The Greek press is having a field day. “We failed, but vote for us again,” blared the banner headline on opposition-friendly daily Ta Nea. “Voluntary redundancy,” sniggered the similarly slanted Ethnos.
Prime Minister Kostas Karmanalis' declaration of snap elections on September 2 hardly came as a surprise, though. Ever since he reshuffled his cabinet in January, many political commentators have opined that it was his battle formation for an attempt at a third term. This was mainly because he purged the cabinet of anyone with a lingering connection to the Vatopaidi scandal, and ditched then-finance minister Yiorgos Alogoskoufis, who had associated himself (unforgivably, it turns out) with fiscal discipline. The question was whether Karamanlis would hold the general election around Easter, or simultaneously with European Parliament elections in June.
The one scenario that was considered highly unlikely was that he would wait until now. Opinion polls showed that voters would use the Europarliament election to lodge a protest vote, handing opposition socialists their first victory. After that, the veneer of conservative invincibility would be gone forever, and a general election more likely to favour socialist leader Yiorgos Papandreou.
This is precisely what has happened. Pasok won 36.65 percent of the vote to conservative New Democracy's 32.29 percent. Pasok did not advance spectacularly compared to its 2004 result of 34 percent, but New Democracy did fall spectacularly from 43 percent. The difference between the two was convincing enough to reverse the psychology of defeat within Pasok.
So the one scenario deemed undesirable for New Democracy is being carried out. Why?
One reason is that the government fell into Pasok's trap. Sensing the government's fatigue, the socialists declared that they would trigger elections in March, when New Democracy needs bipartisan support to re-elect the president to a second term. Karamanlis deemed that his government could not withstand the extended election period that would be created over the next six months.
It is worth remembering that Karamanlis is not a great parliamentary democrat. He declared snap elections in September 2007 because the independent money laundering authority was about to present a damning report to parliament's ethics and transparency committee on a bond his finance minister issued in 2006. In May this year he declared an end to the parliamentary session six weeks earlier than usual, to pre-empt discussion of other scandals Pasok was hoping the prosecutor would bring. It was highly unlikely that Karamanlis and his ministers would have fared well during the next six months. Pasok would use every legislative debate to try them by popular vote.
A third reason for early elections is the economy. The most important piece of annual legislation is the budget. It is also constitutionally the first, due on the first Monday in October. Karamanlis knows the 2010 budget will not be pretty. He would rather campaign for it than justify it as an incumbent.
There are those in New Democracy who believe that the government should have held the moral high ground of attempting to serve out its term rather than falling on its sword. But that presupposes defeat, and is merely a question of what style one wants to go out in. The real question now is not whether Karamanlis procrastinated or jumped the gun. It is whether Greece can elect a government authorised to pull it out of recession.
There are serious reasons to doubt that it can. Pasok's gains have, over the past five years, consistently lagged behind New Democracy's losses. What we have witnessed is not a classic swinging of the pendulum between the power parties, but a loss of momentum in the pendulum. Disillusionment has grown against both socialists and conservatives because of the profound lack of inspiration in the former and the patent lack of competence in the latter.
Adding to Papandreou's liabilities now is his transparent lack of talent with which to people a cabinet. The next government ought to be made of reformers par excellence. It cannot be a business-as-usual government, and this factor will step up people's expectations. Papandreou has doubled up his chief Euro-parliamentarian as his spokesman, a suggestion of penury. His shadow finance minister is a lady of dubious dependability.
Will Pasok overcome these difficulties to win in October? If Europarliament results are to be believed, some of New Democracy's losses will come to Pasok, while others will wander to the right-wing Laos and the Ecogreens. But the majority of voters are in hiatus: A mere 52 percent of the electorate showed up on June 7.
Will this performance be repeated on October 4? The level of abstention will probably be higher than usual. The power parties will have to work hard to say something new or appealing. Voters will have to choose between Karamanlis' combination of dour realism and ponderous responsibility, and Papandreou's whiskey sour cocktail of populism, green innovation and broken-record criticism of Karamanlis. Neither performance is likely to bring voters to the combined near-80 percent of the vote necessary to keep the two-party system going.
Right now it looks as though we are likely to see a Pasok coalition in October or a re-match in November, when the Pavlopoulos election law will give 50 seats to the front-runner rather than the current bonus of 40. An outright Pasok victory in the first round seems unlikely. President Karolos Papoulias, whose re-election has been used to insult the gravity of his office, may end up being the most important part of the infrastructure for a while, employing constitutional powers of continuity no other Greek president has had to use.
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