• From a Two-party to a Multi-party System

  • Χριστόφορος Βερναρδάκης | 27 May 09
  • Deliberations and Realignments in the Greek Party System After the September 2007 Elections

    Immediately after the September 2007 elections, the Greek political scene witnessed an unprecedented wave of deliberations and realignments. The eruption of an open crisis in the Pan-Hellenic Socialist Movement (PASOK) became a central issue. The crisis has been smouldering since 2004, when that party lost government power after being in office for eleven consecutive years. This crisis has swept the whole two-party system of government that has been dominant in Greece from 1977 onwards, a period when the two main party poles, the “centre-right” New Democracy (ND) party and the “centre-left” PASOK party, were crystallised.

    The Crisis of Greek Bipartisanship as a Crisis of the Political System

    Since early 2007, two trends have appeared, beyond any “logical” expectation: on the one hand, the tendency by a great part of the electorate to move away from the two governing parties and, on the other hand, a tendency to support those parties which stand outside bipartisanship. Political opinion-polls registered a particularly intense disregard for the political system and its effectiveness. This was a sign that the electoral absorption of public discontent by the two big parties would be highly improbable. Thus, in the September 2007 elections a 6% decline in support for the two ruling parties1 was recorded (from 86% to 80% of the electorate), while abstention rose by approximately 3.5% (of the population eligible to vote).2 In other words, approximately 10% of the electorate broke away from the electoral influence of the two big parties.3 This trend continued after the September elections, peaked during the following months and is now estimated at about 65% of the electorate, which is without precedent in the post-1974 electoral history of Greece.

    At first sight, the crisis of bipartisanship is an expression of the political weakness of the two governing parties. ND has begun to experience the wear and tear that stems from its conduct of government affairs, a conduct that has been registered as “anti-popular”, “inconsistent” and “ineffective”. PASOK is characterised by an unprecedented “lack of a clear and distinct political profile” that results in the weakening of its position in the party system. The crisis of the Greek two-party system is therefore based on the crisis of the two ruling parties, but is also a broader phenomenon. Essentially, it is a crisis of the post-1974 political and party system, currently locked into a state of total weakness. It does not produce any results, either at the level of (established) state policies, or at the level of social needs. It can neither find avenues of consensus, nor create any clear, competitive (party) poles. It would like (rhetorically) to maintain regulatory policies at the level of state administration, but is unable to achieve this, having surrendered extremely vital spaces of “reform” practice to the market. It has failed as far as the nucleus of contemporary governance is concerned: the regulation of the relations and the boundaries between the state and private economy.

    In addition, the current state of the two-party system is a result of the crisis of the socio-electoral alliances of the two ruling parties (of the centre-right ND and the centre-left PASOK). Their evolution since the mid-1990s as cartel parties forces them to position themselves vis-à-vis today’s dominant political antithesis of public space / private interests in favour of the latter (or to not position themselves at all). This fact aggravates their internal contradictions, strengthens social disapproval, while it creates the terms for the distancing of large parts of society from their traditional representations. The more the public space retreats in favour of private interests, the more the role of the ruling parties is disregarded and their competence decreased, given that they can neither articulate, nor guarantee any kind of “social balance” or “social contract”. Their political (and social) utility is constantly reduced.

    Bipartisanship was strengthened and stabilised after the 1980s in Greece because it was founded on two distinct political plans for Greek society and two distinct social-electoral alliances. It was founded on the existence of two “parties”, i.e. of two different mergers of political programme / social motion, as these were expressed by the liberal, pro-European ND on the one hand, and by the socialist PASOK of redistribution and social equality on the other. This difference was expressed in the electorates of the two parties, with ND representing the alliance of the bourgeois and upper-middle classes, and PASOK representing the alliance of popular and petty-bourgeois social strata. The decrease of one party added to the strength of the other, and vice versa. The period from the end of the 1970s until the mid-1990s was the period of the “polarised two-party system”. After 1996, the convergence of the ruling parties around the basic strategies of (neoliberal) governance and the character of “cartel party” changed the form of the two-party system from “polarised” to “converging”. The shift of PASOK from “social democracy” to “centre-left” as well as the adoption of the basic strategies of neoliberal governance by that party, together with the electoral strategy of ND for its expansion to the middle-class and lower social strata, contributed decisively to this change. The ideological distance of the two parties diminished dramatically, while their electorates ceased to be clearly distinct from one another. After 1996, PASOK became more “bourgeois” and ND more “popular”.

    Thus, today, the decline of the power of the one party entails a decline in the power of the other. The crisis of the one drags along the other. The reason is the removal of the programmatic differences between the two ruling parties, as well as of the differences in the character of their cadres and the functioning of the party; the two parties are treated as “one party”. Bipartisanship was a useful political tool for the functioning of the political system as long as the two parties were “different”, i.e. articulated different social demands by different social groups. Today, the utility of bipartisanship is called into question, resulting in the dramatic decrease of the approval rates for the two ruling parties.

    For these reasons, the current crisis of bipartisanship will not be absorbed easily by the two ruling parties. In fact, we are at the beginning of broader changes in the form of the parties and the party system, as well as in the nucleus of the political relations of representation. This is the essential difference between the current period and previous ones. Previous (coincidental) crises of the ruling parties were not linked to the wider political system and its political tools, unlike today’s situation.

    Electoral Stagnation and Declining Trends for PASOK – ND

    The victory of the centre-right ND in the September 2007 elections had long been anticipated. However, the clear superiority of ND vis-à-vis PASOK (reflected in the approval ratings regarding party image, governing ability, individual expectations and leadership image), did not prevent ND’s electoral decline by approximately 3.5% of the valid votes (reduced from 45.5% in 2004 to 42.1% in 2007). ND’s image of superiority vis-à-vis PASOK is still registered in polls today, but at lower levels. The greater problem for the centre-right government is that, through its second electoral victory, almost all the reserves of public opinion consensus that it enjoyed after 2004 have been consumed. Today, the centre-right government shows some acute tendencies of decline; while it maintains a lead over PASOK, its voting rate is estimated at approximately 36-37%. The party thus tends more and more to reach the electoral limit of 35% that corresponds to the core of the traditional right in Greece, which means that its electoral and social alliances have severely decreased. Under conditions of the structural crisis of bipartisanship, carrying the burden of the (unavoidable) government wear and tear and the full responsibility for the economic and social problems of governance, it seems extremely unlikely that the ND can rise above this electoral limit. Its most powerful – and perhaps sole – weapon remains the still intact image of Prime Minister Karamanlis.

    The picture is much worse for the other traditional pole of bipartisanship, PASOK. Today, this party is characterised by: a) a vague social alliance, expressed electorally in an “amorphous multi-collectivism” without a solid “social base”, b) a vague political and programmatic profile in society, and c) a problematic image of its cadres, especially at the middle and local levels. Nowadays, PASOK is in a state of transition without a defined end. It would need programmatically to redefine its social alliances, clarify its political profile and renew its cadre ranks. This triple transition occurs in the context of a significant decline of the old party model that impedes and slows down the process of coming out of the crisis. It presents a picture of electoral collapse with voting rates below 30%, while its traditionally strong organisation shows signs of dismantlement.

    The Political Forces Outside Bipartisanship and the Critical Rise of the Coalition of the Radical Left (SYRIZA)4

    The crisis of the political system and its ruling parties strengthens all other political formations, i.e. the Popular Orthodox Alarm Party (LAOS) on the ultra-conservative right, the Communist Party of Greece (KKE) and SYRIZA on the left, and the Greens in the “centre-left”. The sum of the “small” anti-bipartisan forces currently approximates 30-35%, reflecting a constantly rising trend. KKE is estimated at 9-10%, SYRIZA at 15%, LAOS at 5%, and the Greens at 1.5-2% of the electorate.

    In essence, the party system tends to become trisected between ND, PASOK and “other party preferences” at an almost equal rate. This tendency was observed during the September 2007 elections in the large urban districts of the country (1st and 2nd districts of Athens, 1st and 2nd Piraeus districts, 1st Thessalonica district, etc.) where the social strata with more critical stances toward bipartisanship, i.e. young employees in the private sector and the youngest segment of the electorate (up to 45 years old), live.

    Among the smaller parties, SYRIZA possesses the greatest dynamics for two reasons: because, through its movement-based radicalism, it has for the first time succeeded in outflanking KKE from the left side of the political spectrum, as well as in becoming the recipient of the political and “cultural” protest of broad social strata of young employees in the new private sector; and b) because it has succeeded in benefiting from the structural crisis of PASOK and in becoming a pole of attraction for the social forces that leave that party. This part of the political spectrum has expanded greatly within the political scene; this new breadth, combined with the fact that this part of the spectrum is manifesting ideological coherence for the first time in its history, equips SYRIZA with a significant social and electoral potential. Compared to the other “small” parties, SYRIZA is more closely linked, in ideological and political terms, to the social strata that flee bipartisanship.

    The rise of SYRIZA was first recorded in quantitative surveys in April-May 2007. Before then, its election results had reached the typical level of 3.5-4% of votes, which was movable both upward and downward; in general, it seemed that SYRIZA was not a “solid” political force, even though it did not face the risk of being shut out of the Parliament. The elements that changed the scene not only for SYRIZA but also for the whole party system were the popular mobilisations against government efforts to allow the founding of private universities (a policy that both ND and PASOK supported), and the extremely important ideological effects that these mobilisations had for the whole electorate. Through these mobilisations, a large segment of Greek society realised that the questioning of the concept of “public good” and of the free access to it (ranging from education and social security to health and public venues) constitutes a systematic policy by the dominant political system that eliminates social rights and intensifies economic and work pressure. In the qualitative surveys that were conducted in May-June 2007, participants spontaneously referred to the case of education and private universities in order to describe the new social cleavages and the “polarisations” surrounding them.

    That SYRIZA would get approximately 5% of the votes in the September 2007 elections was clear even before July 2007. The rate of increase of its influence was so strong and qualitatively solid that, if the elections were conducted two months later, SYRIZA would have received 6-6.5% of the vote. The rise of SYRIZA currently observed in the polls was to a certain extent anticipated in the previous period. Due to voting inertia or “electoral psychology”, the additional electoral approval was not expressed (coincidentally) in the ballot-box; however, this approval rate today constitutes its electoral “starting point”.

    After the September 2007 elections, the landscape of the whole party system changed dramatically. The latent and explosive levels of criticism vis-à-vis the two-party political system were released. ND is tending to exhaust the reserves of public consensus, PASOK is passing through a period of unprecedented identity crisis, the protest vote is enlarged, and this “protest” expresses various demands and characteristics. SYRIZA has sky-rocketed and doubled its electoral audience because it constitutes the political and ideological entity that is most compatible with those social groups that seek to react and mobilise: employees in the new private sector with a relatively high level of education and specialisation, who are informed about social and cultural developments, concerned about the political and ecological environment and willing to discover a new social and political activism. This constantly expanding political field – also manifested in the non-urban periphery – is not addressed by the existing political system.

    The movement of voters towards SYRIZA is not a mere political movement from one party to another; it should not be understood as a narrow transfer of other parties’ old voters. It reflects deeper developments within Greek society, big segments of which are searching for a new political representation, in terms of social identity.

    At the same time, the forces of both KKE and (the ultra-conservative) LAOS appear stable, with a tendency to rise slightly. The more the “pool” of social protest against the political system fills, the more chances these two parties will have to broaden their influence based primarily in the lowest, popular (“poor”) social strata, the rural population and the older age groups. Finally, a notable development in the political scene involves the Greens. Despite being characterised by great fluidity, the Greens are beginning to register a systematic electoral presence. The persistence of the centrifugal tendencies in PASOK may increase the electoral dynamics of this political field which, according to “conventional” political terminology, is probably positioned in the “centre-left” and may therefore become an unexpected competitor for the leading opposition party of PASOK.

    Can the dominant political system react?

    A party system cannot remain fixed forever. It is time for the bipartite party system to change, since it has proven to be ineffective and deadlocked as regards the interests either of society or of capital. Neither the electoral laws of reinforced proportionality, nor suggestions for a German-type “grand coalition” can save it. The reason for this is that the Greek political elites lack a strategy to balance regulation between the state and capital, even though such a balance is necessary for the exercise of public policy. Subjugated to the (not always long-term) interests and the “ideological givens” of capital, the elites are cut off from the active society that is beginning to explore modes of expression not only outside the ruling parties, but also in many cases outside the concept of traditional politics and its institutions.

    Despite these difficulties, the mechanisms of power will probably explore new paths for building up political and social consensus in the context of a “multi-party institutional axis”, in order to exercise direct rule and obstruct an uncontrollable political growth of the radical social left. Two contrasting processes will unfold in the coming months: on the one hand, an attempt to re-arrange the official political scene (possibly involving the breaking-up of the two ruling parties, starting with PASOK, in order to achieve the creation of an “institutional governmental axis”), and, on the other hand, an attempt to build a social left front (possibly involving the participation of large sections of the “social PASOK”). The curtain has only just risen in the Greek theatre of political re-arrangements.



    1. The term “ruling party” refers to both of the bipartisan parties (ND and PASOK). However, it should not be conflated with the term “governing party”, i.e. the party that is in the government (ND) (translator’s note).
    2. The estimated average actual abstention in the parliamentary elections in Greece is approximately 4.5% of the electorate during the period 1974-2004. Great interest in politics (a constant characteristic of Greek political culture in the post-war, post-civil war period) and the legal enforcement of mandatory voting have contributed greatly to this high rate of participation. The estimated actual abstention in the 2007 elections is approximately 7.5%-8% of the electorate.
    3. From 1977 onwards, the (two-party) sum of ND and PASOK in the parliamentary elections was the following: 1981: 84%, 1985: 88%, 1989 (1): 84%, 1989 (2): 85%, 1990: 85%, 1993: 86%, 1996: 81%, 2000: 87%, 2004: 86%, 2007: 80% of the votes.
    4. The Coalition of the Radical Left (SYRIZA), founded in 2004, is an alliance of left-wing parties and organisations. Although it is not a single, unified party, SYRIZA represents an ambitious attempt to coordinate the electoral presence and political activities of the radical left in Greece and has been warmly received by numerous, non-affiliated, left-wing individuals. Two of its participating parties, AKOA and Synaspismos, are also members of the European Left Party (translator’s note).