Greek Monitor: A major realignment of the Greek political scene

The ruling New Democracy party under Kyriakos Mitsotakis has defied all forecasts and won a spectacular victory on Sunday, securing 40.8% of the vote, two percentage points more than four years ago, but failed to win an absolute majority in Parliament. The left-of-center opposition, SYRIZA, suffered a humiliating defeat with 20.07%. This is the lowest share of the vote by any main opposition party in the last 50 years, with the exception of the May 2012 elections, when no party secured more than 20%. The once all-powerful socialist party, PASOK, under Nikos Androulakis got 11.5%, its first double-digit score since its support collapsed during the financial crisis.

Though all published opinion polls had predicted that the ruling party would enjoy a comfortable lead over SYRIZA, no one foresaw this outcome, which may represent a major realignment in Greek politics, possibly marking the end of the volatility and anti-systemic vote brought about by the financial crisis of the previous decade. Several factors help explain what occurred.

  • The most obvious explanation is that a majority of Greeks still have fresh memories of their experience under the 2015-2019 SYRIZA government, and were unwilling to give it a second try. This, however, does not explain why the party lost a further 11 percentage points since the last election.
  • SYRIZA entered the election campaign without a coherent strategy. As much as one tried, one could not identify the campaign’s main theme or message. You were left with the impression that no one had bothered to study opinion surveys to gain some insights on what the public needed to hear or what the party’s unique selling point was.
  • SYRIZA failed to understand that Greek society has changed since the end of the financial crisis, and continued to address the electorate with the same messages that allowed it to rise to power in 2012-2015. However, the majority of Greeks today are not at the verge of poverty, unemployment has dropped from 27% to 11%, while private consumption increased by 14% in real terms in the last two years. Moreover, the anti-systemic language adopted by SYRIZA was at odds with the public’s perception of a party that has been in government for half of the last recede.
  • The negative tone on the campaign did not work out. By endorsing the extreme polemic of Pavlos Polakis, or slogans like the infamous “Mitsotakis go f*** yourself,” SYRIZA alienated large groups of moderate voters and ended up communicating only with a limited audience of fanatic supporters. Negative campaigns rarely succeed in Greece, if not accompanied by a clear vision for the future.
  • Faced with a clear message from New Democracy for the need of a strong single-party government, the alternative(s) put forward by SYRIZA were not convincing. Tsipras inexplicably ruled out the option of forming a “government of losers,” if SYRIZA came second in the election, and then successively proposed a “progressive government” with the participation of PASOK and DIEM-25, then a SYRIZA-PASOK government with the support of DIEM-25 and the Communist Party, or even a “special purpose government.” These were met with flat refusals from all prospective partners, making New Democracy’s proposal the only realistic option on the table.
  • The proportional representation electoral law, that was designed to keep New Democracy out of power backfired: It encouraged voters to turn to smaller parties, mainly at the expense of SYRIZA, or to vote for the ruling party to avoid government instability. No serious attempt to agree on a common government program was made by SYRIZA, or indeed by any of the parties supporting proportional representation. No one believed that this would be accomplished after the election, within the three-day limit imposed by the constitution.
  • Though rich in promises, the party did not present a clear or intelligible policy for the economy. The main spokespersons on the economy were short on specifics and largely absent from the campaign.
  • Finally, a series of gaffes during the last days of the campaign, such as the suggestion that prohibitive social security contributions for the self-employed could be reintroduced, alienated significant numbers of voters. According to Sunday’s exit poll, 13.3% of the self-employed voted for SYRIZA, against 54.8% that voted for New Democracy. It is no coincidence that, among the unprecedented 34% that decided what to vote during the last week (20% on Sunday alone), only 13% opted for SYRIZA and 51.3% for New Democracy. In 2019 last-minute voters were almost evenly split between the two major parties.

The ruling party clearly benefited from all these factors, as voters concluded that it was the surest way to avoid the return to power of SYRIZA. However, negative voting was not the main reason for New Democracy’s victory. When asked why they voted the way they did, 62.7% of New Democracy voters replied it is was the party they preferred and only 2.1% that it was a vote of disapproval of other parties. The respective figures for SYRIZA were 50.6% and 10.1%.

  • Elections are won on expectations’ management. Unlike Tsipras, Mitsotakis realised that Greek society has left the crisis years behind it, is primarily concerned about economic security in a challenging environment, and in need of a clear vision for the future. He therefore focused on the issues where his government is generally perceived as successful: the economy, digitalisation, foreign relations and defense, and crisis management. In addition, he promised to prioritise health and public sector reform during his second term. He ran a disciplined campaign and, in the absence of a coherent strategy from the opposition, managed to control the agenda.
  • New Democracy managed to capture the center ground. Among those describing themselves as centrists, the party secured 40.6%, compared to 12.4% that voted for SYRIZA and 25.1% for PASOK. This was in spite of the disillusionment of such voters from the wiretapping affair.
  • Surprisingly, New Democracy came first among Millennial and Generation Z voters. The government was perceived as being more attuned to the aspirations of younger generations and challenges of the future. Targeted measures, especially with regard to housing, also helped, as did an active social media campaign, which appears to have convinced a significant number of younger voters to overcome their personal distaste for Mitsotakis. Clearly, SYRIZA’s promise to abolish the minimum requirement for admission to universities had a very small impact. This success was of particular importance as youngsters are increasingly becoming opinion leaders within their families, replacing the traditional role of the father.

  • Less surprisingly, New Democracy improved its performance among pensioners, obtaining 49% of their votes (2019: 45%) compared to 20% of SYRIZA (2019: 28%). This may be partly due to Kostis Chatzidaki’s drastic reduction of waiting time for receiving pensions, and in spite of Tsipras’ promise to increase them.
  • Most importantly, New Democracy made significant inroads among lower income voters, as shown by Its performance in some of Athens’ and Piraeus’ poorer suburbs. In 2019, many working-class voters were dissuaded from voting for New Democracy by SYRIZA’s warnings that Mitsotakis would slash wages, increase working hours and abolish unions rights. Four years later, these fears have largely been laid to rest. The party’s increased support among these voters is the clearer indication that the vote for New Democracy was not just a vote to prevent a return of SYRIZA to power but an actual vote of confidence in the government.

Why did the pollsters get it wrong?

Alexis Tsipras had repeatedly warned voters not to trust the polls. It turned out he was right, but not in the sense he meant it. Both the polls published in the week before the election and the exit poll conducted jointly by six leading opinion research companies completely failed to predict the collapse of support for SYRIZA.

The opinion polls published during the last week before the election, adjusted by Palladian for abstaining and undecided voters, on average gave SYRIZA 29.4%, trailing New Democracy by 7.3%. Forecasts for both major parties were way beyond the margin of error.

Since Sunday evening, pollsters have been busy explaining what led to this fiasco. Their main arguments are: Their raw data, weighted by sex, age, geographical region and voting in 2019, actually showed SYRIZA around 20%. However, as they were being consistently accused by the party of favouring New Democracy, they were reluctant to publish these findings. The fact that twice in the past (in 2015 and 2019) they had indeed underestimated SYRIZA, made them particularly sensitive to this criticism. Threats that the party would send in a public prosecutor to investigate their misdoings may have also helped.

Moreover, finding it hard to believe their own data, they assumed that many of those who refused to answer were actually SYRIZA voters influenced by their party’s campaign against polling companies. Therefore, they decided to adjust their findings to take account of the presumed underrepresentation of SYRIZA voters in their sample.

Some of the pollsters now claim that they were actually aware of their error before Sunday. This sounds rather unprofessional, and it is not the impression one got when talking to them during the period leading to the election.

On Sunday, the first wave of the exit poll, based on those who have voted by 14:00, showed SYRIZA at 25-29%. This was partly explained by the fact that younger voters, who traditionally favoured SYRIZA, tend to vote later in the day, and, therefore, they adjusted their findings once again. When their final findings came in, they corrected this, but still assumed that those refusing to answer were mainly SYRIZA voters boycotting the poll. At that stage, some of the pollsters began having second thoughts, and argued for a less aggressive adjustment, but their view did not prevail. When, at around 20:15, the first actual results started coming in, Andreas Drymiotis, the former head of Singular Logic and election veteran, was the first to predict the 20% outcome.

There are two lessons to be learnt here: Firstly, politicians must learn to trust opinion polls and stop interfering with their work. After all, pollsters do not earn their living on election day every four years, they have other, mainly corporate, clients in between and they have no reason to discredit their work by doing favours to political parties. Secondly, pollsters need to further refine their tools and methodology so that that they – and the public – can have more confidence in their work.

The second round

The June 25 election will be about selecting a main opposition party as much as about forming a viable government. It will also be about whether smaller fringe parties manage to secure their representation in Parliament.

SYRIZA on survival mode

If SYRIZA is to retain its position as the leading force of the center-left, it needs to regroup and draw some lessons on what went wrong with its previous campaign. The first statements by Alexis Tsipras on Monday, where he accused the other opposition parties for failing to rally behind SYRIZA, and its “progressive government” proposal, are not encouraging. It is clear that the party will be the main target of PASOK’s criticism over the next four weeks. According to Sunday’s exit poll, SYRIZA lost 8.1% of its 2019 voters (or around two and a half percentage points) to PASOK. Another 10% would bring the two parties within breathing distance from each other. It may also suffer losses towards Yanis VaroufakisDIEM-25, or Course of Freedom, the party led by Zoi Konstantopoulou, which needs just 0.11% to cross the 3% threshold and enter Parliament.

PASOK on the rebound

PASOK had been prematurely written off by most analysts who assumed that its bold refusal to accept either of the two major parties’ leaders as prime minister in an eventual coalition would not go down well with voters. They were proven wrong. With this hurdle out of the way, Androulakis can now focus on proving that he will be a more formidable opposition to the next government. He may find that his team of relative lightweights with little or no experience in government or public speaking will not be of great help. On the other hand, PASOK still retains an exceptional party organisation throughout the country that can be mobilised very effectively. However, he will need to focus more on the Athens metropolitan area, where the party performed well below its national average.

New Democracy will struggle to retain its share of the vote

For New Democracy, the challenges are even greater. While it is widely believed that voters tend to rally around winners, there is little evidence to support this theory, at least not in recent years. In fact, the party’s strong performance in the first round may backfire.

Voters’ complacency is the main threat. Traditional party voters may feel safe after last Sunday’s results and stay home, or decide they cannot afford the cost of a second trip to their birthplace. More importantly, wavering voters who grudgingly voted for the party to avoid political instability or a return of SYRIZA, may decide that “once was enough.” Any sign from leading cabinet ministers of a growing “arrogance of power” now that the party is practically unopposed, could easily dissuade such voters. Moreover, the fact that most MPs have now secured their seats in Parliament means that they may be much less active in getting out the vote. Turnout on Sunday, at 60.97%, was unexpectedly higher than in the last two elections. It is by no means certain that this will be repeated. A lower turnout will mainly harm New Democracy.

Another threat to New Democracy’s parliamentary majority is the prospect of one or more minor parties entering Parliament. In theory, three parties are on the verge of the 3% threshold, meaning that a switch of allegiance by less than 35,000 voters could lead to an eight-party Parliament. This would automatically reduce the party’s majority by around 10 MPs. We can expect Mitsotakis to focus his campaign on Northern Greece, where the party suffered serious losses to Kyriakos Velopoulos’ party, but also to the newly founded Niki, which appears to have a strong backing by some elements of the church.

Along with these considerations, it should be remembered that close to 16% of the electorate, or just under one million voters, cast their vote on Sunday for parties that failed to reach the 3% threshold. Their decision on June 25 may well influence the final outcome.

How strong a parliamentary majority for New Democracy?

At present we foresee three scenaria. It is worth noting that these do not depend on how the battle between SYRIZA and PASOK for second place evolves.

The upside case would be for the governing party to maintain the share of the vote it secured on the first round, and only five parties represented in Parliament. This would translate to a majority of 171 seats.

Our main, less optimistic scenario foresees the loss of two percentage points by New Democracy, and one more party entering Parliament, which would lead to a majority of 161 seats, still above the 158 it secured in 2019.

Finally, in the downside scenario, New Democracy may lose three percentage points with two more parties represented in Parliament. In such a case, Mitsotakis would end up with the slim majority, of 154 seats. The extreme scenario of an eight=party Parliament seems unlikely, as both Varoufakis and Konstantopoulou will be targeting the same pool of disillusioned SYRIZA voters.