Friday, 15 June 2007

New Democracy's popularity

NEW DEMOCRACY has been damaged by the bond scandal but will still win the next general election, albeit by a reduced margin, because nobody trusts Pasok to manage the economy. That, broadly speaking, seems to be the prediction of a majority of Greeks in four different opinion polls taken in late May and early June for variously affiliated media.

Two of the four polls, which ask for voter intent, find a one- (GPO) and two- (MRB) point conservative lead - well within the margin of error, but consistent with older polls unsullied by the bond. And the three polls that asked the question found that over 60 percent of voters expect New Democracy to win. All this strongly suggests that Pasok's efforts to sustain the bond topic with television appearances and parliamentary inquiries have not given it votes.

If this position holds, it will be the second time Pasok has failed to mire the conservatives in parliamentary committee hearings. The first was a sustained inquiry into the biggest act of political espionage in recent history through the Vodafone network - something New Democracy was the victim of but tried to cover up.
The latest scandal, in which the government seems to have insinuated bond issues into pension fund portfolios at disadvantageous prices, broke upon the Greek public on March 1. The conservatives withstood a political gale lasting two months before making Employment Minister Savvas Tsitouridis walk the plank on April 28.

The explanation for New Democracy's immunity this time around is probably in what VPRC found - that while 20 percent of Greeks blame the ruling conservatives most for endemic state corruption, 34 percent still blame the departed socialists even more; and that margin actually widened by six points over the past month.

There is a second major socialist weakness. The party is putting its voters out to graze while New Democracy is managing to herd its faithful. For instance, GPO finds that while 77 percent of New Democracy voters give their party good marks for performance, only 62 percent of Pasok voters do the same for theirs. The picture is similar with the personalities of the party leaders. Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis wins the approval of 85 percent of his voters, but George Papandreou only inspires 69 percent of those who voted for him in 2004 - and that has gone up from an embarrassing 47 percent on the eve of the bond fiasco.

Overall, the most important measurement in Greek politics is whom voters find most suited to be prime minister. Karamanlis still enjoys leads over Papandreou of between 11.6 points (MRB) and 23 points (VPRC).

All this does not mean that voters are letting New Democracy off the hook. According to Metron Analysis, three-quarters of voters think Tsitouridis was a scapegoat; and according to GPO 69 percent find the bond impossible to dismiss, including 52 percent of conservative supporters. Minorities still want Finance Minister George Alogoskoufis and his deputy, Petros Doukas, to go.

Unfortunately for Pasok, Greeks think the grass is paler on its side. Not only do Greeks still blame Pasok for state corruption; 36 percent say New Democracy is best equipped to resolve corruption compared to just 25 percent for Pasok.

But it is the dissatisfaction with both that grabs the headlines. Another 36 percent says that neither party can clean house.

The result is spillage to small parties. The Left Coalition, once fearing for its political life, is set to re-enter parliament handsomely above the three percent threshold; and the right wing Laos is now set to enter for the first time.

Greeks seem to think that the remedy to corruption is not alternation between two parties, but a dilution of their ability to govern alone. The most pro-government poll, that of VPRC, commissioned by Kathimerini, says 59 percent of voters now prefer a coalition government. MRB found three-quarters in favour of a five-party parliament. How else to explain the fact that great majorities want parties they don't vote for to enter parliament - two-thirds for LAOS and 70 percent for the Left Coalition, according to GPO.

To an observer, the state of Greek democracy is not a healthy one. People are voting for ruling parties they do not fully trust. Despite their cynicism, they are not protected enough from outrage. Angered by continuing corruption, or perceived corruption, they want to prise their parties' insular gene pools open by forcing coalitions - a desperate measure in a country where parties do not collaborate. The last coalition, between communists and conservatives, had only one agenda - to get rid of the socialists - and floundered through two elections in 1990.

Polls between general elections are always somewhat tinged with the triumphalism of protest at the incumbent. Some of the seepage to the marginalia, left and right, may ultimately be sucked back in on election week. But the democratic deficit is now a clear liability for the two-party system.

Karamanlis may rest on Greece's exit from excessive deficit procedure and people's distrust of Pasok at the helm of the economy to return him to a second term; but he will likely only win a third by forcing his ministers to employ technocrats rather than chums, and live up to his promise of transparency.

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