Monday, 26 May 2014

Left on top

The Greek left has claimed a historic victory in European parliament elections, and called for an immediate general election. "For the first time in our country's history, [the people] elevated the left to the number one political power, and with a difference," said Alexis Tsipras, leader of the Coalition of the Radical Left, or Syriza, opposition party.

Syriza took 26.6 percent of the popular vote in European Parliament elections on Sunday, trouncing the ruling conservatives by a margin of four points.

Greece has had centre-left governments before, but never has a left wing party taken the top slot in any election. Syriza was founded in 1988 as a coalition of Greece's two parliamentary communist parties.

Prime Minister Antonis Samaras went on the defensive. "Those who tried to turn this into a referendum have failed," he said. "They didn't manage to create instability or uncertainty, nor the ungovernability they sought." However, he did signal a change in government policy. "I have listened to people carefully. I know their problems. I know what has to change and how. And we will proceed apace!"

Syriza also scored victory in two out of Greece's 13 administrative regions in local government elections, which were held simultaneously to European ones. Those victories offer Syriza a chance to prove itself in the most senior executive positions the party has ever held.

The far-right Golden Dawn party also did well, in an indication of how Greek society has continued to move towards both political extremes during the crisis, abandoning the centre-right and centre-left. It took 9.4 percent of the vote, 2.5 points above its general election performance in 2012, despite a criminal investigation into the group being carried out by the Supreme Court. The party nonetheless claims that it suffered from vote-fixing in several districts.

The ruling coalition of conservatives and socialists took a hit. New Democracy conservatives lost seven points relative to their showing in a general election two years ago. The junior coalition partner, the socialists, also fell. In 2012 Pasok took 12.3 percent of the vote. Yesterday the Olive, the socialists' new vehicle, took eight percent. Nonetheless, their leader, Evangelos Venizelos, jubilantly declared, "We can keep our head above water. We can breathe as a nation once more. We can set wrongs right. We can recapture lost ground."Venizelos said the country had decided to maintain a stable course out of the crisis and austerity policies.

There is a more charitable view of Sunday's result. European and local elections are typically an opportunity for a protest vote. And Syriza's victory is not due to an increase in its voter base. The party came second to the conservatives in a June 2012 general election with 26.9 percent of the vote, which is almost identical to Sunday's result. It is the conservatives who have fallen, from 29.7 percent to 22.7 percent in the same period. "If we had a general election today, Syriza would have 130 seats and New Democracy 69," said Tsipras.

Greece has been in a recession since the last quarter of 2008. It has lost almost a third of its economy and last autumn unemployment peaked at 27 percent. The conservative and socialist coalition took power in June 2012 promising a turnaround towards growth and jobs and away from austerity.

Although it managed to balance the Greek budget last year and produce an unforeseen primary surplus of almost three billion euros, very little material benefit has reached beleaguered taxpayers. Greece produced 53 billion euros in direct and indirect taxes last year, versus 56 billion euros before the crisis shrank its economy.

A new vision 

Overall, parties that in 2012 espoused fiscally responsible, pro-austerity policies (New Democracy, The Olive and Democrtic Left) shed 16 points in their voter bases; but the anti-austerity parties (Syriza, Independent Greeks, Communists and Golden Dawn) remained neutral as a group. Voter indifference and a fall in turnout claimed four points, but fully one half of the migration went to The River, a centrist new party that has not positioned itself on austerity, and Laos, a party that has flip-flopped on austerity.

In other words, Greeks are tired of the pro-austerity versus anti-austerity rhetoric that has defined the political debate for four years. They have put up with austerity for so long, that it is now accepted as an inevitable part of the policy mix. At the very least, Greeks believe that the worst is behind them, as the government has eased off any new measures since December. People seek a new vision of the country that looks beyond the fact of their suffering, and the anti-austerity camp has so far failed to offer it as much as the government has.

This does not mean that the government is assured a full term in office - until June 2016. The improvement of Greece's image may be working against it. European leaders have suggested that the country's position within the Eurozone is secure. Greece has begun to borrow from markets again. The safer Greece's position economically, the safer voters will feel to try out new drivers at the juggernaut wheel.

Their opportunity may come next spring, when parliament must choose a new president. It will take all of the government's ruling majority to achieve that. Unless the government secured the support of parliament's 17 independents, a mere two defections would trigger a general election. That suggests that a period of dirty politics is about to begin. Syriza has the power to poach MPs and trigger an election it believes it would win. The socialist bloc is particularly vulnerable, because its share of the vote will almost certainly shrink, leaving many MPs looking for a job.

If Greek politicians' view is right, that the European election is an indicator of the mood of the electorate in a general election, then Syriza has positioned itself to advantage. It would likely need coalition partners to rule, but The River (6.6 percent), The Olive (eight percent), Independent Greeks (3.4 percent) and even the Communist party (six percent) are potential partners. Samaras' assertion, that Syriza has failed to destabilise the government, remains to be proven. 

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