How Greece's electoral map changed radically over 10 years

Agora Contributor: Yiannis Mouzakis
Photo by MacroPolis
Photo by MacroPolis

On the night of October 6 in 2009, Greek TV channels put up the map of the country's electoral districts; more than 40 were coloured in the green of PASOK, and just six in the blue of New Democracy (ND).

Out of 9.9 million registered voters, close to 71 percent participated, handing PASOK a win of 43.9 percent vs. 33.5 percent for ND. The socialists gained more than 3 million votes, while the conservatives gained just under 2.3 million votes.

Greece came under immense pressure in the months to come and ended up signing an adjustment programme with the eurozone and the IMF in May 2010. Tension built up throughout 2011, with mass protests outside the Greek Parliament in the summer. An attempt by Prime Minister George Papandreou to call a referendum led to his political demise and Lucas Papademos, an ex-central banker, assumed office at the end of the year.

This period caused a tectonic shift in Greek politics with unimaginable consequences. The first shock was felt in the May 2012 elections.

First shock

PASOK experienced a complete collapse in those elections, managing just over 833,000 votes, and coming behind SYRIZA, which jumped from 4.6 percent in October 2009 to 16.8 percent, with its votes tripling from 315,700 to 1.06 million. SYRIZA came within 130,000 votes of beating ND, which won the elections by gaining a paltry 18.9 percent. The centre-right party also experienced a collapse similar to PASOK, losing more than one million votes compared to 2009.

Exit poll data from that election is striking. PASOK only managed to mobilise 34 percent of its support, with 19 percent of its 2009 voters going to SYRIZA, 10 percent to the newly formed Democratic Left (DIMAR) and a third to other parties. Similarly, ND only kept roughly half its 2009 voters, losing 15 percent to another newcomer, the right-wing Independent Greeks (ANEL), and 31 percent to other parties.

SYRIZA’s performance was down to the fact it drew 39 percent from PASOK, 12 percent from New Democracy and 26 percent from those who supported other parties in 2009. Less than a quarter of Greeks who voted for SYRIZA in May 2012 had backed the party in the previous elections.

This massive transformation was also reflected in the age group data from the exit polls.

SYRIZA beat ND among voters aged below 50, getting 19 percent of the vote, compared to 14 percent for ND. But the conservatives had a very strong showing among those over 50 with a 27 percent share, followed by PAOK with 19 percent and SYRIZA at 14 percent.

Exit poll data by occupation cast further light on the impressive performance by SYRIZA, a party whose main target two years earlier was to pass the 3 percent threshold to enter Parliament. The leftists managed to emphatically win five of the seven occupational categories in May 2012.

SYRIZA achieved the widest margin over ND among the unemployed with 22 percent vs. 13, followed by students, then private sector employees. Smaller margins were observed among public sector employees and the self-employed.

ND had a strong showing among farmers and housewives.

With Greece having already signed a second bailout earlier that year, the country had eight full quarters under the troika’s supervision. During that period, the economy was collapsing at unprecedented rates. Unemployment in May 2012 reached 24 percent.

When asked in the exit poll, nearly 74 percent said that their view of the adjustment programmes was decisive in the way they voted. Greek politics was entirely dominated by the MoU and the divide between the pro-memorandum and anti-memorandum camps.

Second elections

Discussions between ND, PASOK and DIMAR to form a coalition were inconclusive and Greece was forced to hold another general election in June, with a debate over Greece’s place in the euro taking place domestically and abroad.

SYRIZA at the time had a view that the country’s currency was not a taboo and was flirting with the idea of a euro exit, evidently not having given much thought to the implications.

Nearly half (47 percent) of those asked as part of the exit poll carried out for the June 17 election in 2012 said they voted with the euro exit discussions in mind, 53 percent said the programme was uppermost in their thoughts.

The signs of the transformation in Greek politics became clearer that June as PASOK was left behind by ND and SYRIZA, which battled it out for first place. The conservatives narrowly won with 29.7 percent vs. 26.7 for SYRIZA. PASOK was a distant 12.3 percent.

SYRIZA performed even more strongly among the unemployed, university students, private sector employees, public sector employees and self-employed, while ND kept farmers, housewives and held a significant lead among pensioners.

This was reflected in the age group data in the exit polls, where ND led SYRIZA in the over 55s by 21 points. SYRIZA had a significant lead of 8-12 points in all the other groups.

Transformation complete

Two years later, Greece held European Parliament elections and the transformation of Greek politics was complete.

SYRIZA won 26.6 percent of the vote, while New Democracy, which had led the governing coalition, gained 22.7. The leftists managed to grab 1.5 million votes, compared to 316,000 in the 2009 national elections.

The shift of voters from PASOK to SYRIZA when compared against 2012 was in the volume of 25.6 percent. In excess of 9 percent of those who voted for ND in 2012 chose SYRIZA in the 2014 EU vote.

SYRIZA dominated among men and women, extended its lead in all age groups below 55 and narrowed NDs lead among older voters.

Exit poll data by occupation remained unchanged in terms of the different categories, apart from the fact that SYRIZA had extended its lead and managed to trim the difference among housewives.

The European Parliament results were just a precursor to the national vote that was held in January 2015 as Prime Minister Antonis Samaras’s government was unable to complete the fifth programme review and Parliament failed to reach a consensus regarding who should be the next president of the republic. SYRIZA accelerated its ascent to power with a landslide win.


With an agenda including open confrontation with the lenders and promises to tear up the agreement with the country’s official creditors, Alexis Tsipras convinced more than 2.2 million Greeks in January 2015. Their support gave him 36.4 percent vs. 27.8 percent for ND. PASOK evaporated and finished in seventh spot with just 4.7 percent and fewer than 270,000 votes.

SYRIZA kept absorbing former voters of the two traditional powerhouses, ND and PASOK, particularly the latter, as it rode the wave of discontent caused by the economic collapse. For most of Samaras’s reign, the economy was still contracting, while unemployment grew. The first signs of economic recovery were visible in 2014, but it was too modest to be felt by voters after a collapse of a quarter of GDP since 2009.

A third of voters said their main motivation on election day was to show their disapproval of the government, according to the exit poll.

SYRIZA extended its lead among all the occupations in which it was ahead previously, while ND was only slightly ahead among pensioners, housewives and farmers.

In a spectacular turnaround, SYRIZA now led even in the over-55s.

Second chance

The months that followed brought Greece to the lowest point in its relationship with its eurozone partners and official creditors. The period concluded with a referendum whose result was essentially ignored by Tsipras. Instead, he signed up for a third bailout and then called snap elections for September.

Greeks were not put off by those tumultuous months and gave Tsipras another chance to govern, albeit with fewer votes than in January. It was, nevertheless, enough to give SYRIZA a 35.5 percent vs. 28 percent victory over ND. Tsipras was now advocating implementing a “parallel” programme that would alleviate some of the economic pressures through social spending. That programme, as anticipated, never materialised.

This time, ND led by 2 points among the over 55s, who were understandably more risk averse.

The rest of the picture though remained unchanged and SYRIZA had solidified its position in the various age groups and occupation categories.

SYRIZA led both in the male and female vote, had leveled the gap among farmers, was now stronger among housewives by 5 points, fell behind marginally among the self-employed and was trailing with pensioners.

This was the platform for SYRIZA, formed after five years of economic calamity, conspiracy theories over the causes of the crisis, pledges to renegotiate the programmes and a hectic six months that almost ended with Grexit.

Crushing defeat

Less than four years later, Tsipras’s cycle of dominance came to an end with the crushing defeat in the European Parliament elections last month.

ND achieved a landslide by gaining 33.1 percent and 1.87 million votes, compared to 23.8 percent and 1.34 million votes for SYRIZA. Compared to its first win in May 2014, SYRIZA got circa 175,000 votes less, while ND improved its tally by 574,000 votes.

The exit poll data from May 26 elections show the different dimensions of this shift.

Only 58 percent of those who voted for SYRIZA in September 2015 were prepared to give Tsipras another chance. 12 percent of those who left went to ND.

SYRIZA lost among both male and female voters, with ND having a lead of 11 points with men and 9 points with women.

SYRIZA now trails in all age groups, with substantial ND leads (up to 12 points) in over 55s and the 35-54 age group. The lead in younger groups is more modest.

Additionally, SYRIZA has lost all occupations apart from the unemployed, where it holds a 10-point lead.

As Greece heads into snap national polls on July 7, it is beyond doubt that there has been a substantial shift in Greek voters’ views and preferences, which translated into a strong rejection of SYRIZA across society.

It was predictable that the pledges Tsipras made as he was challenging for office would soon collapse, just as SYRIZA’s negotiations did in the first half of 2015. It was also foreseen that the highly restrictive framework of the third programme would cause disappointment among those who Tsipras attempted to lure with promises of a more socially friendly policy mix.

It is surprising that SYRIZA missed all those strong signals in the qualitative data in the run up to the European Parliament elections, when it was expecting a narrow defeat that would give the leftists a chance to compete with ND in the national elections, which were due to take place in October.

The changes in voters’ preferences are so substantial that it is highly unlikely the outcome of the July 7 snap elections will be materially different. The most probable outcome will be a centre-right government with a clear majority.

The last decade has seen Greece’s electoral map change radically, with parties repeatedly failing to keep up with the big shifts in voters’ sentiments. Having failed to sense the major shifts over the last few years, it remains to be seen if SYRIZA will be more prudent in analysing the reasons for which voters abandoned it.

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