di Anna Bosco e Susannah Verney *
For both Greece and Spain, the European elections are just one of four electoral contests taking place this year. Both countries face national, regional and municipal elections as well. While the Spanish general election has been called for 28 April, the date of the Greek national poll is still unknown but must occur by early October. Thus in both countries, there is a complex picture of multi-level votes, with the European elections largely overshadowed by the question of which parties will form the next national government.
In both Spain and Greece, the elections are taking place in a climate of polarisation. One dimension of this concerns sensitive national issues. In Spain, the Catalan question has proved deeply divisive. The Supreme Court is currently trying the jailed politicians who led the independence bid of 2017 and the trial – broadcast live on television four days a week – keeps popular attention on the territorial fracture. Meanwhile Puigdemont, the former leader of the Catalan regional government, is actively campaigning from his Belgian exile. After purging the more pragmatic deputies from his party’s electoral lists, he has placed himself at the head of the list for the Euroelections to bring the fight to the European level. In Greece, the ‘name issue’ with the country’s northern neighbour has long been a highly emotional issue, perceived as a potential threat to the country’s territorial integrity and linked with claims about the theft of history and symbols of national identity. The recent resolution of the dispute after more than a quarter of a century appears to be deeply unpopular with the electorate. In January the ratification of the Prespa Agreement sparked large demonstrations and led to the withdrawal of the rightwing nationalist Independent Greeks from the governing coalition.
In fact, government instability has been part of the recent background in both countries. February saw the fall of the minority socialist government in Spain – the second government to be formed from the parliament which emerged from the 2016 elections – when it was unable to pass the budget after pro-independence Catalan MPs withdrew their support to the law. In Greece, however, after the breakup of the coalition, the major government partner, the radical left SYRIZA, was able to rebuild a governing majority with the support of six independent MPs. It appears the government can now survive comfortably until the end of its mandate in the Autumn if it chooses to do so.
In both countries, the elections are a tale of two cleavages. In Spain, the right – consisting of the mainstream right PP, the new far right Vox and the once centrist Ciudadanos – are trying to orientate the campaign around the centre-periphery divide. They are campaigning on a nationalist platform based on defending the unity of Spain against the threat of Catalan separatism. In their discourse, the Catalan independence forces are presented as allied with the socialists because they supported the vote of no confidence which brought down the PP government in June 2018. In contrast, the left is fighting the elections around the left-right divide, emphasising the need for a progressive election outcome to combat neoliberalism and especially the threat of government participation by the far right Vox. The governing socialists are focusing on social issues and are ready to campaign on the social agenda approved by their government including a rise of the minimum wage of 22%, the revaluation of pensions, measures to make rents more affordable and the extension of paternity leave to 4 months. Similarly, the radical left Unidos Podemos is emphasising social and gender issues.
In Greece, almost all the opposition parties denounced the Prespa Agreement as nationally dangerous, utilising the issue to mobilise support and attack SYRIZA. It is not yet clear how this inflaming of nationalist sentiment will affect electoral outcomes, although it seems likely to be particularly influential in northern Greece. In recent weeks the official opposition New Democracy has clearly been trying to shift the focus of domestic debate back to challenging SYRIZA’s economic competence and management of the state.
SYRIZA meanwhile is calling for an alliance of progressive forces against neoliberalism, extreme nationalism and the far right. During the eurozone crisis, many analysts claimed the left-right divide in Greece had been surpassed by a new division between those voting for and against the EU/IMF bailouts. Indeed, it was on this basis that SYRIZA and the Independent Greeks, two anti-bailout parties which also opposed Greece leaving the eurozone, formed their governing alliance in 2015. But following Greece’s bailout exit last August and the split with its nationalist government partners in January, SYRIZA is now prioritising the left-right cleavage and, like the Spanish socialists, is actively pursuing a social agenda. Its reversal of bailout-era measures includes an 11% increase in the national minimum wage and winning Eurogroup approval to drop a new round of pension cuts formerly imposed by the international lenders and due to apply from January.
With two months to go before the Euroelections, it remains to be seen how competition around these conflicting axes will play out in the multi-level contests in Spain and Greece. Meanwhile, the results of next month’s Spanish parliamentary election, whatever the outcome, could well trigger a demonstration effect at the European level.
*Anna Bosco teaches Politics of the European Union at the University of Florence; Susannah Verney teaches European Integration at the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens. They are co-editors of the journal ‘South European Society and Politics’.