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New Democracy won Greece’s government. What about its society?

, by Georgia Angelopoulou

The Eurozone might have breathed a sigh of relief following the results of the Greek vote on June, 17th, since it was an election widely perceived as determining Greece’s future in the Eurozone. With New Democracy, a pro-European and pro-bailout party, taking nearly 30% of the vote, and winning the mandate to lead the coalition government, in Brussels’ offices it might seem like stability is coming back. To Eurocrats mainly interested in proceeding with further implementation of the EU/IMF bailout austerity measures in Greece to put an end to wide speculation on whether Greece is to leave the Eurozone, jeopardizing its stability as a whole, the election result may seem satisfying.

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However, back in Greece, the post-election analysis goes beyond the evident New Democracy win. With radical-left SYRIZA, leading the anti-bailout front against New Democracy and winning almost 27% of the vote, strongly reflecting the fact that a large proportion of the Greek population openly wishes a renegotiation of the bailout agreement’s terms, the Greek and European political and economic landscape remains fragile.

Following the extremely fragmented May election results, that made the formation of a sustainable government impossible, and under the pressure of a looming currency default, there was a shift in electoral attitudes. While May’s vote was seen as a punishment vote against established parties, considered responsible for the current crisis and the brutal austerity program, the June results could be seen as reflecting an overall expression of fear. Parties and voters became more risk-averse and reluctantly regrouped, which led to an evident polarization between two fronts: the one led by centre-right New Democracy - that considered Greece’s participation in the EU/Eurozone as the absolute priority and warned against the disastrous consequences of a potential withdrawal from the Euroarea - and the other championed by radical-left SYRIZA - that focuses more on changing the “rotten” Greek political landscape, as well as rebalancing Greece’s relationship with its European partners.

In this polarized context, both New Democracy and SYRIZA increased their share of the vote by more than 10% each, dwindling support for centre-left PASOK, extreme-left Communist Party and right Independent Greeks, as well as the parties failing to overcome the 3% threshold for entry into Parliament, which accounted for only 5.98% of the total votes, as compared to the huge 19.02% of May.

In essence, the choice presented at the election shifted from the May dilemma “memorandum vs. anti-memorandum” to “Europe at all costs vs. Europe with strong negotiations”; it was a question of whether to stay in the euro at all costs - or not. Yet, fear of the unknown vs anger over austerity was the one decisive factor, which was reflected in parties’ rhetoric. SYRIZA attempted to shift from its unilateral denouncement of the memorandum towards a more moderate strategy focused on renegotiations while also trying to stay in the euro, while pro-Memorandum parties, mainly New Democracy and PASOK, mitigated their positions as well and sought to convince citizens that they too will seek a renegotiation of the Memorandum.

Further qualitative analysis of the elections results shows that the rational vote in favor of Greece’s European orientation and currency is coupled by the emotional choice of the younger, more pressured and dynamic parts of the electorate who have voted against the austerity measures. In general, SYRIZA won over the most dynamic social groups, from an age and employment status point of view. New Democracy displays a stronger pattern of support only among traditionally conservative voters, the ones older than 55 years old, those living in rural areas, with a lower education level, pensioners, farmers and housewives.

It is estimated that 42.4% of voters cast their ballots based on the rhetoric with regards to the Memorandum, making essentially an anti-Memorandum choice, against 37.9% who voted based on discussions about the Eurozone, making primarily a pro-Euro statement. The first trend is more evident among voters of SYRIZA, the Independent Greeks, the Communist Party and the Golden Dawn. The second trend is more obvious among voters of New Democracy, PASOK and the Democratic Left, the three parties that indeed attracted Pro-Eurozone voters, and which support and take part in the coalition government led by New Democracy.

Despite this prevalence of the anti-Memorandum criterion over the pro-Euro one in electoral attitudes, New Democracy actually won the elections because it engaged in a rather successful effort to form a wide centre-right “pro-European” front, joining forces with liberal and well-known right politicians, consistently warning against the disastrous consequences of a potential withdrawal from the euroarea and mobilizing conservative voters against SYRIZA and the different/unknown/unpredictable the latter seemed personalizing. Otherwise, only a minority of its voters actually voted for it out of belief or positive choice. In fact, 45.9% of those who cast a pro-Eurozone ballot did not feel at ease with the party they chose to support and did so only out of necessity to support the country’s European course, and up to 83.4% of them were mainly interested in the formation of a strong government, so that political and financial stability can be restored. On the opposite, 45.4% of those who cast an anti-Memorandum ballot felt close to the party they supported and made a positive choice to support it. 37.2% of “anti-Memorandum” voters was more interested in the need to have a powerful opposition or the need to disapprove of certain parties.

In its program agreement the coalition government has stated that it is aimed at paving the path for growth, reviewing terms of the loan agreement and the Memorandum, creating the suitable environment for a definite exit from the crisis and putting an end to the country’s dependence on loans; all these without jeopardizing the country’s European orientation and Eurozone membership, and without questioning the self-evident objectives set for fiscal deficit elimination, debt control, structural reforms’ implementation. However, faced with disastrous public finances due to collapsing tax revenues and growing recession, delayed financial assistance from abroad due to political instability, banks facing severe deposits outflows, households and companies unable to meet their financial obligations, credit growth collapsing and leading to a compressed private sector, supply shortages in the public sector and a lack of investments, high structural unemployment and persistent inflation, the country’s perspectives seem at stake.

In this worrying context, the government will have a very hard time reestablishing the society’s trust in the political process. It will need to convince that it is working towards creating new jobs, addressing the distressing situation of indebted households and establishing a socially fairer and proportionate redistribution of the tax burden among Greek citizens. Unless the new government focuses on combating inequalities, eliminating State irrational expenses and proceeding to a socially progressive reorganization of the public sector, moderate parties will be prone to marginalization, while extreme and populist views will become increasingly prevalent. It is critical that the coalition government proceeds to key actions within the next 2-3 months in order to convince European partners and international creditors that changes are needed in the Memorandum to allow Greece develop an economy where deficit and debt will be improving along with growth. Nonetheless, the government’s most crucial challenge will be to convince Greek citizens themselves that policies implemented are for the country’s own development, and not exclusively the servicing of its creditors, as well as that the current change in Europe shifting perceptions from single-minded tough austerity towards balanced growth should be seen as an opportunity. Greece has to benefit from it and not allow itself to be marginalized by its unsolved domestic issues.

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