Friday, 29 May 2009

Abstention frightens all parties

It little matters that Europe's parliament has few powers and is largely absent from evening newscasts between elections. A European Parliament election is still a political point of reckoning for incumbents. Like US congressional elections, which are deliberately intercalary to presidential ones, Europarliament elections can either reinforce a national government or rebuke it.

Judging by the questions being asked, New Democracy was still on the defensive quite late into the game. This is arguably the first election since 2000 in which its scandals eclipse those of Pasok. On May 27, Prime Minister Kostas Karamanlis spent half of an exclusive interview with Mega, the country's highest-rated television network, submitting to questions on the Vatopaidi land exchange, ruling party deputy Aristotelis Pavlidis and the early closure of parliament.

Socialist leader Yiorgos Papandreou, on the other hand, has been able to talk about a tired administration as part of an ideologically bankrupt "neoliberal" movement that brought us greed, inequality and the collapse of the financial system.

More to the point, this is ND's first election battle since 2000 with unfavourable polls. Four published in the last week put it between 2.8 and 6 points behind Pasok. This was consistent with several published the week before, which put Pasok ahead by between 2.8 and 5.5 points.

There are two kinds of loss New Democracy is seeking to defend itself from. First, it has to narrow the gap as much as possible below the 3.7 point difference with which it beat Pasok in 2007. ND's ability to recover from what is increasingly shaping up to be Pasok's first victory in nine years (it has lost five national, European and local elections in that time) will largely depend on keeping that margin below, say, three points.

The second kind of loss ND has to guard against is the bleeding of voters to small parties. This is a problem for Pasok as well, because the perception has grown over the past year-and-a-half that neither is capable of honesty. By one counting last week, ND was attracting just 65 percent of its 2007 voters while Pasok fared little better with 73 percent.

Yet it is not the KKE nor the Syriza meta-communists who are the gainers. The latest polls show them struggling to repeat their 2004 Europarliament performance. The real winner so far is the nouveau arrive Ecogreens party, which is polling between 6 and 8.5 percent of the vote. In a national election, such numbers would put it in the running to be the third-largest bloc in a six-party parliament.

Both power parties have turned into major contributors to the Ecogreens as they have lost much of the urban middle class. According to Metron Analysis, New Democracy has lost 5.3 percent of its 2007 voters to the Ecogreens and 7.6 percent to Pasok. Public Issue thinks the loss is about 6 percent for each party. MRB says almost 40 percent of the Ecogreens' power base comes from the two parties, compared to about a quarter from the communist parties and about 17 percent from first-time voters or people who weren't inspired to vote in 2007.

Not surprisingly, the left has spent a good deal of its time trying to strangle the Ecogreens in their crib, while the socialists and conservatives have gunned for each other - a two-tier election if ever there was one. The parties of the left arguably deserve their green nemesis. The Ecogreens' agglutinative power underlines their failure, for so long, to attract new voters after losing their old ideological compass.

What is at stake is being differently defined by the two protagonists. Pasok has pinned itself on the promise of a green economy as the antipode of the developed world's capital-intensive, industrial system. Vague it may be, but it does offer an alternative vision of the future - and one that the entire Western world is moving towards.

New Democracy's message so far has been surprisingly staid. In his interview with Mega, Karamanlis defined the stakes quite simply as responsible government seeing the country through the economic crisis - survival, pure and simple.
But New Democracy can afford to be more aggressive. Development Minister Kostis Hatzidakis has, in the space of five short months, unveiled a green energy blueprint to make Aegean islands self-sufficient, simplified application rules to put solar panels on household roofs and earmarked 136 million euros to subsidise businesses that invest in environmentally conscious waste management. These are deeds in place of Pasok's words.

Its lapses in accountability over the years notwithstanding, New Democracy can also lay claim to bold moves in difficult times. Olympic Airways has finally been privatised. Finance Minister Yannis Papathanasiou has called a much-needed hiring-and-wage freeze in the public sector. A thousand state enterprises are being merged or abolished. New Democracy's education and social security reforms were brave and, had the combined opposition not stymied them, would have gone further.

The ruling party has rightly seen these European Parliament elections as a dress rehearsal for a general election, which will most probably, given its single seat majority, come before 2011. It may as well fight them as such. If it loses to Pasok by a spectacular margin, it will have a measure of the difficulty of returning to power, and it may just salvage a small defeat. Either way, it will have signalled that it still has a good fight in it, which is what democracy is all about.

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