A guide to potential Greek coalitions (or, how we might end up with a second election)

Although Greek elections have only this week been set for May 6, speculation is already rising that the vote will result in no viable coalition.

The two traditional parties of Greek politics since 1974 have been the center-right’s New Democracy (Νέα Δημοκρατία) and the center-left’s Panhellenic Socialist Movement (Πανελλήνιο Σοσιαλιστικό Κίνημα), or PASOK.  But polls leading up to the legislative elections, however, show that the Greek two-party system appears to have all but broken down in the face of voter disgust with both New Democracy and PASOK, which both supported the ‘troika’ bailout from the European Central Bank, the European Commission and the International Monetary Fund, along with the accompanying reforms and budget cuts, none of which has been popular among Greek voters, to put it mildly.

Polls also suggest that no single party commands much over 20% in support and accordingly, up to nine discrete political parties could enter the Hellenic Parliament after May 6.  That includes New Democracy and PASOK, but also KKE (the Greek Communist Party), SYRIZA (the Coalition of the Radical Left), the Democratic Left, the Ecologist Greens, the Independent Greeks (a center-right anti-austerity group), Golden Dawn (a neo-fascist, neo-nazi party) and LAOS (a right-wing Orthodox party) — the Greek electoral process provides that any party with over 3% of the national vote will be represented with seats.

But what are the potential combinations of coalitions?  And more to the point, what is the likelihood that any such coalition can come to agreement to form a government?

  • PASOK/New Democracy — a ‘grand coalition’.  New Democracy currently polls around 20% support, which now seems to be enough for it to finish as the largest party.  The Greek electoral system awards 250 seats on proportional representation, plus another 50 seats automatically to the highest vote-winner.  But even with the 50-seat “bonus,” no party will command a majority government under around 39% of the vote.  The consensus view has been that New Democracy would reach out to PASOK, which is polling between 12% and 15%.  The two parties together supported the caretaker government of Lucas Papademos that emerged in November 2011 to implement the latest round of bailout cuts.  As their totals both begin to dwindle, however, they may not be able, even together, to form a coalition.  In addition, New Democracy leader Antonis Samaras this week cast fresh doubt on a grand coalition, declaring that it would have to meet New Democracy’s terms, as the largest party.  He also suggested that a fresh round of could would result in a more stable government — I’m not sure the European Union’s leaders or global bond traders would see things the same way, though.

Likelihood: Still more likely than not, but less so than perhaps a week ago, based on Samaras’s statements and each party’s decline in poll ratings.

  • PASOK/New Democracy/Democratic Left — a truly grand coalition. If PASOK and New Democracy do not together reach the level of support necessary to form a coalition, their most likely coalition partner will be the newly-formed Democratic Left, which is essentially a splinter group of moderates from SYRIZA.  But the Democratic Left’s leader, the relatively popular Fotis Kouvelis this week ruled out a coalition with PASOK and New Democracy and, like Samaras, argued that a second set of elections might be necessary.

Likelihood: Remains most likely if PASOK and New Democracy cannot, together, command a parliamentary majority.  The party leaders protest now, but the pressure to unite will be intense in the face of new elections and corresponding uncertainty.  Kouvelis would likely require some revision to the austerity measures agreed with the ‘troika,’ and Samaras may find that a bridge too far.

  • PASOK/SYRIZA/Democratic Left — a PASOK-led leftist coalition.  PASOK has seen a small uptick in support since anointing former finance minister Evangelos Venizelos as its new leader last month.  If New Democracy continues to drop, and if PASOK squeaks into first place, well… a coalition with New Democracy is probably still more likely.  But it would open the door, however slightly, to an alternative center-left coalition.  This would be especially true if SYRIZA and the Democratic Left finish as strongly as they are currently polling (each at around 12%).  SYRIZA’s leader Alexis Tsipras has been more enthusiastic of a non-PASOK leftist coalition (see below), but the path to compromise among these three seems greater than PASOK, New Democracy and the Democratic Left.

Likelihood: Slim, although a much likelier a possibility if PASOK overtakes New Democracy to win the greatest number of votes.

  • SYRIZA/Democratic Left/KKE/Greens — a radical leftist coalition.  None of these parties is likely to finish in first place (thereby taking the 50-seat bonus) and, therefore, they are together unlikely to have enough seats to form a viable government.  Polls suggest that this group of parties, however, commands over 40% of the votes — each of SYRIZA, Democratic Left and KKE currently take 11% to 13% of the vote, with the Greens winning another 5%.  Tsipras has been the most enthusiastic proponent of a non-PASOK leftist coalition, but Kouvelis has ruled it out (and indeed, seems more disposed to a coalition with PASOK).  For its part, KKE has long been adamant about its refusal to enter into a coalition.  Such a coalition would undoubtedly prioritize the renegotiation of Greece’s bailout terms and might spark yet another crisis moment for the EU.

Likelihood: Incomprehensibly slim, given that all four parties are firmly of the left, more anti-austerity than PASOK and each considers PASOK’s support of the bailout and its terms to be a sellout of the socialist cause.  Even if they could unite, however, it is problematic that none of the parties is likely to finish first (or willing to join a more formal electoral alliance that could).

  • SYRIZA/Democratic Left/Independent Greeks/Greens — a ‘grand’ anti-austerity coalition. With the Independent Greeks also surging to about 11% of the vote in recent polls, this coalition might also command over 40% of the vote.  As with the coalition discussed above, though, none of these coalition members appears likely to finish in first place, which complicates the path to a majority of seats.

Likelihood: Also slim, although all four are united in various degrees against elements of the bailout.  Also a problem that none of the parties is likely to finish first.

  • New Democracy/Independent Greeks — a rightist coalition. Panos Kammenos formed the Independent Greeks after he and a group of like-minded politicians were booted from New Democracy after refusing to support the Papademos government.  If Kammenos chose to leave his party rather than supporting the bailout on an emergency basis, it is hard to see him lending his support for a full parliament.

Likelihood: Extremely slim. 

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