04.26.12

Greece’s Election Supernova

Splintering of parties could spell doom for the next government.

With Greek elections looming, the country’s mainstream political forces are melting down and splintering into smaller, more radical factions, all of which are vowing to deliver Greece from its EU bailout terms.

In his campaign kickoff speech on April 19, Greek socialist leader Evangelos Venizelos described the state of Greek politics as “rudderless”. “This political dead end will multiply and deepen the economic and social crisis,” he said.

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

Two years of harsh austerity measures have seen the prospects of the socialist Pasok party and the conservative New Democracy party—which have ruled in coalition for the past six months--tumble from a joint 77 percent of the popular vote in the last elections in 2009, 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 will surely mark the end of an era. The recent political shifts in France and Holland are further indications of impending punishment for Greece’s rulers.

Pasok and New Democracy have alternated in power ever since Greek democracy was restored in 1974 after a seven-year military dictatorship. They are the twin suns of Greek politics—stars that have, since the beginning of this year, begun to spin out into supernovas, discharging chunks of their masses as satellite parties. Now, those satellites are threatening to pull more voters away.

The decay of the two traditional camps began 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 of this year. That was when parliament voted in $4.4 billion worth of cuts to the 2012 budget, sparking violent protests. Forty-three MPs from the two parties refused to vote for the cuts and were expelled—a move that ordinary voters strongly disapproved of. A few MPs returned to the fold as Pasok and New Democracy belatedly realized their error, but most formed new parties. Two of those—Independent Greeks, formed in February, and Democratic Alliance, formed last year—together now claim as many as 13 points of the conservative vote.

The diaspora has been accompanied by an alarming radicalization. The right-wing vote has grown from 5.6 percent in the last election to about 8.5 percent—and it’s no longer claimed exclusively by the nationalist Laos party. Now, Laos has been 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 Adolf Hitler.

There has been radicalization on the left, as well: Pasok has 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 many voters 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 concurred 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.

Anger at the two main parties is running so high that even politicians admit the May 6 election will surely mark the end of an era.

Power sharing, as opposed to alternating in power, has far-reaching implications for Greece’s two big parties. 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 the 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’s 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 loser.

Aware of the dangers, Venizelos and Samaras have had no choice but to go into the remaining three weeks of campaigning employing the classic, polarizing 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 clamoring 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 at a staggering 54 percent among university graduates. A further $15 billion of austerity measures remain to be passed in June, so the fragile coalition can expect to be shaken barely a month out of the starting gate. 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 in its first year.

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 politics will retain their centrifugal trajectory, rocketing 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. The coalition would then be a short-lived stellar phenomenon, followed by unimaginable darkness.