For the second time in this year and for the fifth time in six years, the Greek electorate has been called to the ballot box, and in years past, the only predictable thing about these elections has been their unpredictability. In less than a decade, the Greek party system has been subject to an upheaval which might only come close to the end of the Italian first party system after the mani pulite scandal or the disintegration of the Belgian party system along language cleavages. Greek voters have been quick to pull the trigger in recent years, discarding traditional party affiliations quite quickly, a development which has left the socialist PASOK – once one of the two pillars of Greek party politics – in pieces. With this in mind, the actual election result is remarkable because it reverses this trend. Immediately after Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras resigned, which dissolved the parliament, his left-wing SYRIZA was assumed to be able to obtain an absolute majority easily, however in the days leading up to the election, the conservative ND under Vangelis Meimarakis was regarded as a credible threat. Ultimately, neither scenario materialised: there were next to no changes in vote share for all parties, SYRIZA still commands a noticeable lead over ND and the anti-austerity coalition with the right-wing ANEL was sworn in just days after the election.
A textbook example of timing and authority
Of course, the evaluation of a major decision is highly dependent on its immediate and long-term effects. Had SYRIZA squandered its leading position, Tsipras would have been labelled as foolhardy, committing an act of political kamikaze which could discredit the political left for years to come. Instead, a popular reading is that Tsipras’ gamble paid off; but a closer look reveals that the snap election was not a gamble but a rational choice given the alternatives, because of the point and time and the political instrument that was used. The timing of the snap poll meant that the negotiations for the third bailout were off the table, so Tsipras could receive a fresh mandate for the upcoming years. With the new programme set to expire in late 2018, Tsipras would have had to arrange changing majorities during the implementation progress and would have carried over the closure of the programme into the upcoming election. But instead, the newly elected parliament is allowed to sit until autumn of 2019; this means that Tsipras can take full command of the implementation – in IMF parlance, he can “assume ownership” – and may face the next election with having (hopefully) moved Greece out of Troika surveillance in a position where he can reap in the harvest if Greece’s economy and her financial standing improve.
The aspect of authority is important as well. From a policy standpoint, Tsipras has very little autonomy, since the Memorandum of Understanding predetermines a large number of economic policies, which means that he has to implement an existing political programme rather than come up with one on his own. However, procedural aspects remain largely untouched: since no Memorandum prohibits parliamentary dissolutions, government resignations and the like, early elections can still be used to create political discipline or to capitalise on opportunities. With the early election, Tsipras managed to receive a result favourable in two ways: his coalition was confirmed, meaning he did not have to reach out to ND, and at the same time, order within SYRIZA has been restored as any dissenting members may now be deterred by the poor showing of Laiki Enotita, the left-wing split from SYRIZA which failed to clear the electoral threshold and lost all of its MPs.
Stability only on the surface
While the election result puts Tsipras in a position where he can form a stable government for the time of the third programme, other problems remain. Most notably, Chrysi Avgi has defended its third position behind SYRIZA and ND, meaning that a neo-nazi party is now firmly established in the political system of Greece. While the party may only be the largest of the small ones (out of the eight parties in the 300-seat parliament, six returned less than 20 MPs), it shows that fundamental alternatives still remain, and the possibility that a xenophobic turn might work – especially in the wake of the current migration situation – cannot be discarded.
Furthermore, a general shift away from politics became visible again. While Greece nominally has compulsory voting, this provision is rendered moot, since there are no sanctions attached to not voting. Even with this in mind, it is astonishing that turnout has now dropped just below 57 percent, another 7 percent lower compared to the elections in January. This can very well be seen as a general disillusionment with the workings of parliamentary democracy, an understandable reaction. When Tspiras assumed office in January, he promised to fundamentally alter the bailout programmes and to dispose of the Troika as a quasi-government. This position was carried over into tense negotiations that put Europe on the verge of Grexit, which culminated in a referendum backing Tsipras’ defiant stance, but which ultimately led to yet another austerity package with only cosmetic changes. Other than just implementing the programme by the letter, Tsipras will still have to be attentive to the public’s needs and problems in order to show that there still is a purpose to his role and to the process of electoral campaigning in general.
Regardless of the election outcome, Tsipras is aware that most of his policy discussion will go through Brussels. With the third programme running, there will be regular reviews of the implementation which means that the other Euro states as well as the Commission will have to come to a positive verdict. One shortcoming of the Greek side during the negotiations in June and July had been that while SYRIZA has great contacts to left parties throughout Europe, it was unsuccessful in forging alliances with other countries which could challenge the dominance of the pro-austerity bloc led by Germany.
Early signs show that Tsipras seems to have learned from his mistakes. Recently, he talked with Gianni Pittella – leader of the socialist-progressive group in the European Parliament – about the contentious issue of debt relief. Furthermore, Spain is set to elect a new parliament later this year, and a coalition of the socialists and the left-wing Podemos appears as a possibility. In such a case, one of the major European countries will be represented by a government critical of austerity. This could lead to a structural shift at the level of European leaders, which might make further negotiations of the austerity terms possible.
This quick review should have a clear disclaimer at the beginning, saying that all of the prognoses herein can be overturned in the course of weeks, because of any given event. The crisis reaction and the implementation of austerity in Greece has been characterised by swift turns, changing coalitions and a distinct feeling of uncertainty. Nonetheless, the Greek people helped pave the way to a phase of relative calmness. The government which accepted the (once again) harsh austerity terms pleaded its case to the electorate and was granted a fresh term. It is now up to the Greek government – and the European partners – to not disappoint the Greek people any further.