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
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.