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Syriza and the new party system in Greece

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Elias Nicolacopoulos. Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the University of Athens
Irene Martín. Professor of Political Science at the Autonomous University of Madrid

If anything can be said of the elections last January the 25th, it is that it was a decisive step in the consolidation of a new party system in Greece. The economic crisis has opened Pandora's Box and there are several countries in which, for some time, the partisan map is being reshaped. But we can say that for Greece, it has a particularly clear route ahead

 



 

But we can say that for Greece, it has a particularly clear route ahead. The 2009 elections were the last in which Pasok and New Democracy (ND) maintained their status as hegemons of bipartisanship. In the (double) 2012 elections, a new system seemed to be brewing and in the space of just two and a half years, it has only just confirmed the trend towards... a new bipartisanship? Yes and no. We will try to explain.

On one hand, to the extent that we can talk of bipartisanship, it continues to be weak. There are several features of the system of Greek parties that rather remind us of a polarized multiparty system. There are several possibilities for facilitating parties, or coalitions, -or on the contrary, boycott them-, and some of them are near the extreme ends as regards ideological positions. Furthermore, it remains to be seen to what extent the current party system will be strengthened or if, given the unstable economic situation in Greece, see a new re-composition of the same in the next election. Let us look at the aspects that point to bipartisanship one at a time, those that underpin the hypothesis of a multiparty system and the prospects of the system being destabilised, or not.

We need to begin by taking note of the meteoric rise of Syriza in the period from October 2009 to January 2015. In just five years, it has increased from 4.5% of the vote to 36.3%, which has left them only 2 seats away from achieving an absolute majority in Parliament. This increase of nearly 32 percentage points followed a rate which was, to some extent, in steps. In May 2012 they garnered 16.8% of the vote; in June 2012 it came up to 26.9%, and the remaining ten were harvested in the last two and half years. The periodisation of this victory was worked at gradually, and it is no coincidence if we keep in mind the dates of the two memoranda, or the agreements signed with the European Commission, the European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund. The first dates from May 2010, and the second from March 2012.

Siryza skyrockets, Pasok nosedives

Just as fast as the rise of Syriza has been, so has been the decline of Pasok. The party that has ruled in Greece alone with an absolute majority six times, going from 43.9% in 2009 to 13.18% in May 2012; from there to 12.3% in June of the same year and finally to 4.7% in the last election. In other words, Pasok appears to have the same electoral strength that Syriza had five years ago and Syriza approaches it, but still does not quite reach Pasok's previous position. However, considering that ND also has been quite weak (from 33.5% in 2009 to 27.8% in 2015), the balance between the two largest parties in 2015 provides an additional argument in favour of a new bipartisanship emerging.

Considering the weight of the two main parties, in 2009 their supremacy over the rest was still evident, although weakened. In those elections, ND and Pasok amounted to 77.4% of the vote in total. In the last elections in January 2015, ND and Syriza accumulated 64.1% of the vote. The difference of more than 13 points between the two is significant, of this there no doubt, but is a much higher concentration than that obtained by these two parties in the two previous elections in May and June 2012 (35.6% and 56.5% respectively).

Another important feature is the distance that separates the second political party from the third. In 2009, the third party, the Communist KKE, was almost 26 percentage points behind ND. In May 2012, however, Pasok stood at 3.6 points behind Syriza. In June of that year, the distance increased again to stand at 14.6 points. The trend of distance between the first two political parties and the third took a quantum jump in the last election: 21.5 points separating ND and Golden Dawn, and is an additional argument in favour of bipartisanship question.

One of the more clearly defining elements of the victory of Syriza has been the balanced distribution of their support in the January elections. For the first time, results in a general election were similar in different parts of Greece and in different social groups, with few exceptions. This is something that began to appear into the European elections in May 2014 (we can say they were a trial for the general election), but the results of regional and municipal elections held at the same time as the European ones were not so eloquent.

Syriza, hegemonic on territorial and social levels

As some pointed out at that time, the party had no particular criteria when electing their candidates then, although they managed to get a win for the first time in two of the thirteen regions (Attica - which the capital is in and where 35% of everyone is concentrated, and the Ionian Islands). Attica has it been the traditional stronghold of Syriza votes up to 2012: in June 2012 the average of results in this region (that is, in the two districts of Athens, the two of Piraeus and Attica itself) was 31 2% while nationally it was, as we have previously noted, 26.9%. However, in recent elections, SYRIZA won in almost all regions (with the exception of some constituencies in northern Macedonia and Thrace- and in and the Peloponnese, which are the traditional fishing grounds for New Democracy votes). Furthermore, in Attica the result obtained were similar to in the whole country (36.9%, which is near to the 36.3% obtained nationally).

Besides achieving spreading themselves all troughout Greece, Syriza has also imposed itself on almost all social groups. They have ceased to be a party with particular success among the under-55s, to obtain exceptional results (40.4%) also in the group aged between 55 and 64. Among those 65 and older, ND remains clearly most voted party. If we look at different occupations, the party has prevailed in all categories of the workforce: autonomous public sector workers and private and especially among the unemployed group, where they obtained 44.5% of the votes. Its advantage is also clear among students. But what is most striking is that even among farmers, where they are at a disadvantage compared with ND which been very strong in June 2012, they have managed to draw with the conservatives in percentage of votes. The only two groups that resisted are housewives and retirees. In both, ND continues to outperform them, but Syriza's progress in the two of them has been so spectacular (it has doubled its result), as was the loss of support from conservatives. In terms of social classes, we can say the same thing: Syriza dominates in all of them, with the exception of the upper-middle and upper classes. It is precisely this difference that permits Syriza to talk, not only as a catch-all party, attracting the votes of many different sectors of everyone, and also as polarized in terms of clearly distinct constituencies between the two major political parties.

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