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PASOK and New Democracy: Still standing on Sunday?

By Nick Malkoutzis

There is little doubt that Sunday’s elections will deal painful blows to both PASOK and New Democracy. The question, though, is whether they will be knockout blows. Most indications are that despite their declining popularity Greece’s two main parties will survive.

Since 1981, PASOK and New Democracy have only once received a combined share of the vote that is less than 79 percent. This was in the most recent national elections, in 2009. It was the fourth consecutive elections in which the two parties saw their share of the vote decline but it would take a drop of monumental proportions on Sunday to keep the Socialists and conservatives from being in a position to form a government.

Exactly what percentage of the vote they would need is not clear as it will depend on how well the parties who don’t enter Parliament fare on election day. The better they do, the easier it will be for PASOK and ND to combine their forces to get the minimum of 151 seats to form a government. In 2009, the aggregate percentage of the parties that failed to make it into Parliament was less than 5 percent. If this is repeated on Sunday, the next government needs close to 39 percent of the vote for a majority.

However, it is likely that this time the support that goes to smaller, non-parliamentary parties will be higher. Some opinion polls were putting it at close to 10 percent a few weeks ago. If this is accurate, the threshold for forming a government would be less than 37 percent.

Even taking into account the anger and disappointment felt by these two parties’ traditional supporters, PASOK and ND would have to collect less than half of the 79 percent they gathered about 2.5 years ago in order to be unable to form a government. In the current fluid political environment, it’s not impossible, though it does seem highly improbable.

Should PASOK and New Democracy pass the 151-seat mark, they will face two questions: if they can work together and if they will need a third party to join their administration and boost their numbers in Parliament.

In essence, there should be little keeping PASOK and ND from cooperating. They have both agreed to the terms of the new EU-IMF loan agreement, which has more or less decided Greece’s economic, social, health and education policies for the next few years. The task of the next government will be implementing the reforms that have been agreed.

During the campaign, PASOK leader Evangelos Venizelos and ND chief Antonis Samaras have both suggested that they would like to make some changes to the terms of the loan agreement. Venizelos wants an extra year, until 2015, for Greece to meet its fiscal targets. Samaras wants to find alternative ways to find some 11.5 billion euros of cuts for 2013 and 2014 in June. If Greece’s lenders get a coalition government they are comfortable with, it seems likely that they will allow some room for manoeuvre after the elections. Beyond that, though, there are few issues that should block a PASOK-ND coalition.

One of these might be immigration. Samaras has campaigned hard on the issue and wants to repeal a law passed by PASOK in 2010 that allows second-generation immigrants to claim Greek citizenship. It may seem like a minor issue given the economic pressures bearing down on Greece but when former Prime Minister George Papandreou called Samaras last summer to propose a coalition government -- again during a period of high intensity -- the ND chief made the withdrawal of the citizenship law a precondition for talks going any further.

If this gap is bridged, then the next sticking point could be who will staff the next government. PASOK does not want Samaras to be prime minister and if the difference between the two parties in terms of vote share is small, the Socialists will feel they are owed a say in who becomes the next prime minister. Clearly, this would have to be a non-divisive figure in the Lucas Papademos mould. Foreign Minister and former European environment commissioner Stavros Dimas has been mentioned as a possible candidate.

Finance minister is another position that will be contested by the two parties if they are to govern together. They may opt for a political outsider with strong economic credentials.

Should they be able to agree on all these aspects, ND and PASOK would then have to decide whether a third party should be added to their coalition. Neither side would feel comfortable with a slim majority in Parliament. This would leave them vulnerable to capricious MPs and attacks from opposition parties who would claim a lack of political legitimacy for some measures.

Having 180 or more MPs in Parliament would allow the coalition government to pass bills through the House with a qualified majority. This would give the administration a political advantage rather than a practical one as it is rare for such a majority to be required. It applies, for instance, in the case of international treaties. Where it could come into play is in the appointment of a new president in 2015 but that is too far off to be of great concern to ND or PASOK now.

In looking for a third coalition partner, the only viable candidates seem to be the Democratic Left (DIMAR), Democratic Alliance (DISY) or the Popular Orthodox Rally (LAOS). There remains doubt over whether the last two will get into Parliament. In each case, the compromises that will have to be made to get a third party on board will have to be weighed against the extra seats that it could bring. The liberal DISY, led by former Foreign Minister Dora Bakoyannis, appears the most pliable of the three parties. LAOS and DIMAR may ask for concessions with regard to the austerity measures.

Should all this prove too much for PASOK or ND, the other options for a coalition government are limited. Election law means that the leader of the first party will get three days to form a government. Then the right passes to the leader of the second party and if he fails, it goes to the third party.

The major surprise in this election would be for PASOK to be beaten to second place. The Coalition of the Radical Left (SYRIZA) and the right-wing Independent Greeks have been talking up their chances of doing so. SYRIZA, which is vying for disenchanted PASOK supporters, has a better chance of achieving this goal. But it may prove a hollow achievement.

If SYRIZA gets the chance to form a government, its options are limited. Any overtures to the Communist Party (KKE) will be rejected. The Democratic Left might be willing to listen but it is inconceivable that the two would have enough seats to form a government. SYRIZA leader Alexis Tsipras has suggested that he might accept support from the Independent Greeks, despite being political opposites, if there is a possibility of forming an anti-bailout front. The two parties hold similar positions on some issues relating to the loan deal but even if they are able to jump into bed together, Democratic Left is unlikely to be a willing third partner. It will probably find it much more difficult to get over its ideological differences with the Independent Greeks.

Similarly, the possibility of New Democracy forming a coalition with parties to its right seems slim. Samaras has gone out of his way to attack Independent Greeks and LAOS during this campaign, and while the taste of power can heal such wounds quickly, it is unlikely to bring these three together. The very reason for the existence of the Independent Greeks is to be in opposition, to gain power from supposedly fighting the system. So, being part of the same system would destroy the party.

There are many permutations for Sunday’s elections and the momentous changes Greece has been through over the past few years mean that uncertainty may hang over the country even after the final results are announced. However, even in this turmoil, the pillars of Greece’s political system -- New Democracy and PASOK -- are likely to remain standing. Battered but still standing. For how long? Well, that's another question.

[Kathimerini English Edition]

ekathimerini.com , Friday May 4, 2012 (21:56)  
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