Greek elections: Just the (decisive) details to be settled

Agora Contributor: Nick Malkoutzis
Photo by Myrto Papadopoulos []
Photo by Myrto Papadopoulos []

Barring any dramatic twists, the outcome of Greece’s next general election seems to have been decided. But the date of the vote is less of a certainty.

The May 26 European Parliament and local elections will serve as a litmus test for the national ballot and could determine when Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras will ask Greeks to go the polls.

Tsipras has made a late attempt to sway voters this week by unveiling a package of tax reductions (focussed on VAT this year), lump-sum payments to pensioners and schemes allowing taxpayers to settle unpaid taxes and social security contributions in up to 120 instalments.

These are the types of interventions that have appealed to Greek voters in the past and undoubtedly have a broad appeal. More than 2.5 million pensioners will receive an extra payment of between 30 and 100 percent of their monthly retirement pay. Around 600,000 retirees who earn less than 500 euros a month will receive the full amount. Also, the VAT changes this year will see food products transferred from the top rate of 24 percent to the lower, 13 percent bracket. The same will apply to the food service sector, while VAT on energy bills will be reduce from 13 to 6 percent.

Any household in Greece would welcome these reductions after almost incessant tax rises during the last decade and over the 4.5 years that SYRIZA has been in power.

However, it will be of concern to the SYRIZA leader that other so-called positive measures that have been adopted since the end of last year (e.g. 11 percent increase in minimum wage and rent subsidy programme) seem to have had limited impact on public opinion. Tsipras was hoping that the exit from the third, and final, bailout programme last August would provide SYRIZA with a platform from which it could mount a political comeback after seeing its support slide since the last national elections in September 2015.

Things have not worked out that way and the prime minister has had to resort to a series of tactical manoeuvres to improve his party’s chances.

The prime minister’s preference is for the government to see out its four-year term and for the general elections to be held in October. But a poor, or unexpectedly good, result on May 26 could prompt the SYRIZA leader to change his mind.

Some government officials believe that if New Democracy wins by no more than four or five percentage points, SYRIZA will emerge stronger from the contest because most opinion polls suggest that the gap will be closer to double-digit territory. Tsipras has repeatedly told voters not to believe the surveys, reminding Greeks that many pollsters were wide of the mark in the 2015 referendum and elections.

A narrow defeat may convince him that the best strategy is to call elections as soon as possible (maybe in June). Holding snap elections in the summer (a minimum three-week campaign is required) would have the potential benefits of running a brief campaign and catching opponents/voters unprepared.

If the pollsters are proved correct and SYRIZA loses the EU vote by a big difference Tsipras could also decide that he and his government cannot limp on until the autumn, especially given fears within the party about the repetition of a tragedy like last July’s deadly wildfire in Mati, which claimed more than 100 lives. Snap elections might seem the best option in this case, but there would be a temptation to hold on until October and give voters more time to feel the impact of the patchy economic recovery, tax cuts, bonuses and the profitable summer season.

Opposition leads

All the current indications are that whatever the timing of the general elections, the broad outcome is unlikely to be affected. Most opinion poll data suggests that New Democracy will win by a comfortable margin. The projections are for the centre-right to gain somewhere broadly between 35 and 40 percent, with SYRIZA hovering around the 25-percent mark. But apart from Greek pollsters’ poor track record, there are some caveats that should be considered when looking at this general picture.

Surveys indicate that 10 to 15 percent of the electorate is still undecided. The largest chunk of these voters backed SYRIZA at the last elections and they could have an impact on the result. A new group of voters will also come into play as anyone from the age of 17 upwards can participate this time, compared to the previous voting age of 18. This will add an estimated 130,000 voters to the electorate and SYRIZA is hoping that its better performance among young Greeks will extend to this group as well. Notoriously, though, young voters cannot be relied upon and nobody can say with any certainty whether 17-year-olds will play a part.

These are some of the reasons why there is still an element of doubt regarding whether the conservatives will elect enough MPs to have a clear majority in Greece’s 300-seat Parliament. This will depend to a large extent on how many parties make it into Parliament and what impact this has on the threshold for a governing majority. The higher the aggregate support for parties excluded from Parliament (below the 3 percent entry ceiling), the lower the threshold the winning party will need.

Pollsters concur that the next Parliament will consist of fewer parties than the current one, which contains eight. They are divided, however, on whether the new figure will be five or six. This will have a significant impact on what result ND needs to form a government on its own. If, for example, the parties that don’t make it into Parliament gather 10 percent of the vote, the threshold will be at 36.4 percent. If this aggregate falls to 7 percent, for example, the threshold will rise to 37.6 percent.

Spotlight on KINAL

However, even if Kyriakos Mitsotakis’s centre-right party falls short of the minimum 151 seats needed to form a government on its own, there is a high probability that centre-left Movement for Change (KINAL) will join a coalition with ND.

KINAL was created last year as a vehicle to unite the centre-left, primarily made up of socialist PASOK and centrist To Potami, but it has failed. Partly as a result of disagreements over the Macedonia name issue and somewhat due to personal differences between key figures, KINAL has ended up being a repackaged PASOK. It is fighting for space in what is again becoming a bipartisan political landscape in Greece after the fragmentation of the crisis years. This means that KINAL’s leader Fofi Gennimata has tried to keep New Democracy and SYRIZA at an arm’s length. But the feeling is that if Mitsotakis needs a governing partner, several senior figures in the centre-left grouping will push Gennimata in his direction even if she has qualms about teaming up with the conservatives, as PASOK did between 2011 and January 2015.

The factor KINAL will have to weigh up is where the election result leaves the party vis a vis SYRIZA and what this means for the future of centre-left politics in Greece. In some ways, this is shaping up as the key battle of the general elections.

Tsipras knows that his chances of preventing a New Democracy victory, in one form or another, are diminishing - no party consistently polling second in recent history has ever won an election in Greece apart from 2000, when PASOK beat New Democracy by around 70,000 votes in the tightest of contests. This means that his main goal is to ensure his expected defeat later this year leaves him well positioned for the future.

This would involve losing to New Democracy by as small a margin as possible but also performing strongly in comparison to KINAL. For instance, if SYRIZA is able to gain more than 25 percent of the vote and the centre-left party is limited to below 7-8 percent (PASOK gained 6.29 in September 2015), Tsipras will have grounds to project himself as the future of the centre-left in Greece, with the remnants of PASOK either teaming up with ND, joining forces with SYRIZA or just drifting away.

If KINAL produces a stronger performance, is not a under pressure to form a coalition with ND and SYRIZA’s support proves weaker than the leftist party would like, Tsipras’s political future will be in greater doubt.

All the pieces have not fallen into place, but a clear pattern is emerging ahead of the general elections. The details, though, could yet prove decisive for Greece and its main political players.

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