Greece – the EU Parliamentary Elections

Political Background

Greece joined the EU in 1981 after a successful return to democracy in 1974, and joined the Eurozone in 2001 in controversial circumstances.

Perhaps no other European country has seen the radical political changes that Greece has seen since the last European elections in 2009.

Greece had been the scene of perhaps the first flashpoint of the Cold War, the Greek civil war of 1946 to 1949 between Communists, who had formed a great military force leading the resistance to the Nazis, and the new non-communist Greek government. The UK, and later the US, supported the eventually victorious Greek government.

The Greek political system suffered from continual political instability, arguments between democratically elected representatives and the monarchy, allegations of electoral fraud (particularly in 1961), fear of communism and political polarisation.

After a period of particular instability in which King Constantine II sacked his PM, Georgios Papandreou, while he still had a parliamentary majority, the 1967 elections approached. It appeared that Papandreou’s Centre Union party would win the most seats but fail to win a majority. It also seemed that the Centre Union was preparing to form a coalition with the United Democratic Left, widely believed to be a front for the banned Communist party.

Fearing Communist influence, the country’s military launched a coup d’etat, beginning seven years of right-wing rule by a military junta known as the Regime of the Colonels. Poorly managed attempts at liberalisation and democratisation in the early 70s led to another coup by more hardline members of the Junta. This second coup hurt the credibility of the military government and the hardline government’s disastrous support for a coup in Cyprus, led to the invasion of Cyprus by the Turkish government and pushed Greece and Turkey close to the brink of war.

Even amongst the military it became clear that this situation was untenable, and an exiled former PM, Constantine Karamanlis, became PM at the head of a national unity government, leading a transition into elections held in 1974, which were won by Karamanlis’ new party, New Democracy (ND).

Greece became a republic and a new electoral system of ‘reinforced proportional representation’ was introduced which mostly assigned seats on a proportional basis but which gave the largest party 40 (now 50) bonus seats, virtually guaranteeing single party majority government to any party which could win more than 40% of the vote. This acted to sideline the Communists and prevent the instability which had dogged the pre-Junta political system.

Greece saw the arising of a two party system where the ND and the Panhellenic Socialist Movement (PASOK). Politics in Greece was often dynastic, with the Karamanlis family dominating ND and the Papandreous dominating PASOK. It could also be fairly corrupt, corruption scandals were frequent and political parties used the public sector in clientalist ways, with both ND and PASOK governments passing out public sector jobs to their supporters.

The nature of the Greek state before the crisis is somewhat exaggerated, however. The Greek state did not run a significantly larger welfare state or public sector than most Western European countries. Nor did Greek workers receive particularly lavish holiday, benefit or retirement packages when compared to their European contemporaries. Household debt was relatively low. However there was a culture of tax avoidance and evasion which Greek governments often ignored. The government was also very inefficient at collecting taxes. Compared to other EU states Greece’s tax base was very low, and there was a parallel economy worth some 30% of GDP. Greece’s government essentially attempted to run a European welfare state without the necessary revenue flowing into the state coffers.

There were frequently large public deficits. The government did make a genuine effort to reduce deficits in the run-up to joining the Eurozone, but there have been accusations of ‘creative accounting’, though these accusations lack the credibility that the international press often seems to claim with such claims having an air of political motivation. For instance the new ND government performed a financial audit on its predecessor in 2004, and claimed that Greece had actually been running a budget deficit larger than the 3% prescribed for Eurozone states. Yet PASOK argues that the audit changes the methodology for measuring debt, and that Eurostat was perfectly happy with the methodology the PASOK government had used.

Nonetheless, when the world financial crisis appeared, Greece was badly affected. A PASOK election victory in October 2009 caused the government to reveal the true state of Greece’s finances – the country was running a 12.7% budget deficit, the largest in the EU. Fears over a potential debt default grew and by early 2010 Greece’s public debt was rated as junk status by ratings agencies.

Greece’s finances set shockwaves around Europe with fears of ‘contagion’ spreading to other European states. Greece was provided fiscal assistance in the form of EU-IMF bailouts in exchange for a programme of harsh austerity, mass privatisations and structural reforms to boost competitiveness.

The results for the Greek economy and people have been devastating (though, it is almost certainly the case that a sovereign debt default and sudden exit from the Eurozone and EU would be even more so).  The unemployment rate stands at 28%, and the youth unemployment rate is even higher at around 60%. Greece’s economy shrank by 3.9% in 2009, 4.9% in 2010, 7.1% in 2011 and 6.4% in 2012, and has now not enjoyed positive group for six years. The Greek healthcare system has almost collapsed due to 25% cuts, with hospitals running low on medicines and healthcare workers forced to work voluntarily. Around 800,000 people (7% of the population) are no longer covered by health insurance as they are unemployed and they no longer get it from social welfare. Greece has seen climbing HIV infection rates, infant mortality is up and malaria has returned as a health concern.

In this environment there has been widespread social disorder, and the entire party system has imploded. Numerous new parties have been formed by ex-PASOK or ex-ND politicians, former fringe parties have become mainstream political competitors, and the country has been held together by the old nemeses, ND and PASOK, forming a coalition. The current ND/PASOK government has the loyalty of only 152/300 MPs.

Yet, there are bright spots now on the horizon. Recent economic performance has outstripped Greece’s EU-IMF targets. The country ran a primary budget surplus in 2013 and the government has earmarked it for social provision. The economy is projected to return to growth this year.

Nonetheless, the sovereign debt crisis marked a notable break in Greek history and has totally upended Greek politics for good. It is nigh impossible to imagine things returning to the pre-2009 norms and ways of doing things.

For fairly obvious reasons Greeks now have a relatively poor view of the EU. 86% of Greeks disagree with the statement ‘my voice counts in the EU’ compared to 13% who agree (only Cyprus, another state feeling the effects of imposed austerity, has a worse score). Greece is the most pessimistic country about the direction of the EU at 69% pessimistic, 29% optimistic. Greeks are the least likely to say they feel they are citizens of the EU by 42% saying they feel like EU citizens to 58% who do not.

In this environment this year’s European elections present a chance for Greek voters to give both their government and the EU a bloody nose with few readily apparent consequences.

Electoral System

Greece will elect 21 MEPs, down from 22 in 2009. The current electoral system is a closed-list system in which voters vote for party lists and any party winning more than 3% of the vote wins seats broadly in line with the proportion of its vote.

However, currently working its way through parliament is a new electoral law which promises to change the electoral system to an open-list system in which voters have the chance to mark up to four preference votes by their chosen party’s candidates. Seats are still filled proportionally, but rather than being filled through a party list, seats are assigned by the level of support amongst the electorate for each candidate.

While there are clear democratic reasons for such a reform as is often the case democratic reform appears to be subordinate to the party interest as PASOK and ND, appear to believe they will gain from better known candidates being on the ballot. The fact that the bill was not announced until February this year appears to confirm that theory.

The European elections will take place in Greece on the same day as the second round of Greece’s local elections.

2009 Election Result

Party European Political Party Votes Seats
Pan-Hellenic Socialist Movement (PASOK) Socialists and Democrats 36.6% 8
New Democracy (ND) European People’s Party 32.3% 8
Communist Party (KKE) European United Left 8.4% 2
Popular Orthodox Rally (LAOS) Europe of Freedom and Democracy 7.1% 2
Coalition of the Radical Left (SYRIZA) European United Left 4.7% 1
Ecologist Greens (OP) European Green Party 3.5% 1
Golden Dawn None 0.5% 0

Other notable parties in this election:

Democratic Left (DIMAR)

Independent Greeks (ANEL)

To Patomi (The River)

Likely results

Results in Greece will surely produce one of the most radical departures from the previous election. Almost every poll shows Syriza winning. The European elections are the perfect ground for Syriza. As the largest opposition party, it would benefit anyway, but its anti-European themes leave it in a particularly good place to benefit. Unlike national elections, there is also a perception that a Syriza win does not carry particular dangers to Greece’s financial situation.

New Democracy is likely to lose seats (around 3-4) but remain in second.

To Potami and Golden Dawn are vying for third, with To Potami currently polling better.

The PASOK-led Olive Tree coalition is likely to fall back substantially. From 8 seats in 2009, it looks likeliest to win either 1 or 2 seats.

The Communists are likely to stay broadly around their 2009 result and win 2 seats, perhaps 1 if they have a bad day.

Independent Greeks are polling at around 1 seat levels and the Democratic Left may struggle to get a seat at all.