On February 13th, a few hours after the adoption by the Greek Parliament of an austerity programme strongly supported by the EU and the IMF, the government’s spokesman Pantelis Kapsis announced that Greek legislative elections would take place in April 2012. While the current coalition government struggles to implement the economic reforms demanded by Greece’s eurozonee partners, the political climate in the country appears extremely tense.
Greece’s constitution was adopted in 1975 and established a parliamentary republic. 300 Members of Parliament (MPs) are elected every four years, under a proportional representation voting. The last elections took place in 2009 and coincided with the beginning of the Greek crisis. Socialist Prime Minister George Papandreou announced right after his election the abysmal deficit left by previous governments, an announcement which produced immediate effects on the markets and forced Greece to ask its partners for help a few months later.
A first reshuffling of the governmental team took place in June 2011, soon followed by a political crisis over the European bailout in November 2011. At the time, Prime Minister George Papandreou proposed a referendum to ratify the agreement struck with difficulty by the European countries a few days earlier, who had accepted to write off 50% of Greece’s debt in exchange for further austerity measures to restore financial stability. This move by the Prime Minister was presented as a way to restore democratic accountability, as the government’s harsh reforms were being extremely badly perceived by the population. It was however seen by the opposition as an attempt by Mr Papandreou to remain in power, expecting the Greek people to approve the referendum despite their dislike for the Prime Minister.A failure would have infuriated European leaders and may have led Greece to leave the eurozone. Hostility to the referendum was expressed even within the Socialist Party and support to the government dramatically eroded.
Although Mr Papandreou won a vote of confidence by a very narrow margin on 4th November and finally dropped the idea of a referendum, he decided to step down. Talks between the two main parties, PASOK and New Democracy, led to the establishment of a coalition government, a solution that both parties had long resisted but which appeared as the only way to implement the reforms Greece’s partners were pushing for. After long and difficult negotiations between the main parties, the Socialist Lucas Papademos was appointed Prime Minister and formed a government composed of members of PASOK, New Democracy and the extreme-right (the Laos Party). The latter however left the government on 10th February 2012 as a protest against the last loan deal agreed upon by eurozone leaders, seen as an unbearable burden for the Greek people.
The democratic problem
The coalition government was only supposed to be an interim government, established to carry out reforms and pave the way for the next elections. Its lack of democratic legitimacy was pointed out by many politicians in Greece, such as the head of the left-wing Syriza group Alexis Tsipras who affirmed that "the new government and the new prime minister are being called to impose a political policy that does not have democratic legitimisation". He added that Mr Papademos "is someone who has not been elected or judged by the Greek people".
In fact, this question is directly linked to the current debate on the lack of participation of the Greek people in the economic decisions that are being made and that harshly affect them. The troika composed of the International Monetary Fund, the European Commission and the European Central Bank is often described as a despotic entity that imposes cruel austerity measures on Greece without leaving any room for manoeuvre to the Greek government. Nigel Farage, known for his extremist positions and provocative harangues at the European Parliament once declared that “there is a troika running Greece, not a democracy”.
Is there however an alternative to the submission of governments to the will of the international organizations that lend them money? At the international level, any country benefiting from IMF loans is under close scrutiny from the organization and agrees to implement the measures that are needed to restore financial stability. Its democratic legitimacy is however not higher than that of the European Commission. In a world where countries’ interest rates and economic stability are determined by financial markets, even democratically elected governments have little room for manoeuvre to implement their economic policies.
In that sense, there is little chance that elections would actually give Greek people the power to choose their fate and their government’s path of action.Greece’s partners will insist on additionnal reforms if the country is to remain in the eurozone. European leaders actually required all major political parties to commit to upholding the new bailout agreement struck in February regardless of the results of the next elections. Elections will thus not necessarily bring the Greek people back in the equation.
The current political climate
There is no general consensus between and within political parties on the timing and the organization of legislative elections. In the Prime Minister’s party PASOK, certain ministers (such as the education minister Diamantopoulou) have publicly proclaimed that elections should not take place before next year, while others have vehemently advocated for them to be organized as soon as possible. Not surprisingly, PASOK is currently polling extremely badly - with some polls even bringing its figures to below 10%, as it is blamed for the country’s current situation. Mr Papandreou is currently the party leader but is soon to be replaced in an intra-party ballot, most probably by the current finance minister Venizelos.
The other big party, New democracy, is expected to be the winning party in the next elections, but the likeliness of it gaining an absolute majority is very slim. The party was, until at least 2010, blamed for all past mistakes which led to the country's application for a bail-out. Over the past two years, the party’s current leader, Mr Samaras, has voted against all bail-out related legislation up until the last package, taking a firm anti-memorandum stance. While this systematic opposition may have earned him some sympathy from certain parts of the electorate, he is now suffering in the polls from having given his consent to the last package and the austerity measures that accompany it. He tried to justify such a spectacular move by the risk of bankruptcy faced by Greece, but this unexpected turnaround has not gone unnoticed by the party's electoral base. Almost 20 MPs left the party as a protest against the last economic agreement, and some are already thinking about forming new parties – such as the 'Independent Greeks' party led by Mr Kammenos which was created a few days ago.
Right now, no party enjoys a majority in the Parliament, which means that the current coalition government under Mr Papademos is completely dependent on the two main parties’ support. In these times of crisis, the political stability of the country appears to be extremely fragile. While elections will lead to the democratic replacement of the current coalition government, it can be feared however that the harsh electoral campaign and the likelihood that no clear winner stands out will trigger a difficult political crisis.
The author would like to thank Mr Vasileios Ntousas for his extremely useful comments and insights.
To read further
On Nouvelle Europe's website
Dossier March 2012 : 2012 : année électorale en Europe
On the internet
Comment la crise grecque est devenue celle de l'euro? Le Monde, updated on 1st November 2011
Greek leader's referendum bombshell, by Helena Smith, The Guardian, 1st November 2011
Greece on shaky ground as coalition party rejects troika loan deal, by Helena Smith, The Guardian, 10 February 2012