The European Parliament Election in Greece
An analysis of the European Parliament elections in Greece ***
Zoe Lefkofridi* & Takis Pappas**
European University Institute, Florence
When Europe went to the polls on May 22nd-25th to elect the members of the next European Parliament, many turned a worried attention to Greece. Here was the country that since 2010 had undergone a major economic crisis – the deepest in Europe – that brought it to the brink of default and necessitated two bailouts by the so-called Troika of the International Monetary Fund, the European Central Bank and the European Commission. Here also was the country that, in the two general elections that took place in May and June 2012, saw its time-honored two-party system collapse and be replaced by a system of extreme party pluralism featuring both an extraordinary fragmentation of political forces and acute polarization. No wonder, that politicians, academics and other pundits, and the general public looked at Greece with interest no less than apprehension for the results. In this short piece, we discuss the outcome of the European Parliament (EP) election in Greece by placing it in the country’s crisis context.
Greece’s most recent economic troubles began in May 2010, when the then government requested a €110 billion loan from the Troika in order to keep paying its bills, avoid default on previous debts, and remain in the Eurozone. Greece thus became bailed out on the basis of an agreement with its foreign lenders, under the obligation of implementing strict budgetary cuts and undergoing far-reaching structural reforms to rebalance its economy. The Troika’s therapy for Greece consisted of liberalization, privatization, internal devaluation and austerity. As it turned out, however, austerity-based solutions would deteriorate the country’s economic situation and cause further social misery rather than providing a realistic way out of the crisis. Rather than focusing on reforming an inefficient and wasteful state, the focus has been on the devaluation of human labor: not only have wages and pensions been reduced but additional measures have been taken (which even include violations of trade union and collective bargaining rights) to ensure flexibility of dismissals. This aimed at job creation, investment, and growth by providing start-up businesses with the possibility of “scaling back” when faced with risks. But foreign investors and Greek entrepreneurs remained reluctant given an extravagantly complex and inefficient administration, and a complicated and ever-changing taxation system. Not only have growth rates been flunking, but also unemployment has experienced a steady upward trend from approximately 7.5 % in October 2008 to around 27.8 % in October 2013. Graphs 1 and 2 illustrate Greece’s declining growth and increasing unemployment rates compared to EU average.
Even worse, the number of households living on the brink of poverty rose during the period 2008-2012; a recent Report by the Director of the National Bank of Greece (2013) shows that in 2011 21.4% of the Greek population lived below the poverty line, while 31% were on the threshold of poverty and thus also in danger of social exclusion; the number of people living in households where nobody was employed increased by more than 50% between 2010-2011. The number of the homeless has also increased and so has the incidence of so-called “economic suicides”.
Not surprisingly, while the country’s increasingly rickety governments tries to materialize the Troika-imposed reforms-cum-austerity program, society had already abandoned its traditional party allegiances and taken to the streets. Social discord created a deep legitimation crisis, which eventually led Greece’s old political and party systems to implode. Moreover, the crisis and the Troika program affected attitudes to membership in the EU. For the first time ever since the mid-1970s, Greece’s EU membership was put into question. The Greeks, who had been consistently favorable of EU membership since accession, lost enthusiasm about their country belonging to the EU.
Graph 3 shows that in the period between 2007 and 2011 the percentage of Greek citizens that consider EU membership to be “good” declined from 55 % to 38%. Even worse, Greeks’ distrust of their national government has reached record high levels. Ironically, at the official inauguration of the Greek EU Presidency on January 15 2014, PM Samaras would take pride “at the progress that Greece has made”, adding that “[Greeks] are proof that Europe works”. In fact, Greeks are proof that the policies pursued do not work, and that the status quo in Europe is unsustainable. Greece may stand well above the EU average of distrust (Graph 4), but downward trends of trust are visible also in other countries. This is true for all hard-hit by the crisis (e.g. Ireland, Italy, Spain, Portugal) but also Eastern European member states. The decline in trust has accelerated since the crisis began in the Autumn of 2009, but it had started even earlier.
The irresponsible and populist behavior of traditional political elites (especially the parties alternating in government)  has led distrust in political parties to skyrocket. Graph 5 shows the evolution of Greeks’ distrust in parties since 2008 in relation to the EU average.
Eventually, the Greeks gave vent to their frustration in the two general elections of 2012, which also signify the end of what is known as the Greek metapolitefsi (roughly, the post-authoritarian political arrangement). In the May election, the two major parties, center-left PASOK and center-right New Democracy (ND), which had hitherto regularly alternated in office, saw their strength plummet to less than half their previous aggregate support (that is, from 77.4 per cent in the October 2009 election to a mere 32 per cent in 2012). In the new contest in June, ND scored 29.7 per cent while PASOK, with a paltry 12.3 per cent of the vote, regressed to third place. Table 1 displays the electoral results in all contests that took place during the crisis.
Table 1: General election results, 2009 and 2012; elections for EP, 2014
|October 2009||May 2012||June 2012||EP-2014|
The real winner of the double 2012 general election was the Coalition of Radical Left (SYRIZA), a formerly negligible party that in June, thanks to its uncompromising anti-austerity stance and under the firebrand leadership of Alexis Tsipras, saw its support reach 26.9 per cent of the vote making it the major opposition force. No less impressive than SYRIZA in the context of the critical 2012 elections was the rise of Golden Dawn (GD), a nativist party animated by the Nazi ideology, which, now commanding almost seven per cent of the national vote and 18 seats in the Greek parliament, became a potent political agent. Another two new parties appeared on the electoral spectrum. One of them, the Independent Greeks (ANEL), a splinter from ND when the latter decided to support the austerity measures required for Greece’s second bailout, presents as a patriotic populist party aiming at the ‘liberation’ of Greece from foreign powers, especially Germany. The other new party to enter parliament in 2012 was the Democratic Left (DIMAR), a moderate social-democratic force uneasily squeezed between PASOK and SYRIZA. There was, finally, the Communist Party of Greece (KKE), the oldest of all Greek parties, which however saw its vote drop to 4.5 per cent. It was, therefore, against the backdrop of the new, super fragmented, and extremely fluid party system produced by the national elections of 2012 that the contest for the European Parliament took place in Greece. In what follows we look at Greek citizens’ turnout and party choices at the EP election, which occurred two years after the 2012 general election and at the end of the Greek Presidency of the EU.
Turnout & Party Choices in May 2014
Turnout in Greece (59. 97%) was higher than in 2009 (52.61 %). But this number is nowhere close to the enthusiastic participation rates of the early years of EU membership (around 80% during 1981-1989). Perhaps the turnout could have been much lower had not it been for the second round of municipal and regional elections; or it might have been much higher if many emigrant Greeks (who currently work and live abroad) would have been able to exercise their voting rights in an uncomplicated manner (NB. there is no e-voting; no postal vote; and registration to vote is extremely cumbersome). In relative terms, however, Greece’s 40% abstention rate classifies among the “better” performances (e.g. compared with 87% in Slovakia) when looking at the entire EU.
What about Greek citizens’ party choices? Table 1 (last column) and Table 2 summarize the electoral results at the EP ballot. What catches the eye is fragmentation: as many as seven parties managed to pass the 3 per cent threshold for EP representation, but none of them gathered more than 27 % of the vote. As repeated polls had already predicted, ND lost first place to SYRIZA, which immediately questioned the ruling coalition’s legitimacy to rule. Despite GD members’ imprisonment after the murder of anti-fascist musician Fyssas, GD won a stunning 9.4 percent of the total vote, or a rise of about 30 percent over its results in the June 2012 national elections. It finished as third party in Greece and entered for the first time the European Parliament with three deputies. The party leader Nikos Michaloliakos declared from his prison cell, while still awaiting trial for running it as a criminal organization: “We are already the arbiters of political developments; we are the forthcoming Greece.” Another important innovation at this election was The River (To Potami) – an anti-establishement-party formation that mixes pragmatic and liberal approaches to politics and is supportive of both European integration and the Euro. Founded by a well-known Greek journalist just weeks before the elections, it ran for the first time and secured two EP seats.
If we compare the EP results to the 2012 general elections (Table 1, two middle columns), which parties performed worse/better in 2014? The “losers” in this regard include: ND, PASOK, ANEL, and DIMAR, who had achieved a 6.25 % in 2012 but fell under the threshold in 2014 – thus experiencing a complete defeat; unsurprisingly, its leader resigned soon afterwards. SYRIZA got only slightly fewer votes than in June 2012. On the winner side stand the two most Eurosceptic parties, namely KKE and GD as well as pro-EU The River.
Table 2: Greek Seats in EP 2014-2019
|PARTY NAME||EP seats|
|SYRIZA (Coalition of the Radical Left)||6|
|ND (New Democracy)||5|
|Chrissi Avgi (Golden Dawn)||3|
|Elia (Olive)/PASOK(Panhellenic Socialist Movement)||2|
|The River (To Potami)||2|
|KKE (Communist Party of Greece)||2|
|ANEL (Independent Greeks)||1|
|Greek European Citizens||0|
|DEMAR (Democratic Left)||0|
What do these results imply for party affiliations in the elected EP? How will these results translate into membership of Political Groups in the EP? Although it remains to be seen whether non-attached nationalist parties in the elected EP, most of them take careful distance from Greek GD. It is also unsure which political group the populist-nationalist Independent Greeks will join. ND will, as always, join the European People’s Party, while both The River and ELIA/PASOK will join the Party of European Socialists. On the radical left, both SYRIZA and KKE, despite being fervent enemies on the domestic arena, will make part of the same EP political group, GUE/NGL.
Was this a vote against Europe?Was it against national handlings of the crisis? Unlike the past, it is extremely difficult to discern whether support for fringe and/or extreme parties actually expresses opposition to the EU or opposition to domestic governmental policies –as the EU and domestic policy are increasingly interwoven. Governing Greece during the crisis and as well as presiding the EU in 2014 has been the best example for this. Across Europe, the inter-relationship of the supranational and domestic policy was more evident than ever – and nowhere has this been most evident than in Greece. With Europhiles failing to explain why the EU project is worthwhile, why we are better off united than apart, and why austerity and reforms are necessary for functioning within the EU market, Eurosceptics did well, although in variable degrees across Europe.
Like in other EU member states, in Greece, Eurocritics are, and have always been, coming from the two opposite poles of the political spectrum. Although both camps may use populist rhetoric, there are huge ideological differences between the two, which result in very different views about “what is wrong” in the EU. Within the extreme Left camp, only a few (e.g. the Greek Communist party) unequivocally advocate exit from the Union. SYRIZA’s message was more about changing Europe rather than about demolishing the project; Tsipras even ran as a nominee of the European Left, thus reaffirming the Greek electorate of his party’s European orientation. That said, SYRIZA did capitalize its campaign around the bailouts and their consequences for the country, and consequently, against the status quo personified by the two governing parties, ND and PASOK. On the other extreme pole, right-wing nationalists who aim at destroying the EU from within scored well in Greece (as well as in France, UK, Denmark, Austria, Finland, and Hungary). The two clearest opponents of the EU are GD and KKE, which gather together 16 % of the Greek vote – all others might use Eurosceptic tone in their rhetoric (e.g. ANEL) but they would never take the responsibility for Greece’s exit from the Union or the Eurozone.
To conclude, the EP elections came to confirm trends that started earlier during the crisis: first, the erosion of the two traditional office-seeking parties ND and PASOK, accompanied by increasing fragmentation of the party system; second, the move of SYRIZA from the fringes to the main opposition, but also the fragmentation of the center left (The River, PASOK/Elia, DIMAR); third, a dangerous kind of radicalization within Greek society that is manifested by the increasing strengthening of the GD – a criminal organization that spreads terror and violence. Finally, it remains to be seen whether the River’s success will continue beyond the EP elections and whether it will become a normal player in the system.
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The complexity of this kind of legislation is illustrated by the numbers of circulars on the implementation and interpretation of tax and toll legislation issued by the Greek authorities: 54 in 2009; 196 in 2010; 251 in 2011; and 1,100 in 2013.
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Note that this number includes private and public sector employees who lost their jobs; it does not include the thousands of young people who are looking for a job for the first time.
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Note that with regards to income inequality, in a comparative European perspective, Greece is superseded only by Spain.
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Lefkofridi, Z. 2014. From Bad to Worse? Reflections on the Crisis in Greece and in Europe. Austrian Journal of Political Science, forthcoming in issue 2/2014.
Lefkofridi, Z. A nationalist alliance in the European Parliament would be more effective if it were framed around left-right issues rather than immigration or euroscepticism, 23.05.2014, URL: http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/europpblog/2014/05/23/a-nationalist-alliance-in-the-european-parliament-would-be-more-effective-if-it-were-framed-around-leftright-issues-rather-than-immigration-or-euroscepticism
* Zoe Lefkofridi is Max Weber fellow at the Dept. of Social & Political Sciences; her work on European Parliament elections appears inter alia, in European Union Politics and Comparative European Politics.
** Takis Pappas is the author of Populism and Crisis Politics in Greece (Palgrave Macmillan 2014).
*** This article is the English translation of a chapter in the Italian ebook Valbruzzi Marco, Vignati Rinaldo, a cura di, L’Italia e L’Europa al Bivio delle Riforme, Istituto Cattaneo, Bologna 2014