The 21 May Greek election: entirely unexpected and extremely consequential

Still reeling from the long-term effects of more than a decade of economic turmoil, most […]


Still reeling from the long-term effects of more than a decade of economic turmoil, most Greeks headed to the polls on 21 May expecting that this election would be far less fateful when compared to previous turbulent cycles during the crisis years, in which a feeling of relentless existential angst engulfed the Greek political system and society alike. Yet, what they got was nothing short of a political earthquake – one of the biggest surprises for Greece’s political scene since the restoration of democracy almost 50 years ago.

For long tipped to come out on top, New Democracy (ND) – Greece’s conservative ruling party – nonetheless routed its rivals, far surpassing even its own wildest predictions. Reversing a tradition that had seen no ruling party in Greece increase its vote share in decades, ND gained a double-digit, double-score lead over its main rival, left-wing SYRIZA – 40.79 to 20.07 per cent respectively. This translated into 146 seats in the 300-seat parliament, just four short of a majority, owing to a new electoral law that allocates seats on a purely proportional basis and that in practice reduces the chances of one-party governments – a standard phenomenon in the country. 

Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis was credited for delivering robust economic performance, tax cuts and market-friendly reforms that led the Greek economy to grow, by an electorate that was eager to move towards political stability following years of economic woes. Most analysts expected his premiership to be wounded by a number of knotty issues that arose during the last four years: mounting concerns over the rule of law and the freedom of the press; a stubbornly high inflation rate; a spying scandal that added considerable amounts of toxicity to Greek politics; and of course the deadly train crash earlier this year that exposed in the most painful way not only the collective failures of the Greek state over time, but also the current government’s lapses in its narrative of ushering in the country into the fourth industrial revolution. The result made it clear that voters rewarded the government’s stewardship in spite of all these issues, instead of penalising it because of them.

As a mirror image of this, the election outcome dealt a powerful, potentially devastating, blow to SYRIZA, the main opposition party, and to Alexis Tsipras, its leader and former Prime Minister. The party failed to capitalise on the government’s flaws and inactions, with its vote collapsing to just over 20 per cent. As a comparison, it had achieved 31.53 per cent at the very end of its own tenure in power in 2019, meaning that it was judged far more harshly now in opposition than when in government. Critical in explaining this spectacular implosion is the party’s de facto lack of ability to offer a convincing alternative to the path charted by the current government and the heavy baggage the party is still seen as carrying from its own administration, often associated with crisis-stricken policies and a governance style of turbulent brinkmanship that stood in contrast to the ruling party’s narrative of stability and growth. Tsipras appeared unable to revamp his and his party’s tarnished image, creating a deficit of trust among swaths of the population where their election manifesto could be a credible solution to the problems at hand. In the end, voters expressed a preference for ND’s lustre of progress over SYRIZA’s bleak reading of the moment Greece finds itself in: they wanted to put the crisis behind them, and SYRIZA failed to convince them it could do that. 

Finding itself on the winning end of the expectations game, the Social Democrat PASOK placed third as widely predicted, but it improved its score by almost 40 per cent to 11.46 per cent compared to 2019. SYRIZA’s huge defeat and PASOK’s modest improvement means that their gap in electoral support is now much smaller (a little bit over 8 per cent) than it has been in years. This not only reveals how mutually exclusive a part of both parties’ voter pool is, but it also creates the preconditions for friction and antagonism between them. In no equivocal terms, PASOK hastened to state that replacing SYRIZA as the main opposition party is a key strategic goal of theirs, as the only sensible progressive way of countering the government’s agenda. The next few weeks will show if PASOK’s upward swing will continue, bringing it within breathing distance of SYRIZA, or allowing it even to restore itself to second-party status. But with ND’s all but assured trajectory to win a comfortable majority in the next election, the main, real question of the upcoming cycle might be predominantly about how the current and erstwhile protagonists of the centre-left/left spectrum do against each other. 

What now?

Although this election’s arithmetic allows for a governing coalition between New Democracy and PASOK, there is little doubt that a repeat election is both parties’ preferred way forward; for the former to get the majority it needs to govern alone, and for the latter to consolidate and increase its momentum in its effort to retake the left’s mantle from Syriza. Bolstered by its triumph, the governing party’s appetite for this scenario is increased by the fact that in a redo election, the current proportional system will give way to a new one that rewards the party that finishes first with a progressively larger number of bonus seats depending on its vote share.

If another landslide by the conservatives is all but a foregone conclusion in a second round of voting, which will most likely occur on 25 June, there is equally no doubt that what started transpiring on 21 May will have far-reaching consequences. In case of a repeat emphatic victory by ND in the June election, the key question for the opposition will be how to provide effective checks and meaningful scrutiny to a government with a decisive majority and huge electoral support. Especially for SYRIZA and PASOK, the added onus will be on how to serve this aim at a time when their own terms of engagement will be inescapably renegotiated on the basis of this and the next election’s outcomes. 

Reversely, from a government perspective, an all-powerful ND will be given all the tools at its disposal to implement its reform and policy agenda, but a decisive majority in the face of weak opposition could lead to arrogance, policy overreach or political under-delivery, none of which would be a recipe for electoral success longevity. 

If he wins again in June, Mitsotakis’ stated intention of continuity in his fiscal and economic policies will calm markets and reassure voters, but this could well be short-lived if his government does not tend to the deep, lingering risks relating to the Greek economy, as debt levels are still extremely high, the cost-of-living crisis painfully persists, and the country is still healing from years of austerity and cuts. The next government would also be well advised not to take its remarkable electoral performance as a carte blanche to disregard the mounting and deepened concerns about the rule of law in the country under its watch. Similarly, a critical part of its responsibility would be to attack head-on the networks of nepotism, incompetence and lack of accountability that were laid bare by the train tragedy, that it helped feed in the past. 

In ancient Greek, crisis (κρίσις) meant both ‘decision’ and ‘turning point’. The 21 May election could well be remembered in history books as both. Widely expected to be a more ‘mundane’ election on the country’s path towards great political ‘normalcy‘, the outcome came as an utter surprise, having the potential to reshape many of the fundamentals of Greek politics. The electorate showed in no uncertain terms its preference for putting the crisis years well and truly behind them. Whether the choices made in this election and a repeat one in a month’s time end up reinforcing or hampering this goal remains to be seen.


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