Fears are growing that the global pandemic is setting the world on track for an economic recession of similar or larger magnitude to the 2008 one. Previous economic crises have taught us that such economic events in Europe are followed by the adoption of austerity measures. Policymakers and governments are tightening national budgets to offset the loss of income from taxation and GDP drops. The 2008 financial crisis and the subsequent austerity policies adopted in many European countries resulted in political instability. The economic hardship boosted the electoral support of right-wing populist parties, despite the expectation that left-wing parties would have been able to capitalise on voter dissatisfaction against the rise of unemployment and the dire economic outlook.
Greece was an exception to this trend. Following the collapse of the centre-left ruling party Pasok, it was Syriza, a coalition of radical left-wing groups that managed to step into the power. Syriza was not alone in this endeavour, but it had managed to pull along a small right-wing party, ANEL, under a coalition government. Syriza’s coalition government (elected first in January 2015) survived heavy austerity measures, including severe capital controls. Syriza managed to get re-elected after a snap election later in August 2015, without any electoral losses, despite the prospect of signing a further bailout agreement that included even heavier austerity measures.
The question then arises as to how politicians can possibly implement harsh austerity measures without bearing the political cost? In our study of Greece, we suggest that framing, political rhetoric, and the ability of a government to attribute blame to other agents can help ease the message of austerity to the public.
To examine this argument, we employed a vignette survey experiment embedded in a representative public opinion survey, where scenarios represented real economic policy dilemmas – inspired by official statements on austerity in Greece by the Syriza leadership. We tested our argument against two economic issues: general government spending cuts (austerity policies as a principle), and pension cuts (as a concrete measure).
In setting up the experiment we considered the following parameters. Syriza appealed to voters on the affective rather than rational appraisal of the crisis. It extensively used blame-shifting and ‘othering’ framing as ‘political strategy’ to avoid political cost while maintaining power. When employing ‘othering’ it identified the economic elite as the target on which Syriza could blame situations, conditions, and future options. Hence, targets were identified as an ‘internal elite’ (benefiting from the system of spoils in Greece), and an ‘external elite’ (associated with the EU and its neoliberal economic policies).
We asked two baseline scenarios around a country facing a deep fiscal crisis and is forced to undertake reforms either in social security including pension cuts (question 1) or general government spending cuts (question 2). The governing party of the country announced that reforms were necessary to ensure the viability of pensions in the future (version 1) or to avoid uncontrolled bankruptcy (version 2). We asked respondents to agree or disagree with the proposed policy action. In the experiment versions we inserted the phase “the governing party announced that the organized and established oligarchy is to blame and they will pay but reforms are necessary to…” to identify an internal enemy/target; the phrase “the governing party announced that the neoliberal obsessions of the European Union are to blame but reforms are necessary to…” to identify an external enemy/target.
Who does the blame strategy aim to influence?
From our findings, left-oriented, non-sophisticated, and those unhappy with the current state of the economy were more likely to disagree with pension cuts and general austerity policies. Once the internal enemy, the domestic oligarchy, and the external enemy, the EU, were introduced, all variables were muddled, implying that blame added a level of distraction in the ability of respondents to appraise the statement.
But there was one group of voters for whom blame attribution affected their views significantly. Cynical voters, those who feel apathetic towards politics, only marginally disagreed with pension cuts and general austerity cuts initially. But when the blame attribution was introduced either towards an internal or external enemy cynical voters were more likely to support both policies (Figures 1 and 2).
Figure 1: Cynical Voters and Pension Cuts
Figure 2: Cynical Voters and Austerity Policies
When governments are not afraid to blame
Looking at our argument, we found that left-wing oriented citizens opposed austerity of all kinds in the baseline scenario, but blame-shifting and ‘othering’ strategies ameliorated ideological orientations when they entered the picture. People without ideological cues were likely to accept austerity measures more easily for both pension cuts and general spending cuts policies but only when they were projected against an enemy. This may be explained because cynical voters, disillusioned by the previous governments, offered their support to Syriza in protest or as punishment.
In times of crisis, self-positioning on the left-right continuum becomes irrelevant in the minds of citizens, when confronted with blame-shifting and ‘othering’, and their rational appraisal of a decision is overtaken by sensationalism. Blame frames and othering manage to confuse and distract people from having a clear schedule of preferences, which is the goal of such political strategy to deflect responsibility and maintain political control.
Much like in the Greece crisis case, the collapse of the traditional left-right political landscape created a pool of voters who are no longer driven by ideological cues (cynical) and are therefore more susceptible to blame priming. In other words, such priming was successful as people are interested more in their individual circumstances rather than seeking an external enemy. Nonetheless, such strategies have a downward spiral effect, where blaming begets more blaming, both with internal and external enemy cues.
Politicians are always toying with ideas around ‘othering’ and ‘blame-shifting’. It allows them to construct a division between ‘us’ and ‘them’ and rally supporters. Yet, these strategies are not perennial. In the case of Greece, Syriza tested the two enemies in a parallel fashion. It realised that maintaining the internal and external blaming strategy would help it maintain it support. Perhaps that was the reason that the losses in the 2019 election were not as wide as the general public sentiment was expecting. Perhaps in the context of the current pandemic, when the economic aftermath is assessed, these strategies will become available again.
Capelos, T., & Exadaktylos, T. (2017). Feeling the pulse of the Greek debt crisis: Affect on the web of blame. National Identities, 19(1), 73-90.
Exadaktylos, T., & Zahariadis, N. (2014). Quid pro Quo: Political Trust and Policy Implementation in Greece during the Age of Austerity. Politics & Policy, 42(1), 160-183.
Lefkofridi, Z., & Nezi, R. (2019). Responsibility versus responsiveness… to Whom? A theory of party behavior. Party Politics, 1354068819866076.
Nezi, R. (2012). Economic voting under the economic crisis: Evidence from Greece. Electoral studies, 31(3), 498-505
Nezi, R., & Katsanidou, A. (2014). From valence to position: Economic voting in extraordinary conditions. Acta Politica, 49(4), 413-430.
Vasilopoulou, S., Halikiopoulou, D., & Exadaktylos, T. (2014). Greece in Crisis: Austerity, Populism and the Politics of Blame. JCMS: Journal of Common Market Studies, 52(2), 388-402
A research seminar on the topic took place on 21 January 2020 at the LSE, organised by the Hellenic Observatory. For more information please visit the event page.