Thursday, 26 April 2012

Greece's Election Supernova

In his campaign kickoff speech on April 19, Greek socialist leader Evangelos Venizelos described the state of Greek politics like this: “If current opinion polls reflect the way people will actually vote on election Sunday, the country will remain rudderless and this political dead end will multiply and deepen the economic and social crisis.”

Venizelos was holding up the spectre of ungovernability, which currently haunts Greek politics, to deter voters from any punitive intent. More than four in ten voters say they are going to the polls to punish socialists and conservatives for their management of the economy in previous years, rather than to elect the best possible government.

Two years of austerity, the last six months of it under a coalition of both parties, have seen the prospects of socialist Pasok and conservative New Democracy tumble from a joint 77 percent of the popular vote in elections two and a half years ago, to an estimated 30-37 percent if elections were held today, according to a slew of opinion polls. Anger at the two parties is running so high that even politicians admit the May 6 election, whatever its outcome, will mark the end of an era. The political shifts in the French election and in Holland this week are a further indication of impending punishment.

Pasok and New Democracy have alternated in power since Greek democracy was restored in 1974 after a seven-year military dictatorship. They are the twin suns of Greek politics and they have, since the beginning of this year, begun to spin out into supernovas, discharging chunks of their mass as satellite parties. Those satellites now threaten to pull more voters away.

The decay of the two traditional camps had begun as early as 2010, with new parties being founded by MPs who couldn’t live under the same roof as their leaders, but it took a quantum leap on February 12. That is when parliament voted in 3.3bn euros’ worth of cuts to this year’s budget, sparking violent protests.   Forty-three MPs from the two parties refused to vote the party line and were expelled - a move ordinary voters strongly disapproved of. A few MPs returned to the fold as Pasok and New Democracy belatedly realised their error, but most formed new parties. Independent Greeks, formed at this time, together with Democratic Alliance, formed last year, now claim as many as 13 points of the conservative vote.

The democratic diaspora has been accompanied by an alarming radicalisation. The right wing vote has grown from 5.6 percent in the last election to about 8.5 percent; but it is no longer claimed exclusively by the nationalist Laos; that party is now overshadowed by the thuggish Golden Dawn, a party whose black-shirted militias have attacked immigrants and whose official literature attempts to trace Arianism to the ancient Greeks. The party’s headquarters were until a few years ago decorated with busts of Adolph Hitler.

There is radicalisation on the left side of the solar system, too. Pasok has supercharged and jettisoned voters to a hodgepodge of communist parties. The Communist Party of Greece, the Left Coalition and the Ecogreens have raised their representation from 14.7 percent in the 2009 election to roughly 34 percent 
when one includes the Democratic Left, a Left Coalition spinoff.

Pasok and New Democracy will no doubt strive to suck back as much spacedust as they can, but it is clear that the two-party system is at an end. The era of necessary cohabitation has begun. The ten last polls to be published before a customary ban took effect on April 20 concur that the next parliament will contain between eight and ten parties, compared to the current five, squeezing socialists and conservatives to a barely sustainable absolute majority of parliament’s 300 seats.

Power sharing as opposed to alternating in power has far-reaching implications. Both Venizelos and conservative leader Antonis Samaras have rejected the idea of a consensus prime minister, as in the current coalition. This means that the party that comes out on top on May 6 claims the premiership, determines strategy and tone, and employs the centrist talent of the junior party. A sense of superiority may unite its own disparate elements but fragment the junior coalition member. Eventually, the delicate equilibrium between these two dying suns may well break down. It is all too easy to see them as rivals in gravity, one clandestinely feeding off the other to survive. Surrounding satellites could finish the job of complete dismemberment of the unfortunate victim.

Aware of the dangers, Venizelos and Samaras have no choice but to go into the remaining three weeks of campaigning in the classic, polarising rhetoric. But roughly half of Greek voters see through the charade and expect them to form a coalition, since they are the only powers supporting the country’s bailout loans and concomitant reform and austerity memoranda.

Unfortunately for Greece, such a coalition does not seem to hold the promise of salvation. If current poll numbers are indicative, close to half the legislature would be made up of extreme groups clamouring for an end to the loan agreement between Greece and its creditors – the European Commission, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund. With over a year of recession still forecast by the EC and almost two years according to the IMF, a moderate coalition of socialists and conservatives would face an uphill battle. Unemployment is already at just under 22 percent, and a staggering 54 percent among university graduates. A further 11bn euros’ worth of austerity measures remain to be passed in June, so the fragile coalition can expect to be shaken barely a month out of the incubator. An alliance of the left, currently being discussed, could all too imaginably team up with recently disenfranchised unions to bring paralysis to Greece and, at best, shorten the government’s life or, at worst, bring it down mid-summer.

Where does this fragmentation leave Greece? If conventional political physics prevail, enough stardust may get sucked back into the socialist and conservative camps to put them in power. They will then issue cabinet invitations to leaders of their breakaway factions in an attempt to consolidate. But it is difficult to see Samaras and Venizelos cooperating effectively, or holding such a ramshackle government together for long if it is to implement the difficult reform requirements Greece has committed to.

There is a strong possibility, though, that Greek political physics will retain their centrifugal trajectory, plunging more voters into deep space. In such a case it is highly likely that the European plan for Greece will fail, and so will the socialist and conservative suns. In such a case the coalition would be a short-lived and frighteningly bright stellar phenomenon, followed by unimaginable darkness.

A slightly edited version of this article can be seen on Newsweek's site, The Daily Beast

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