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The International Spectator

Italian Journal of International Affairs

ISSN: 0393-2729 (Print) 1751-9721 (Online) Journal homepage: http://www.tandfonline.com/loi/rspe20

Broken and Cant be Fixed: The Impact of the


Economic Crisis on the Greek Party System
Susannah Verney
To cite this article: Susannah Verney (2014) Broken and Cant be Fixed: The Impact of the
Economic Crisis on the Greek Party System, The International Spectator, 49:1, 18-35, DOI:
10.1080/03932729.2014.877222
To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/03932729.2014.877222

Published online: 28 Mar 2014.

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Date: 05 October 2015, At: 11:18

Broken and Cant be Fixed: The Impact of


the Economic Crisis on the Greek Party
System

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Susannah Verney
The Greek election of May 2012 failed to produce a government,
resulting in repeat elections six weeks later. This shock outcome was a
symptom of a broader delegitimation of the national political system. Over
the past decade Eurobarometer data show a much more extensive loss of
condence in political institutions in Greece than in the European Union
as a whole. In a rst phase, rising political discontent was managed within
the traditional political framework through alternation in power between
the two major parties. In contrast, the second phase, following the outbreak of the Greek sovereign debt crisis, led to the dramatic fragmentation
of the party system and changed the mode of government formation. This
process is not reversible and entails serious democratic dangers.
Keywords: Greece, 2012 elections, public opinion, radical left, far right

The Greek election of 6 May 2012 sent shockwaves around Europe. This country
with its strong tradition of one-party majority governments was unable to produce
even a coalition. No individual party gained as much as 19 percent of the vote (see
Table 1). The well-entrenched two-party system simply collapsed. The combined
vote share of the two major parties, consistently in the region of 80 percent for the
previous thirty years, plunged to 32 percent. PASOK, long the lynchpin of the
party system and one of the most electorally successful parties of the European centre left, saw its vote fall to around one-third of its usual level. The other core party
in the system, the centre-right New Democracy (ND), scored a vote little over half
its previous all-time low. Meanwhile, the communist party (KKE), traditionally the
most important channel for protest voting in Greece, saw only a minor increase in
its vote share. Instead, the protest vote was dispersed in multiple directions.
The smallest party in the previous parliament, the Radical Left Coalition
(SYRIZA), more than tripled its vote, emerging as Greeces second political force.
Meanwhile, almost one in ve ballots was cast for parties which failed to meet the
Susannah Verney is Assistant Professor at the University of Athens and co-editor with Anna Bosco of South
European Society and Politics. Email: deplan@otenet.gr. The author would like to thank the journals two
anonymous referees for spurring her to greater efforts and Gabriele Tonne for her patience during the
writing and revision process.
The International Spectator, Vol. 49, No. 1, March 2014, 1835
2014 Istituto Affari Internazionale

ISSN 0393-2729 print/ISSN 1751-9721 online


http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/03932729.2014.877222

The Economic Crisis and the Greek Party System


Table 1.

19

Vote share (%) of parties winning parliamentary seats, 2009-12.

PARTY
ND
SYRIZA
PASOK
INDEPENDENT GREEKS
GOLDEN DAWN
DEMOCRATIC LEFT
KKE

June 2012

May 2012

2009

29.7
26.9
12.3
7.5
6.9
6.3
4.5

18.9
16.8
13.2
10.6
7.0
6.1
8.5

33.5
4.6
43.9
0.3*
7.5

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Source: Ministry of Interior election data, http://www.ypes.gr/El/Elections.


*
Note: below 3 percent parliamentary threshold.

three percent parliamentary threshold. These included a new party, founded by a


public relations consultant less than two months before the election, which won
2.2 percent of the vote. The number of parties represented in parliament, never
above ve from the 1980s onwards, increased to seven. Perhaps most disquieting
of all, among the three new parliamentary entrants was the anti-system Golden
Dawn, previously part of the lunatic fringe of the Greek political system, whose
seven percent vote share was 24 times its score in the previous parliamentary
election of 2009.1
This striking meltdown of the party system appeared to leave Greece ungovernable. However, a repeat election held six weeks later modied this result.2 With
the pressure for government formation heightened by the imminent danger of a
disorderly exit from the eurozone, a signicant proportion of the electorate changed
its preferences. The vote for extra-parliamentary parties dropped below six percent.
The 50-seat bonus offered to the rst party under the electoral law encouraged
around one in ve voters to switch to one of the parties most likely to emerge
ahead. The result was an increase of over 10 percent of the total vote each for ND
and SYRIZA, stabilising their position as the two new major parties. There was no
repetition of the extreme dispersal of the vote among a large number of
extra-parliamentary parties, whose support returned to a level not much higher
than that of the preceding three elections. An initial consolidation of the new
seven-party constellation which had emerged in May was indicated when the same
1
On the May 2012 election, see inter alia Dinas and Rori, The 2012 Greek parliamentary elections,
Dimitrakopoulos, The Greek elections of 2012, http://www.sieps.se, and the collection of brief essays edited by R. Gerodimos, First thoughts on the 6 May 2012 elections in Greece, Greek Politics Specialist
Group, 2012, http://www.gpsg.org.uk/publications/pamphlets/. For detailed analysis of exit poll data, see I.
Nikolakopoulos, A discussion about the election [in Greek], video, 10 May 2012, http://www.aformi.gr/
2012/05/----2012a.
2
On the June 2012 election, see inter alia Dinas and Rori, The 2012 Greek parliamentary elections,
Vasilopoulou and Halkidiopoulou, In the shadow of Grexit, R. Gerodimos, First thoughts on the June
2012 elections in Greece, Greek Politics Specialist Group, http://www.gpsg.org.uk/publications/pamphlets/,
and Nikolakopoulos, The day after the elections of 17 June [in Greek], 18 June 2012, video, http://
www.koinonia-demo.gr/2012/06/.

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20

Susannah Verney

group of parties was re-elected. The June election allowed the formation of a
three-party coalition government, centred on ND and PASOK but also including
the Democratic Left (DIMAR), which was founded in 2010 as a breakaway from
Synaspismos, the lead party in SYRIZA. These developments may suggest that
some kind of stabilisation has taken place.
The fact that the traditional parties of power have remained in charge of the government after June 2012 could be taken as indicating that the crisis of traditional political
representation in Greece was less dramatic than it rst appeared. Furthermore, one
year later, the breakdown of the tripartite government agreement and the withdrawal
of DIMAR was followed by the continuation of the coalition between PASOK and
ND without provoking new elections. Optimistic analysts might even predict that
once the Greek economy begins to improve, Greek voters will abandon their more
radical recent choices, especially Golden Dawn, and revert to more traditional
preferences. This article aims to show that such assumptions would be mistaken.
It is argued here that the May 2012 election was a symptom of a much deeper
malaise. Specically, a sweeping breakdown of societal trust has resulted in the
delegitimation not only of the previous governing parties but also of the political
system as a whole. This delegitimation developed rapidly under the impact of the
Greek sovereign debt crisis. The latter emerged as a political issue both domestically and internationally in October 2009, when the Greek government announced
that the annual budget decit was at least twice as high as previously reported and
over four times the permitted eurozone limit of three percent of GDP. Yet a clear
signal that there was something rotten in the state of Greece had already been sent
almost a year earlier. In December 2008, the police shooting of a 15-year old
schoolboy precipitated a spontaneous and inchoate youth revolt, involving different
groups with different agendas, some of them engaging in considerable violence and
extensive damage to property.3 It seems that the death of Alexandros
Grigoropoulos acted as a catalyst for an outpouring of political discontent. This
suggests that a political crisis was already developing even before the shock
announcement of impending national bankruptcy in October 2009.
This article investigates the loss of legitimacy by the Greek political system. It
uses data on the changing picture of trust in political institutions as measured by
the biannual Eurobarometer surveys.4 An important advantage of the Eurobarometers is that they allow trends in a particular country to be viewed within the
broader context of changing opinion across the European Union as a whole.
The article aims, rst, to establish the extent of delegitimation, viewing the Greek
case in comparison with the EU average. Then, by examining the chronology of
3

For participants views on the December 2008 events. see Schwartz, Sagris and Void Network, We are an
Image from the Future; for analyses from a range of ideological viewpoints, see inter alia, Sotiris, Rebels
with a cause; Economides and Monastiriotis, The Return of Street Politics?; Karamichas, The December
2008 Riots in Greece; Andronikidou and Kovras, Cultures of Rioting and Anti-systemic Politics.
4
European Commission, Standard Eurobarometer.

The Economic Crisis and the Greek Party System

21

this process, it seeks to illuminate its causes. Particular attention is paid to the role
of the Greek sovereign debt crisis in this process. Moving on to the electoral consequences, the article considers whether the extraordinary fragmentation of the vote
in 2012 can be attributed to technical causes and specically to the inuence of a
new electoral law. In outlining the party system impact, it seeks to identify the
point at which disappointment with particular governments and parties translated
into a crisis of the political system. This is followed by the nal conclusions.

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The extent of delegitimation

Eurobarometer data present a clear picture of the way in which the Greek political
system has lost public condence over the past decade. To a certain extent, this is
not an exclusive Greek phenomenon. As Figures 1-3 show, the average level of
trust in political institutions has declined in the European Union (EU) as a whole
during this period. However, in the Greek case, this decline has been more
extreme, starting from a higher point and culminating at a lower level.
Ten years ago, Greece had just entered the eurozone, confounding earlier expectations when it was considered the country furthest from meeting the entry criteria. After
decades of talk of a two-speed Europe in which Greece would be relegated to a second
speed, the adoption of the euro was regarded as a national triumph which would
guarantee Greece a place at the inner core of the European Union. As a eurozone
member, Greece beneted from lower borrowing costs. The rapid expansion of cheap
credit was nancing rising living standards and indeed a wave of consumerism.
The country was preparing to host the 2004 Olympic Games and a new national
self-condence was exuded by major infrastructure projects including the Athens
Metro and the new Athens airport. These visual symbols reected the changing image
of a country once regarded as Europes poor relative. At this point, the Greek political
system enjoyed signicantly higher legitimacy than the EU average. In Spring 2003,
a majority in Greece (54 percent) trusted parliament compared to just over one
third (35 percent) in the EU; 43 percent of Greek respondents trusted the
national government compared to 31 percent in the EU; while an equal proportion
(17 percent) trusted political parties always the weak point for system legitimacy.
Ten years later, system legitimacy in Greece had not only fallen below the EU
average but had also reached strikingly low levels. While in the EU as a whole, one
in four respondents trusted their government and parliament, in Greece the gure
was only one in ten.5 This is a dramatic drop if one considers that a decade earlier,
more than one in two Greeks had trusted the national legislature compared to one
in three in the EU as a whole. During the intervening period, almost one in two
Greeks (44 percent) had lost faith in parliament and one in three (34 percent) in
5

Specically, in 2013, ten percent of Greeks trusted parliament and nine percent the government, compared to the EU averages of 26 and 25 percent, respectively.

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Susannah Verney

FIGURE 1. Trust in the national government: Greece and the EU average compared, Spring
2003-Spring 2013.
Source: authors elaboration of Eurobarometer data.

FIGURE 2. Trust in the national parliament: Greece and the EU average compared, Spring
2003-Spring 2013.
Source: authors elaboration of Eurobarometer data.

the government. Meanwhile, the level of trust in Greek political parties at four
percent was one-quarter of its 2003 level, while the EU average (16 percent) had
remained almost stable.
Furthermore, in the Greek case, delegitimation extended beyond the executive,
legislature and political parties to embrace other institutions whose legitimacy was

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The Economic Crisis and the Greek Party System

23

FIGURE 3. Trust in political parties: Greece and the EU average compared, Spring 2003-Spring
2013.
Source: authors elaboration of Eurobarometer data.
Note: The question was not asked in Spring 2007, Autumn 2010 or Spring 2011.

unaffected in the EU as a whole. Between autumn 2003 and autumn 2010, the
last time this question was asked by the Eurobarometer, 27 percent of Greeks lost
faith in the justice system. Levels of trust fell from 68 to 42 percent, while the EU
average remained stable at 47 percent. During the same seven-year period, trust in
the Church fell from 60 to 40 percent compared to a marginal decline from 42 to
40 percent in the EU as a whole. Even in the case of the police, which in 2013
still retained the trust of a small majority of Greeks, trust fell from 67 to 52 percent while in the EU it remained unchanged at 64 percent. Therefore, not only is
the Greek political system facing a serious legitimacy crisis, but that crisis also
seems to have become all-embracing.
So what lies behind this dramatic opinion shift? To what extent was it caused
by the economic crisis? To answer these questions, it is helpful to understand when
the change occurred.

The chronology of delegitimation


Prelude to the storm

As Figures 1-3 show, the beginning of the downward spiral in Greek political
system legitimacy predated the sovereign debt crisis. The year 2003 marked the last
phase of a PASOK tenure of government lasting three consecutive parliamentary
terms. At this point, there was considerable popular fatigue with a party which
had been in power for 18 of the previous 22 years and whose resulting close

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24

Susannah Verney

identication with the state had repeatedly led to scandals. Despite this, the
autumn 2003 Eurobarometer recorded its Greek respondents as almost evenly split
between those who trusted the government (47 percent) and those who did not
(50 percent). Meanwhile, a majority (54 percent) trusted parliament. The hopes
associated with a change in power, through the March 2004 election of a New
Democracy government whose initial byword was modest and humble, were
reected in a rise in trust in all the basic political institutions between autumn
2003 and spring 2004 (to 55 percent for the government, 63 percent for parliament and 28 from 20 percent for political parties).
This initial outburst of optimism seems to have dissipated rapidly. One reason
for this may have been the government announcement just a few months later of
revised budget decit gures for the previous ve years well above the three percent
of GDP permitted to EU member states. The suggestion that Greeces eurozone
entry had been due to creative accounting damaged both governmental credibility
and national self-condence. Greeces subsequent entry into the EUs excessive
decit procedure was especially humiliating so soon after joining the euro.
The next few years also saw a new outbreak of corruption scandals. Among the
most spectacular was the structured bonds affair, entailing the simultaneous
purchase of a 280 billion euro government bond at above market prices by 16
social insurance funds, following a transaction chain passing through a series of
hedge funds and during which millions of euros were siphoned off. Perhaps the
most signicant governmental scandal because it was long-term and therefore
implicated both parties of power concerned large-scale bribery by the German
conglomerate, Siemens, systematic winner of major public works contracts over the
previous twenty years. Other scandals affected a range of institutions. Revelations
concerning systematic and widespread bribery of judges caused a crisis in the judiciary, while the Orthodox Church was tainted by a series of allegations including
involvement in judicial corruption and selling stolen antiquities. Corruption, which
undermines equality and a just distribution of resources, tends to be particularly
corrosive of political trust. Nevertheless, although there were some uctuations in
levels of institutional trust as measured by the Eurobarometers, at the end of 2007
these once again reached levels analogous to autumn 2003, meaning they remained
signicantly above the EU average.
First phase of delegitimation

In contrast, the year 2008 appears to be a turning point. By the end of that year,
levels of trust in political institutions had fallen below the EU average. Between
autumn 2007 and autumn 2008, trust in the government fell by half (from 46 to
23 percent). This is particularly striking, given New Democracys recent
re-election, winning a convincing four percent lead over PASOK in September
2007. Meanwhile, during 2008, trust in parliament dropped by over one-third

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The Economic Crisis and the Greek Party System

25

(from 52 to 32 percent) and in political parties by a similar proportion (from 21


to 14 percent). Thus, one in ve Greeks lost condence in government and parliament during this year. During the same period, faith in the justice system fell from
58 to 44 percent. With regard to the Church, the question was not included in
the Eurobarometers for 2008 or 2009. However, while trust was still high at 55
percent in the autumn of 2007, it had fallen to 40 percent by the next
measurement in autumn 2010.
Viewed against this background of generalised institutional devaluation, the
December 2008 riots do not seem a surprise. They came three months after the
Lehman Brothers collapse, which triggered a crisis throughout the international
nancial system. In addition, in the last quarter of the year, the Greek economy
entered recession. However, these events came too late to explain the disaffection
with the Greek political system which had been growing throughout the year
not least because at this early stage there seemed to be a widespread feeling in
Greece that the international crisis would pass the country by.6 The explanation
for this primarily youth-driven outburst of protest and violence seems rather to lie
in the nancial insecurity already besetting a generation expecting to have a worse
life than their parents. By the late 2000s, the growing inequality in the distribution
of wealth which was rising rapidly on a global scale was already becoming very
apparent in Greece. Amidst the conspicuous consumption fuelled by cheap
eurozone credit, the 700 euro generation, the most highly educated in Greek history, could expect salaries below a living wage and insecure employment without
full insurance rights, even in the public sector. Their prospects were also blocked
by the traditional mode of functioning of the state, permeated by clientelism and
more focused on serving particularistic interests than broader societal goals,
including economic development.
Greece was an unjust society in which, to quote George Katrougalos, if there is
a permanent dividing line, it is one which separates social strata having a symbiotic
relationship with the political power and those deprived of any special relationship
with it.7 The system was blatantly unfair, with ofcial tolerance of systematic tax
evasion keeping the costs of public spending unevenly distributed. Public goods
were of low quality, including a seriously skewed social welfare system, offering
privileged pensions for certain groups while failing to provide a safety net, notably
for the long-term unemployed. Meanwhile, as Sotiropoulos shows by identifying
nine usual paths to reform failure, change was systematically blocked.8 The result
was a society characterised by extended income inequality, an unsatisfactory
level of the rule of law and an unsatisfactory level of voice and accountability.9
On this point, see the chapter The Carefree Country in Tsimas, Crisis Diary.
Katrougalos, Memoranda, 97.
8
Sotiropoulos, Paradox of Non-reform in Reform-ripe Environment. For a range of case studies examining reform blockage in different sectors, see Kalyvas et al., From Stagnation to Forced Adjustment.
9
Sotiropoulos, A Democracy under Stress, 36.
6
7

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Susannah Verney

A further trigger for discontent concerned the domestic scandals which rose to
a new crescendo during 2008. Particularly prominent was the Vatopedi affair,
concerning monks building a business empire based on lucrative sales of public
land, after government ministers signed away state property rights worth hundreds
of millions of euros. The prevalence of corruption had systemic consequences,
undermining democratic institutions and the rule of law. For several years, there
had been a persistent governmental tactic of referring corruption cases to the judiciary without permitting a parliamentary investigation. This consistent sidelining
of parliament undermined both its constitutional role and its public prestige.
Meanwhile, the judiciary, in handling government corruption cases, systematically
found there was no case to answer, creating a public perception that the rule of
law did not apply to the political class. In the Vatopedi affair, the deputy prosecutors handling the case recommended its referral to parliament, only to be
immediately overruled by their superiors. But in this case, the ensuing public outcry indicated that popular patience had nally come to an end. The change in
political mood was indicated when the ofcial opposition led a lawsuit against
the Supreme Court Prosecutor on the grounds of undermining the constitutional
order.
Nevertheless, at this point the loss of popular condence was still reversible,
as was demonstrated one year later. In autumn 2009, following the election of
a new PASOK government, levels of trust in political institutions returned to
their pre-2008 levels, briey making the latter year look like a temporary aberration. Between spring and autumn 2009, trust in the government jumped from
25 to 44 per cent, in parliament from 33 to 47 per cent and in political parties
from 15 to 19 percent, in all three cases putting Greece back above the EU
average. However, this new outburst of systemic condence rapidly proved a
false dawn.
The second phase of delegitimation

The six months between autumn 2009 and spring 2010 provided a rude
awakening for the Greek public. The new governments shock announcement
about the true state of public nances triggered repeated downgrades of Greeces
sovereign credit rating, culminating in April 2010 with the countrys relegation to
junk status and its exclusion from the international money markets. As the country
teetered on the brink of bankruptcy, the PASOK government, after some initial
hesitation, abandoned the expansionary economic policy based on the slogan the
moneys there with which it had won the election. Instead, it embarked on a
tough austerity policy including tax raises and public sector pay and pension
cuts. But nothing seemed to appease the markets and on 3 May 2010, the
government entered into a bailout agreement with the European Union and

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The Economic Crisis and the Greek Party System

27

the International Monetary Fund, entailing a 110 billion euro loan and a
Memorandum of Understanding committing the country to drastic scal
consolidation and extensive structural reform. Aggravating the national humiliation
was the outburst of derogatory comment in the international press, often tarring all
the Greeks as lazy slackers.
The spring 2010 Eurobarometer, conducted between 7 and 23 May, just days
after the bailout, saw a dramatic new drop in public condence in political
institutions, which in the space of six months dived to half the autumn 2009
levels. Condence both in parliament, which had ratied the bailout agreement,
and in political parties, was now appreciably below the levels of autumn 2008
while trust in the government, at 25 percent, was just marginally above that
previous low point. Unlike 2008-09, the second phase of delegitimation has been
continuous and cumulative, with the loss of trust in the system gaining momentum
after the rst bailout.
That this should have happened hardly requires explanation, given that the
austerity policy so clearly marked a dead end. The speed of the Greek scal adjustment unprecedented within the OECD plunged the real economy ever deeper
into recession, bankrupting businesses, boosting unemployment and ruling out any
prospect of Greece being able to outgrow its debt. Meanwhile, the content of the
scal adjustment seriously aggravated existing injustices. Horizontal wage and
pension cuts hurt the better-paid less, while rising taxes, coupled with the continuing failure to combat tax evasion, meant the cost of public spending was even
more unfairly distributed. Among the outcomes were a developing humanitarian
crisis affecting more vulnerable social groups and a signicant redistribution of
wealth, including the dispossession of many in the middle-income strata. Youth
unemployment spiralled. The nancial insecurity which previously had mainly
aficted young people now became a generalised phenomenon. In addition to the
social costs, the clear loss of national sovereignty was underlined by the periodic
visits of the technocrats representing the international lenders, whose ability to turn
off the funding tap resulted in repeated public climbdowns by the Greek
government.
Against this background, a sharp new drop in institutional legitimacy occurred
in 2011, a year in which the economy shrank by a startling 6.9 percent and unemployment jumped to almost 18 percent. Reecting this, the Eurobarometer shows
that between autumn 2010 and autumn 2011, the already low trust in political
institutions halved again, falling to minimal levels: from 21 to 8 percent for the
government (a drop of 60 percent), from 24 to 12 percent for parliament, and
from 9 to 5 percent for parties. As Figures 1-3 show, this lost legitimacy has never
been recovered. The next question to consider is how this accumulation of
disillusion manifested itself in electoral terms.

28

Susannah Verney

Electoral consequences

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First phase, 2004-09: throwing the rascals out

During the rst phase of declining trust in political institutions, popular discontent
was managed within the existing party system. The latter retained its usual shape:
centred on the two major parties and sole government contenders, who were
anked by a small number of minor players in permanent opposition. Disappointment with one of the two established parties of government simply led, in
accordance with the classical democratic recipe, to the electorate throwing the rascals out and turning to the opposition. The swings between the two parties were
quite sharp. In 2007, PASOKs 38.1 percent was its lowest vote share since the
1970s. Two years later, the party returned to power with an unprecedented lead of
over ten percent over ND. The latter then saw its vote drop by over eight percent,
producing its lowest vote and seat share since the party was founded in 1974.10
Nevertheless, the electoral outcome was a simple alternation in power: as already
noted above, power passed from PASOK to New Democracy in 2004 and then
back again from ND to PASOK in 2009. The rise in systemic condence which
accompanied these elections suggests that at this point, there was a public optimism that what was wrong could be xed by a change in government. As a result,
at this stage the decline in trust in political institutions did not present a challenge
to the two-party system.
This is particularly interesting given the change in the electoral law, essentially
eliminating the lost vote syndrome for small parties. The new law, which came
into force for the 2007 election, essentially prescribes a proportional allocation of
parliamentary seats based on each partys total national vote. There is a three
percent parliamentary threshold and a bonus for the rst party, originally of 40
seats, increased to 50 in 2009. The rst two elections held under the new system
saw a minor attrition of the two-party domination of the system. In the nine previous elections from 1981 onwards, there had only been one occasion (in 1996)
when the combined vote share of PASOK and ND had fallen below 83 percent.
In 2007, however, it fell just below 80 percent with a further small fall to 77.4
percent in 2009. At the time, a few analysts saw this as signicant, even suggesting
that it might herald the end of the bipolar system.11 However, given the incentive
which the new law offered to those sympathetic to small parties to cast their vote
for them, perhaps what is more striking is not that there was some reduction in
the vote share of the two big parties, but just how limited the change in voting
preferences was. In any case, the degree of change in these rst two elections bore
no comparison to the dramatic drop of 2012, as depicted in Figure 4 below.

Verney, The Eurozones First Post-bailout Election, 199-200.


For example, Tsirbas, The Retreat of Bipolarism, and Vernardakis, From Bipolarism to Multi-partyism.

10
11

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The Economic Crisis and the Greek Party System

29

FIGURE 4. PASOK and ND: combined vote share, 1981-2012.


Source: authors elaboration of Ministry of Interior election data, http://www.ypes.gr/el/Elections/.

At this point, the minor decline of the two main parties did not produce impressive
gains for the two minor parties of the radical left which, along with PASOK and ND,
had formed the other stable elements of the Greek party system, present in every parliament since 1996. In 2007, each of these parties saw a small rise in its vote share, of
2.3 percent of the total vote for the communist party and 1.7 percent for SYRIZA,
raising their combined vote from 11 to just over 13 percent. In 2009, however, both
saw their votes squeezed by the victorious PASOK, resulting in their joint share falling to 12.1 percent. Again, this bears no comparison to the radical left breakthrough
which was to occur with SYRIZAs emergence as second party in 2012.
Perhaps the most important change in 2007 was the entrance into parliament of
the radical right LAOS as the fth party. A fth party was hardly unprecedented in
the Greek political system: while the parliaments of 2000 and 2004 had only four
parties, there had been ve during the three previous parliamentary terms (see Table
2). Moreover, LAOS had won a European Parliament seat in 2004, so its national
parliamentary success with a vote share a little above the parliamentary threshold
was hardly unexpected. In 2009, NDs crushing defeat allowed LAOS to retain its
parliamentary presence with a 1.8 percent increase in its vote. Despite the opportunities offered to small parties by the new electoral law, in 2009 a sixth party, the
Eco-greens, failed to breach the national parliamentary threshold, although they had
elected a EuroMP only a few months earlier. In relation to the previous picture of
the number of parties elected to parliament, the elections of 2007 and 2009
appeared to be very much business as usual, as indicated in Table 2.
Meanwhile, in both these elections, the total vote share for parties which failed
to enter parliament, at ve percent, remained around the same level as before (see
Table 3). This suggests that the change in the electoral system had not encouraged

30

Susannah Verney

Table 2. Number of parties winning parliamentary seats in the elections of


1981-2012.
ELECTIONS 2000-2012
Election
Number of parties

June 2012

May 2012

1990
5

Nov 1989
4

June 1989
4

1985
4

ELECTIONS 1981-1996
1996
1993
5
5

2009

2007

2004

2000
4

1981
3

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Source: authors elaboration of Ministry of Interior election data, http://www.ypes.gr/el/Elections/.

voters to look far beyond the existing parliamentary parties again, in marked contrast to what was to happen in 2012. But even then, the electoral law did not
become a primary cause of change. Rather, when a sea change in voter preferences
occurred, its effect was to magnify the result, translating it into an even more dramatic outcome in terms of seat distribution.
Second phase after 2010: breaking the mould...

As shown above, the onset of the sovereign debt crisis was followed by a radical
deepening of the pre-existing disaffection. The voters ceased swinging between the
two traditional parties of government and began to swing away from them instead.
Both the main parties were blamed by the public for the years of economic
mismanagement which had led Greece into the crisis. They were also held to
account for the way in which they had handled the crisis and particularly for the second EU/IMF bailout of February 2012, negotiated by the coalition government in
which both participated. Both PASOK and ND became a clear target for the anger
of a public suffering stringent cuts in living standards after years of economic growth,
experiencing the rolling back of welfare and labour rights, and frightened by the destabilisation of Greeces position in the eurozone. The drop in their combined vote
share is graphically illustrated in Figure 4. Notably, even after the repeat election of
June, it only recovered to 42 percent, around half its traditional level.
The decline of the established parties of power was paralleled by the rise of the
radical left to a level previously unprecedented in Greece.12 From the 13 percent
of 2009, the combined vote share of the three parties in this part of the political
spectrum, KKE, SYRIZA and the breakaway DIMAR, more than doubled, exceeding 31 percent almost one-third of the electorate then rising further to 37 percent in June. Within the radical left camp, SYRIZA emerged as the clear winner,
supported by over one in four June voters. This was also a surprise as, since 1977,
12

The only other occasion on which a left party had polled an equivalent percentage was 1958 (24.2 percent) but this was exceeded by the combined KKE-SYRIZA vote in both elections of 2012.

The Economic Crisis and the Greek Party System

31

Table 3. Percentage of total vote received by parties falling below the


parliamentary threshold (3 percent) in the elections of 2000-12.
June 2012
6.0

May 2012

2009

2007

2004

2000

19.0

4.9

3.8

4.9

4.8

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Source: authors calculation based on Ministry of Interior election data, http://www.ypes.gr/el/


Elections/.

the communist KKE had consistently emerged as the third party in every election
but one. For the past twenty years, it had always had a higher vote share than
SYRIZA and the latters predecessor, Synaspismos. Yet in 2012, voters casting a
protest vote largely bypassed the communist party. In May its vote rose only marginally compared to 2007 and then fell in June to 4.5 percent. This was equivalent
to the partys historic low in 1993 following the breakup of the Soviet Union and
an intra-KKE split. The partys failure to capitalise on the crisis can be attributed
to its strategy of grand isolation, refusing to contemplate government collaboration
with any other political forces. While for many years, the strength of the two-party
system ruled out such a possibility, this strategy became electorally damaging once
coalition government formation entered the agenda. Thus, not only the parties of
government but also the KKE as the leading party of protest were displaced from
their traditional positions in the party system. The KKEs relegation to fth parliamentary party in May and seventh (and smallest) in June marks another important
manifestation of the rejection of traditional patterns of representation.
In many ways, the rise in the rightwing protest vote was equally as striking as
the increase in the radical left. While the latter had been a minor force throughout
the post-Cold War period, it was a long established component of the Greek party
system, with the history of the communist party dating back to the 1920s. The
post-dictatorship far right, on the other hand, had made only a passing appearance
in the Greek parliament in 1977-81 before disappearing from the parliamentary
scene until the 2000s. Making its rst parliamentary reappearance with LAOS in
2007, the rightwing protest vote exploded following the new phase of political
system delegitimation in 2011.
In 2012, two new parties won parliamentary seats, displacing LAOS which failed
to pass the parliamentary threshold. The Independent Greeks, an ND breakaway
formed after the vote on the second EU/IMF bailout, is a nationalist party opposed
to compliance with the terms of the international lenders. Golden Dawn is a neoNazi party, organised with military discipline around an all-powerful leader and
known for its violent attacks on immigrants and political opponents.13 The fact
On Golden Dawn, see Georgiadou, Rightwing Populism and Extremism, and Ellinas, The Rise of
Golden Dawn. Since the 2012 elections, the party has been the subject of a number of journalistic
accounts in Greek, of which the most illuminating is Psarras, The Black Book of Golden Dawn. In contrast,
there seems to have been very little publishing interest in the Independent Greeks.
13

32

Susannah Verney

that such a party could be elected to parliament in a country with no previous


strong far right tradition is in itself indicative of the corroding effects of the crisis.
Also striking was that in May 2012, one in ve voters opted for one of these three
parties to the right of New Democracy. Indeed, their combined vote was greater
than the 18.9 percent won by ND. Even in June, despite the pressure to choose a
party capable of coming rst and winning the 50-seat bonus, the three rightwing
protest parties garnered 16 percent of the vote. The new extent of far right support
and its distribution among several parties suggests that the rightwing protest vote
has come to stay.

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...but keeping the rascals

From spring 2011 onwards, all national opinion polls suggested that neither of the
two main parties would be able to win a parliamentary majority in an election.
Hence, it was no longer possible to defuse political discontent, as in the earlier
period, through an alternation in power between them. Meanwhile, since the
collapse of the PASOK government in November 2011, it had been clear that no
party could bear the burden of implementing the bailout programme alone or
indeed gain the necessary electoral support to do so. The economic crisis, bringing
the end of bipolarism, has therefore changed the mode of government formation
from one-party majority to coalition government. But the way in which the Greek
party system mould was broken, with such a drastic shrinking of the political centre and extensive reinforcing of the systems radical wings, creates an obstacle to
government formation. The distance between the parties on the political spectrum
makes it difcult in many cases to envisage programmatic agreements among them.
This is aggravated by the Greek tradition of confrontational rather than consensus
politics.
In the two years since November 2011, there have been three changes of government,14 two of them without elections. All these governments have been based on
an alliance between the old adversaries, ND and PASOK, the parties closest to the
centre of the political system. The Eurobarometer surveys show that, in contrast to
2004 and 2009, these government changes did not bring any signicant upward
swing in the public mood. The rst, in November 2011, allied PASOK and ND
with the radical right LAOS under the technocratic premiership of former
European Central Bank Vice President, Lucas Papademos. The autumn 2011
Eurobarometer, conducted during the negotiations for the new government and
immediately after its formation,15 showed trust in all the main political institutions
to have reached what at that time was an all-time low (8 percent for the
14

This does not include the caretaker government which ran the country for a few weeks between the dual
elections of 2012.
15
The autumn 2011 Eurobarometer was conducted in Greece between 5 and 20 November 2011. The
new government was formed on 11 November.

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The Economic Crisis and the Greek Party System

33

government, 12 percent for parliament and 4 percent for parties). The second
government was the ND-PASOK-DIMAR coalition of June 2012. The next
Eurobarometer after its formation, conducted in autumn 2012, found trust in both
government and parliament, at 7 and 9 percent respectively, to be even lower than
one year earlier while trust in political parties remained at the same low level of 5
percent. Finally, for the ND-PASOK coalition formed in June 2013, there is not
yet any Eurobarometer data. However, the ndings of national opinion polls
suggest the public mood remains at least as bleak as in autumn 2011.
This is not surprising as the rapid succession of governments since the onset of
the economic crisis has represented continuity rather than change. In a country
dependent on international loans, new governments have not meant new policy.
Instead, each government in succession has continued to implement the economic
austerity programme with its cumulatively corrosive effects on living standards and
the real economy. There has also been considerable continuity in personnel.
Despite the participation of minor parties in two cases, all three governments have
been dominated by the traditional parties of power with which the Greek public
has become so disillusioned. Thus, although the majority of the Greek electorate
clearly wanted to throw the rascals out in 2012, the dynamic of the 50-seat bonus
and the difculties of building an alternative coalition have kept them in power.

Conclusion

The electoral contests of 2012 left the Greek party system in shards. Although the
subsequent parliament includes all four parties which have been elected consistently
since 1996 (along with three new ones), the relationship among them has changed
completely. Not least, the election result, by overturning previous patterns of government formation, has turned all parliamentary parties into potential government
participants. The examination of Eurobarometer data shows that the 2012 election
results were not a passing moment of protest. They were built on a deep and
long-term loss of trust in political institutions, greatly exceeding anything that was
happening in the European Union as a whole. The delegitimation of the Greek
political system began some years before the outbreak of the sovereign debt crisis.
However, the latter made it deeper and almost universal. The December 2008 riots
were a spontaneous outburst by a dispossessed younger generation facing a grim
future. In the 2012 elections, the cry of rage and despair extended to the electorate
as a whole.
Before the sovereign debt crisis, the situation was contained within the existing
system and appears to have been reversible, with the hope generated by the
election of new governments leading to an upswing of condence in the system as
a whole. After autumn 2009 and particularly accelerating in 2011, though, the
crisis of condence in the political system reached dramatic proportions and

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34

Susannah Verney

currently shows no sign of coming to an end. During this period, government


change has failed to act as a lightning rod for political discontent. Three new
governments in 20 months, from November 2011 to June 2013, have brought no
improvement in public sentiment.
Opinion polls since the 2012 elections show a surprising stability, with the seven
parties elected in 2012 likely to return to parliament in the next election. This
continued rejection of past political afliations suggests there is no going back to
the patterns of the past. Characteristic is the continued decline of PASOK
registered in the opinion surveys. PASOK was the systemic party par excellence, in
power for 19 of the 30 years from 1981 to 2011. Its fate is paradigmatic of that of
the past party system as a whole. Meanwhile, no poll to date has shown either of
the two new main parties increasing their electoral support by more than a few
percentage points. The systemic shift to coalition government is thus likely to
become a permanent feature of the new political landscape.
The most alarming post-electoral development concerns the rise of Golden
Dawn, since September 2013 consistently polling as third party.16 The support for
this extreme anti-system force should be seen in the context of broader trends of
democratic disaffection. In spring 2013, the Greek Eurobarometer respondents
who said they were not satised with democracy in their country amounted to 85
percent. Only one percent professed to being very satised while a striking 47
percent almost every second person said they were not satised at all,
compared with less than one in ve in the EU as a whole. The extent of disillusion
is not so surprising given the continuing economic catastrophe. In 2013, the Greek
economy continued to contract at a rapid pace. By the end of the year, GDP was
expected to have fallen by 25 percent compared to the pre-crisis period. Those
assuming the current phase of political instability in Greece will quickly pass once
the economic crisis is over should reect on how long that is likely to take, given
the countrys dire economic straits.

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