Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Greece's Crumbling Silent Majority

For the past year, PASOK's case to the Greek public has been that it is making the best out of a raw deal. This is the context in which to think of the two-third abstention rate in the November 2010 local elections: few people thought there was a good alternative to PASOK, so they did not against PASOK. But nor could they vote for PASOK either - life was miserable and PASOK was hardly blameless. The government's mandate was thus built on acquiescence, not active support. That acquiescence is crumbling.

The political environment has now entered a vicious cycle: public discontent is feeding dissent in the ruling party, which in turn raises doubts in the minds of the electorate about the government's ability and willingness to carry out reforms. The latest public opinion report released by Public Issue is instructive in this regard (see here):

- There is a growing sense that the country is headed in the wrong direction with 81% of those polled saying so, up from 69% in January.

- The prime minister's popularity has reached an all time low. Only 35% of respondents have a positive opinion of him. This number, which is unchanged from March 2011, is by far the lowest of his tenure.

- The popularity of the government has fallen too. PASOK was elected with 44% of the vote in October 2009, but Public Issue estimates PASOK's share of a forecasted vote at 34% in April 2011, also a low point.

- No party is popular. The main opposition party (ND) is in fact less popular than the PASOK government. Right-wing LAOS gets the highest marks at 31% of those polled saying they have a positive view of the party, while party leader George Karatzaferis is the most popular politician in the country. Meanwhile, the intention to abstain remains high (35.5%)

To make sense of these numbers, go back to that (partly unspoken) pact that the government made a year ago with the public. George Papaconstantinou, the finance minister, put it well at the time: Greeks, he said, would tolerate hardship as long as it were evenly distributed; if PASOK tried to insulate its own constituencies, support would crumble. Well, this is now happening.

In my own discussions, which are a partial and unscientific sample, the complain I hear most is that the "reforms" are not reforming. This is a new complaint, one that has surfaced only in the past two months. In 2010, the complaint was that the government was not moving fast enough or that implementation was slow and that the targets were being missed. Few questioned the government's sincerity to make changes - they just questioned the execution.

The PASOK government now faces a fundamental question: will all Greeks be forced to change or will some Greeks have to change more than others? In 2010, the government was saying all Greeks would change. In 2011, it has pulled back from that commitment. This may please some special interests but the silent majority is watching closely. And they are disappointed by what they see.

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