Conservative landslide: markets dancing to the tune, soul-searching for the Left

The Greek parliamentary elections of 21 May have resulted in a resounding win for the […]


The Greek parliamentary elections of 21 May have resulted in a resounding win for the conservative Nea Dimokratia, led by Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis. The elections have been a strategic defeat for the Left, which calls for a fundamental rethink of progressive politics in the country.

In a widely reported episode of the Greek economic crisis, the leaders of the left-wing alliance SYRIZA had promised: “to make the financial markets dance to their tune”. But in hindsight, earlier proverbial wisdom took a sour twist. This month’s electoral result was near and dear to market expectations. It delivered both domestic and international market euphoria on growth prospects and possibly created momentum for updating Greece’s credit rating into investment grade. However, apart from setting the stage for an overwhelming conservative majority in the repeat election in June, the polls have disproportionately punished left-wing opposition parties in the country, something unprecedented in post-1974 Greek politics. An unpredicted record gap of more than 20 percentage points between the two key contenders has made SYRIZA’s strategy of building a progressive coalition impossible. What have been the reasons for the derailment of the left-wing strategy and the resulting weakening of the progressive vote share in the wake of a conservative wave sweeping the country?

First, the collective left faced a formidable opponent in Kyriakos Mitsotakis’s Nea Dimokratia (New Democracy) party, to which it lost power in 2019. Domestically, the conservative government has been credited with managing the repercussions of the Covid-19 pandemic, the energy crisis as well as the immigration crisis. Albeit crisis management on behalf of the incumbent party encountered setbacks and has not been seamlessly delivered, it was positively recast in much of the domestic media discourse. The provision of incentives, tax reliefs and horizontal benefits to those affected, has been the mainstay of government tactics to mitigate the results of those manifold crises. SYRIZA as the main left-wing contender had little leeway but to subscribe to fiscal transfers. On the other hand, SYRIZA pledges for support targeting weaker social groups and tackling income inequalities were exposed to the public as a tax-and-spend policy in a way that alienated more middle-class voters from the party. Syriza’s own election slogan “justice everywhere” blurred specific pledges and did not lend itself to gains with any particular voter group. 

Second, an attempt to redraw the rules of the electoral system attempted before the end of SYRIZA’s last term in office had unintended consequences. It is worth noting that following Greece’s entry into the EU in 1981, and until the electoral quake of 2012, politics in the country have been dominated by two major political parties. Throughout this era, voter polarisation between the Social Democratic PASOK and the conservative New Democracy resulted in the two parties amassing more than 80 per cent of the vote. This constituted the basis of Greece’s bipartisan politics, underpinned by an electoral system of enhanced proportionate representation, which granted the winner party bonus seats in the national legislature and hence a stable, safe majority and single-party government. The electoral quake in 2012 resulted in a coalition government between New Democracy and PASOK (as main partners) and the growing wave of electoral contestation in the form of the so-called anti-memorandum (anti-lending agreement) politics. SYRIZA, despite winning consecutive elections following 2012 and identifying itself as the main contender of New Democracy, never appealed to more than the 35 per cent of the vote it achieved in its heyday in 2015. The party thus remained a medium-large national party with significant shortcomings in terms of membership, fostering like-minded majorities and potentially supporting coalitions on a local and regional level as well as achieving electoral mobilisation of organised interest representation. Faced with a hostile domestic political ecosystem, SYRIZA’s strategists opted for introducing a proportional representation system both at the national elections as well as the regional and local levels. Proportional representation systems form the backbone of electoral rules in political cultures driven by the consensus of political forces and consociational agreements, where coalition-building and programmatic arrangements are key to government formation. They also rely on parties setting the groundwork for coalition formation through the synthesis of different issue-based agendas or convergence of government goals. Neither of the two were to be found in Greece. On the contrary, the pre-election period showed a disparate domestic standing of the left-of-centre parties. Mixed messages by SYRIZA’s leadership on the composition of a post-electoral coalition and PASOK’s risk-averse and non-committed stance towards becoming a junior coalition partner to either of the two larger parties, was seized by the conservatives to cast doubt on the stability, coherence and effective governing capacity of a potential coalition involving opposition parties and tarnish the perception of credible alternatives. Adding to the common in Western democracies, hollowing out of party structures and the undercurrent ‘centralisation’ of Greek politics, last month’s electoral campaigns served to further promote the image and role of the party leader against the influence of party structure as a concomitant with the de facto reshaping of the prime minister’s office as a quasi-presidential executive. The vices of this trend have become obvious in a recent phone-tapping of political opponents, a scandal that was recognised as a grave error by all political forces in the country.

As the Greek Left enters a period of soul-searching following its persistent inability to capitalise on conservative failures and shortcomings, the importance of a credible Social Democratic alternative to check and hold conservative rule to account increases. Being able to deliver a clear positive message on an issue basis has apparently been recognised by a particular segment of centrist voters, which gave the conservatives an electoral boost. The Greek conservatives escaped the setbacks of their last term by seeking to depoliticise disasters such as the Tempi rail accident and focus on few but tangible achievements in the digitalisation of public services and the management of the Covid-19 vaccination campaign. Rather than the radical approach followed by SYRIZA so far, a gradual approach of building broad issue-based coalitions on key reform areas such as delivering clean and affordable energy through the often neglected concept of energy communities, tackling climate change and its socioeconomic impact, addressing a housing crisis caused by soaring property prices and volatile real estate investments and golden visa schemes and delivering civil service reform are some of the examples where Social Democrats can regain the lead as a viable office seeking option. PASOK, standing in between Syriza and ND on the left-right axis, has regained some of its popularity and, in fact, made gains in this election by developing concrete policy proposals in this regard. 

Repeat elections are foreseen in late June. These will be the first litmus test as to whether PASOK will manage to increase its voter base and present a credible centre-left opposition force to the dominant New Democracy in the fragmented landscape of the Greek parliament.

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