What topics did the political leaders focus on at the beginning of the official election period, what is the prevailing sentiment and to what extent is polarisation and populism detected in their discourse?
Differentiating competition, division and polarisation in political discourse.
Populism is not equivalent to politicians’ falsehoods, promises, or deceitfulness. It is not synonymous with demagoguery, propaganda, or manipulation.
On Saturday, 22 April, the elections have been officially called for May 21st 2023 and the curtain was raised on the formal pre-election period. The first big lap of the polls, in other words the first 10 days, has already been completed, thus enabling us to take stock of the political sphere at the beginning of this pre-election period. On what basis does the race begin? What is the starting point? Besides, one of the objectives of this project is to check various assumptions and/or stereotypical perceptions concerning the pre-election period as a whole and more specifically, the political parties (profile, political discourse). Facts from the first 10 days offer us a series of early data, so that we would check some of these assumptions. Some of these are confirmed and others are contradicted, forcing us to think about how we can come close to a different or a more complex picture than the one we might have been expected.
The assumption that may very easily and quickly be confirmed is the one that has to do with the emotional climate created by or stemming from every political leader’s speech. The emotional climate scale can be classified into three classes: positive-neutral-negative. We should draw this to the attention of readers. Negative emotional climate does not imply negative, aggressive, or “toxic” discourse. Positive discourse does not imply cheerful discourse. By using the negative definition at this point, it is understood that the person who delivers a speech may make criticisms, may describe adverse events or the way in which he/she frames other events is pessimistic. On the contrary, the positive definition may imply that the person who delivers a speech talks about a series of successful or positive events that have taken place or that he/she frames parts of his/her speech in a positive and optimistic way in general. In this context, it can be left open whether or not this positivity or negativity is true, real or fair.
The moments of polarization and the sentiment in the leaders’ speech
Bearing in mind the above observations, it would be correct to assume that the governing party would use a more positive discourse in an attempt to assess positively its term and to highlight its positive commitments for the future, while the opposition parties would use a less positive or even negative discourse, in view of the criticisms they are expected to express. That is precisely the picture that emerges from the political leaders’ first speeches. All the speeches delivered by the Prime Minister lie within the positive range. While all other speeches range across the neutral or negative spectrum. More specifically, Alexis Tsipras and Nikos Androulakis’ speeches are inside the neutral range; Dimitris Koutsoumbas and Yanis Varoufakis’ speeches are situated on the line between neutral and negative, while Kyriakos Velopoulos’ speeches are basically inside the negative range. It would be crucial to see if this trend will consolidate by the end of the pre-election period.
Two other assumptions being examined are linked to the concepts of polarization and populism (on how these two terms are conceptualized within the framework of this analysis, see the corresponding introductory articles on polarization and populism). Before the elections, there is usually a concern as to whether the political environment will be polarized. This time, the estimate for increased polarization seemed almost certain in view of a second round that will follow the elections on May 21st. The analysis will attempt to examine whether competing or polarizing rhetoric is identified in the speeches delivered by political leaders.
All the speeches delivered by the Prime Minister lie within the positive range. While all other speeches range across the neutral or negative spectrum.
On the other hand, populism is considered by many analyses as a key feature of the Greek political culture since the political transition after the dictatorship, and especially the years following the recent economic crisis and the experience from the memoranda. Therefore, an important question is whether there is a party or a politician that speaks words of populism during the current pre-election campaign period. From the analysis of data so far, it seems that no speech can be characterized as mostly polarizing and no speech is characteristically populist. Of course, the situation is dynamic and we cannot determine whether any changes will be observed during the remainder of the pre-election period.
But let us look in detail at a few relevant points. As to polarization, what we have is some either occasional or specific moments of polarization in the speeches of political leaders. These are present in all politicians. In Kyriakos Mitsotakis’ speech, we can identify some points of this kind, with only one of them being described as a highly polarizing moment. The speech that is clearly differentiated from all others is the one during the presentation of the party’s programme, where the speech was particularly toned-down and lacked such polarizing points.
In line with the emotional climate, we can assume that the opposition will have more polarizing moments and that seems to be confirmed. Thus, the polarizing moments in the opposition leader’s speech are slightly more than those of the Prime Minister. Here, too, a speech also differs significantly from all others; and it’s Alexis Tsipras’ speech in Menidi. The speech in Menidi was thematic and focused on the Hellenism of Pontos, while no moments of significant polarization have been observed.
Nikos Androulakis’ speeches include fewer average or highly polarizing moments, compared to Kyriakos Mitsotakis and Alexis Tsipras. However, they are characterized by an unusual “moderate polarization” that is often found in a speech that does not reach its peak as often as the ones delivered by the two key contenders. We can reasonably say that both speeches delivered by Dimitris Koutsoumbas include several moments of average – or average to severe polarization. The communist (KKE) party’s slogan is currently “On their own and all of us”, with the Secretary General of the Communist Party of Greece noting in his speech that he did not expect the slogan to be confirmed so soon. Finally, moments of average – mainly – polarization may be identified in Yanis Varoufakis and Kyriakos Velopoulos’ speeches. The speeches of the latter need attention, since the speeches analysed so far are not open public speeches compared to the ones delivered by other leaders.
The election period started without populism
As to populism, as has already been mentioned, it does not seem to constitute a particular feature of the pre-election discourse at present. Kyriakos Mitsotakis currently confirms the identity of an anti-populist politician that he fully embraces and his discourse during these speeches has no considerable moments of populism.
So far, no speech can be characterized as mostly polarizing and no speech is characteristically populist.
On the other hand, Alexis Tsipras was considered to be in the past (especially between 2012 and 2015) a typical example of politician using a (left-wing) populist discourse. At this stage of the pre-election campaign period, certain moments of populist discourse may be observed in the opposition leader’s speeches, but they are not sufficient to define this discourse as principally populist. They do not seem to have the same frequency, intensity or the role they used to have in the past. As regards all other political leaders, no considerable moments of populist discourse are identified, other than some individual and limited references of “low” intensity.
Elections is the dominant topic in the pre-election discourse
Subsequently, we shall consider the main themes of the political leaders’ discourse. Such an analysis might give us some insight into the issues that dominate the political controversy and into which issues might be considered privileged by every party. Since the speeches are campaign speeches, the political leaders’ discourse concentrates to a large extent on the elections, the poll and its result alone.
But let us take a more analytical look at what does this mean for each politician. As regards the PM’s discourse, the issue of the elections is always high on the agenda (top 3 issues) in 3 out of 5 speeches and at rates ranging from 22% to 38%. The issues that complete the trio in these various speeches are the economy, the employment, the public sector, and the health. The themes of accountability, transparency and corruption are identified in the opposition leaders’ discourse, but the topics of accountability, democracy and justice are at extremely low rates in Kyriakos Mitsotakis’ discourse (1 – 2%).
Respectively, the theme of the elections receives priority in 3 out of 4 speeches of the opposition leader (19% – 33%). Other themes appearing in the top 3 involve economy, corruption, accountability and health. The speech in Menidi that was delivered to honor the Hellenism of Pontos differed markedly and culture and human rights were placed high on the agenda. This is mainly due to the special nature of the speech.
The discourse of PASOK – KINAL’s leader is very diverse in terms of the top 3 themes, since – apart from the elections – we also find the themes of rural policy, accountability, economy, housing, education and the social state. As regards Nikos Androulakis, we can see that the location at which a speech is delivered may affect the issues that a politician may raise, since in the speech in Alexandroupoli the issues of national security and immigration appear for the first time in the top 3 themes.
A similar thing is also happening in the case of Dimitris Koutsoumbas’ speech in Lesvos, with the issue of immigration and foreign relations completing the trio along with the elections. The picture of the speech delivered by the Secretary General of the Communist Party (KKE) in the Shooting Range in Kaisariani was a totally different one, since the theme of the elections was framed by the issues of employment and culture.
Kyriakos Velopoulos deals with a few themes in his speeches. He focuses on the main issues of the economy, foreign relations, culture, national security and rural policy. The recent two speeches of Greek Solution (Elliniki Lisi) leader vary, since they deal with the themes of corruption and democracy. This change is possibly linked to the decision of the Anti-Money Laundering Authority to perform a financial audit in the party. Finally, as one would assume, the issues of the economy and the debt complete the top 3 themes along with the elections covered by Yanis Varoufakis. This reflects both Yanis Varoufakis’ himself and his party’s lasting interest in the debt that is not included in the key thematic priorities of any other politician.
Other politicians and social groups mentioned by the leaders
Concluding this first recording of data so far, we may complete the above analyses by considering the references to names identified in political leaders’ speeches. This further observation may give us more details on the themes that each politician deals with and on the issues raised directly or indirectly. It makes sense that politicians refer each time to the city, the prefecture or the wider province in which they deliver their speech. Therefore, attention should be paid to any references to other locations, since they imply the introduction of a theme.
For instance, 4 out of 5 speeches delivered by the Prime Minister include references to Evros. Obviously, they are linked to the announcement of Greece’s intention to extend Evros border fence. At the same time, Turkey is the only country, apart from Greece, that is mentioned in Kyriakos Mitsotakis’ speeches. Nikos Androulakis refers to Turkey, Cyprus, but also Portugal as an example of good practice in the management of the development fund. PASOK – KINAL’s leader constantly refers to the development fund in every speech.
It is reasonable that politicians refer to other parties and other political leaders. The picture at the moment is that the opposition leader chooses to refer personally to Kyriakos Mitsotakis much more often than the Prime Minister refers to Alexis Tsipras. The only politician from New Democracy party, apart from Kyriakos Mitsotakis, who is identified in Alexis Tsipras’ speeches is the Member of Parliament Patsis, who is linked to the issue of auctions of first home and his case has been characterized as a scandal in public speaking.
4 out of 5 speeches delivered by the Prime Minister include references to Evros. Alexis Tsipras refers personally to Kyriakos Mitsotakis much more often the PM refers to him.
The number of references made by Nikos Androulakis to his main two contenders is particularly high and this may be explained by his wish to maintain PASOK – KINAL’s autonomous position in the political sphere. References to former Prime Ministers Andreas Papandreou and Kostas Karamanlis are also made in Nikos Androulakis’ speeches. Yanis Varoufakis is the only other politician referring to Andreas Papandreou. The only foreign political actors mentioned more than once in leaders’ speeches are Draghi and Putin by Yanis Varoufakis and Schäuble by Alexis Tsipras.
It is worth mentioning that references are made in Alexis Tsipras’ speeches to the “Greek people” that are associated with a populist discourse noted herein above. At the same time, references to “middle class” or the “youth” are also identified, since these are social groups that SYRIZA seeks to approach. Such specific references are missing from Kyriakos Mitsotakis’ speeches. On the other hand, it is interesting that in Nikos Androulakis’ speeches we find references to “farmers”. This may be associated with the specific regions that Nikos Androulakis has visited. It remains to be seen.
Dimitris Koutsoumbas’ speeches include references that are not found in any other political leader’s speech, such as references to NATO. He is also the one who mentioned Tempi by name. Finally, the main social (and sociopolitical) groups referred to by the Secretary General of the Communist Party are the workers, the fighters and the communists. This observation explains the reason why the signifier “people” in KKE’s discourse does not operate as required in order to consider the discourse as populist.
References that stand out in Yanis Varoufakis’ speeches are of particular interest. These references render his speeches quite different from the other leaders’ speeches. We find there references to names of businessmen, as party members usually make; references to many countries, such as Italy, France, Ukraine; references to Frankfurt or Berlin, to the European Central Bank and Credit Suisse. These references confirm the fact that Yanis Varoufakis’ speeches are focused on financial issues and he seems to be more internationalized, associating domestic issues with international developments or attempting to make some comparisons.
Alexis Tsipras’ speech is Menidi is a special case, where references to the Hellenism of Pontos, to Pontic Greeks, etc. dominate. This indicates that this speech may not be directly compared to any other pre-election speech delivered by the opposition leader.
Translation: Tina Katoufa