Greek elections as seen (or imagined) from Berlin

Agora Contributor: Jens Bastian
Photo by MacroPolis
Photo by MacroPolis

The following is a thought experiment, which claims no more authenticity than being an exercise in the “What if?” At the core of this experiment is the question, what would various people inside the Chancellery in Berlin be thinking in terms of possible post-election scenarios in Greece following Sunday’s voting marathon?

If the first round of voting in the local elections was any indication, then the advisers and analysts in the Chancellery will have pondered over the results in terms of participation levels, potential voter migration in the second round and the underlying, unresolved issue of what this all means for Greeks’ political intentions in the European Parliament (EP) ballot.

Most observers in Berlin agree that the outcome of the EP elections in Greece will be close. But their outcome is not yet being seen as a destabilising factor, even if the largest opposition party SYRIZA were to win Sunday. Why is that the case?

Seen from the windows of our imaginary unnamed source inside the Chancellery, the opposition parties in Athens should have had a clear lead in the polls and almost be assured of victory. But that is not what polling data reaching Berlin for the last few weeks suggest, nor what the first round results of local elections suggested.

With unemployment above 26 percent (more than 55 percent for those aged between 18 and 25) many analysts in the Chancellery considered it an astonishing accomplishment that the two-party coalition government of Prime Minister Antonis Samaras and the leading opposition party were running neck-and-neck after the first round of local elections. 

Moreover, contrary to the double elections in 2012, when representatives in the Chancellery were frantically trying to make sense of what SYRIZA is, who its leader Alexis Tsipras is and how to interpret massively shifting voter preferences in Greece, the situation today – as seen from Berlin - is fundamentally different. But this does not mean it is any easier to decipher.

Over the course of the past two years a steady line of communication has been established and nurtured between representatives of SYRIZA and federal ministries in Germany; frequently mediated by SYRIZA’s sister party in Germany, Die Linke. Tsipras has visited Berlin on various occasions, even meeting with Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble in January 2013. In March 2014 the SYRIZA leader met with the German Deputy Labour Minister and former member of the European Central Bank’s governing council, Joerg Asmussen in Athens.

These activities not only served the purpose of getting to know each other better in face-to-face settings. More importantly, it was an acknowledgement from both sides that opening a regular channel of communication would facilitate avoiding further misunderstandings (e.g. on debt relief negotiations), clarify certain political positions (e.g. on Greece’s euro membership) and prepare each side for possible cooperation should the need arise.

It is also an example of smart politics, establishing political leverage instead of finger pointing. Today, Tsipras is no longer an unknown quantity for Berlin’s political establishment. His statements are regularly followed and closely watched. That makes him easier understood and less unpredictable in the eyes of the German government.

While these efforts at reaching out are bearing fruit and may yield substantial results after Sunday’s EP elections, for the German observer in the Chancellery, Greek politics continues to pose dilemmas. Ahead of Sunday’s vote he has been made aware of new challenges in Athens, which were not on his political radar two years ago.

The outcome of the first round of local elections in Greece informed Germans about a new underlying development in Greek politics and voters’ behaviour. On the one hand, support for numerous independent candidates illustrated a vibrant desire among large parts of the electorate for new faces, political formations and above all independence from the old order of party politics in Greece.

On the other hand, the observer in Berlin will have noticed that many Greek citizens are starting to move away from using elections simply to cast a protest vote. Instead they are gravitating towards a greater willingness to experiment with new political alliances, throwing established modus operandi off balance. Cables from Athens to Berlin are likely to focus on this new electoral mentality, which is shifting from protest to experimentation.

This development calls for Berlin to conduct a comprehensive re-evaluation of Greeks politics and political alternatives after Sunday’s vote. Just as our imaginary source in the Chancellery was trying to make sense of Tsipras two years ago, the analyst must now explain to his superiors who Stavros Theodorakis is and why his party, To Potami, has emerged out of nowhere in such a short amount of time and caught the imagination of so many, while confusing just as many others.

Finally, there also remains the need to clarify to the Chancellery’s hierarchy the continuing strong election performance of the Neo-Nazi party Golden Dawn. While many in Berlin had hoped this party would be a short-lived phenomenon in Greece, its electoral support remains strong, and in some parts of Athens even extraordinary.

Members of the Chancellery will have noted that two years after Golden Dawn’s initial electoral breakthrough, no voter for the party could today claim ignorance about what they were voting for. In reaction to this development, the electoral observer in Berlin will have reported back that shifting political preferences in Greece are impacting on various parties’ willingness to distance themselves from or start flirting with voters of Golden Dawn.

In a sense it is a déjà vu for German politics vis-à-vis Greece. Just when advisers and analysts in the Chancellery had though they had grasped the essentials and learned to communicate with various political newcomers, a reset may now be necessary. Hence, there remains much for Berlin to contemplate after digesting the results of Sunday’s ballot in Greece.

*Jens Bastian is an independent economic consultant and investment analyst for southeast Europe. From 2011 to 2013 he was a member of the European Commission Task Force for Greece in Athens. He is a regular contributor to The Agora section of Macropolis. Follow Jens on Twitter: @Jens_Bastian

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