Political Party Impacts on Direct Democracy

The 2015 Greek Austerity Referendum

Originally published in Atlantic Economic Journal

On July 5, 2015, Greek voters were asked whether to approve or reject the terms of an austerity program offered by the European Union (EU) to resolve an ongoing financial crisis. With a turnout rate of 62.5% overall, 61.3% of Greeks voted “no.” While a majority of voters in every district opposed the bailout’s terms, the margin against the proposed austerity measures ranged from 51.2% in Lakonias to 73.8% in Chanion. This paper presents empirical evidence on the determinants of the “no” vote across Greece’s 56 electoral districts. Our analysis is grounded in public choice theories of why large numbers of people turn out to vote in mass elections. In addition to controlling for standard “instrumental” vote motives, we ask whether political party labels, which serve as summary measures of partisan positioning, and party platforms, which express partisan preferences on ballot questions, are salient in determining electoral outcomes. Holding constant the unemployment rate and average voter age (at the regional level) and the fraction of young people casting ballots for the first time on July 5, 2015 (at the district level), we find that the percentage of ‘no’ votes was reduced significantly by voter support for Greece’s leading pro-austerity party (New Democracy) in the previous nationwide election held in January 2015. In contrast, voter support in January for the anti-austerity party (Syriza), led by sitting Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, had no measurable impact on July’s referendum results. This finding offers support for both instrumental and expressive theories of voting and bolsters the claim that political parties can shape electoral outcomes on questions decided by an institution of direct democracy.