Sun Sep 16th, 2007 at 09:48:18 AM EST
On August 16, a day after the major Greek summer holiday and as mount Penteli and a part of Athens' Northern suburbs were burning, yet another fire in what was becoming a disastrous forest fire season (with the worse still to come), prime-minister Kostas Karamanlis, announced early elections for the 16th of September (today). The snap elections were of course widely expected, but the date chosen was the earliest possible. August is the holiday month in Greece and thus a majority of the electorate were relaxing, swimming or lying on some beach, a situation which was to last more or less (public servants' leaves were canceled - and a lot of people headed for their homes in a hurry) until the end of the month. Thus the pre-election period was shortened to four weeks - and for two of these weeks the major cities were half-empty. Then the huge forest fires in the Peloponnese and Evia erupted and for another ten days the country's attention was focused on the evolving catastrophe...
Polls until the great fire disaster were showing that the conservatives, Karamanlis' New Democracy (ND) Party, were holding a comfortable yet narrowing lead over the Socialists (PASOK) led by George Papandreou, despite a series of scandals, the largest of which was about corruption and mismanagement of public pension funds. Sensing that the pension funds scandal was not going away as details of the affair crept out slowly to Greek media, Karamanlis opted for the snappiest of snap elections possible, under flimsy pretexts (the proper scheduled date for the elections was March 2008), in an obvious effort to limit discussion and catch his opponents unprepared.
From the diaries ~ whataboutbob
Update: with 99.54% of the precincts reporting, the final seat and vote tally is as follows:
ND (conservative) 152 41.84 % (-13 seats -3.52 percentage points re the 2004 elections)
PASOK 102 (socialist) 38.10 % (-15, -2.45%)
KKE 22 (old school communist) 8.15 % (+10, +2,26%)
SYRIZA 14 (antineolib left - greens - radicals) 5.04 % (+8 +1.78%)
LAOS 10 3.79 % (not in the 2004 parliament)
ND has a narrow parliamentary majority, PASOK reached its lowest parliamentary electoral percentage since 1977 and the combined left has had its pest result in years. The extreme right (some very disturbing characters among them) makes it after a very long time to the parliament...
The fires complicated the situation somewhat, although it seems not by much. Despite clear majorities (over 80%) that believed that government incompetence played a major role in the extent and the lethality of the fires, the overall situation according to the last published opinion polls (end of August - a rather stupid law prevents opinion polls to be published 15 days before the elections) was almost unchanged. ND has a lead over PASOK (between 1 and 3 percent depending on the polling company), the parties of the left show a marked increase that may give them their highest combined percentage since 1989, and the far-right LAOS (Popular Orthodox Alarm) party is above the 3% minimum required to enter parliament (if they make it it will be the first time a far-right party enters the parliament since 1981, I think).
The surprising persistence of the ND party's lead, despite the massive incompetence displayed by the whole state apparatus during the fires, is due to two factors:
- First, an alarmist campaign that their officials started as the fires still raged: the fires, they said, were suspicious and possibly due to "asymmetric threats", "new forms of terrorism", a "plot against the government", "anarchists" etc. Despite the fact that we can be quite certain that some of the fires were indeed due to arson, possibly perpetrated by the same development / property owner interests that ND was flirting with before the summer, one can safely bet that neither Osama Bin Laden or "anarchists" had anything to do with the fires. Yet this served ND to rally its own supporters around the government to fight some evil external or internal entity out to burn Greece...
- The other factor was the universally low expectations from and disregard with which the whole state planning and emergency apparatus is viewed, expecially since it is commonly believed (rightly so IMHO) that this situation didn't originate with ND but that successive PASOK administrations were also complicit in the creating this year's utter mess.
Thus (if the "secret" opinion polls that I've heard are anything to go by - and they might not be), the situation has changed little from late August: The ND party will probably win with a comfortable vote margin but not a comfortable parliamentary majority, although they will be dropping 2-3 percentage points.
The electoral law this year provides proportional assignment of 260 seats among all parties collecting over 3% of the vote, but gives a bonus of 40 seats to the party collecting most votes nationwide.
A few words about the Greek political landscape. Although it is impossible to convey here even the briefest sketch of the country's historical and political background (another post maybe), keep in mind that
- Greece was the first theater of the Cold War. The communist-led guerillas were led to a disastrous civil war which they lost - and their defeat meant inter alia that Greece was in a state of emergency with many political prisoners and massive political oppression of one form or another for 30 years and a military junta between 1967 and 1974, a situation which created two big political blocks: the Right and the anti-Right ranging from the Center to the (outlawed until 1974) Communists. The Center has been in a position to gain from the leftist vote ever since the 60s, culminating in PASOK's historical victory in 1981. The anti-right is the majority historically, but recently the cards have been reshuffled and old distinctions play a diminishing role.
- Corruption and clientilism are a defining characteristic of the two-party system. Big Business has direct connections to both parties. Under these circumstances the convergence of Conservative and Socialist parties in Europe becomes in Greece depoliticized and even more pronounced. The rhetoric differs but the policies are pretty much the same and corruption rules
- The ND party came to power in 2004 promising more transparency, less clientilism and more efficiency. It certainly hasn't succeeded but it isn't at all obvious that they have fared worse than PASOK. This is one of the reasons that the Socialists don't seem to benefit from the scandals and the incompetence of the Conservatives.
- The left's historical high water mark was in the 1960s when (despite widespread terror against its supporters and cadres) the Democratic Left Party reached ~25% (and caused a quick change of the electoral laws so that this wouldn't be repeated again. Post-junta, it has reached 14% in 1989 when the two parties were cooperating.
- Both left parties have explicitly stated that they won't cooperate with the socialists after the elections. The far right is less adamant about cooperating with any of the two parties, on its own terms.
Having said all that, here's the 5 biggest parties that will be competing for our vote Sunday:
New Democracy Party: This is the party of the Right. The party of Kostas Karamanlis Sr, (who was responsible for the Greek EU accesion back in the 70's and 80's) and Kostas Karamanlis Jr, it's current leader and nephew of the historical conservative leader. It is an amalgam consisting of everything from neoliberals to far-right nationalists, but its historical core is the cold-war populist right, "Karamanlism" - a lighter Greek version of Gaulism. They don't say much about what they're planning to do on economic issues if they get re-elected, but surely public education, insurance, pensions etc, will be up for privatization - and the utility companies will quite probably be completely (or further) privatized. They managed to turn an already violent (against demonstrators) police force into a force of almost paramilitary brutality (as seen in the streets of Athens and Salonica during this year's university student revolt against the privatization of higher education.
PASOK: The Socialist party (I can't believe that they don't have english language pages!). Started as a hard-left party by Andreas Papandreou, immediately after the fall of the military junta in 1974, it became the first "leftist" party to win the elections in 1981. It gradually "softened" spectacularly, became enmeshed in successive corruption scandals until during the period that it run the country under Prime Minister Kostas Simitis (1996-2004) it became the "best right wing government the country has ever had", pushing privatization of public utilities, deregulation and widening the income gap to levels that we hadn't seen since the 1960s - early 70s. At the same time the close relationship the party maintained with very large local business/media interests was developed to a most blatant level. The party is currently led by George Papandreou (son of the aforementioned Andreas Papandreou and grandson of yet another Centrist Prime Minister - Greece's "Kennedys"). He has the name but not the populist charisma: although naturally a rather low-key politician he's trying to impersonate his father, using the same high tone populist rhetoric, which if you don't know how to deliver sounds kind of ridiculous. I wouldn't bet on him surviving a big loss as the party's leader.
KKE: The embodiment of an old-fashioned Soviet style communist party, it has managed to present itself as the protest-vote party. This is helped by its strong union presence and army of activists. I note that after the end of the cold-war it shifted from a politics of negotiation and political collaborations with other parties, to a solipsism of "5 parties, 2 political lines" that is, KKE on the one side and everybody else on the other. The party is antieuropean (not just eurosceptic) and supports quick withdrawal from the EU. They're flirting with all sorts of rather shady nationalists, capitalizing on its history as the party behind the massive Greek resistance against the Nazi occupation - and thus its "patriotic credentials". They're going to pick up at least 1.5% tomorrow.
SYRIZA: The coalition of the radical left, the electoral alliance that the Synaspismos party has managed to put together, including various small groups of the activist left, ecological groups and organizations, the antistalinist left, even the trotskyite left and the ex-maoist left etc. Imagine a cross between PCF and LRC and you get some idea of its politics. It was the party that supported the students' protests this year, it's probably the dominant power in the Greek Social Forum and a member of the Party of the European Left. It is a pro-european party, although it is very much against the direction the EU is currently on. It is also the only parliamentary party that has the environment as a top priority in its agenda.
It looks as if they're going to increase their votes from barely over 3 percent in 2004 to something that might be closer to 5. They're under enormous pressure to cooperate with PASOK, but it won't happen as they have been burned before such promises of co-operation.
BTW this is the party I vote for and support (if it isn't obvious)
LAOS: A party of the extreme right posing as a populist party. It's half extreme-right / half circus, as its candidates include everything from fascist ideologues and Lepen admirers, to sexy pop singers, TV personalities and priests and from diplomats and university professors to disgruntled ND politicians who didn't make their party's electoral lists this year. They present themselves as "the people's voice", they deny any racism and xenophobia, but they thrive on stale nationalism and immigrant-bashing and are ready to call as treasonous any moderate voice on external affairs. Their leader Giorgos Karatzaferis (a journalist who has his own trash TV channel) has a portrait of Che over his office (he's a "revolutionary like him") and has promised to include the main parts of the November 17 terrorist group's communiques (this was a "Marxist-Leninist" armed group that was dismantled five years ago, and had not a few admirers across the political spectrum - but that's another story) despite rejecting their "murderous deeds". ND is fighting this guy tooth and nail and the socialists are propping him up, as he has the potential to attract many of ND's far-right voters, pass the 3% limit and deny ND an outright parliamentary majority.
These are the "main contenders". There is also a host of smaller parties ranging from the extreme right to the (small) Green party and from the various M-L and Trotskyite groups + not a few lone kooks to a new right-libertarian internet-based party.
Generally there is an air of uncertainty hanging over Greece, some sort of "end-of-an-era" wish, especially after this summer's fires. Whether this will be evident in the election results or it will continue to be politics as usual, remains to be seen...
Anyway: these are the results of the 2004 elections. Here is the Ministry of the Interior's english language election pages (they're running test data for the time being). Of special interest are the electoral results in the disaster areas in the prefectures of Ileia, Messinia, Lakonia and Eyvoia... Keep in mind that Northern Greece leans more or less right, The North Peloponnese and Crete lean Socialist as do the Athenian Suburbs (B' Athinon), the largest electoral periphery with a seventh of total parliamentary seats...
Note that the number of registered voters is irrelevant as it includes >1 million Greek immigrants in various parts of the world who obviously don't travel back en masse to vote, and possibly hundreds of thousand of deceased persons (my late father being one of them) who were never removed from the lists! Quick calculations based on the 2001 census data show that the number of real and available voters can't be much larger than 8.5 million people.
I'll try to keep you posted - although I'll be wandering around and I'm not sure about having a laptop with an internet connection handy!