Can governments that introduce extreme austerity measures survive elections? Contrary to economic voting expectations, the PASOK government in Greece initially appeared to cope quite well, claiming victory in regional elections in 2010 despite widespread anti-austerity protests. In this article, we interpret this result with the help of a post-election survey, which also covered future voting intentions. The explanatory power of models based on theories of economic voting and blame attribution as well as the electoral impact of the government's representation of the crisis as an existential threat are assessed. Our analysis challenges the interpretation of the 2010 election as an indication of support for PASOK's austerity policies and reveals weaknesses in its support base, which help contextualise its downfall in the 2012 parliamentary elections. The article also underlines the importance of studying the impact of crisis discourses on voting choice, particularly since blame attribution receives little support in this case.
The question of how political parties fare electorally after implementing austerity measures has been analysed over many decades, with welfare state retrenchment seen as a major risk factor. Despite increasing inequality and social tensions, the global financial crisis appears to be bad news for left-wing parties in government, with electoral defeats suffered by the Democrats in the US and Labour in the UK during 2010 and socialist parties in Portugal and Spain in 2011. There thus appears to be a strong prima facie case that the main electoral impact of the financial crisis consists of an anti-incumbent effect, with voters punishing whoever is in power at the time when decisions imposing severe austerity measures are made.
Such an interpretation would add renewed weight to the macroeconomic voting argument: voters will tend to reward the incumbent if the economy performs well during the election cycle but many will drop their support if the economy performs poorly. Yet the literature on the electoral impact of austerity measures has shown that such a punishment is not automatic. Cross-national and cross-temporal studies find only an inconsistent or weak influence of economic voting (Duch and Stevenson, 2008; Powell and Whitten, 1993). Apart from contextual factors, such as institutional features (Powell and Whitten, 1993) and political conditions (Bengtsson, 2004), blame attribution has emerged as a crucial parameter in conditioning the ability of government parties to survive economic downturns and welfare state retrenchment. Governments that are successful in managing blame and which convince voters that any measures, however painful, were not their fault, apparently can do well electorally (Giger and Nelson, 2011; Vis and Van Kersbergen, 2007).
The current economic crisis and the extreme austerity policies that have been implemented in various European countries provide a new impetus to test classical theories, such as economic voting and blame attribution, but also go beyond them. One factor that requires further elaboration in this context is the political discourse governments employ to justify the largely unpopular policy decisions they take. This commonly involves presenting austerity as the only possible solution to the crisis and acceptance of the measures as a matter of national survival (Clarke and Newman, 2012). Employing the rhetoric of existential threats is broadly equivalent to what in the international security literature is known as a ‘securitisation’ attempt (Wæver, 1995). The central aim of this article is thus to examine the importance of government discourses for electoral behaviour: how decisive is the extent to which a government can prevail in framing contests over its opponents and dominate political discourse in order to sway voting decisions at times of crisis, controlling for economic evaluations, ideology and blame attribution?
No national setting is better suited to analyse this question than Greece, where the entire economy is in a severe crisis and virtually all citizens are adversely affected. The left-of-centre party PASOK (Panhellenic Socialist Movement), which came to office in 2009, negotiated a ‘bail-out’ agreement with the European Union (EU) and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in May 2010 in return for unprecedented austerity measures. Despite general strikes bringing life to a halt and demonstrators rioting in front of the parliament building, the Greek government appeared to have done rather well in its first electoral test in the form of local and regional elections that took place in November 2010.1 Prime Minister George Papandreou had attempted to turn the elections into a referendum on his austerity policies. With overall results showing that PASOK lost support but remained the strongest party, he was able to claim victory and a renewed mandate for his policies. Nevertheless, this apparent electoral success in 2010 did not prevent the eventual fall of the Papandreou government, the formation of a coalition involving both major parties, and the collapse of PASOK's poll rating, leading to major losses in the general elections of 2012.
To understand these electoral developments and their broader comparative and theoretical implications, we analyse survey evidence representative of the Greek adult population that was collected in early December 2010, shortly after the regional elections had taken place. One way to examine the significance of this result is to compare the determinants of voting in the regional elections with voting intentions in a future general election. To what extent was the acceptance of the government's security discourse an important factor for voters in 2010 that may have enabled PASOK to withstand punishment for its austerity measures in the regional elections? What evidence, if any, was there already in 2010 about cracks in the support for PASOK that may help explain its eventual downfall? In order to answer these questions, we draw on theories of economic voting, blame attribution and the impact of government discourses on austerity, testing our model of vote choice with reference to two types of dependent variable: actual (recalled) vote in the regional elections of November 2010 and voting intention in a future general election.
The article is organised as follows. We first discuss a range of theoretical perspectives that are potentially relevant to explaining the determinants of support for the incumbent party when the latter applies austerity measures, a question that is far from being settled. This is followed by a discussion of the data and the methodology used. As the questions of blame attribution and political discourse are of central importance, we then have a closer look at the structure of the attitudes of voters on these issues, before discussing the main results of our analysis on the determinants of electoral choices in Greece in 2010.
Theory: Economic Voting and Conditioning Effects
Any discussion of the electoral politics of extreme austerity has to start with theories of economic voting, which have played a dominant role in the electoral literature since the 1980s (compare Lewis-Beck and Stegmaier, 2007). The general notion of this approach is that voters punish the incumbent party in government for worsening economic conditions. The dominance of the standard reward–punishment model of voting would be confirmed if economic evaluations also determined voting behaviour in cases of extreme economic strain.
The literature distinguishes between different ways in which voters can evaluate the economic situation: sociotropic vs. egocentric, and retrospective vs. prospective (see Evans and Andersen, 2006). Yet while a wide variety of studies have applied and tested these concepts, no consensus has emerged in terms of which of them could be expected to be associated with what particular economic circumstances. Previous analyses of voting in Greece (Lewis-Beck and Nadeau, 2012; Lobo and Lewis-Beck, 2012; Nezi, 2012) have used sociotropic retrospective economic assessments, but these analyses apply only to periods up to 2008, preceding the austerity crisis. In the Greece of 2010, we considered the sociotropic retrospective dimension to be irrelevant as the extremely severe nature of the downturn in the general economic situation is not in doubt. The egocentric retrospective element, on the other hand, may be pertinent to our inquiry as the economic impact of the crisis at the individual level may show some significant variation. On the prospective front, expectations about future personal as well as national economic developments could also be expected to play a key role in voting decisions.
One aspect that is of particular interest here is whether voters use different criteria to evaluate the economy, depending on the type of election held. On this, most influential has been Karlheinz Reif and Hermann Schmitt's (1980) distinction between ‘first-order’ and ‘second-order’ elections, with local and regional elections usually regarded as ‘second order’. The key predictions are that ‘second-order’ elections have a lower turnout, favour smaller and new political parties and are likely to see incumbents punished. In terms of economic voting, we would expect the relevant economic evaluations in second-order elections to be predominantly retrospective rather than prospective, an approach adopted by most empirical analyses of such elections (Gaines and Crombez, 2004; Gélineau and Bélanger, 2005; Lohmann et al., 1997). This is because in regional elections voters can be thought to be ‘sending a message’ to an existing government that will continue to be in office (compare Kellermann, 2008). By contrast, voters asked about voting intention in a general election may give a higher consideration to prospective economic evaluations.
In Greece, local and regional elections are typically seen as ‘second order’ and voters do not directly choose parties but only lists that are supported by parties. In 2010, much of the campaigning was indeed directed at local issues (Gemenis, 2012). In some instances, however, voters may not automatically perceive regional and local elections as ‘second order’ (Ervik, 2012; Johns, 2011). This may be particularly true in the Greek case, since two weeks before Election Day, Papandreou announced that he would call a snap general election if voters were not expressing sufficient support for PASOK candidates. In presenting the regional vote as a referendum on the government's austerity programme, he clearly attempted to turn it into a contest of national importance, with potentially immediate effects on the future of the national government. Our analysis of the determinants of vote choice can thus also help determine the extent to which this attempt was successful and therefore assess the broader implications of the 2010 result. A vote for the governing party PASOK strongly influenced by support for the government's austerity discourses could be interpreted as the regional elections predominantly having the character of ‘first-order’ elections. A strong influence of retrospective economic voting may indicate a strong ‘second-order’ character. If neither economic voting nor other factors connected to the austerity crisis are important, then Greeks made their choice on local or other factors.
Following the previous literature on the effects of contextual conditions on economic voting (Anderson, 2000; Bengtsson, 2004; Hellwig and Samuels, 2007; Powell and Whitten, 1993), we can expect that objective changes in a country's or an individual's economic circumstances are not the main predictor of an incumbent's electoral fortunes. It is the perception of actual economic performance that is of key importance (Tilley et al., 2008). Furthermore, the attribution of responsibility has been shown to play a crucial conditioning effect in the relationship between economic evaluations and vote choice: only voters who blame the government for the economic problems are likely to vote according to their economic evaluations (Giger and Nelson, 2011; Hellwig and Coffey, 2011; Vis, 2009).
A particularly potent strategy for governments to minimise electoral costs at times of crisis is to attribute responsibility for economic conditions to exogenous factors ('t Hart and Tindall, 2009; Powell and Whitten, 1993). Barbara Vis and Kees van Kersbergen, writing several years before the Eurozone crisis, suggested that the removal of control over monetary policy from the nation state to the European level offers a new opportunity to pursue such a strategy: ‘The European Central Bank emerges as the cause of tied hands and consequently blame can be shifted’ (Vis and van Kersbergen, 2007, p. 167). More recently, Marina Lobo and Michael Lewis-Beck (2012) showed that the perception of the EU rather than national governments as being responsible for economic problems led to reduced levels of economic voting in Southern Europe.
Studies evaluating the effect of economic globalisation on voting behaviour find similar patterns (Hellwig, 2001). Countries that are most integrated into the global economy and are subsequently perceived to be less able to exercise control over economic affairs experience a lower degree of economic voting (Duch and Stevenson, 2008; 2010; Fernandez Albertos, 2006; Hellwig and Samuels, 2007). In the Greek case, we would thus expect that voters who do not blame the government for the economic crisis, and instead hold foreign actors such as the European Union or Germany responsible, are more likely to support the governing party, PASOK.
Further to blame attribution, a closely related aspect of framing concerns the ability of the government to deflect electoral costs for unpopular welfare state retrenchment by a policy of ‘blame avoidance’. This concept has dominated the literature on the politics of welfare state reform since the early 1990s,2 and various types of blame avoidance strategy have been identified (Hering, 2008; Weaver, 1986). In the politics of extreme austerity, perhaps the most successful blame avoidance strategy is to promote a narrative of the country facing an urgent, existential threat and with economic policies forced on the government to which there are no alternatives (Weaver, 1986). We would thus expect the ability of the government to control political discourse and define austerity as being inevitable to be crucial in determining its electoral prospects ('t Hart and Tindall, 2009).
Using the rhetoric of existential threat to legitimise extraordinary responses is known in the international security literature as a ‘securitisation’ attempt (Wæver, 1995). Elites that can successfully, by means of an argument, convince an audience that there is an imminent threat to the survival of a key (national) value, are able to ‘break free of procedures’ they would otherwise be bound by (Buzan et al., 1998, p. 26). Compelling cognitive-psychological evidence shows that individuals are predisposed to accept such political arguments that emphasise avoiding losses, rather than realising gains (Arceneaux, 2012; Kahneman and Tversky, 2000). Therefore, as Kurt Weyland (2003, pp. 823–4) argues, deep crises and people's strong loss-aversion biases induce them ‘to support bold, draconian, painful, and risky stabilization plans that promise a quick recovery’, even when these have highly uncertain prospects of success.
Employing such a security discourse was the cornerstone of Papandreou's strategy of maintaining adequate levels of support for the austerity measures, repeatedly arguing that ‘we are in a race against time to keep our economy alive’ and that ‘the country is in a state of war’ (The Guardian, 3 March 2010). As Finance Minister George Papakonstantinou characteristically put it on the day the first bail-out agreement was signed (BBC News, 2 May 2010), the choice was ‘between collapse and salvation’. The message to voters is therefore that they should support the government's measures regardless of how severe or even unfair these may be because the alternative would be far more catastrophic for the Greek economy and society. Exploiting the psychological cognitive predisposition of avoiding losses or other threats to survival may therefore provide the greatest legitimation for welfare retrenchment and act as a potent strategy for the incumbent to attract electoral support. We would thus expect that voters who accept the government's security discourse that the austerity policies are necessary for national survival are more likely to support the governing party.
In evaluating the role of economic assessments, blame attribution and the acceptance of government discourses, we face the challenge of endogeneity. Economic assessments could be expected to be influenced by party choice (compare Anderson, 2007; Tilley et al., 2008). PASOK voters may express a more hopeful view of the economic future of Greece as a way to provide a justification for their continued support of the party. Blame attribution and evaluation of discourses could also be expected to follow partisan cues (compare Malhotra and Kuo, 2007; Malhotra and Margalit, 2010). In the absence of a panel design, which constitutes one of the main attempts to control for endogeneity (compare Fraile and Lewis-Beck, 2010), we use a number of strategies to assess the extent to which our results might be affected by this problem.
First, we control for party identification with three variables measuring how close respondents consider themselves to be to the main parties, PASOK, New Democracy (ND) and the parties of the far left (Communist Party of Greece [KKE] and Coalition of the Radical Left [SYRIZA]). Several studies have highlighted the interrelationships between economic evaluations and partisanship (Marsh and Tilley, 2010; Rudolph, 2003; Tilley and Hobolt, 2011). Partisanship may provide a perceptual screen through which voters attribute blame, assess economic conditions and consider political discourses (Campbell et al., 1960; Evans and Andersen, 2006) and we thus need to control for it.
Second, we control for a number of other variables that could be expected to determine vote choice, such as age, gender, education, trade union membership and political ideology (left–right placement). Do we find any statistically significant effects of economic voting, blame attribution and austerity discourses, once we control for these variables? Finally, we test our hypotheses not only with a binary logistic regression contrasting PASOK voters with voters of other parties and abstainers but also by carrying out multinomial logistic regressions to examine the extent to which the effect of economic voting, blame attribution and austerity discourses varies between different vote choices, including non-voting.
Apart from serving as controls, ideological variables are also important in their own right for reasons to do with the specific socio-political context. PASOK started with a radical socialist programme after the end of the military dictatorship but mellowed in later years, promoting an agenda of ‘modernisation’ which was unsuccessfully challenged by traditionalists (Featherstone, 2005; Lyrintzis, 2005). The radical economic measures adopted by the PASOK government in response to the debt crisis further distanced the party from its traditional, socialist core. The greatest challenge to the government's discourse is thus likely to come from left-wing forces.
Related to this is the question about the electoral relevance of involvement in trade unions and anti-austerity protests. Despite PASOK's historically strong ties with the trade unions, more so than any other party in Greece (Mavrogordatos, 1997), the central involvement of trade unions in the organisation of a series of general strikes and demonstrations against the government's austerity measures could be expected to have undermined their loyalty to PASOK. We would thus expect that voters who position themselves ideologically on the left, participated in protest actions and are trade union members would be more likely to vote for parties to the left of PASOK.
Finally, one aspect of voting behaviour that goes beyond party choice is non-voting.3 A central part of the electoral politics of austerity could be anticipated to be political alienation and ‘anti-politics’, leading to a loss of support and an ‘anti-party’ sentiment (e.g. Dalton, 2004; Poguntke, 1996). The question is to what extent non-participation in the electoral process can be seen as a product of a general political disinterest that may have preceded the austerity crisis or an active form of protest. Examining the effect of political interest and education should help us interpret the motivation of those who did not participate in the regional elections and of those who reported that they intended not to vote in a general election.
In order to assess the effects of economic and political evaluations on vote choice at times of extreme crisis, we present two separate analyses, namely of actual (recalled) voting behaviour in the regional elections in Greece that took place in November 2010 and of voting intention in a future general election. Both are different phenomena but the comparison of the two should shed further light on the interpretation of the 2010 regional election results. Was Papandreou successful in turning these into a ‘first-order’ election, with voters indicating, ‘referendum-style’, whether or not they supported his austerity policies, or were these predominantly a ‘second-order’ election, of no direct significance for the fate of the national government? If the determinants of voting behaviour for the regional elections are essentially the same as of voting intention in a general election, we could conclude that the ‘referendum’ aspect was, indeed, the dominant feature. If, however, there are major differences, particularly in the importance of the government's discourse, blame attribution and economic voting, when other aspects such as party identification are controlled for, then the relative success of PASOK in 2010 will in itself be of less comparative value for austerity politics.
A telephone survey was conducted by Kappa Research, Athens, in early December 2010. A stratified quota method was used to survey the adult Greek population, aiming to be representative of all Greek citizens aged eighteen and above. The quota system ensured that the sample reflected the results of the last (2001) Greek census in terms of age, gender and regional distribution. One interview was conducted per household, with dialling codes selected randomly with the aid of computer software. In this way, a data set with 1,041 valid responses was generated.
For the purposes of analysing electoral behaviour, we compared survey responses to actual results in the regional elections that had taken place shortly before the survey was conducted. This revealed some disparities. Voters in the Attica region as well as PASOK voters were over-represented while the share of non-voters in our sample was far lower than it should have been according to the official election statistics. An attempt was therefore made to weight the data to match them as closely as possible to the actual results of the 2010 regional elections, region by region. All analyses of regional election behaviour presented in this article are based on data weighted to reflect the actual results of the 2010 regional elections in terms of the share of voters in the thirteen regions, turnout and the choice of parties.
According to our calculations based on official election returns,4 PASOK won 34.6 per cent of valid votes, ND 32.6 per cent, KKE 10.9 per cent and SYRIZA 4.5 per cent. As 39.1 per cent did not vote and a further 5.5 per cent returned a blank or spoilt vote, the 2010 result indicated that PASOK had lost a lot of support. In terms of the share of the vote in relation to all registered voters, PASOK had received the support of 30.3 per cent in the 2009 general elections but only 19.2 per cent in the 2010 regional elections. An analysis of voter movements between 2009 and 2010 reveals that relatively few 2009 PASOK voters had switched their support to other parties: just 7 per cent had voted for the second main party, ND, and 6 per cent had voted for parties of the left, with non-voters forming the biggest group of PASOK defectors with 29 per cent.
Turning to voting intention in future national parliamentary elections, the picture was quite similar. Few 2009 PASOK voters defected to either ND or the other left-wing opposition parties. Of former PASOK voters 27 per cent said they would not vote, 9 per cent indicated a blank or spoilt vote and 17 per cent said they were undecided. Overall, only 40 per cent of respondents indicated a party preference, and just 12.6 per cent said they would vote PASOK in a future general election. This percentage is quite close to the actual share of the vote achieved by PASOK in the May 2012 (13.2 per cent) and June 2012 (12.4 per cent) parliamentary elections.5
In the remainder of the article, we first try to model voting choice in the regional elections and then continue to analyse voting intention in a future national election. Before we explore these in greater detail, we have to discuss the structure of public attitudes to the austerity crisis, which will define some of the independent variables to be used in the analysis.
Blame Attribution and Austerity Discourses
In order to analyse the dimensionality of attitudes to the ‘blame’ question, which previous studies of the electoral consequences of welfare state cuts have considered to be crucial, we invited all respondents to indicate whom they blame for the economic crisis from a range of institutions in Greece and abroad. The results of a principal components (factor) analysis are summarised in Table 1.6
Table 1. Allocation of ‘Blame’ for Economic Crisis (Principal Component Analysis)
Q: Who is to blame for the crisis? How responsible for the crisis would you say each of the following is? (Scale: 1 Not at all responsible, 2 Slightly responsible, 3 Somewhat responsible, 4 Moderately responsible, 5 Extremely responsible – mean in parentheses)
Factor 1 (foreign actors)
Factor 2 (Greek governments)
Factor 3 (Greek civil society)
Notes: Cell entries are rotated factor loadings; principal component analysis, Varimax rotation (orthogonal), with Kaiser normalisation; coefficients >0.6 or <−0.6 in bold; Kaiser-Meyer-Olkin measure of sampling adequacy: 0.7796 (overall).
The current PASOK government (3.21)
The previous ND government (3.91)
The European Union (3.23)
The Greek banks (3.53)
Foreign investors/speculators (3.89)
The European currency (euro) (2.83)
Corruption in Greece (4.58)
Each and every one of us (3.24)
% of Variance (cumulative)
Three factors were identified from this. The first factor mainly loads on allocating blame to foreign economic and political actors, such as the European Union, Germany, foreign investors and ‘globalisation’ generally. Forty-two per cent of respondents (moderately or extremely) blamed the EU, 50 per cent Germany, 66 per cent foreign investors/speculators but only 34 per cent the euro.
The second factor is mainly defined by blame attached to Greek governments. About 41 per cent (moderately or extremely) blamed the PASOK government that came into power in 2009, and 64 per cent blamed the ND government that was in office from 2004 to 2009. Interestingly, blaming the PASOK government loads on the same factor as blaming the ND government. Irrespective of which party is to blame, placing responsibility on the large parties constitutes a dimension of its own.
The third dimension of blame attribution is mainly defined by reference to corruption in Greece and the responsibility of individual Greek citizens. Seventy-four per cent of respondents blame corruption as ‘extremely’ responsible for the economic crisis, while the perception of the blame attached to ‘each and every one of us’ is rather more varied, with just 20 per cent placing everybody in the category of those ‘extremely’ responsible.
Turning from the allocation of blame to broader attitudes on austerity, we constructed a battery of questions that was mainly intended to capture the level of agreement with the discourse promoted by the government but also included items that are an essential part of the opposition discourse, such as the question of the fairness of the distribution of the burden of austerity measures. The results show that Greeks are deeply divided: 46 per cent of the population agree that the austerity measures are necessary for the country's survival but 41 per cent disagree. In order to analyse the dimensionality of attitudes, we again conducted a principal component analysis, and the results are displayed in Table 2.
Table 2. Attitudes to Economic Crisis (Principal Component Analysis)
Q: I will read out some things that people have said about the economic measures. To what extent do you agree or disagree with each of them? (Scale 1 Strongly disagree, 2 Disagree, 3 Neither agree nor disagree, 4 Agree, 5 Strongly agree – mean in parentheses)
Factor 1 (acceptance of government discourse)
Factor 2 (fatalism)
Factor 3 (unfairness)
Notes: Cell entries are rotated factor loadings; principal component analysis, Varimax rotation (orthogonal), with Kaiser normalisation; coefficients >0.6 or <−0.6 in bold; Kaiser-Meyer-Olkin measure of sampling adequacy: 0.7519 (overall).
The austerity measures are necessary for our national survival (2.95)
The burden of the measures is not distributed fairly to all citizens (4.26)
If another party was in power, the austerity package would be less severe (2.25)
The government had no option but to introduce these measures (2.76)
People should protest against these measures (3.65)
The crisis can be seen as an opportunity for Greece to move forward (3.23)
There is nothing anybody can do to solve Greece's economic crisis (2.26)
% of Variance (cumulative)
This analysis also resulted in three factors. The first factor appears to be a good measurement of the level of agreement (or disagreement) with the government discourse. The main elements the factor loads on are the reference to ‘national survival’ and the lack of any alternative course of action for the government. Thirty-nine per cent agree that the government had no option but to introduce these measures; 54 per cent state that the crisis can be seen as an opportunity to move forward. A negative attitude to protest also loads on this factor but only 24 per cent of respondents disagreed with the statement that people should protest against austerity measures. Two-thirds of respondents agreed that people should protest, which also includes some of those who considered the austerity policies as unavoidable.
The second and third factors mainly load on one statement only, namely that ‘nothing’ can be done to resolve the crisis for the second factor and the unfairness of the distribution of the burden of the austerity policy for the third factor. The second factor indicates a feeling of ‘fatalism’ that even a change of government would not make any difference, and that Greece is helpless and unable to do anything to recover from the dire economic situation in which it has found itself. However, only a fairly small minority, 18 per cent of respondents, take that attitude.
The third factor provides an indication of the perception of unfairness. This is a major element of the opposition discourse and indicates an attitude that is very widespread in Greece: 89 per cent of respondents agree or strongly agree with this statement, while 51 per cent strongly agree. The government in 2010 clearly had not succeeded in convincing its own supporters that the burden of austerity was distributed fairly. It is perhaps surprising that this variable does not load strongly on the first factor representing the main dimension of support for and opposition to government discourses on the austerity programme. Again, as in the case of attitudes to protest, we find that a substantial number of people who considered the austerity policies to be without alternative and necessary for national survival agree with the statement that the burden of measures is not distributed fairly.
The main question we are interested in is the impact of these attitudes on voting behaviour. To what extent do blame attribution and the nature of public attitudes to the austerity programme affect the way people voted in the regional elections and their voting intention in a future general election at the end of 2010?
Determinants of Voting Choice
Having generated a number of factors that represent the main dimensions of the thinking of voters on the austerity measures, we can now proceed to our models of their electoral choice. Separate models were estimated for the behaviour of voters in the November 2010 regional elections (Table 3) and their voting intention in a future parliamentary election at national level, as recorded in our survey conducted in December 2010 (Table 4). The main independent variables are designed to test the theories outlined earlier in this article; details of question wording and coding are given in the Appendix. In each case, we first estimate two binary logistic regression models, in which 2010 PASOK voters are contrasted with all others, including non-voters. In the first model (column 1), we only enter variables representing economic voting, blame attribution and attitudes to the austerity crisis. In the second model, controls are added to assess the extent to which any effects found in the first model are independent of factors such as party identification, ideology and socio-demographics.
Table 3. Determinants of Electoral Choice, Regional Elections, November 2010 (Binary and Multinomial Logistic Regression Models)
Notes: Cell entries are odds ratios (columns 1 and 2) and relative risk ratios (columns 3–6); robust standard errors in parentheses; statistically significant coefficients in bold; tests of statistical significance: *p < 0.05; **p < 0.01; ***p < 0.001; data weighted to account for misallocations based on actual regional election results.
Retrospective personal economic evaluation (much worse than 12 months ago)
Voting intention: far left (KKE, SYRIZA or DIMAR) (4)
Voting intention: undecided (5)
Voting intention: will not vote/invalid vote (6)
Notes: Cell entries are odds ratios (columns 1 and 2) and relative risk ratios (columns 3–6); robust standard errors in parentheses; statistically significant coefficients in bold; tests of statistical significance: *p < 0.05; **p < 0.01; ***p < 0.001; data weighted to account for misallocations based on actual regional election results.
Retrospective personal economic evaluation (much worse than 12 months ago)
In the second stage, the binary logistic regressions are supplemented by the results of multinomial logistic regressions, in which 2010 PASOK voters are the reference category. Voters of other parties or independent candidates, non-voters and, in the case of voting intention, those who declare themselves to be ‘undecided’, are compared with 2010 PASOK voters.7
What did we find? Starting with economic voting, our analysis sheds doubt on the universal applicability of the economic voting model. For voting PASOK in the regional elections, only future economic expectations were significant predictors of voting choice in the model without controls. The coefficient is no longer statistically significant once control variables are applied. The result of the multinomial logistic regression showed that this is also true for all categories of voting choice. We could thus not find any support for the notion that voters in regional elections would vote according to their retrospective economic evaluation. Overall, concerns about the national economy did not weigh particularly heavily when voters made their choice in regional elections. The situation is very different, however, when it comes to voting intention in elections at national level: here, economic expectations are a major factor, in terms of both retrospective and prospective evaluations. PASOK voters have a less negative view of their past economic experience and more positive expectations about the economic future, while the reverse applies to most of those intending to vote for other parties or not intending to vote at all.8
Turning to blame attribution and political discourses, not blaming Greek governments but blaming civil society are significant predictors of a PASOK vote in regional elections, although the coefficient for blaming civil society is not statistically significant once control variables are included. However, contrary to expectations and the dominant assumption in the literature, we find that questions of blame attribution do not have a significant impact on voting intentions at national level. Even more impressive is the rejection of the hypothesis that blaming foreign actors, such as the European Union, would have an impact on voting choice. For both regional and national elections, it is very clear that this variable plays no role whatsoever.
Turning to attitudes to the austerity crisis, the main variable that makes a difference is the acceptance of the government discourse on the necessity and inescapability of the austerity measures. This is a significant predictor for voting PASOK in regional elections. Its impact is particularly impressive in the various models of voting intention at national level for the whole range of electoral choices. The inclusion of control variables reduces the size of the effect but it remains statistically significant. There is little difference in the degree of opposition to the government discourse among different groups of voters not supporting PASOK in national elections. By contrast, neither a fatalistic attitude nor concern about the unfair nature of the distribution of the burden of the austerity programme figure as significant predictors for voting choice.
Of potential political importance are the results on the firm rejection of the government's securitisation discourse not only by those who supported the parties further to the left of the spectrum but also by the group of ‘undecided’ voters. Most PASOK ‘defectors’ who voted for the party in the 2009 general elections did not switch their voting intention to other parties but declared themselves to be ‘undecided’ or indicated that they would not vote at all. In our survey, undecided voters are as committed to an alternative discourse as the supporters of left-wing parties and non-voters. Despite the relatively good result that PASOK achieved in the regional elections, these results on the determinants of the voting intention variables demonstrate the difficulties PASOK was already facing in winning back previous voters who had turned their backs on the governing party.
Similar conclusions can be drawn from the analysis of non-voting. For regional elections, non-voting is mainly explained by a combination of rejection of the government discourse on austerity, blaming Greek governments, not having a member of a trade union in the household, having attended university, and not identifying with PASOK. Thus in the regional elections there is a strong political dimension. For national voting intention, in addition to attitudes to government discourse and lack of party identification with PASOK, there is also a strong effect of economic voting and of lack of political interest, while trade union membership and education are not significant predictors. Those intending not to vote in a general election are as alienated as others not supporting PASOK; compared with the ‘undecided’, a lack of political interest sets non-voters apart, while in comparison with ND and far left voters, non-voters do not locate clearly on either left or right on the political spectrum. On balance, it appears that non-voters have become decoupled from the party political system in general and may be difficult to motivate to take part in future elections. Our survey thus points towards a dominant interpretation of ‘non-voting’ as a function of lack of political interest rather than activism.
Looking at other ‘control’ variables for possible alternative explanations of electoral support, we find that left–right positioning is important for ND and far left voters, particularly for national voting intentions. Perhaps the only unexpected findings are the roles of trade union membership and participation in anti-austerity protest. For regional elections, union membership is a statistically significant predictor for voting PASOK and negatively associated with voting ND or non-voting, while for voting intention it is insignificant. Despite the fact that unions played a very important role in organising anti-austerity protest, the main effect is thus still in support for PASOK. In addition, having taken part in any anti-austerity protest does not show up as a significant predictor for any type of electoral choice.
In order to assess the relative influence of economic voting, blame attribution and attitudes towards austerity for the outcome of the regional elections and possible future behaviour in a general election, we conducted some further post-estimation analysis. In Table 5, we compiled a range of indicators of goodness of fit and relative model quality to assess the importance of key variables. Starting with the base model combining variables such as party identification, ideology and political activity as well as the basic demographics, the table displays the way the indicators change when we add variables relating to economic voting, blame attribution and government discourses. For regional elections, these results demonstrate quite impressively that the factors relating to the austerity crisis do not appear to have been that important. The pseudo-r2 coefficient changes by only a few points and, particularly, the Bayesian Information Criterion (BIC) suggests that the model including economic voting, blame attribution and acceptance of government discourse is not preferable to the base model. This analysis provides the strongest evidence that regional elections were, on the whole, decoupled from national politics.
Table 5. Evaluation of Logistic Regression Models of PASOK Support
Regional elections (recalled vote)
General elections (voting intention)
Notes: Cell entries include: Pseudo-r = McKelvey and Zavoina's r2; AIC: Aikaike's Information Criterion; BIC: Bayesian Information Criterion (both AIC and BIC are reported in the version as ‘used by Stata’; compare Long and Freese, 2006, pp. 110–3). The higher the pseudo-r2 (range 0 to 1), the better the model fit, and the lower AIC/BIC, the better the model; differences in BIC of less than 2 constitute only weak evidence to prefer one model over another; differences of 10 or higher provide very strong evidence.
Base model (party identification, ideology and demographics)
+ Economic voting
+ Blame attribution
+ Acceptance of government discourse
The picture is rather different for the analysis of voting intention. Here, the inclusion of economic evaluations and the acceptance of government discourse lead to a substantial improvement in the explanatory value of the model, while blame attribution does not play a role. This suggests that economic voting and attitudes to the government's discourse on austerity politics are important and independent predictors, even when controlling for party identification and other variables associated with electoral choice.9
This contrast in the determinants of vote choice between the two dependent variables would suggest that Papandreou's late attempt to turn the regional elections into a referendum on austerity by adopting a particular security rhetoric of existential threats was unsuccessful. At most, austerity variables played only a marginal role in swaying voters to support PASOK. The regional poll of 2010 does not fit either the model of a ‘second-order’ election or that of a ‘national referendum'-type ‘first-order’ election very neatly. This would suggest that apart from traditional predictors of PASOK support such as party identification, trade union membership and education, a substantial share of the variance in vote choice must be due to other factors, such as the specific qualities of individual candidates and regional conditions, or other variables not accounted for in our survey. Our model is thus far better suited to explain voting intention in a national election rather than voting in the regional elections.
Where does this leave the role of acceptance and rejection of the government's security discourse on electoral behaviour, which has been the central focus of our analysis? In order to assess the importance of this discourse variable more thoroughly, we analysed the predicted probability of voting PASOK. Figures 1 and 2 plot the relationship between the probability of voting for PASOK and the acceptance of the austerity discourse, holding constant (at their mean) all other variables included in the binary logistic regressions displayed in Tables 3 and 4 (column 2). Once again, the results are quite revealing, confirming the earlier picture. For regional elections (Figure 1), there is a positive relationship between the probability of voting PASOK and accepting the government discourse, as was suggested by the regression analysis. However, the graph shows the weakness of that relationship, with a fairly flat curve and a widening confidence interval towards the higher end of the acceptance range. By contrast, the curve leads fairly steeply upwards in the case of the probability of expressing an intention to vote PASOK in a general election (Figure 2).
These results underline the importance of assessing the impact of austerity discourses as an independent predictor of vote choice at times of economic crisis. This variable made a statistically significant, if only minor, overall contribution to the support received by PASOK in the 2010 elections – hardly enough to justify an interpretation of the 2010 elections as confirming public support for the government's austerity programme. In voters' minds at the end of 2010 was, however, a clear relationship between attitudes to the government discourse and the decision to support PASOK or not in national electoral politics. Defection from PASOK is strongly related to rejection of the government discourse. Subsequent events appear to suggest that the party was unable to cope with the political challenge posed by this relationship.
Despite a high level of protest,10 the 2010 regional elections appeared to suggest that the PASOK government was doing quite well to maintain a sufficient level of support, against the norm of seeing incumbents punished at times of economic downturn and unpopular reforms. Our analysis of survey data of voting behaviour, however, raises considerable doubts about the interpretation of the regional vote as an expression of support for the government's austerity policy. To understand the importance of the 2010 result and its implications, we need to consider its contested character as a first- or second-order election by comparing the determinants of vote choice between our two dependent variables, namely recalled vote in the regional elections and vote intention in a future national election.
For voting in the regional elections, economic evaluations were of little importance, while a combination of not blaming governments but Greek civil society and acceptance of the government's political discourse were significant predictors of support for PASOK. The governing party lost a lot of support, which is in line with the theory of ‘second-order elections’, but otherwise Greek voters did not behave as expected, particularly since economic evaluations appear to have been irrelevant for voting choice. On the other hand, for voting intention in a future general election, the role of economic evaluations and blame attribution were reversed, with attitudes to the government's rhetoric found to be even more important. These distinct differences in the drivers of vote between the two variables demonstrate that Papandreou was unsuccessful in his attempt to turn the 2010 election into a referendum on austerity.
Furthermore, our analysis of the 2010 regional result reveals significant weaknesses in PASOK's support base. The party had lost a substantial number of voters compared with the general election of 2009 but few of them switched to other parties, perhaps because of their inability to provide a convincing alternative at that time. Those voters rejected the government's policies but were not quite sure where to turn next. The ultimate destination of the ‘undecided’ is obviously unclear without panel data. However, the fact that this group of former PASOK voters firmly rejected the government's austerity discourse suggests that the party by the end of 2010 was already facing major problems in winning them back. The cracks in PASOK's popularity, which contributed to its eventual collapse in the double parliamentary elections of May/June 2012, were thus evident, despite claiming victory following the 2010 regional result and interpreting it to indicate confirmation of support for its austerity policies.
What are the theoretical implications of our analysis for our understanding of the electoral politics of extreme austerity more generally? We could find some support for the theory of economic voting, as egocentric and prospective evaluations made a difference, at least for voting intentions. By contrast, blame attribution variables were not as successful as predicted, despite being identified in the literature as crucial conditioning factors of economic voting. A major reason for this could be found in the structure of public perceptions relating to the austerity crisis. Our results on the dimensions of public attitudes to austerity suggest that the perception of ‘unfairness’ is extremely widespread in the population but does not appear to have any impact on electoral behaviour. In addition, blame for the economic crisis attributed to foreign actors, such as the EU, Germany or the IMF, did not feature at all as a predictor of voting choice. The lack of political impact of these two main elements of the opposition discourse must be seen as surprising. Other forms of blame attribution played only a minor role. The role of blame attribution in the politics of extreme austerity may thus have to be revised.
Crucially, our analysis underlines the importance of persuasion as ‘the key currency of crisis management’ ('t Hart and Tindall, 2009, p. 23). Our result that acceptance and rejection of the government's security discourse was an independent predictor of voting behaviour for both regional and national elections is a significant finding. As this variable contributes to an explanation of voting choice in Greece, it needs to be taken into account – alongside economic evaluations and blame attribution – in any future analysis of the electoral fortunes of governments facing the electorate after implementing extreme austerity policies.
On the whole, a comparative implication from the Greek case is that the relative success of PASOK in 2010 was not a reflection of a successful government strategy which could be seen as a model for other countries to follow when confronted with similar economic challenges. Although acceptance of the government discourse made a – small – contribution to the PASOK vote, factors relating to the evaluation of the austerity crisis were not that important in the overall analysis. This suggests that while there was considerable doubt about the position of the government, no compelling alternative narrative had yet been established in the minds of many voters. Ultimately, voting in 2010 was not so much a question of blame and punishment as of uncertainty and indecision – the voter did not seem ready to come out firmly on one side or another of the austerity debate.
Appendix: Appendix: Documentation of Variables Used11
Voting Regional Elections
Q: Many people did not vote in the local and regional elections of November 2010 whereas others voted. Did you vote in the recent elections or not?
(1) Yes I voted, (2) No I didn't vote
Which party supported the candidates you voted for in the first round of the regional elections on 7 November, or maybe there were independent candidates?
(List of Parties)
Voting Intention General Elections
Q: Lastly, if there were a national election this Sunday, which party would you vote for?
(List of Parties, Blank/Spoilt Vote, Will Not Vote, Undecided/Don't Know)
(On the coding of these variables for specific analyses, see text and Note 7)
Financial Situation: Last Twelve Months
Q: Compared to a year ago, your financial situation is …
(1) Much worse, (2) A bit worse, (3) About the same, (4) A bit better, (5) Much better
(0) Much better/A bit better/About the same/A bit worse (1) Much worse)
Economic Situation over Future Twelve Months
Q: How do you think the economy will be in 12 months?
(1) Much worse, (2) A bit worse, (3) About the same, (4) A bit better, (5) Much better
(0) Much better/A bit better/About the same/A bit worse (1) Much worse)
Blame Attribution and Attitudes to Economic Crisis. See Tables 1 and 2
Strength of Party Identification (PASOK and Other Parties)
Q: Is there a particular party you feel closer to than all the other parties?
If Yes: Which one?
How close do you feel to this party? Do you feel you are
(1) Very close, (2) Quite close, (3) Not very close
(0) No party identification, (1) Yes but not very close, (2) Yes quite close, (3) Yes very close)
Q: In which year were you born?
(Age computed as 2010–year of birth)
Q: What is your gender? (1) Male, (2) Female
(Recoded Female 0, Male 1)
Q: What level of education have you completed or are currently studying for? (1) Primary school, (2) Secondary (3 years), (3) Secondary, Lyceum (6 years), (4) Post-secondary trade/vocational school, (5) University, undergraduate, (6) University, postgraduate, (7) Nothing
(Recoded as: (0) Nothing to Post-secondary trade/vocational school, (1) University, undergraduate and postgraduate)
Q: In politics people sometimes talk of ‘left’ and ‘right’. Where would you place yourself on this 0–10 scale, where 0 means the left and 10 means the right?
(0) Left–(10) Right
(Recoded as: (0) 5–10, (1) 0–4; all positions left of the middle point, (5). As item non-response was quite high, an attempt was made to enter a value for the left–right scale for these missing cases on the basis of two attitude questions which have generally been regarded as providing a good approximation of left–right position:
Q: It is the responsibility of the government to reduce the differences in income between people with high income and those with low incomes.
Q: Private enterprise is the best way to solve Greece's economic problems.
Those who take a position of either/or pro-redistribution and anti-private enterprise and do not take an anti-distribution and pro-private enterprise position are coded (1) (left wing), others are coded (0) (centre right); three cases with no response on either question were coded as missing.
Q: How interested are you in politics?
(1) Very interested, (2) Somewhat interested, (3) Not very interested, (4) Not at all interested
(Recoded as: (0) Not at all interested, (1) Not very interested, (2) Somewhat interested, (3) Very interested)
Union Member in Household
Q: Are you yourself or anyone else in your household a member of any of the following organisations?
Trade union or labour organisation
(1) Yes I am, (2) Yes someone else is, (3) Yes both me and someone else are, (4) No
(Recoded as: (0) no, (1) Yes I am/Yes someone else is/Yes both me and someone else
Taken Part in Anti-austerity Protest
Q: In protest against the austerity measures
(a) Have there been strikes in the town or community where you live? (1) No, (2) Yes
(b) If so, have you taken part in any of these strikes? (1) No, (2) Yes
(c) Have there been any demonstrations in the town or community where you live? (1) No, (2) Yes
(d) If so, have you taken part in any of these demonstrations?
(e) Did you take part in any demonstrations outside your town or community?
(Recoded as: (0) Not taken part in any strikes or demonstrations, (1) Taken part in either strikes or demonstrations or both)
Financial support for the data collection was provided by the British Academy under its small grants programme; Principal Investigator: Georgios Karyotis. A previous version of this article was presented at the conference ‘The Politics of Extreme Austerity: Greece beyond the Crisis’, organised by the Greek Politics Specialist Group (GPSG) of the UK Political Studies Association, University of Strathclyde, Glasgow, on 8 December 2011. We are most grateful to participants for their feedback, as well as to the Journal's anonymous referees for their insightful suggestions and comments. More details, including the question wording and replication data set, can be found on the project's website at: http://www.AusterityPolitics.net
The 2010 local and regional elections were held on 7 November (first round) and 14 November (second round). Separate ballots were used to elect representatives for 325 municipalities and thirteen regions. PASOK-supported candidates won control of seven regions and gained 43.6 per cent of the council seats, thus allowing PASOK to claim victory (see Gemenis, 2012). For the remainder of the article, the focus is on regional elections, which is a better indicator of support for particular political parties.
According to Article 51 of the Greek Constitution, voting is compulsory. While non-voting was never effectively sanctioned, in 2001 the provision to impose sanctions was removed from the Constitution, thus making the obligation to vote merely an aspiration; see Malkopoulou 2011, p. 206.
Official election results published by the Ministry of the Interior; see http://ekloges.ypes.gr [Accessed 12 November 2012].
In order to limit the number of missing cases, in particular for the subsequent regression analyses, we allocated a neutral response (3 on a 1–5 scale) to all non-respondents. This did not affect the overall result of the factor analysis.
In our multinomial regression models, we are constrained in our analysis by the low number of cases associated with some electoral choices, requiring a slight simplification of the dependent variables used. For regional elections, we contrast PASOK voters (N = 182) with ND voters (N = 171), voters for parties left of PASOK, i.e. KKE, SYRIZA and DIMAR (N = 92), those voting for independent or smaller parties (N = 32) and those who did not vote at all or returned an invalid vote (blank or spoilt, N = 420, all weighted). For voting intention, the same categories were created, with the addition of a new category for ‘undecided’ voters (PASOK voters, N = 178; ND, N = 91; far left, N = 111; undecided, N = 186; non-voters, N = 382). The category of voters intending to vote for a range of small parties (N = 51) was removed.
These findings apply to sociotropic prospective evaluations only. Expectations about personal financial situation (egocentric prospective evaluations) had no impact on voting behaviour (results not shown).
A further consideration of how to address the endogeneity problem with cross-sectional data is suggested by Roula Nezi (2012, p. 503), namely to consider the influence of endogeneity in terms of an omitted variable and estimate the size of the effect necessary to invalidate the findings. In Nezi's case, she considered it unlikely that an odds ratio of 1.8 for the effect of an economic voting variable, controlling for party identification, ideology and socio-demographic variables, would be due to endogeneity effects. In our case, the odds ratio for the effect of the acceptance of government discourses on voting PASOK in a general election, with a similar range of control variables, is 2.7, thus suggesting that it should be even more unlikely to be the result of an endogeneity effect.
According to our survey, almost one-third of the adult population in Greece was involved in anti-austerity protests in 2010; see Rüdig and Karyotis, 2013.
In order to avoid the major loss of cases through list-wise deletion in the regression models reported in Tables 3 and 4, non-response, where possible, was coded as a middle/neutral response or as mean (for age). All regressions were run with or without the application of this policy, and no significant differences in the results were found.
Georgios Karyotis is Senior Lecturer in International Relations at the University of Glasgow and Secretary of the Greek Politics Specialist Group (GPSG) of the Political Studies Association. His research interests include securitisation theory, migration, terrorism, political behaviour and austerity politics. Georgios Karyotis, School of Social and Political Sciences, Adam Smith Building, 40 Bute Gardens, University of Glasgow, Glasgow G12 8RT, UK; email: email@example.com
Wolfgang Rüdig is Reader in Politics at the University of Strathclyde. His main interest is the study of both conventional and unconventional political behaviour, including voting, party membership and activism as well as the involvement in social movements and protest. Wolfgang Rüdig, School of Government and Public Policy, University of Strathclyde, 16 Richmond Street, Glasgow G1 1XQ, UK; email: firstname.lastname@example.org