The Progressive Post

Greece turns towards a predominant party system

Jean Monnet Chair, Associate Professor, Department of International Relations, Blikent University, and Visiting Fellow, Georgetown University, Washington D.C.

The Greek election result of 25 June confirmed the trend first made visible in the earlier contest last May. Kyriakos Mitsotakis and his centre-right New Democracy (ND) Party has obtained a clear mandate and comfortable parliamentary majority to implement his policy programme. Over the last four years, Mitsotakis dominated Greek politics by combining a business-friendly approach to economic issues imbued with state interventionism through welfare support with a liberal agenda on social issues and a tough, sovereigntist attitude on the migration issue and foreign affairs. Voters clearly approved, and ND is one of the strongest conservative parties in the EU.

Apart from the renaissance of the far right, which will be represented with a record-breaking number of three parties in the new Greek Parliament to represent various shades of grey, the results are truly historic in shifting the axis of Greek politics towards the right. Including the governing party, conservative forces now dominate the popular vote in a way unlike anything Greece had experienced since the 1970s, while the left is weak, divided and in search of identity under very unfavourable political circumstances.

A predominant party system 

From 1977 to 2023, Greece’s party system was premised on a two-horse race, whereby the victory of the mainstream centre-right party came at the expense of the centre-left, and vice versa. The distance between the two main contenders hardly ever reached double digits. This is no longer the case, as ND is a whopping 23 points ahead of its nearest rival. What is more, ND has won every single electoral contest since the spring of 2019 and has topped the polls in every voter survey since 2017. It is Greece’s predominant party. In the words of Giovanni Sartori, the predominant party “outdistances all the others”, but does much more than that too. The predominant party is also able to set the public policy agenda, dominate the media discourse and force other political players to locate themselves on a terrain largely owned by that party. New Democracy was the election winner in previous contests, but it is the dominant political force in 2023. Does this matter? Yes, because the rise of the predominant party is accompanied by fragmentation in Parliament, reminiscent of the crisis years, and the absence of a large, solid opposition party able to challenge the government and appear as a credible, alternative government in waiting. Holding the government accountable can now prove difficult in the potential cacophony of a heterogenous Parliament, with important implications for the quality of Greek democracy. 

Centre-left collapse 

Greece’s progressives face a conundrum few of them considered possible just a few months ago. SYRIZA’s electoral appeal has now been halved compared to what it enjoyed a mere eight years ago, losing 14 points over the last four years and while in opposition. It is a ‘Pasokification’ of sorts, suggesting that SYRIZA’s political future is far from certain. Meanwhile, PASOK’s return as a serious political force continues. The 4 per cent it registered a few years back has now been almost tripled, and the party’s next goal will undoubtedly be to form the main opposition. Given SYRIZA’s collapse, however, PASOK has missed an important opportunity to set the tone. The Greek electorate had traditionally given centre-left political forces an absolute majority, regardless of party composition, whereas this time progressives have suffered a strategic loss. Why are progressives on the retreat?

To start with, SYRIZA refused to learn the lessons of its 2019 defeat. Its time in office was marked by a near-death experience for vast swathes of the middle class through high taxes and firebrand rhetoric. Its pro-poor measures to address some of the symptoms of the economic crisis and foreign policy initiatives were lost amidst limited efficiency and a pervasive sense of insecurity magnified by an ‘us versus them’ discourse that divided the electorate and activated the anti-left instincts of voters, especially in the centre of the political spectrum. Mitsotakis read the signs early and responded in kind by broadening his party’s appeal and utilising rhetoric premised on togetherness, growth and unity. Following years of unrelenting economic crisis, his success in reforming part of the state bureaucracy and enhancing the country’s reputation abroad flattered Greeks’ sense of patriotism and suggested to them that a return to convivial centrist politics is again an option.

Second, SYRIZA and PASOK proved particularly unsuccessful in handling the 24/7 media news circle during the pre-election period. When not preoccupied with the party choice of the minority Muslim voters in the north, a non-issue for the vast majority of the electorate, media headlines were dominated by tax increases imposed by the centre-left, be it on the self-employed (SYRIZA) or inheritance (PASOK). By emphasising such proposals, the government associated both SYRIZA and PASOK with a tax-and-spend agenda that hardly anyone would wish to return to.

Finally, and perhaps more importantly, the centre-left adopted an overtly defensive stance dominated by a negative campaign that portrayed Mitsotakis as an Orbán wanna-be, a Machiavellian cynic intent on heightening inequality and destroying, by privatising, the national health service. That image simply did not fit voters’ perception of their prime minister. Their campaign and continued infighting as to who ‘truly’ represents the progressive pole in Greece, visible before the elections and expected to gather pace from now on, left voters disillusioned and embittered. Given the shift in the axis of Greek politics, Greek progressives cannot afford to lose any more time in rebuilding a political programme fit for our era that corresponds to the needs of the future instead of the complaints of the past. Voters declared the crisis-era to be over, and SYRIZA failed to read the message. Failure to do so again going forward will equal its political demise.

Photo credits: Papanikos

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