The electorate now knew – on the basis of actual reality rather than opinion polls (which clearly exercise greater influence on party officials and journalists, as opposed to public opinion) – that the main opposition party was winning and the government was losing. This phenomenon is a familiar one in the study of elections and entirely compatible with Greek political culture. A spectacular shift in the balance of voter support for the parties, which is confirmed in an interim electoral contest, then creates a bandwagon effect in favor of the anticipated winner.
Similarities with 2009
In Summer 2009, the decision of then prime minister Kostas Karamanlis not to hold 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 only 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 shot to 10.5% (43.9%-33.5%) in 2009 national elections.
In the recent European elections, ND and PASOK were eventually unable to avoid the strong social backlash (together losing a total of 828,000 votes). This made SYRIZA the leading party, with a difference of 3.85%. So, in similar fashion to 2009, the momentum from the result of European elections in 2014 worked in SYRIZA’s favor. As recorded well in advance by Public Issue’s survey, from as early as last September the difference (the “gap”) had widened, to a double-digit percentage (11%), while today it is estimated at 8% (Figure 6).
What will decide the elections
1) Although the figures are “doing well”, people’s financial situation has not improved. Subjective assessments of respondents regarding household income remain unchanged. Either the “surging growth” has not touched them, or two-thirds of citizens (65% – Figure 2) are not convinced it exists. And that does not bode well for elections.
2) The anti-Memorandum sentiment among the electorate persists. Despite claims to the contrary, 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. Since 2010, the public’s attitude towards Memorandum policies has remained steady and largely negative (70% against, 30% for, Figure 1). At no time have these austerity policies managed to gain social consensus, despite the fact that the parties implementing them (including DIMAR) received the votes of a large segment of the electorate.
3) Debt negotiation constitutes a key point of the election agenda. The vast majority of public opinion remains unconvinced about the “viability” of Greece’s debt. In contrast, the attitude towards negotiation, which is a key point in the arguments being put forward by the main opposition party and a major weak point for the government, rallies 7 in 10 citizens (73%, Figure 4). Consequently, the capacity for negotiation constitutes a decisive voting criterion (choice of party).
4) The ineffectiveness of government propaganda. The elections in 2012 were won through propaganda and fear. Their impact on the election result, at the expense of SYRIZA, proved to be around 4-5%. Present circumstances are quite different. It is quite clear that the corresponding scaremongering campaign, if it has not already failed, at least is clearly not having the same effect as two years ago. Today, far fewer citizens than in 2012 appear to be convinced that the country is “in danger of going bankrupt” (Figure 3).