Tsipras reaps ben­e­fits of brinkman­ship pol­i­tics

Data sug­gest SYRIZA won Septem­ber’s elec­tions be­cause it con­vinced Greek vot­ers it had fought hard to re­lax aus­ter­ity mea­sures

Kathimerini English - - Focus - BY ELIAS DI­NAS & NIKITAS KONSTANTINIDIS *

PE­RIPH­ERAL VI­SION The state of the econ­o­my­has al­ways been a piv­otal is­sue in elec­toral cam­paigns. Po­lit­i­cal com­men­ta­tors, spin doc­tors and jour­nal­ists tend to agree with for­mer US pres­i­dent Bill Clin­ton’s 1992 slo­gan: “It’s the econ­omy, stupid [… that wins elec­tions].”

Po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tists have tried to put this claim to the test. De­spite the di­ver­sity in po­lit­i­cal sys­tems and con­texts, a stub­born em­pir­i­cal pat­tern has emerged: In­cum­bents tend to get re­elected in good eco­nomic times and voted out of of­fice in bad eco­nomic times. In other words, pos­i­tive eco­nomic eval­u­a­tions help gov­ern­ments stay in of­fice, whereas neg­a­tive eco­nomic eval­u­a­tions make it dif­fi­cult for gov­ern­ments to stay in power.

The econ­omy thus be­came the ex­em­plary par­a­digm of what is known as “ret­ro­spec­tive vot­ing”: Vot­ers form vot­ing pref­er­ences based on their as­sess­ment of ei­ther the in­cum­bent gov­ern­ment’s over­all macroe­co­nomic record or the im­pact of the in­cum­bent’s poli­cies on their own per­sonal eco­nomic well-be­ing.

Few elec­tions have chal­lenged this con­ven­tional wis­dom more than the Septem­ber 2015 elec­tion in Greece. The coali­tion gov­ern­ment formed af­ter the Jan­uary 2015 elec­tion ded­i­cated all seven months in of­fice to the rene­go­ti­a­tion of the coun­try’s bailout agree­ment with its cred­i­tors. As the process dragged on with­out any agree­ment in sight – thus ig­nit­ing fears of an im­pend­ing dead­lock – the pri­mary sur­plus evap­o­rated and the over­all state of the econ­omy de­te­ri­o­rated. The sit­u­a­tion be­came even worse af­ter the bank hol­i­day and the im­po­si­tion of cap­i­tal con­trols. Still, the in­cum­bent won what ended up be­ing an easy land­slide, see­ing only in­fin­i­tes­i­mal losses in its vote share. How can one ex­plain this para­dox?

To an­swer this ques­tion, we com­mis­sioned a phone sur­vey (fielded by the Univer­sity of Mace­do­nia and funded by the univer­si­ties of York and Cam­bridge) with a ran­dom sam­ple of 1,018 Greek cit­i­zens on Septem­ber 7 and 8 (the elec­tion took place on Septem­ber 20). The sur­vey re­sults re­veal some in­ter­est­ing in­sights as to how vot­ers eval­u­ated the per­for­mance of Greek Prime Min­is­ter Alexis Tsipras’s first gov­ern­ment and why the gov­ern­ment did not get pun­ished in the elec­tion.

Be­fore ad­dress­ing this ques­tion, let us il­lus­trate the puz­zle. Vot­ers re-elected a gov­ern­ment, which had avowedly had a dis­as­trous eco­nomic record. Our sur­vey data con­firm that the vast ma­jor­ity of re­spon­dents pro­vided a neg­a­tive eval­u­a­tion of the gov­ern­ment’s eco­nomic per­for­mance over its pe­riod in of­fice. More than 60 per­cent of them char­ac­ter­ized the gov­ern­ment’s eco­nomic per­for­mance as ei­ther bad or very bad. Less than 20 per­cent gave a pos­i­tive eval­u­a­tion. More than 70 per­cent of re­spon­dents be­lieved that the eco­nomic sit­u­a­tion had been bet­ter one year ear­lier. Fi­nally, de­spite these neg­a­tive eval­u­a­tions, a plu­ral­ity of re­spon­dents (37.2 per­cent) from the same sur­vey de­clared their in­ten­tion to vote for SYRIZA. Mind that our find­ings re­flect the ac­tual vote share dis­crep­ancy be­tween SYRIZA and New Democ­racy rather ac­cu­rately as op­posed to the vast ma­jor­ity of polls pre­dict­ing a close race right up to elec­tion day.

We show that the ex­pla­na­tion of this para­dox lies in the dis­tinc­tion be­tween ef­fort and out­come. Ef­fort here refers to how strongly cit­i­zens be­lieved that the gov­ern­ment had tried to achieve a pos­i­tive re­sult, whereas out­come here refers to the fi­nal agree­ment of the ne­go­ti­a­tion process.

Although the out­come was clearly neg­a­tive, the Tsipras gov­ern­ment re­peat­edly claimed that it was try­ing re­ally hard to get a bet­ter deal. The in­cum­bent gov­ern­ment’s elec­toral suc­cess is rooted in the fact that it was suc­cess­ful in dis­tin­guish­ing be­tween ef­fort and out­come and in de­flect­ing the blame for the neg­a­tive, growth-sap­ping as­pects of the new bailout agree­ment to fac­tors be­yond its con­trol, namely the in­tran­si­gence of its cred­i­tors and the struc­tural flaws of the eu­ro­zone. By as­sum­ing re­spon­si­bil­ity for the ef­fort and at­tribut­ing the bad eco­nomic out­come to in­sti­tu­tions and agents oper- at­ing at the Euro­pean or even in­ter­na­tional level, it man­aged to es­cape the elec­toral de­feat that usu­ally awaits gov­ern­ments pre­sid­ing over eco­nomic down­turns.

To test this claim, we de­signed a sur­vey experiment. We ran­domly as­signed re­spon­dents to four dif­fer­ent groups. Apart from the con­trol group, the other three re­ceived a state­ment (“cue”) about the gov­ern­ment. In the first group, re­spon­dents re­ceived in­for­ma­tion about the gov­ern­ment’s ef­fort. It em­pha­sized that the agree­ment was the re­sult of a long and dif­fi­cult ne­go­ti­a­tion process be­tween the gov­ern­ment and the cred­i­tors, but pro­vided no in­for­ma­tion about the con­tent of the agree­ment. The sec­ond group was in­formed about the neg­a­tive out­come by point­ing out that the agree­ment would bring fur­ther aus­ter­ity (taxes and ex­pen­di­ture cuts), but made no men­tion of the gov­ern­ment’s ef­fort. Fi­nally, the third group of re­spon­dents re­ceived in­for­ma­tion about both the neg­a­tive out­come and the gov­ern­ment’s ef­fort. The con­trol group re­ceived no such prompt­ing state­ment. Af­ter each of these pre­am­bles, re­spon­dents were asked how likely they were to vote for SYRIZA (on a scale from 1 to 5), the gov­ern­ment party that as­sumed full re­spon­si­bil­ity over the ne­go­ti­a­tion strat­egy.

The con­trol group served as a bench­mark against which the other con­di­tions could be com­pared. Our find­ings show that, com­pared to that bench­mark, there was a sub­stan­tial in­crease in the propen­sity to vote for SYRIZA as a re­ward for its ef­fort. By con­trast, re­spon­dents were less likely to vote for SYRIZA when they were told that it had achieved an agree­ment that would pro­long aus­ter­ity. Fi­nally, when ef­fort was em­pha­sized, point­ing to the neg­a­tive as­pects of the agree­ment did not change things much com­pared to the stan­dard ef­fort treat­ment. If any­thing, it seemed to make one even more likely to vote for SYRIZA. Our in­ter­pre­ta­tion of these re­sults is that the neg­a­tive out­come sig­naled both the dif­fi­culty of the task and the com­mit­ment of the gov­ern­ment to im­prov­ing the con­di­tions of the bailout pro­gram.

The same pic­ture emerges when we look at more spe­cific re­ac­tions to the fi­nal agree­ment. Af­ter the ques­tion on vote in­ten­tion, re­spon­dents were asked to de­note their level of agree­ment with the fol­low­ing sen­tences: “The gov­ern­ment de­fended our na­tional pride bet­ter than pre­vi­ous gov­ern­ments,” and “The gov­ern­ment achieved a bet­ter agree­ment than pre­vi­ous gov­ern­ments.”

We found that point­ing to the neg­a­tive as­pects of the agree­ment did not re­sult in the re­spon­dents be­com­ing more crit­i­cal to­ward the gov­ern­ment. On the other hand, point­ing to the dif­fi­culty of the ne­go­ti­a­tion process made peo­ple more fa­vor­able to­ward the gov­ern­ment, and Tsipras in par­tic­u­lar. Em­pha­siz­ing that the gov­ern­ment tried to im­prove con­di­tions for Greeks in a very ad­verse en­vi­ron­ment seemed to trig­ger two ef­fects: Vot­ers on av­er­age be­came more con­vinced that the gov­ern­ment de­fended Greek na­tional pride and that no bet­ter deal could have been achieved. This might help ex­plain the in­crease in the like­li­hood to vote for SYRIZA de­scribed above. Fi­nally, when both ef­fort and out­come were men­tioned, at­ten­tion seemed to be placed only on the for­mer.

Over­all, our find­ings sug­gest that Tsipras and his party were suc­cess­ful in the Septem­ber elec­tions be­cause peo­ple did buy their core nar­ra­tive, namely that they had fought hard to re­lax aus­ter­ity mea­sures for Greece. In fact, rather than driv­ing down sup­port, eco­nomic ad­ver­sity seems to have served as a sig­nal for the gov­ern­ment’s re­solve; af­ter all, brinkman­ship re­quires that one is ac­tu­ally will­ing to go to the brink. * Elias Di­nas is an as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor in com­par­a­tive pol­i­tics at the Univer­sity of Ox­ford. Nikitas Konstantinidis is a lec­turer in in­ter­na­tional po­lit­i­cal econ­omy at the Univer­sity of Cam­bridge. Ig­na­cio Ju­rado, lec­turer in pol­i­tics at the Univer­sity of York, and Ste­fanie Wal­ter, pro­fes­sor of in­ter­na­tional re­la­tions and po­lit­i­cal econ­omy at the Univer­sity of Zurich, also con­trib­uted to this re­port. For a full ver­sion of this re­port, visit our blog at www.ekathimerini.com/pe­riph­eral-vi­sion.

Alexis Tsipras is sil­hou­et­ted on a stage as a se­cu­rity guard looks on dur­ing a pre-elec­tion speech in western Athens.

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