The stunted new two-party system

The stunted new two-party system

The 2019 national elections put Greece’s party system back on the rails of the two-party system after a few years of intense flux and fragmentation. Of course, the sum of the power shared by the two major parties (71.38%) is less than the shares achieved in the 1980s or 90s, but it is approaching that of the 2009 elections (77.39%).

Polls from 2019 onward show a consolidation of the rivalry between the center-right New Democracy (ND) and left-wing SYRIZA, and in general a stabilization of the political reordering that emerged in 2012-15. Schematically, this means that ND is the dominant pole and SYRIZA maintains the role of a potential alternative pole, at clearly lower percentages.

Some anticipate, and others fear, that SYRIZA will collapse and become a small party again. In politics you can never say never, but such a development does not seem visible today. SYRIZA may not have deep roots, but none of the existing parties in the opposition seems capable of whisking away large volumes of votes.

Today’s two-party system is stunted. Not only is the sum of the power of the two parties smaller, but also each party individually lags behind compared to the past. I remind readers, especially those who focus only on SYRIZA, that in the 2000 elections, which ND lost, the party received three percentage points more (42.80%) and, most importantly, 700,000 more votes than it won in 2019. ND also won more votes and the same as or higher percentages than 2019 in the 1985, 1993 and 1996 national elections.

Two factors have contribute to the stunted nature of today’s two-party system. First of all, voters identify less with the parties they vote for. Due to lower tensions and the somewhat more limited role of clientelism compared to the past, voters show an anaemic emotional connection to the parties they vote for and are constantly ready to shift from one to another, or to abstain. In addition, there is less party networking with civil society (unions, student associations etc). This is happening because, on the one hand, participation in civil society has decreased, and, on the other, because the latter have a greater degree of autonomy from the parties compared to the past.

The previous two-party system was undoubtedly balanced, meaning that the two ruling parties alternated regularly in power. From 1977 to 2009, ND won six elections (1977, June 1989, November 1989, 1990, 2004, 2007) and socialist PASOK also six (1981, 1985, 1993, 1996, 2000, 2009). So will the new system be similar? In other words, can SYRIZA return at the end of this or the next term or will ND govern for at least a decade? That is a difficult question.

Undoubtedly, ND today has primacy in the polls, dominance in the media and a better positioning in the party system, with potentially more alliances than SYRIZA. As long as the economy improves and the “Families” within ND maintain a truce (the latter is not very likely, however), the chances of a political asymmetry are definitely increased.

Under certain circumstances, I would not rule out an ND domination like that achieved by Germany’s CDU or even Christian Democracy in post-war Italy, where ND will rule for a long time alone or with its allies, and with SYRIZA playing the role of the Italian Communist Party – that is, a party that will consolidate at 25-35%, but will not be able to rule, due to its isolation. I am absolutely convinced that some people within ND and the center-left KINAL are working in this direction.

On the other hand, such a strategy has to face a given: In the period after the restoration of democracy in Greece, the right-left correlation is roughly 50-50. A center-right cooperation (ND with KINAL) with the ambition to permanently exclude the Left would accelerate the formation of an ambitious Portuguese-style Left Bloc with SYRIZA as the main component and other forces of the Left present. I know that such an idea is not on the current agenda, but, as SYRIZA has managed in recent months to break its isolation on the left, it is no longer unlikely in the future.

Those who believe that such an idea is “nuts” should consider whether they have used similar words in the past for the thought that government alliances such as ND-Communist Party (1989), PASOK-ND-LAOS (2011), ND-PASOK-DIMAR (2012) or SYRIZA-ANEL (2015) could be formed.

Nikos Marantzidis is a professor of political science at the University of Macedonia.

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