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Political incumbents defying the odds

second round of the presidential election in ankara
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan after his second round victory last month

Despite earthquakes, trainwrecks, inflation and a pandemic, political leaderships in Greece, Turkey and Cyprus remain basically unchanged

 

Kyriakos Mitsotakis triumphed in the first round of the Greek elections on May 21, defying predictions to win by a wide margin, and is now seeking an absolute majority next week. It was a sign, to quote The Economist, that Greek voters “prefer stability and technocratic competence to drama”.

Mitsotakis’ victory is one of several recent elections where the incumbent did better than expected. Recep Tayyip Erdogan was also re-elected in Turkey last month, despite having been widely predicted to lose. Last year, the deeply unpopular Emmanuel Macron nonetheless won another term in France. In November, the Democrats in the US defied the pundits by resisting an anticipated ‘red wave’ in mid-term elections.

It’s especially surprising because of the upheavals of the past three years, including Covid. Not only was Mitsotakis, for instance, hit by domestic scandals like the Tempi train crash, but he also presided over very strict Covid restrictions, including the unprecedented step of imposing a monthly fine of €100 on unvaccinated over-60s.

Given that 25 per cent of Greek adults are unvaccinated, one might expect that to have counted against him at the ballot box. Indeed, many vaccinated Greeks must also have been shocked by this extreme measure.

It was, after all, quite extreme. This was in late 2021, so it was long since known that the Covid vaccine doesn’t stop transmission. There was no society-wide justification for getting vaccinated at this stage. It wasn’t going to lead to herd immunity.

The only justification was the insistence that the vaccine prevents you from becoming severely ill and requiring hospitalisation. “Today, 90 per cent of the people in the ICU are unvaccinated,” said Mitsotakis in a November 2021 interview with the Washington Post.

This is a dubious claim. As we wrote at the time, countries that were actually supplying raw data as opposed to press releases (notably Britain, through the UKHSA) consistently showed around 70 per cent of Covid deaths among the vaccinated – meaning the vaccine may have helped overall, but only a little.

More than that, however, Mitsotakis’ policy amounts to saying that a citizen should be coerced into taking a potentially unsafe medicine they don’t want to take, all so that a malfunctioning government service can cope more efficiently. This is not how things are supposed to work.

Maybe the time to think back on Covid just isn’t here yet. Certainly, it doesn’t seem to impact voters’ thinking as much as the effects of the economic crisis, which the West has been feeling since 2009.

“The other two crises that shape our time, Covid and the Russian-Ukrainian war, have so far not as dramatically transformed the domestic party landscape… as the economic and financial crises did,” Hubert Faustmann, professor in the Department of Politics and Governance at the University of Nicosia, told the Cyprus Mail.

This is also implicit in the quote from The Economist. ‘Technocratic competence’ – meaning, essentially, the economy – is uppermost in people’s minds, Covid being part of the ‘drama’ from which they wish to move on.

It’s a reasonable explanation – especially for Greece, which suffered more than most from the economic crisis. But many of the other successful incumbents don’t meet this benchmark.

Inflation in Turkey was running at over 50 per cent year-on-year in March – yet Erdogan got elected. America’s economy is sputtering. Opposition to Macron’s economic policies has led to massive protests, which continue despite his re-election.

At this point we might also mention Cyprus, another example of the recent trend. The Anastasiades government wasn’t known for ‘technocratic competence’, even before the twin economic blows of Covid and inflation caused by the war in Ukraine. Yet all three leading candidates in the recent elections were close associates of the former president. More importantly, despite the existence of respectable candidates, true independents won just a tiny fraction of the total. The expected protest vote never materialised.

There are many possible explanations here. The first – applying especially to Covid and inflation – is that crises are viewed as international, and local leaders aren’t held accountable for them. An example of this came in the Eurobarometer story earlier in the month (‘Cypriots blame EU for price rises’, June 6) which showed a large majority of Cypriots holding EU actions – not our own politicians – responsible for their difficulties in paying the bills.

The second is that “the politics of inflation are not so clear-cut,” as Michalis Moutselos, a lecturer at the Department of Social and Political Sciences, University of Cyprus, told the Cyprus Mail. “Governments have increased their tax revenues, and have fiscal space to increase wages/subsidies while presenting themselves as sources of support in difficult times of war and the pandemic.”

Being the incumbent brings advantages – especially against fringe candidates, who might otherwise attract a protest vote but don’t have access to the sweeteners employed by the government.

Erdogan, for instance, promised to build new houses in the provinces stricken by the recent earthquake (he won 10 of those 11 provinces). Those urging radical change “have a hard time accusing ‘elites’,” observes Moutselos, “when these elites are actually handing out a lot of subsidies at the moment”.

A third point is simply that we shouldn’t cherry-pick. Italy, for instance, is a recent counter-example where the incumbent didn’t win. Parties on the right or far-right are making big gains in Spain and Germany (it remains to be seen whether they’ll win elections or end up reinforcing their opponents, as Marine Le Pen did with Macron). The Farmers’ Party is mounting a shock challenge in the Netherlands. Not all countries are the same.

Indeed, our own region is an especially bad example. “In corrupt systems like Cyprus, Greece or Turkey, people also benefit from the corrupt structures,” says Faustmann bluntly, “and those opposing it often have little or no chances of winning… Clientelistic systems like the one in Cyprus are sustained from above and below because they serve the elites and many citizens so well.”

In the end, it’s hard to pinpoint the reason for the recent trend – if it even is a trend. Maybe voters do indeed crave stability after recent upheavals, from Trump to Covid. Maybe they’ve had enough of drama. Maybe it’s simple economics. Maybe they’re voting for incumbents “as the last stop before the chaos or ‘disastrous’/dangerous politics expected to be conducted by the losers,” to quote Faustmann.

Then again, maybe they’ve lost faith that real change is possible, and are simply not bothering to vote in the first place. Or maybe the slide into authoritarianism during the pandemic has trained them to be docile, and look to the state for wisdom and guidance. Or maybe they just don’t remember things well enough to hold politicians accountable.

In July 2021, as reported by Ethnos (July 3), Mitsotakis was asked in a radio interview about having induced young people to get vaccinated through a €150 bribe – the flipside of the €100 fine he later imposed on unvaccinated pensioners.

‘Does anyone really think,’ he replied, ‘that in two years, when we have elections, young people will remember about the €150?’

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