There is no doubt that Tsipras won his bet last night, with the rebels of Popular Unity failing to make it to parliament, and by maintaining a striking 145 seats in the parliament – Syriza won 149 MPs in the January 2015 elections. The fact that, despite a major drop since January, his junior coalition partners – the xenophobic nationalists of Anel – were able to gain 10 seats was also a big plus. He can now keep the same coalition and avoid the “pact with the devil” with old parties like Pasok, or the unashamedly pro-troika pro-oligarchs new formation of To Potami.
But speaking of Tsipras’ “triumph”, as many have done, is rather short-sighted and does not really capture the essence of the significant changes in the political arena that this election has marked, only 8 months after the previous one.
One thing is clear: the only indisputable winner is abstention. 4,274,000 people stayed home, 43.4% of eligible voters. This makes it the lowest turnout in the history of Greek parliamentary elections, with 7% less than the January elections. The ranks of those who stayed home swelled with an additional 764,000 people.
Many have been saying that the pro-bailout parties have overwhelmingly won the elections. The pro-bailout parties obtained an unprecedented 267 MPs out of 300. Yet, they have done so with only 44.7% of all registered voters. This is slightly less than the aggregate of abstention, invalid and blank votes, which makes up 44.8%. When you add this to the anti-bailout parties’ performance (9%), you get a clear majority of Greeks who have not supported pro-bailout parties: 53.8%.*
This of course doesn’t detract from the negative performance of anti-bailout left parties like Popular Unity, that did not even make it to parliament, and KKE, which maintained the same number of seats as in January (15), but lost many votes on the way.
The truth is that most parties lost voters, but some more than others. And here is the key to read this election: it’s not so much Tsipras’ victory, but a bigger defeat of his opponents.
Syriza lost 320,000 voters in just 8 months. That’s a decline of 14.2%, which is significant. Comparing the percentage of cast votes, Syriza appears to have lost less than 1% (from 36.4% in January to 35.5% on Sunday). But a much more accurate portrayal is the percentage over the total registered voters: in January, it was 22.6%; on Sunday it came down to 19.6%. That’s a considerable drop of 3% in just 8 months.
Their main opponents, the conservatives of New Democracy (ND), lost 192,000 voters, a decline of 11.2%, thus not posing a real threat to Tsipras, despite most opinion polls giving the two parties neck-to-neck before Sunday – it’s quite likely, as it happened in the past, that the media oligarchs preferred to boost ND numbers and underplay Tsipras’ strength.
These numbers also show that anti-bailout left parties did not pose a serious threat either. The Greek communists of the KKE, who had disengaged from the bailout referendum in July and kept a critical distance from the debate around negotiations with the troika, lost 36,000 voters. This is a significant number for a small party, equivalent to a decline of 10.8% of total votes since January.
Popular Unity, which benefited from the visibility of being in government in the previous months and at the centre of the bailout drama, also failed to capitalise on the ‘no’ overwhelming victory in July. Assuming that they intercepted discontented Syriza voters, they captured slightly less than half of the voters who abandoned Syriza, and missed the 3% bar to enter parliament by 8,000 votes or so.
It is easy to interpret the poor performance of the two major left alternatives to Syriza as a further proof that Greeks might have issues with the bailout, but prefer to stay in the euro. In fact, one could argue the opposite. KKE made it clear that they were not contemplating Grexit. So while their principled opposition to the bailout in parliament was not in doubt, many might have wondered what kind of alternative they could really provide within the eurozone.
Popular Unity, which started its campaign with very strong messages about Grexit, gradually diluted their position as the campaign unfolded. I think another factor that played against them was having been in government just until few weeks before. Those who have not forgotten the betrayals of two mandates (the January election and the July referendum), would have struggled to trust Popular Unity’s promises. Tactically, their dangerous engagement with nationalist rhetoric (including a rather cold and ambivalent position on refugees) might have failed to achieve much in electoral consensus, with Tsipras ‘moderate’ patriotism being a better rehearsed script for left-oriented audiences, and the xenophobic nationalism of Golden Dawn sending clear, if disturbing, messages about the need to cater to “Greeks only”.
On the far right front, Anel’s xenophobic rhetoric did little to stop its decline – they paid a much higher price than Tsipras for their entry into troika mainstream politics. They lost 93,000 votes since January, a 31.8% decline. Golden Dawn on the other hand maintained a strong performance, and remains the third party in Greece. They lost only 9,000 votes (-2.3%). Given their judicial troubles and the admissions of political responsibility over hate murders by their leaders, their result remains a major worry. Perhaps the only positive factor is that they don’t seem to have gained from the general decline of the two major parties – thankfully, people decided to stay at home, rather than supporting the neo-nazis.
The only two parties in parliament that gained votes in this round are Pasok and the Union of Centrists. Pasok allied itself with Dimar. Together they gained 22,000 voters over their aggregate performance in January (+6.9%). Only a comprehensive analysis of the micro-data at district level can tell us something more conclusive about this trend. It is possible that some former Pasok voters who supported Syriza in January, have now come back to Pasok.
Leventis’ Union of Centrists is probably the only party that is fully entitled to celebrate Sunday’s results. Its party gained 75,000 voters, a staggering 68.1% increase from January. It is telling that a party broken by judicial scandals (Pasok) and another one that has always been seen as a kind of ‘joke’ for running too many elections without ever making into parliament, are the only ones gaining votes. It is certainly another symptom of systemic crisis in the Greek political arena.
Finally, another sign that the narrative of an “overwhelming” victory of pro-bailout parties doesn’t hold is the collapse of pro-troika pro-media To Potami. They lost 152,000 votes since January (-40.6%). If there was any overt support on the ground for the way things unfolded since Tsipras’ capitulation to the creditors’ demands, then To Potami should have been the first to benefit.
Despite Syriza’s considerable decline, Tsipras remains firmly in control over the levies of power. The number of votes he lost was perhaps less than expected, given that he faced a relentless campaign from those who felt betrayed by the new bailout, but also the experienced politicians of New Democracy, which were waiting for the first opportunity to get back into power.
Let’s not forget the main reason for calling the elections so quickly: the impact of the new bailout measures approved so far has not yet been felt by the wider populace, and there are many more harsh measures still to be approved as part of the troika agreement. Pressure from Brussels and Germany has far from eased. The creditors want to see more cuts and liberalisations in the next few weeks. Will Tsipras and his party survive the full weight of the bailout? Certainly the electoral results favour both Tsipras and the creditors. Tsipras can push parliamentary support for the bailout without having to enter into a formal alliance with the old “corrupt” parties he has been attacking over and over again in the last campaign. He thus maintains face, while toeing the troika’s line. He was also able to get rid of the most vocal rebels, something that both he and the creditors must be very relieved about.
But a majority of 155 seats between Syriza and Anel, means a margin of only 4 votes, and there will be many controversial measures that will be difficult to pass with these numbers. This is far from a stable arrangement in a country that has gone through five elections in six years.
It took less than three years for the old main parties Pasok and New Democracy to see their voters nearly halved or more. In October 2009, Pasok won the elections with 3,012,000 votes (43.9% of valid votes); New Democracy came second with 2,296,000 votes (33.5%). In May 2012, Pasok’s consensus had collapsed to 833,000 votes (13.2%); New Democracy came first, but with slightly more than half of 2009 votes, a meagre 18.9% of valid votes. The new bailout signed by Tsipras ends in less than three years time. Could it be the deadline of his demise?
*Please note that there are other smaller parties which ran in the elections that make up 1.5% of the total registered voters. I don’t have information to evaluate their stance on the bailout, they are likely to be a mix of both pro- and anti-bailout. Of the parties that did not make it to parliament, I have counted Popular Unity and Antarsya as anti-bailout.
**Pasok and Dimar ran separately in January, the figure refers to the aggregate of the two parties.