Greece’s election results were a big surprise for the winners, the losers and the pollsters. In a country where huge numbers of people are struggling every day, with almost one-third of the population estimated to be at risk of poverty, Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis’ right-wing New Democracy party secured 40 percent of the vote — a remarkable victory that no polling agency predicted.
The runner-up was former Greek prime minister Alexis Tsipras of the center-left Syriza party, best known for its turbulent confrontation with the EU’s economic centers of power in 2015. He picked up only 20 percent of the vote, much lower than the pollsters had predicted and lower than most Greeks — friends and enemies of Syriza alike — thought possible.
The lack of an outright majority for New Democracy makes the most plausible scenario a second election next month or in early July. This round is designed to give bonus seats to the winner, increasing its chances of securing a majority.
New Democracy’s victory was not unexpected, but the eye-watering share of the vote the party received is a different matter. The conservative government often points to its record of growth and investment, backed by European Commission forecasts, but the proceeds of this have not been felt evenly: A growing number of Greece’s population over the same period have dealt with low wages, low pensions, high rents and a painful cost-of-living crisis.
The disparity between what is on paper and the bleak reality on the ground is striking. So why are the conservatives still out in front, with an outright majority within their grasp? It seems the promises of stability, growth and impenetrable borders have paid off.
There is also the question of the sorry state of the opposition. For Syriza, the high of the 2015 electoral triumph at the peak of the eurozone’s financial crisis was quickly tempered by the imposition of loans from Greece’s creditors that demanded huge sacrifices by Greeks to control the country’s spiraling debt.
The return of New Democracy to power in 2019 made clear the extent of disillusionment and hopelessness that Syriza’s base felt after voting against a bailout in a referendum — and then watching their government accept one.
Since then the party leadership’s strategy has been to return to the center ground to attract more moderate voters — and it has failed spectacularly. On top of that, the absence of any sign of contrition or self-reflection for the years Syriza was in government further alienated its electoral base.
Whatever form the next government takes, the structural problems that Greece faces remain profound. Corruption is rife. A series of scandals — such as a wiretapping scandal that has been dubbed the “Greek Watergate” — have stained the Mitsotakis administration and speak loudly to the failure of the country’s institutions.
New Democracy — and the social democratic Panhellenic Socialist Movement (PASOK) party, with which it alternated in government from 1974 to 2015 — cannot escape responsibility for this long-term deterioration.
Take the outrage over the Tempe railway tragedy in February, when the collision of two trains left 57 dead. The disaster led to protests and was raised by opposition parties during the election as a sign of the country’s administrative dysfunction. Many believe it could have been avoided had the rail network not been so neglected.
Greece does not fare much better on the international front. Only last week, footage was revealed that appeared to show 12 asylum seekers who had arrived at Lesbos being forcibly transferred to a Greek coast guard vessel and then abandoned in an inflatable boat in the middle of the sea. The right-wing government has dismissed allegations of being involved in the pushback of asylum seekers, but the video evidence and testimonies leave little doubt as to Greece’s infringements of European rules and international law.
Nonetheless, it is partly this draconian treatment of migrants that has helped New Democracy shore up electoral support.
Another story of the night is the slow recovery of PASOK. Once a force for change in the post-junta period, it picked up a respectable 11 percent, confirming an upward trajectory after its near-fatal low of less than 5 percent in 2015.
One factor behind this is that its leader, Nikos Androulakis, is a member of the European Parliament and, as such, is not directly involved in Greek parliamentary shenanigans. Androulakis is even a victim of the Greek state itself — last year it was revealed that his phone had been tapped by Greece’s intelligence services. (Mitsotakis denied knowing about this and said it was wrong.)
Maybe these results will be a wake-up call for Greece’s progressive parties as to the importance of collaborating with each other. To get anywhere close to winning office, but they would have to learn to offer something more than just being a way of avoiding the worst-case scenario.
Marina Prentoulis is associate professor in politics and media at the University of East Anglia, and a former member of Syriza London.
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