Precarious Europe kicks off its coverage of the Greek elections today. From today, you can follow our pieces on this page. After taking some necessary time off to see where we want to take the project, this major and somewhat unexpected event will see us trying some new things alongside the longform pieces we’ve been publishing these past few months. We’re not a news outlet, but we feel that the Greek elections are much more than just a major political and financial event for Europe.
Greece has two weeks to go until the general elections, and the left wing SYRIZA is polling at an average of 3% above the ruling party, conservative New Democracy. It looks increasingly likely that these elections will prove to be the first major generational conflict of interest in European politics that goes the way of the young.
The graph accompanying this post shows the voter age distribution in the last elections of 2012. As is plainly clear, the two main contenders, the conservative New Democracy and the radical Left SYRIZA, represent two very different age groups. New Democracy gets most of its support from voters over 50, while SYRIZA attracts a younger demographic.
Looking deeper into the statistics available from the last elections, the percentage of people in the 18-35 group that voted for SYRIZA, far outstrips that which voted for the current government.
The death of Pasok
Some background: For Greece, the financial crisis didn’t hit until 2010. A newly elected majority government had been formed in 2009, under George Papandreou’s PASOK, then Greece’s largest party. But in 2010, and facing a crisis of confidence that made borrowing from the markets impossible, Papandreou opted to ask for the help of the IMF and the country was essentially put under supervision by the so called Troika, a body made up of the country’s lenders: The IMF, the European Central Bank and the European Union.
Their task was to oversee a program of structural reforms the country had to undertake (referred to as the Memorandum) in exchange for the massive bailout loans it received, which amount to hundreds of billions. But the consequences were dire: not only did the country’s debt skyrocket, but so did unemployment (now at 25% and 60% among the young), poverty and despair.
The young, and especially the highly educated generation that graduated into the crisis, have been migrating in their thousands, looking for a better future abroad. Those that didn’t, have faced prolonged joblessness and bleak prospects.
Overcoming the fear of ‘Grexit’
In 2012, SYRIZA came a close second in the elections, with 26%. The fear of a Euro exit played the part of a barrier between those demanding radical change with SYRIZA and those who opted for stability, promised by New Democracy and its then coalition partner PASOK, who in the meantime had changed leaders and had shrunk from 38,1% in 2009 to 13,2% in 2012.
It needs to be noted that New Democracy at that point promised to cancel the memorandum and renegotiate Greece’s deal, a promise they reneged on almost instantly after their election. But the fear of a “Grexit” convinced large chunks of the Greek society, and especially pensioners, that the risk wasn’t worth it.
Now this seems to have changed. SYRIZA has taken a pro-Europe stance and the country’s lenders seem more willing to strike a bargain with them over their demand for a debt relief. Those who speak of Grexit are all but ridiculled by most mainstream economists, who support debt relief and believe Europe needs to re-ignite demand in Greece.
Meanwhile, PASOK might not even mange to attract 3% of the vote in order to enter the parliament. New Democracy’s support among most professions and age groups appears to have collapsed, now holding a majority only amongst pensioners and housewives.
This time around, the stakes are not just financial. In the past five years Greece has tumbled down the freedom of press rankings (now 99th), corruption and life satisfaction indexes. There is widespread suspicion against the Greek police and judiciary, who have been accused of colluding with the neo-nazi Golden Dawn party. So the demand seems to be much more than a return to the “golden decade” that preceded the crisis. It looks like the main demand this time around is justice.
It is these shifting plates that we will be aiming to capture in the run-up to the January 25th elections. There is an unmistakable shift in the political discourse in the European South that could reshape the region, as SYRIZA’s sister party Podemos is also polling high in Spain, with an El Pais poll out today giving it the first spot. Once again, Greece appears to be at the forefront of change in Europe – this time, it seems, for the better. We hope our coverage will serve as a guide to the momentous crossroads ahead.