We expected the two parties that have ruled Greece since 1974 to go through a staggered collapse, possibly over the course of two or three elections, but we are already surveying the debris today: The wrecking ball came in one fell swoop and left New Democracy and PASOK in ruins from which they will find it difficult to rebuild themselves.
ND and PASOK had been in gradual decline since 2000 but the economic crisis sent them tumbling over the edge of the cliff. Their worst combined showing in a general election since 1981 was in 2009, before the crisis struck, when they gained 79 percent of the vote. Today, they hold only about 40 percent of that. In 2009, New Democracy had its worst-ever election performance, drawing just 33 percent. Today, it can’t even muster that together with PASOK. Rarely in European politics has such a dramatic collapse been seen in such a short period of time.
The brief election campaign and the way the two parties handled it was the final blow to their chances. They were unable to shove the pre-election debate out of the sterile pro-/anti-bailout rut it was stuck in. This meant that the campaign was bereft of new ideas and policies, and lacked the element of hope it should have had in the wake of the PSI deal, which theoretically relieved Greece of a large part of its debt.
Instead, ND and PASOK chased their tails as they sought to repeatedly defend their support for the new bailout. Their attempts to present themselves as the parties of responsibility failed miserably. They failed because while their lips were talking about the EU-IMF memorandum and how vital it was for Greece, their actions spoke of two parties still stricken by the arrogance and populism that had led them to power over the last 38 years.
How could voters accept New Democracy’s claim of displaying responsibility when it spent the last six months trying to dodge any responsibility that came with being part of the coalition government it formed with PASOK and the Popular Orthodox Rally (LAOS)? How could it convincingly claim that it had the country’s interests at heart when its leader Antonis Samaras stubbornly insisted he would only accept an election result that would give his party a clear majority? How could Greeks believe in a party that based many of its election pledges on policies that had already been agreed with the troika and included in the new bailout program, such as unifying property taxes and privatizing ports and marinas? In the final days of the campaign, Samaras was flanked by former Prime Minister and party leader Costas Karamanlis, who led a government that failed to deliver on its promises of fighting corruption and reforming the public sector, and who in his last year in office saw Greece borrow double what it had budgeted for and the country’s deficit spiral out of control. Not once during the campaign did New Democracy show any compunction for its role in the crisis that has led to millions of Greeks being sorely tested. Instead, it seemed to celebrate its failure.
PASOK, the party that walked blindly into the mother of all crises and thought it could handle it on its own, was equally unconvincing. Its leader, Evangelos Venizelos, who as finance minister plucked one austerity measure after the other out of thin air to make up for the lack of public sector reform, personally guaranteed an exit from the crisis. But this alluded to a cult-of-personality politics that has been dying out with the two-party system. It was promise from a bygone era. Venizelos’s major pledge was to convince the troika that Greece should have an extra year, until 2015, to complete its fiscal adjustment program. He conveniently ignored the fact that the IMF has scheduled to keep funding Greece until 2015 anyway.
Playing with words was no way for PASOK and ND to rebuild voters’ shattered confidence. This tactic was compounded by the parties failing to convince people that they had changed and had caught up with a society that wants to move away from the petty politics and clientelism of the past. Instead, the two parties, unable to present a convincing plan for exiting the crisis, confirmed that they had run out of ideas. But they went further than that. They resorted to the patron-client tactics they honed over last four decades by arranging for the regular property tax, as well as the emergency property tax levied through electricity bills, not to be levied before the elections.
It is this incredible hubris that has led to the downfall of PASOK and ND. This arrogance of power was also evident in Samaras’s insistence that there should be elections when everything pointed to an inconclusive outcome. It was also visible in the confidence the two parties had that placing the dilemma of euro vs drachma before voters would lead to them securing a majority. It turned out that most voters saw this as blackmail. Extraordinary times demanded that they ditch the baggage of the past and find a new message and a renewed relevance. They did none of this and have been sent to a political purgatory from which they may never emerge.
The inability of PASOK and New Democracy to resonate with Greek people following more than two years of crisis and austerity meant that voters sought answers elsewhere. The Coalition of the Radical Left (SYRIZA) attempted to provide these answers. Its response to the dead-end of the crisis was to propose questionable, but certainly radical, solutions such as declaring a unilateral default. It managed to be clear where the more moderate Democratic Left — which had eclipsed SYRIZA until recently in the opinion polls — was muddled about what it actually wanted. By reaching out to the parties of the left, and even the Independent Greeks, it took on the profile of a party of power. The fact it has a 38-year-old leader in Alexis Tsipras has helped in the stale atmosphere of Greek politics. It is much easier for SYRIZA to claim it represents young Greeks than other parties who have always had an awkward relationship with them.
The Independent Greeks also captured the zeitgeist by tapping into the anti-bailout sentiment. Its harsh language for Germany and the IMF channeled the anger felt by many Greeks. Chrysi Avgi (Golden Dawn) also built on this festering rage, albeit with much more extreme positions.
Populism has what the Greeks call “short legs” but there is every reason to believe that we have witnessed a much more substantial change in Greek politics. While SYRIZA and other parties have benefited to some extent from saying things people want to hear, we should not underestimate that the circumstances in Greece have made it vital for people to grab onto any strand of hope they can find, anything that can help them climb out of the mire. There was something eerily symbolic in the fact that it was recently announced that 1.08 million people were unemployed in January, while 1.06 million people voted for SYRIZA on Sunday.
You simply cannot expect GDP to fall by a fifth over a couple of years, people’s income to plummet by 25 percent, their tax bill to increase by about the same amount, and unemployment to more than double to 21 percent in just a year without it having a profound effect on people’s political choices.
Greece is now at a nexus in its history, where the decline of its two major parties has met the social and economic upheaval caused by the crisis. The next few weeks will give us an idea of whether the wrecking ball will just keep swinging or whether there will be a chance to build on the ruins.