Election preview: Greece

Greece goes to the polls tomorrow for its fourth general election in three and a half years. A close result is expected – polls close at 2am Monday, eastern Australian time, so all the figures should be available at breakfast time – but it’s not clear how much difference it will make either way.

The election was called last month after prime minister Alexis Tsipras, of the radical left Syriza party, resigned to seek a fresh mandate. He had only been elected in January, but the political situation had changed dramatically since then after Tsipras agreed on fresh bailout terms with Greece’s creditors, apparently going against both his own anti-austerity rhetoric and the result of July’s referendum, and splitting his party in the process.

The opinion polls have shown a close race for first place between Syriza and the centre-right New Democracy, with Syriza probably holding a slight advantage. But although first place matters a lot more than in most multi-party systems, it’s not the whole story, and with as many as nine parties possibly making it into parliament there will be some interesting coalition talks to come.

A quick sketch of the Greek electoral system is necessary to understand what’s going on. There are 300 seats in parliament, 250 of them allocated proportionally (apparently by Sainte-Laguë, or as close to it as doesn’t matter) according to the nationwide vote of each party that reaches a 3% threshold. The remaining 50 go to the party that comes first as a single bonus allocation.

So if it’s assumed that all parties win representation in parliament, the leader needs to top 40% in order to win an absolute majority (since it needs to win more than 100 of the 250 proportional seats). But that assumption never holds in practice, since some parties will fall below 3%, and accordingly the target for an absolute majority will fall. If more than 10% of the vote goes to unrepresented parties, for example, the target becomes 36%.

In January, Syriza fell tantalisingly short, winning (with the bonus) 149 seats for its 36.3% of the vote. It reached a majority by taking into coalition the small right-wing party Independent Greeks (ANEL), but ANEL is less likely as a partner this time – partly because its anti-austerity views are now less helpful to Tsipras, but also because it may well drop below the 3% threshold.

Another three parties are even less likely as coalition partners, for Syriza or for anyone else: the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn, the unreconstructed Communist Party, and Popular Unity, the anti-Tsipras breakaway from Syriza.

That leaves the two big parties, each with somewhere around 30% of the vote, and three small parties nestled somewhere between them: the centre-left PASOK, the liberal To Potami (“The River”) and the Union of Centrists, on the verge of making it into parliament for the first time. Whichever of Syriza and New Democracy comes first will need at least one and possibly two of those three in order to form government.

Alternatively, Syriza and New Democracy could join in a grand coalition, as New Democracy leader Vangelis Meimarakis suggested last weekend. Tsipras has rejected the idea, citing “fundamental differences” between them. There seems no doubt that he would change his mind if there was no alternative to keep out the extreme left or right, but things have not yet reached that point. The large majority will back a continued European future for Greece.

The presence of the extremists in parliament, however, means that there is no prospect of excluding the first-placegetter from a coalition: if New Democracy runs even a very close second, the numbers will not be there for it to put together an anti-Syriza government. The smaller centrist parties will have little alternative but to go along with the winner.

So whichever of Tsipras and Meimarakis can get his nose in front tomorrow seems almost guaranteed to become prime minister. The question is, given that they are both now committed to austerity of a sort, how much difference will it make?

Although he is new to the job and has tried to present himself as a reformer, Meimarakis remains the candidate of the old system that got Greece into this mess in the first place. Tsipras, on the other hand, while constrained to some extent by his deal with the creditors, seems still committed to radical reform, which might dismantle the client state and bring Greece more into the modern world.

Many obviously voted for Syriza in January in the hope that it would comprehensively repudiate the demands of the country’s creditors, even if that meant taking Greece out of the eurozone. No doubt many also refrained from voting for it for fear of the same thing. Now that both hope and fear have been dampened, the relative size of those two groups may determine whether a chastened Tsipras will be given a second chance.


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