Sunday, 3 September 2006

Institutional Weakness and the Economy Remain the Top Issues

A slew of opinion polls released in the first week of September shows the conservatives holding on to a firm lead over opposition socialists, despite summer fires and a furore over reform in higher education. The two most reliable polls, by Greek Public Opinion (GPO) and Metron Analysis, agree on a difference of at least two points (see tables at right). 

Those findings are consistent with this year's performance by the conservatives, who recovered from a tumble in their post-election year to hold a small but consistent advantage of between 1.7 and 2.5 percent.
Only once did New Democracy lose that advantage - in late February and March - when revelations that an unknown agency had eavesdropped on almost the entire government saw New Democracy and Pasok ratings come within tenths of a point. A March poll even put Pasok three- tenths ahead. But socialists failed to make the gains stick, and conservatives once again showed a capacity to recover. 

The bigger, four-point lead in a VPRC poll this month is attributable to method. Unlike GPO and Metron Analysis, VPRC provided no category for undecided voters and voters who cast blank protest ballots. That ploughed another 15 percent of the vote into the parties and favoured the incumbent.

But even VPRC's artificial four-point lead to the conservatives is consistent with the company's early July poll, taken before forest fires broke out across the country, and is actually a point higher than its early June poll, taken before students protested against education reforms. Polled separately on fires and education reform most Greeks condemn the government. Yet those issues have not sent voters over to the socialist camp.

Not surprisingly, then, the biggest problems are faced by socialist leader George Papandreou. Not only is his party unable to gain from conservative losses: only 30 percent of voters would choose him to be prime minister, versus 47 percent for Karamanlis. To some extent this is standard. Leaders tend to inspire respect. But Papandreou is inspiring only six out of ten Pasok voters in the latest GPO poll, while Karamanlis inspires eight out of ten in his camp. Moreover, that is a sliding proportion. Last May, 65 percent of Pasok voters considered Papandreou best suited to lead the country, and two months before that 69 percent.

Karamanlis has his own Achilles' heel. More than half the country, and fully one-third of his own voters, doesn't believe he is being effective in fighting corruption - the main plank of his 2004 election platform. His parliamentary committee of inquiry into defence procurements, designed as a showpiece of remedial transparency, went up in smoke last year. A law barring media owners from bidding for state contracts, on the grounds that they might exert pressure through journalism, was shot down by the European Union. Karamanlis still needs to prove to much of the electorate that he can impose the law indiscriminately.

The perceived impotence of government was again apparent at the height of the eavesdropping scandal in February and March. It was the only time this year when Karamanlis' suitability to lead dropped sharply in the nation's eyes. The common thread between entrenched corruption and foreign espionage is institutional weakness, and Karamanlis urgently needs to be seen to throw the book, Putin-style, at powerful vested interests. His uncle was famous for it.

The GPO poll also reveals problems for both main parties. Their combined vote has fallen three points in three months to 65 percent according to GPO, with most of the difference going to blank protest ballots. It is irresistible to see the drop in light of the fact that two in five voters think neither party equipped to handle the problems of the economy. 
Greece moves back into election mode next month with local elections. New Democracy looks set to hold onto the country's three most important local government positions - the mayoralties of Athens, Piraeus and Thessaloniki - although it may lose some prefectures. If Karamanlis feels confident enough he could declare early elections next year, which, according to Metron Analysis, 60 percent of Greeks think he will win. 

would make four electoral defeats for Papandreou, after the national and europarliamentary elections of 2004. Even then, however, it seems unlikely that he would be ousted as socialist leader. Papandreou may be uncharismatic but Pasok is riven with divisions, not only between the redistributive socialists of its glory days and reformists who acknowledged the importance of wealth creation (Costas Simitis, Vasso Papandreou, Theodoros Pangalos, Evangelos Venizelos); but also among the reformists who served at least one ministerial post in 1993-2004, and those still waiting to make their mark. A Papandreou is perhaps the only unifying factor. 
Still, he can hardly ignore the Metron Analysis poll, which tells him to stitch a policy platform together, unite his factions and launch a dynamic strike against New Democracy on the economy. The polls show implacable polarisation between New Democracy and Pasok voters on every economic issue. Here, surely, is Papandreou's target area.

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