The Progressive Post

The pendulum swings to the right in Greece

is affiliate professor at the Paris School of International Affairs at Sciences Po, emeritus professor of the University of Athens, and president of the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy (ELIAMEP).
29/06/2023

Three things stand out in Greece’s two consecutive parliamentary elections held with little tension and high abstention: a personal triumph for Kyriakos Mitsotakis, leader of the centre-right party New Democracy (ND), the implosion of the radical left party of SYRIZA, and the rise of the far right – albeit a fragmented one. The result will be a powerful prime minister leading a one-party government faced with a weak and divided opposition. 

Political culture in Greece is inimical to compromise and coalition governments, hence the two consecutive parliamentary elections in the course of a bit more than a month in search of an absolute majority of seats for the biggest party. Mitsotakis has won his bet. He was helped though by an electoral system that gives a bonus to the biggest party: 40.6 per cent of votes cast and 158 out of 300 seats in the new parliament.

It has been very much a personal triumph for the leader of the ND who has won a second mandate and won more than double the votes cast for the second party. The ND is a broad church extending all the way from staunch conservatives to the liberal and reformist centre. Mitsotakis has managed to keep different strands together on a platform of stability and continuity, economic growth and liberal reforms, competence in foreign policy with the image of somebody who navigates skilfully in international waters, and last but not least, tough on immigration. 

Mitsotakis has succeeded quite remarkably in skirting around a major wire-tapping scandal that had raised serious questions about the rule of law in Greece. He also managed to get away with a system of taxation that redistributes in favour of the better-off in a country with large inequalities. Parties of the centre-left and radical left have largely failed to capitalise on this issue, because their opponents on the centre-right have gained the upper hand in terms of both message and medium combining ideological hegemony with a powerful communications machine. It surely also helped that his government had been generous with subsidies to all and sundry during the pandemic and the energy crisis that followed Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Three new parties have passed the three per cent threshold and elected their representatives in parliament. With very few exceptions, they are completely unknown to most Greeks. They range from neo-Nazis to wild nationalists, religious fanatics and people opposed to the ‘system’ in general. The far right has gained almost 15 per cent of the votes cast drawing support from the fringes of the ND but also from other parties to the Left. In fact, both the ND and parties of the far right have increased their share of the vote in both elections marking a clear swing of the political pendulum to the right in Greece. 

Anti-liberal values, fear of immigrants, of global markets and open societies combined with the anger felt by those left behind in times of rapid change help to explain the rise of the far right. It is no longer an aberration for voters to shift their allegiance from the far left to the far right without bothering to stop anywhere in between. And Greece isn’t an exception either. The same has already happened in the best of democratic families elsewhere in Europe and the United States.

The biggest loser in the two elections was SYRIZA which shrank from 31.5 per cent in July 2019 to 20.1 per cent in May and 17.8 per cent in June 2023. SYRIZA had started as a party of the radical left with roots in Eurocommunism. It had an exponential rise during the big economic crisis of the previous decade that brought Greece under the tutelage of its European creditors and the IMF leading to the loss of a quarter of the GDP while unemployment skyrocketed. SYRIZA capitalised on widespread anger among the population and promised quick and easy solutions to Greece’s problems. They were solutions that SYRIZA was clearly unable to deliver once in power. Between 2015 and 2019, it led a coalition government with a small party of the nationalist right: an unorthodox marriage indeed in a country of orthodox Christians! 

SYRIZA in power was in many ways a crashlanding on hard economics and power politics. Some of its leading members learnt fast, while others were deeply frustrated. As the main opposition party after 2019, SYRIZA failed to provide a credible alternative to the ND. And its leadership completely misjudged the mood of the Greek electorate ahead of the two elections held this year. The result was a big defeat from which it will be extremely difficult to recover. SYRIZA leader Alexis Tsipras has just resigned, opening the way for the election of a successor.

PASOK has paid the biggest political price among all parties for Greece’s economic meltdown during the previous decade. It was arguably unfair because governments of the ND carried a bigger share of the blame for economic mismanagement that had left Greece completely naked when the international financial crisis struck. Trying to manage the crisis and tainted by scandals, PASOK faced the risk of complete extinction with its share of the vote falling below 5 per cent in 2015. Hence the term ‘Pasokification’ that has haunted many European Social Democrats in recent years. Since then, PASOK has been on the way up then reaching slightly less than 12 per cent in June 2023, yet failing to capture a large part of the votes shed by SYRIZA. No doubt, it will be a steep mountain to climb for its new leader and former MEP, Nikos Androulakis.

Androulakis will also have to steer a difficult course between the ND and SYRIZA always running the risk of being uncomfortably squeezed in between. In previous years, several former PASOK ministers left the party and joined its two main rivals to the left and the right. In fact, some of the most prominent ministers of the governments formed by Kyriakos Mitsotakis, including notably the new government formed this week, come from PASOK. Mitsotakis relies heavily on former PASOK members to push through the reformist part of his agenda.

The political landscape in Greece is now dominated by one person, Kyriakos Mitsotakis. He starts his second mandate with an enormous advantage vis-à-vis his political opponents and rivals. But also with a long list of difficult issues to handle, including a tense relationship with a revisionist neighbour, Turkey, a still largely Balkan state at home, a vulnerable economy, and a highly unequal society. He will be called upon to make the best use of EU funds as a catalyst and lubricant for internal reforms. And he will no doubt be faced with new crises of which there have been plenty in recent years. He will ultimately be judged on delivery.

The left and centre-left in Greece are today weaker than they have been for many years. This will have to change. Thinking out of the box will be a key pre-condition. Political realignments may also become necessary. 

Photo credits: Shutterstock.com/Natalie Balchyunayte

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