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.

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