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January 25, 2015

Who wants to …?

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Written by: DW

Election day is nigh upon us. With this in mind, there are three dimensions to the question I have been thinking of asking: Who wants to run, who wants to vote, and who wants to govern.

In May 2014 the Dukakis Center examined an apparent inflation in the number of candidates running for local and European elections. Whether or not this was due to structural factors governing the mode of standing for election, or something else, it struck more than one of our interlocutors that a very strange paradox was at play: despite considerable voter cynicism and absenteeism, many first time candidacies were observed — featuring younger and older candidates alike.

In principle I can only applaud the infusion of new people in the political system. However, it is worth asking what motivates these newcomers to stand for public office.

My first thought, shame on me, was that the allure an MP’s salary must be considerable today, what with unemployment as high as it is in the country and traditional streams of patronage drying up. Of course, there are clear ideological factors to consider also, especially on the edges of the political spectrum. A few mainstream stalwarts may believe that they have a duty to save Greece. (How many?) And then there are the professional politicians and opportunists. (I have written about these types in my book on the sovereign debt crisis.)

How representative are they? It seems pretty clear that the post-Junta period in Greek politics is coming to an end. The Greek Civil War may still be with us, however. What else? In June 2012 Nikos Konstandaras wrote that “… the people who work hard and pay taxes, who have a stake in reform and progress, who carry the burden of every mistake, have no credible representative to vote for. Those who want a better Greece have to look for the least bad option.”

Which leads me to ask why the Greeks whom I know vote. In fact, this is not the right question to be asked. “Who wants to vote?” is a better iteration. Very few of my Greek acquaintances want to vote now, except those who are determined in their support of Syriza, perhaps.

I am often asked how I would vote, especially by young people. I avoid making endorsements. But from what I gather from my exchanges I foresee a worrying trend. “Who is the least bad option?” is what I hear ever more frequently. This need not be seen as a definitive critique of the current host of candidates. But what if a sufficient number of voters decide not to vote at all, vote for small parties, or cast a blank ballot? (In June 2012 the largest single voting “block,” if it can be called that, either voted for parties that did not surpass the 3% national threshold, or did not vote at all. Likewise, ιn May 2014 978,140 voters backed 36 parties that failed to make 3% threshold, amounting to 17.4% of valid poll for the May 2014 European elections, or, combined, the third highest polling party in the tally.)

Back in June 2012 Dimitris Diamantis and I posted a brief analysis of voter turnout in the general election. We wondered aloud whether there was a possible correlation between the number of parties which could eventually seat MPs in the Parliament and the apparent decline in voter turnout. We identified two factors at play, while acknowledging potentially faulty data with respect to voter turnout: the relatively limited amount of time voters had to become familiar with the newer parties in particular, and the difficulty voters (and consumers) have choosing from several options. As voter cynicism is a perennial phenomenon, we discounted this factor at the time.

Today a similar scenario presents itself, although one would want to consider voter cynicism a little more seriously, along with what has been called “crisis fatigue.” Regardless, if we pundits all argue that this is a crucial election, does anyone want to vote? (Strikingly, I have seen little or no discussion about the prospect of widespread absenteeism.) To rephrase our conclusions from that earlier article, the more people who want to be candidates, the fewer voters who want to vote. Does anyone want to govern?

It is one of the characteristics of parliamentarian governance like that in Greece that more parties gain representation in the national legislature. Few of those elected can ever hope to be part of government, however, especially given Greece’s majoritarian rule. So when one campaigns during the general election one campaigns to sit in Parliament, mostly in opposition to the government. One is content to say publicly what one stands for, not what one will actually do.

During this most recent campaign season, I had the impression that the only candidates who were prepared to say a little about what they intended to do if elected in sufficient number were from Syriza. (There is a bit of irony here, insofar many of these same candidates are academics and few, if any, have ever governed before.)

It was put to me a few days ago that perhaps none of the parties really wanted to form a government, in order not to have to be the ones to deal with the Troika. (A similar argument was sometimes made during elections in Serbia; no one wanted to be the party that lost Kosovo.) A hung parliament and a second round of elections would surely be an interesting, albeit perilous, outcome.

In which case you would have a lot of people who want to run, fewer who want to vote, and next to none who want to govern. Meanwhile, no one wants to pay taxes.

 






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