The Greek parliamentary election of 7 July 2019 has been hailed as ‘a return to normality’. This was the first parliamentary contest since Greece exited its third EU/IMF bailout in August 2018. For the first time since 2009, a single party won an absolute majority. This ended the succession of five coalition governments (and four different governing coalitions) which Greece had experienced since November 2011. Moreover the winner, New Democracy (ND) was a traditional Greek party of government, one of the twin pillars of the pre-crisis party system. The outcome seemed more remarkable coming after a government bringing together the radical left SYRIZA and the far right Independent Greeks, united in opposition to Greece’s EU/IMF bailouts. Meanwhile, after seven years of causing parliamentary mayhem, the neonazi Golden Dawn failed to be re-elected. Also out were all the new parties which entered parliament for the first time during the last decade. After a decade of domestic political upheaval following the outbreak of the Greek sovereign debt crisis in 2009, does the election indicate that Greece is now turning back the clock and re-entering a period of political stability?
The most spectacular manifestation of Greece’s political crisis was the party system meltdown in the May 2012 election. This election failed to produce a government, resulting in a repeat poll six weeks later. Yet its effects have continued to reverberate through the party system. Discerning whether the crisis era’s political impact is fading means above all investigating whether the outcomes of this election have been reversed. This certainly seems to have occurred in relation to the trend for repeat elections opened by May 2012. In the next three and a half years, a further three polls took place (June 2012, January and September 2015). But the 2019 election was held only two months early and New Democracy’s 8-seat majority gives the new government every possibility of serving a full term.
The second effect of May 2012 was on party system shape. From the early 1980s, the system revolved around two main parties with a combined vote share of around 80%. May 2012 brought a drastic rise in fragmentation, with the two parties which came first sharing just one-third of the votes. Two-partyism made some recovery in the three subsequent elections. The 2019 election saw a significant increase, with the two leading parties sharing 71% of the vote, suggesting a move back towards an essentially two-party system. However, whether this trend will continue will depend on the electoral law. Simple proportional representation, legislated by the previous government, will apply from the next election unless a two-thirds parliamentary majority agrees to change it.
The third change concerns the party system participants. The reduction of two-partyism opened up space for parliamentary breakthroughs by five new parties in 2012 and 2015. They included Golden Dawn and the Independent Greeks, two centrist parties and the Democratic Left. All five are now outside parliament, four of them as a result of the 2019 election. However, two new parties replaced them: Greek Solution, a far right party with a pro-Russian agenda and MeRA25, a radical left party led by former crisis-era Finance Minister and subsequent international political superstar, Yiannis Varoufakis. The six parties of the new parliament are fewer than the eight of its predecessor but still more than any pre-crisis parliament after 1981. Meanwhile, the continued search for ‘new faces’ suggests the electorate remains dissatisfied with the existing political offer.
Despite this, the four parties consistently elected to pre-crisis legislatures have all remained parliamentary players throughout the crisis. The 2019 election once again demonstrated their resilience. It also confirmed the fourth major outcome of May 2012: the reconfiguration among the three parties of the left. For more than three decades, the socialist PASOK had been one of the two key players of the party system while SYRIZA was the smallest party in the last pre-crisis parliament. But in May 2012 SYRIZA overtook PASOK as lead party on the left and the gap between them only multiplied in subsequent elections. In 2019 SYRIZA lost government power but consolidated its position as one of the two main poles of the party system. While its vote share was a striking 8.4% behind ND, it was only 4 percentage points below its own previous score, offering a strong starting point for a future governmental comeback. At 31.5%, SYRIZA’s vote was also almost four times that of the Movement for Change, the current reincarnation of PASOK.
For the latter, the 2019 election underlined once again its relegation to the status of a minor party with a single-figure vote score. An anticipated return to government as a junior coalition partner did not materialise due to ND’s outright victory. Its marginally increased vote share (from 6.3 to 8.1%) and its replacement of Golden Dawn as third party were small consolation. Meanwhile, Greece’s traditional third party, the communist KKE, lost this status in May 2012, becoming just one of the new plethora of minor forces. This marginality has been strengthened by the KKE’s refusal to contemplate any kind of government participation. This also explains its vote drop from 8.5% in May 2012 to 5.3% in 2019.
While May 2012 had a lasting impact on the left, its apparent restructuring of the right proved temporary. In May 2012 ND won its lowest ever vote share, its 18.9% overshadowed by the 20.5% gathered by three parties of the far right (one of which failed to enter parliament). The balance between the mainstream (29.7%) and the extreme right (16.0%) had already shifted in the former’s favour in June 2012 and this trend continued in subsequent elections. 2019 completed ND’s recaptured leadership of the right, with its 39.9% vote dwarfing the far right’s 6.6% total. Ultimately, the far right challengers proved ephemeral, unlike SYRIZA on the left. One key here was the discrediting of Golden Dawn by the ongoing trial of the party leadership for murder and running a criminal organisation. A second was the Prespa Agreement resolving the long-running Macedonian issue. Their failure to block the agreement and resulting breakup of the governing coalition proved fatal for the Independent Greeks. Meanwhile, ND’s prominent role in the nationalist mobilisation against Prespa clearly helped it to re-establish hegemony over the rightwing space. However, it also reinforced the party’s own shift to the right during the crisis. The visibility of far right cadres in the new government is a reminder that ND has somewhat distanced itself from the more clearly centre-right orientation of the last pre-crisis decade.As an overall assessment, the 2019 election clearly marks a further step away from the political patterns of the crisis era. Not only has it produced a single-party government which seems likely to remain in power for the next four years, but also the party system continues to restabilise around two leading players. However, one of the parties has changed and the ideological distance between the two poles of the system is wider than in the pre-crisis era. Finally, it should not be overlooked that a significant proportion of the electorate has chosen to turn their backs on the system. Electoral abstention, previously never above 29%, reached historical highs during the crisis period, peaking at 43.4% in September 2015. Here the 2019 election brought no change. The slight fall in abstention to 42.1% marked Greece’s second lowest turnout ever in a national parliamentary election.