Thursday, May 29, 2014

Greek 2014 election results - a post mortem

First of all, let's get the apologies out of the way. In the run up to the Greek EU and local elections I predicted that the results might bring about major changes in the Greek political scene, even perhaps national elections. Nothing of the sort happened, the coalition remains in power as do the leaders of both New Democracy and PASOK. So how did I get it so wrong?

I had assumed that the weakest link in this particular chain would be the PASOK vote and that a dire poll result for them would signal the end of deputy PM and party leader Evangelos Venizelos. Venizelos, himself had publicly announced in the weeks leading up to the elections that anything less than a 10% share of the vote for his party would destabilise the coalition, hinting that the party might withdraw form power. The fact that PASOK hasn't polled as high as 10% for years seemed to reinforce the impression that changes were on their way.

Throughout the months prior to last Sunday's vote Greek opinion polls consistently underestimated the PASOK vote, most putting it between 5-7% (they received 8% in the EU vote) and since pollsters have historically always been more lenient towards parties in power I, and many others assumed that the final tally could even be lower. It was a sentiment further strengthened by PASOK's dire showing in the first round of the Athens and Thessaloniki municipal and city elections.

Also the fact that PASOK made almost no effort to advertise or campaign during the elections and even went as far as changing their name to Olive Tree (Elia) just added to the impression of a political organisation on the verge of collapse. Unlike 2009, there were none of the mass public rallies that used to, until recently, be the hallmark of Greek campaigning.

With New Democracy the issue was never one of collapse but rather how wide the gap would be between them and SYRIZA, by May even the most pro-govt pollsters could no longer hide the fact SYRIZA was pulling ahead, the question was by how much. Poll figures which were notoriously inaccurate  in 2012 had to be taken with a pinch of salt. The dream result for SYRIZA would have been one in which their share equalled or exceeded the combined vote of the coalition parties. Then, opposition leader Alexis Tsipras could claim that the government no longer had a popular mandate and therefore demand national elections. In the end neither happened.

New democracy lost by less than 4% and so prime minister Antonis Samaras could sell the defeat as the inevitable price of imposing difficult, but necessary reforms mid-term. Venizelos could argue that the results showed that the fall in popularity PASOK has suffered since the start of the crisis has been halted, and even reversed. In both cases the party base could be mollified with the idea that while not great the outcome could have been far worse.

So business as usual? No, I said that these elections marked the end of an era and that still remains true as the political landscape today is radically different form the one in place during the last European parliamentary elections in 2009. Then both PASOK and New Democracy were unassailable electorally, able to attract tens of thousands to their public rallies. Giorgos Papandreou and then prime minister Kostas Karamanlis could speak in public and mingle with party supporters would give them the kind of reception usually reserved for teen idols such as Justin Bieber. Between them the two parties garnered 70% of the vote and sent 16 out Greece's 22 MEPs to Strasburg. In 2014 most public rallies were marked by small turnouts and extremely tight security measures, the coalition's share of the vote had dropped to 31% and just 8 MEPs.

PASOK has lost much of its clout in the cities, where previously it had been entrenched, replaced by SYRIZA mayors and councilors. On the other hand the Golden Dawn vote  remained high and has weakened New Democracy, despite almost entirely negative press and a legal crackdown on its leadership. Even with no positive TV exposure, the antipathy many conservative voters feel towards the present government outweighed misgivings over Golden Dawn's true identity. Nor was this move right limited to those neighbourhoods hit hardest by job cuts, even in the upscale central district of Kolonaki, Athens, home to many foreign embassies Golden Dawn polled 13.7%.

With popular support at an all time low and a yet more austerity measures set to be imposed the Greek government's slim majority is coming under ever greater pressure, especially as despite all claims to the contrary the real economy is not improving, unemployment refuses to drop from record highs , trade deficit is climbing and the debt continues to balloon in size. While the national leadership may be congratulating themselves on retaining power, the wild last-minute assurances of vast numbers of new jobs and more foreign investments will come to haunt them in future clashes with the opposition who will seize upon such broken promises that the current political elite cannot be trusted.

Nor can such anger be put down as simply a local protest, the elections results across the EU have shown that problems austerity is creating has created a groundswell of resentment against not only national elites but also those operating in Brussels.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Greek Elections: Round One

With the first round of Greece's city and municipal elections over the government coalition parties and the opposition have being trying to persuade the public that they were the winners in yesterday's vote. However, unlike parliamentary or EU elections the conclusions that can be drawn are not so clear cut for a number of reasons.

First and foremost, local election results in Greece, as in the rest of the world are just as likely to be influenced by local issues such as rubbish collection, state of the roads etc. as they are by the party affiliations of the candidate. This mean clear comparisons between these results and national ones cannot be made so easily, for example in Greece's two largest cities, Athens and Thessaloniki independent candidates came first, but in Crete PASOK retained its lead in the municipal elections and conservatives aligned with New Democracy did very well in Macedonia.

Also the fact that many candidates stood as independents or as members of parties that have no clear affiliation with the national ones also makes more general conclusions difficult to make. While in the big urban areas the candidates favoured by the parties are easy to pick out, in other regions the connection, if any between local political groups and candidates and the national parties is less clear to many voters.

Finally, only one fifth of the contested positions have been decided, the rest will have to wait for the second round next Sunday.

The Guardian talked about an anti-austerity backlash and In Athens and Thessaloniki mayoral elections the candidates supported by New Democracy and PASOK fared badly, though how much of that was due to anti-government sentiment and how much was due to less than stellar contenders is hard to say.

However, all these caveats aside a picture does seem to be emerging that confirms recent opinion polls that SYRIZA is gaining strength and that candidates identified with parties that make up the coalition government. are losing support. The fact that the party has made gains in the urban areas is more proof that its is no longer just a raggedy band of protesters and stands poised to replace PASOK as the main opposition party on a permanent basis. Once PASOK loses its stronghold in local government then its ability to keep intact a party machine that depends more on patron client relations than it does on ideology is severely compromised.

New Democracy's position also seems to be under threat, not only from SYRIZA on the Left but Golden Dawn on the right. Despite the fact that much of leadership is behind bars facing criminal investigation, the neo -Nazi party's level of support was back to 2012 levels. Even in chic upmarket neighbourhoods such as Kolonaki in central Athens, they won 13.7% of the vote, in other poorer districts it topped 20%.

The prime minister's campaign strategy of pulling to the Right and co-opting the rhetoric and policies of Golden Dawn seems not to be paying off. Nor has the anti-Golden Dawn media coverage in the pro-government press seemed to have driven away voters.

The May 25th EU parliamentary vote will give a clearer picture of where Greece's parties stand in the eyes of the electorate when the contenders will be standing on party tickets for the 22 MEP seats. In 2009 PASOK and New Democracy won 15 of those, but this time around they'll be lucky to get half that number and there is a good chance that PASOK will get just one seat.

Already SYRIZA is promoting the idea that the EU vote is a referendum on austerity itself and that a poor showing by the government will mark the end of its popular mandate and so be the reason to hold new national parliamentary elections. On the other hand both prime minister Antonis Samaras and deputy prime minister, Evangelos Venizelos are calling upon supporters to vote for the coalition in the name of stability and so as to save a fledgling economic recovery.

My prediction for next week's EU vote is;

1 SYRIZA 20-25%
2 New Democracy 18-23%
3 Golden Dawn 8-10%
4 Potami (River)  6-8%
5 KKE (Greek Communist Party) 4-5% and Olive Tree (PASOK) 4-6%

Friday, May 16, 2014

Greek PM's stealth election campaign comes to town - Thessaloniki

With austerity polices entering their sixth year the difficulties facing Greece's coalition government partners trying to run an election campaign when money is short and their rising unpopularity makes public rallies next to impossible has grown exponentially. Last night's under the radar appearance by the prime minister, Antonis Samaras in the second largest city, Thessaloniki served to underline this. With little advance publicity, the New Democracy stealth election campaign came to town and in front of an audience of 1,200 party die hards Samaras set out one of his latest public appearance before polls open on Sunday.

How times have changed for a politician and a party that in the past could attract crowds numbering in the hundreds of thousands, especially here in a city of 1.2 million that has been, till recently considered one of its strongholds. Sad to see the leader of a nation of 11 million talk before an audience that is smaller than the number of people who follow me on Twitter. Of course, inside Pavilion 13 the thousand or so attendees were made to look much more impressive as wire-borne cameras waltzed above our heads, avoiding at all costs wide shots. Flags waved, the youth wing chanted out slogans in tempo to the whims of their political handlers and the crowd dutifully clapped when required.

Actually, I had no intention of attending the event which I assumed would be an invitation only affair in which the media (or, in my case, not-quite-media) would be kept at arms length. However, following the lead of some friends who were there legitimately, I managed to get myself past the metal detectors and security checks, which was lucky as I would have had a hard time explaining the gas mask in my bag. I'm guessing that telling the police my allergies were playing up would not have been terribly convincing.

However, once inside the venue I decided to exploit my good luck to get into the swing of things taking pictures of the local conservative nomenclature which has ruled Thessaloniki for generations, noting the preparations being made ahead of the main speech. If only New Democracy paid as much attention to economic policy as it did to the placement of flag waving party workers in the bleachers.

And the crowd went wild! The arrival of the prime minister produced a wave of hysteria as loyalists pushed forward to kiss the the hem of the party leader, imagine a Justin Bieber reunion concert 30 years from now and you'll get an idea of the composition and mood of the audience. Unlike PASOK whose party rallies could be mistaken for a pensioner outing, New Democracy does have supporters  below the age of forty, but how many of them are  there to show their support for a better, more market-orientated Greece and how many are New Democracy youth wing careerists with an eye on a place in the civil service is hard to tell.

Once on the podium Samaras immediately launched into attack mode, tearing apart Argentina's recent economic track record, which seems a trifle off topic till you remember that many in the opposition a few years ago used Argentina as an example of how Greece could uncouple itself from a larger currency (in Argentina's case the US dollar) and survive.

Then it was onto cruder attacks on the main opposition party SYRIZA, which included the claim that the party was "planning to flood Greece with illegal immigrants", take the country out of NATO and that they would destroy the economy if they ever got into power. This went down well with ultra - conservative audience who lapped it up with abandon, a reminder that Golden Dawn have no monopoly on prejudice or fear mongering.

Samaras is well aware that despite its hammering at the hands of the pro-government media after the murder of activist Paulos Fyssas Golden Dawn still poses a potent threat to New Democracy's share of the vote. Hence the claims that only New Democracy can stop the Reds stealing your homes and bank accounts, only a strong conservative government can prevent foreign hordes from crossing the borders and swamping the Fatherland.

For anyone familiar with Samaras's political past this comes as no surprise, for while he has remoulded himself as a free - market, neo-liberal conservative, scratch the surface and you can still the ultra-nationalist rabble rouser who made a name for himself in the 90's. In times of trouble and electoral doubt his first instinct is always to go further to the right and rely upon dog whistle issues such as immigration, Macedonia (FYROM) and fear of communism to whip up support from an ageing party base. The Iron Curtain may have fallen in 1989 but for New Democracy old school types this was just a respite from the ever present Red Menace.

Speech over, the prime minister surrounded by secret service agents slowly made his way through a throng of party loyalists stopping every metre or so to shake hands or exchange good wishes. In this tightly controlled bubble, surrounded by friendly faces and even friendlier media outlets,  it would be easy to imagine that the good old days for New Democracy are still here, but beyond Pavilion 13 and the security cordon manned by platoons of riot police Greece's second largest city seems to be indifferent to his charms.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Fear and Loathing on the Greek Campaign Trail

If you took away the cordon of riot police surrounding the building, you could be mistaken for thinking you'd stumbled upon the annual conference of South Jersey importer and exporter association sponsored by a fraternal organisation with its roots in Southern Italy. Made men with large cigars and even larger bellies flowed out of the hall and in between them mingled guys who looked like they made their living doing door duty in third rate provincial "nightclubs. All wearing shades, all unshaven, all willing to take offence at anyone whose gaze lingered upon them any longer than was absolutely necessary.

The latest stop of the PASOK party's 2014 EU election campaign had rolled into town, not that anyone apart from the party nomenclature and a few dozen protesters had noticed. Instead of the mass public rallies that in the past attracted hundreds of thousands of the party faithful, Sunday's event was a part of the new trend towards stealth electioneering, attended by a few hundred local functionaries behind closed doors and lines of riot police.

This is in sharp contrast to the campaigns I witnessed in the late 80's and 90's in which leaders of both the socialist PASOK and the conservative New Democracy parties could count on huge turnouts that would flood the centre of Greece's cities, literally a sea of people as the Greek saying goes. People were gripped by an almost religious fervour and you would have thought rock stars had come to town rather than elderly politicians. However those days have gone and in all likelihood will never return, the victim of changing times and most lately, the six year long economic crisis which is proving as severe as that suffered by the US in the Great Depression. 

The ongoing commitment of successive governments to spending cuts, public sector job losses and tax hikes have all but destroyed PASOK and severely wounded its traditional rival, New Democracy. (PASOK, which is now calling itself Olive Tree is now polling between 10 - 15% of its 2009 strength and new Democracy share of the vote has been cut by half). The leaders of both coalition parties dare not risk public appearances unless they are held incognito or under the tightest security, outdoor events having been replaced with tightly choreographed televised shows as is the case with prime minister Antonis Samaras's rare public outings.

The latest revelations in the Financial Times about how EU leaders egged on the then finance minister (and PASOK leadership rival) Evangelos Venizelos to depose Greece's prime minister, Giorgos Papandreou in 2011 after he proposed a referendum on the terms of the bailout deal has just added to public mistrust of the country's political leadership, widely perceived to be more interested in preserving their own hold on power than defending national interests.

Such a feeling is likely to drain still further support for both government parties and make the chances of the coalition staying intact still less likely. With goes the two party system which has dominated Greek politics since the 1980's and a network of corruption, pork barrel politics and crony capitalism which led the country into its present dire state.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Where Have All The Flags Gone? The End of Days For Greece's Post - Junta Political Order.

At least till recently Greek election campaigns have been vibrant. rambunctious affairs, marked by mass public rallies, a barrage of ads on TV and the kind of political theatre long since extinguished in Northern Europe. Yet this year shows that whilst Greece may be steeped in tradition, it has also a long history of radical change and re-adjustment, a legacy of its traumatic modern history which has seen the small Balkan nation undergo invasion, civil war, famine and spectacular economic growth and decline.

In contrast to 2009's hard fought EU election campaign, the current run up to the dual local and EU parliamentary votes on 18th and 25th May have been so low key as to be practically invisible. Gone are the constant TV ads and posters on every major thoroughfare. gone are the large scale public rallies that used to be the trade mark of both New Democracy and PASOK parties.

So why the reticence on the part of a political caste whose one guiding principle is to stay both in power and the public eye? Partly, it is financial, New Democracy and PASOK are bankrupt in all but name, owing between them 250 millions euros to the banks and as their State funding is linked to electoral prowess their steep decline in support means they have little chance of returning to solvency. State allocation for campaign spending (of which PASOK and New Democracy got the lion's share) which reached 65 million Euros in 2010 has now been reduced to 7 million and with so little cash the lavish outlays that allowed Greece's two largest parties to outspend on a massive scale their political rivals has disappeared.

Partly, the anemic campaign is for reasons of self - defence. Ruling politicians are so detested by many of their voters that any kind of large public gathering is next to impossible unless  the image politicians want to project  is one of anger and discontent. Brave is the government minister who'd appear in public unless in front of a crowd of heavily vetted party loyalists. Whilst opposition parties such as SYRIZA and KKE (Greek Communist Party) will be holding outdoor rallies neither the prime minister nor deputy PM dare risk such a move, fearful that they'd be faced with a sea of hostile faces live on TV.

Case in point has been the election campaign of PASOK leader and deputy prime minister, Evangelos Venizelos. Appearances so far have so been held behind closed doors in meetings held for hard core party cadres rather than rank and file supporters. In each case demonstrations by sacked public sector employees and other disgruntled groups means that such events are marked by high levels of security, further heightening the image of a political elite cut off from the rest of the nation.

For the prime minister's New Democracy's conservative party the picture, whilst not pretty, is nowhere near as dire as that of PASOK but they too are saddled with massive debt load which has severely curtailed their spending. Though much of the mainstream media continues to support them,  a serious decline in TV ratings for the most partisan pro-austerity channels and the collapse in newspaper readership has lessened their ability to set the political agenda.

While the polls show wildly divergent predictions for the results, two things can be widely agreed upon; firstly, that even the support of the country's oligarchs may not be enough to avert SYRIZA becoming the largest party in EU elections (local election results are less easy to use as an indicator for national party support as candidates are forbidden by the constitution to run under national party tickets,). And secondly PASOK will be wiped out, lucky if it elects even one euro MP. A long, inglorious fall from the time it dominated post Junta politics in the 1980's and 90's.

If the results prove particularly disappointing for government coalition partners then there is most likely to be quick and fundamental changes in the party leaderships as different groups vie for power and seek to avoid loss in support.

Venizelos has already warned that anything less than 10%  share of the vote for PASOK Now renamed Olive Tree) will threaten government stability. A strange statement given that the party has not polled as high as 10 percent in years. Nearly all polls show that likely their share will be  be between 3 and 7 percent and that even their recent name change will do little to avert the inevitable

The prime minister is faced with a similar dilemma as a severe defeat at the polls will weaken his position and give ammunition to internal opponents already unhappy with his promotion of far right elements to top party and government posts. Many are suspicious that once again Samaras will lead New Democracy to electoral defeat as he did in the mid 90's when he left the party to set up Political Spring, an act many Karamanlis loyalists still see as an act of betrayal.

The fact that the Greek supreme court has ruled that Golden Dawn can run for elections despite the fact that many of its MPs are facing criminal charges. Must give New Democracy even more reason to fear defeat as both parties have been actively cultivating far right polices in the hope of winning ultra-conservative voters. Problem is that unlike Golden Dawn, the prime minister's long series of u-turns and policy flip flops have disillusioned many on the Right.

Golden Dawn may have been vilified by both local and foreign press for its racist activities,  but there are still many Greeks who will use the party as a vehicle for their anger at the existing political set-up, which is widely perceived as both corrupt and out of touch. Even the media campaign that followed the fatal stabbing of activist rapper Pavloss Fyssas by Golden Dawn members has ended up backfiring as the pro-government stations fall victim to their desire to  please political goals of their owners at the expense of credibility.

The arrival of the Potami - River party formed by former journalist Stavros Theodorakis promises to make firm predictions over the exact result even more difficult. Theodorakis recently set up the party as  non-political alternative to the traditional ones of Left and Right. Initially polls showed support as high as 15% but since then these numbers have dropped significantly especially as questions of how the party has been financed remain unclear and the fact that he was till recently a senior reporter in the pro-government MEGA channel.

However, whatever happens the political landscape forged in the aftermath of the Regime of the Colonels in the 70's is now almost at an end; PASOK, the child of left wing firebrand Andreas Papandreou is all but spent as a major political force, a victim of its adherence to hated austerity policies.

Their eternal rival, New Democracy, also created in the ashes of the Junta is riddled with dissent and after six years of grinding economic decline caused by austerity. Even among the party's core demographics the cuts in pensions, endless list of taxes on property and spending cuts have taken their toll with levels of support now at less than half those of pre-crisis elections.

Finally, next Sunday's vote also marks the death knell for the family dynasties that dominated so much of public life in modern Greece, the latest generation of Karamanlises Mitsotakises and Papandreous both took the reins of power riding to victory on name recognition and achievements of their father's and grandfathers, only to be found wanting as the crisis upturned so many of Greece's political shibboleths.

Konstantinos Karamanlis (nephew of New Democracy founder Kostas Mitsotakis and nephew of previous prime minister Konstantinos Karamanlis) won two terms in office but left behind a heavily indebted economy and a party image battered by string of corruption and influence peddling  scandals.

Similarly, Giorgos Papandreou's (son and grandson of previous Greek prime ministers) time at the helm was no less disastrous than his equally privileged predecessor, faced with an unprecedented economic downturn his vacillation turned a major setback into a full-blown meltdown, eventually leading to him being deposed in a "palace" coup by Evangelos Venizelos when Papandreou threatened the EU and IMF with a referendum over austerity.

Though neither will be missed by most voters, like so many failed leaders of the past they hang on like Banquo's ghost ever ready for a call from the Greece's voters to come back and save the nation. It's a call they are unlikely to receive.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Riot police units in the northern Greek city of Thessaloniki deal with protester outside election meeting for the government coalition party ,PASOK.