The Greek election of May 2023 produced an unexpected destabilisation of the party system, and triggered a repeat contest on 25 June. Susannah Verney argues that voters viewed the poll very differently. Some saw it as a second-order election, others as a ‘system-defining’ choice
Two things were unsurprising about the Greek national election held on 21 May 2023. It was won by the incumbent New Democracy (ND). And, as no party had enough seats for an overall majority, and no coalition was agreed, it was followed by the announcement of a new election. Both outcomes were long expected. But much else was a shock.
ND’s electoral dominance presaged a reshaping of the party system around a single strong party. The official opposition SYRIZA – the Coalition of the Radical Left – plunged below two-thirds of its previous vote share, creating a gap of 20 percentage points between first and second parties. Two radical parties unexpectedly came close to a parliamentary breakthrough, implying further fragmentation of the party system in the next election.
Shaping these developments were two electoral laws and the long shadow of Greece’s recent past.
Between 2009 and 2015, Greece experienced political disorder under the constant threat of national bankruptcy. In six years, there were five early elections, six governments and a referendum linked to a threatened disorderly Eurozone exit. From 2011, breaking with the national tradition of one-party majorities, all governments were coalitions cutting across the left-right cleavage.
Particularly dramatic was the party system meltdown election of May 2012. One in five voters opted for extra-parliamentary parties, while the combined vote of the two parties of government, ND and the Panhellenic Socialist Movement, PASOK, halved to under 36%.
Between 2009 and 2015, Greece experienced political disorder under the constant threat of national bankruptcy. In six years, there were five early elections, six governments and a referendum
Beginning with the repeat election of June 2012, the two-party system subsequently realigned around ND and SYRIZA. In 2018, Greece exited its third international bailout. Then ND’s 2019 election victory brought a return to single-party majority government.
After a decade of national impoverishment, ND presided over a period of growth. It won public support for its handling of the first phase of the pandemic and of Greek-Turkish relations at a time of high bilateral tension. Opinion polls consistently showed a significant ND lead over SYRIZA.
At the same time, however, polls also showed high levels of economic dissatisfaction and political mistrust. Besides the cost-of-living crisis, there were also revelations about extensive surveillance of public figures, apparently using illegal spyware. These raised concerns about the rule of law. A train crash which killed 57 people delegitimated the government narrative about an efficient state.
Despite significant causes for popular dissatisfaction, the governing party actually increased its vote share while the official opposition lost heavily nationwide
Despite this, ND avoided even the normal attrition of a party in power. Instead, it increased its vote share to 40.8%, winning 58 of the 59 electoral constituencies and coming first in every age group and every major socio-economic category. SYRIZA’s losses were countrywide and exceeded 10 percentage points in 34 constituencies. With PASOK achieving its first double-digit vote since 2009, even SYRIZA’s position as official opposition no longer seemed assured.
Factors influencing this outcome included a partisan media dominated by ND supporters. While voters rejected the recent past, SYRIZA was still led by its crisis-era prime minister. In addition, an off-the-cuff remark by a former SYRIZA minister suggesting the party might raise taxes on the self-employed helped ND to a 40% lead among this group. But a key factor concerns the way this election took shape.
In May 2012, the electoral law giving a 50-seat bonus for the first party was discredited when awarded to a party with 19% of the vote. In 2016, the SYRIZA-led government abolished it, turning the electoral system into one of proportional representation (PR) with a 3% parliamentary threshold.
Under the Greek Constitution, the new law applied to the election after next. But in the meantime, the successor ND government passed a second law restoring the bonus. ND then repeatedly pledged to hold a second election under its own electoral law to ensure a governing majority.
Thus, the May vote was always expected to be the first of a pair of polls held under different electoral laws. Political dissatisfaction found its outlet when some voters treated this first round as an opportunity to express a general protest. Voting for extra-parliamentary forces reached 16%, double the figure from 2019 and second only to the 19% of May 2012. With support also increasing for two radical parties already in parliament, the total protest vote approached 28%. In addition, the abstention rate (39.2%), while lower than in 2019, was the third highest since 1974. Abstainers outnumbered those voting for the first party.
Protest voting for extra-parliamentary parties and abstention from the electoral process reached, respectively, the second and third highest levels in any Greek election since 1974
Meanwhile, the two main parties were not only offering different political programmes. They represented different electoral systems and kinds of government. ND, with its support for the seat bonus, advocated Greece’s traditionally tested government type, the single-party majority. SYRIZA, after engineering the switch to PR, called for a return to coalitions. Many Greeks associated these with the misery and insecurity of the previous decade.
The two proposals were not equally credible. All the polls showed ND would come first and was the only party capable of reaching a majority. SYRIZA, with no expectation of coming first, championed a government of progressive forces. But with no pre-electoral alliance to make this prospect convincing, government formation was left to post-election negotiations with an uncertain outcome – reminiscent of the national trauma of May 2012. Unsurprisingly, the largest group of those voting opted for security and continuity in the shape of ND.
Ironically, the vote for stability contributed to a radical reshaping of the political landscape. SYRIZA’s dramatic decline, the surge towards ND, and the emergence of two more radical parties as parliamentary contenders have created a new starting point for the repeat election on 25 June.
With the restored seat bonus facilitating government formation, the most likely outcome appears to be a seven-party parliament with a victorious ND dominating a fragmented opposition. Like the May 2012 contest whose legacy played such a role, the May 2023 election seems to have set Greece on a new journey with unknown consequences for Greek democracy.