Greek elections 2015, round 2: Observations by an American innocent abroad

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Even as a veteran operative of several US presidential campaigns, I still find myself struggling at times to come to grips with the many flavors of parliamentary democracy found in Europe. Greece’s system has its own idiosyncrasies, on full display this past weekend. One significant quirk that may surprise fans of representative people’s assemblies is that whichever party comes out ahead in Greek national elections, by however slender a margin, automatically receives 50 additional seats of the 300 total up for grabs in the Voulí (Parliament). Thus in order to govern without need for a coalition, a political party need only actually win 101 of the 250 seats up for election, a whisker above 40%.

In the case of SYRIZA, they failed (again) to achieve such a ‘mandate’, only winning 95 seats – four down from January – plus the ‘bonus’ 50. Although to hear them tell it (yet again), this triumph of the people’s will (to do what exactly, we’re not sure) is but a harbinger of the days just over the horizon when schoolchildren across Europe will start their mornings singing Bella Ciao. The balance will be made up by reviving the coalition originally entered between SYRIZA (Coalition of the Radical Left) and the far right, nationalist, anti-Europe ANEL (Independent Greeks), whose ten seats (3.69% of total votes cast), give the new (old) government a less than confidence-inspiring five seat majority (seven seats less than in the last elections). How winning an election, in January, calling a referendum in July and getting the public to vote as you asked them, then doing exactly the opposite (complete, abject capitulation, however you spin it), then resigning and causing another round of elections in September can be seen as a sign of serious, thoughtful leadership is something of a mystery. In any event, the leader of the otherwise tiny, fringe ragtag collection that is ANEL, the fleshy and oleaginous king of veiled threats and demagoguery Panos Kammenos, will doubtless be rewarded for his loyalty with reinstatement to his political-patronage and propaganda-friendly post of Defense Minister.

One could argue that the Greek ‘bonus’ system at least means that someone can govern, albeit with 50 stragglers and failed candidates, as opposed to MPs elected directly by the much-lauded ‘laós’ (the people). Especially in a country where voting is mandatory for everyone over the age of 18. Except that it isn’t, really, as there are no penalties for non-voting. It would be hard to enforce penalties as, like so many public records in Greece, the electoral rolls are not regularly updated, let alone policed, and are regularly found to include long-dead people. Turnout for this (third) vote (2x elections, 1x referendum) in nine months was predictably poor, hovering around 53% versus the 63% turnout in January, although perhaps not as bad as feared. SYRIZA’s 35.5% of the total vote tally (down from 36.3% in January, amounting to four seats lost) means that Tsipras can still claim a ‘clean victory’ (katharí níki) based on a paltry 18.5% of the eligible electorate casting votes for his party.

The low turnout is certainly attributable to apathy and a sense of futility, and broadly speaking low turnouts favor incumbents who rely less on inspiring undecideds to come over to their side than simply getting their base out to the polls. Whoever won this election was going to face the choice of either finally implementing even tougher reforms, spending cuts and tax rises than any previous government (all of whom paid with their political lives), or tearing the agreement up and rehashing the daily European crisis, talks of Grexit, and such that brought Greece to the global center stage (for all the wrong reasons) for the first half of this year. Only this time, with the EU facing a genuine existential crisis over how to respond to the hundreds of thousands fleeing the debacle that is Syria in a desperate gambit to make it to Germany or Sweden, it is safe to assume that Greece’s EU partners will show even less tolerance towards any attempt to reclaim the limelight by re-writing the last memorandum.

Still, with the fate of the country in the balance, you’d think Greeks would be motivated to vote. But there’s a catch: most Greeks do not transfer their voting rights from their place of birth, so in order to vote, they must return home to the ancestral village where their births are recorded. There is no concept of the ‘absentee ballot’ for Greeks who are out of the country on the date of the election (although given its rich potential for electoral fraud, it is surprising given the scale of the global Greek diaspora that the idea has never gained traction). What this means is that every election cycle concludes with a massive national migration, with a substantial percentage of the population of Athens taking to the roads in buses, trains, cars, motorbikes and scooters for the weekend in order to return to the chorió (village) to cast their ballot. Inevitably for many of the those dwindling few who remain employed, it means time off work. Given how many Greeks are either self-employed or own SMEs (late night kiosks, cafes, repair shops) it means lost income. Now that the political parties can no longer afford to bus voters to the polls en masse, add to that the eye-wateringly high price of fuel and cost of highway tolls (which can be waived at the discretion of the “oligarch” owners of highway consortia, but on this occasion were not), and the disincentives to head home for the third time in nine months are substantial. The uninspiring cast of characters running for office only further devalued any impetus to engage in this great spasm of democracy.

SYRIZA and Tsipras (and similarly ANEL and Kammenos) doubtless benefited from the low turnout. Having flushed out over 20% of his more wild-eyed radical MPs to the newly-formed LAE (Laikí Enótita or Popular Unity) with the promise of elections, Tsipras the pragmatist was able to whip his party organisation into full Get Out the Vote mode. This was aided by having stuffed the public sector with loyal appointees during his first seven months ‘at the helm’ in an orgy of reform-busting (and generally unreported in the foreign media) political patronage of the kind his predecessor occupants of the Megaro Maximou (the official prime ministerial residence) would be proud. While the average Antonis or Despina on the street couldn’t be bothered to vote, the party loyalists only recently ensconced in (or returned to) their civil service posts and whose jobs and salaries depended upon another SYRIZA/ANEL victory were motivated to get their friends and family – who benefit as well from trickle-down patronage – to the polls on the big day. Plus ça change … This ploy was aided by the timing by Tsipras of his resignation so as to hold elections prior to the first pension cuts and tax rises hitting the ever-excitable pensioner demographic and the freshly-taxed home-owners whose outrage cost Nea Demokratia the last election.

What is striking about these election results is how un-striking they are: apart from the disappearance of the short-lived ‘un’-party of Potami (the River) and the punishing annihilation of LAE, voting percentages remained shockingly close to their January totals. In other words, there was no great SYRIZA consolidation of power, but also no great backlash against the Tsipras U-Turn on the third memorandum. The more loony shrill self-absorbed outspoken SYRIZA factions have left the building, and it remains to be seen who takes their place on the benches. Nea Demokratia, having exchanged its charisma-less would-be undertaker of a former leader for a very different sort of lifelong populist party hack seemingly more at home running a bouzouki dive than a nation, saw its vote share, er, ‘leap’ from 27.8% to 28.1%, with a net loss of exactly one seat. Chrysi Avgi (Golden Dawn), the currently-on-trial-for-murder-extortion-and-racketeering Neo-Nazis who only the other day publicly condoned murder as a political tactic, held solid in third place with 7% of the total vote, up from 6.3% in January, actually gaining them an additional seat for a total of 18. In other words, Chrysi Avgi hold nearly twice as many seats in parliament as SYRIZA’s xenophobic, Russophilic coalition partners ANEL, notwithstanding having been effectively blackballed from the television news talk circuit for the past year. A few irrelevant ex-PASOK centrist voices (Potami) were shown the door to be replaced by a few other irrelevant … PASOK centrists. A couple more fringe types gained seats.

Clearly (to the extent anything is ‘clear’ in Greek politics) voters, having grudgingly accepted the inevitability of the ‘memorandum’ and banished the specter of the drachma, continued in their quest for someone new and youthful to lead the country with a seemingly credible claim  to not being part of the ‘old machine’. Looking at the options on offer, it was still only Tsipras who, however implausibly in light of his actions over seven months, could fit the bill. Oh, and this guy.Those who still ‘believe’ cast their votes; those bored, angry and cynical at another year wasted, stayed home.

Tsipras may well drag his feet, especially while the refugee crisis continues unabated, hoping that the rise of friendly forces in Europe (Iglesias in Spain, Corbyn in the UK) will give him a political victory on debt relief before he has to impose anything too onerous that will hit his base. The can has simply been kicked down the road and another election cannot be far off. If so, maybe these guys will finally break out? Given the vapidity of ideas being offered by the mainstream parties, veganism, ecology and natural healing could well show the way forward.

Image: Appropriately, Tsipras on the left, Kammenos on the right. In Time News from iefimerida.gr

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Greek elections 2015, round 2: Observations by an American innocent abroad

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