F. Tronchin / Flickr / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
F. Tronchin / Flickr / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

European Elections in Greece: the poor relation

Stratis Bournazos & Dimosthenis Papadatos-Anagnostopoulos

European elections have always been treated as the poor relation in Greece compared to general elections. Since 1981, when they took place for the very first time, they have always attracted less political interest and participation – naturally, the same goes for many other EU countries. Both those tendencies (lesser interest and a lower turnout) are expected to be reaffirmed in the coming election of 26 May 2019, although there are three factors that could moderate, but not reverse, these.

The first one is that, since the outset of the crisis (especially during the first period of the Syriza administration in the first six months of 2015), European affairs (although often in a negative or perverse manner) have been the subject of increased interest. The second factor does not concern the European election itself, but it does seriously affect it: this year being one of three more election races in Greece – the regional and municipal elections (which will take place on the same day as the European election) and the general election (scheduled for October 2019, it could be called at any moment in the meantime). This fact, coupled with the deeply polarised political life of the country, especially between the two largest parties, Syriza and New Democracy, has led to an extended pre-election period and could influence the European election in two ways: by increasing voter turnout as well as by shifting the conversation towards national (and non-European) issues.

The political geography of the European elections in Greece of 2019

At present, six Greek parties are represented in the European Parliament:

Coalition of the Radical Left (Syriza). Part of the European United Left/Nordic Green Left (GUE/NGL). Took 26.6% and 6 seats in the 2014 European elections; 35.5% in the last general election (September 2015). Today (after having signed the third memorandum in July 2015 and the subsequent split in the party), Syriza has 3 seats in European Parliament, as one MEP became independent, one joined Popular Unity (Laiki Enotita, formed by Syriza dissidents in July 2015) and another joined MeRA25, Yanis Varoufakis’ party.
New Democracy (ND). Part of the European People’s Party (EPP). Took 22.7% and 5 seats in the 2014 European elections and 28% in the 2015 general election.

Golden Dawn (Chrysi Avgi). Far-right neo-Nazi organisation that does not belong to any European Parliament group. Won 9.4% and 3 seats (one MEP later declared himself independent) in the 2014 European elections and 7% in the 2015 general election.
Panhellenic Socialist Movement (Pasok). Part of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D). Took 8% and 2 seats in the 2014 European election (under the Elia [Olive Tree] banner) and 4% in the 2015 general election.

Communist Party of Greece (KKE). Part of the GUE/NGL group up to June 2014, when it left. Won 6.1% and 2 seats in the 2014 European election and 5.5% in the 2015 general election.
Independent Greeks (Anel). Part of the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) group. Took 3.5% and 1 seat in the 2014 European election (its MEP later declared himself independent) and 3.7% in the 2015 general election.

A few qualitative traits:

a) Syriza followed a considerable upward trend as a party of the radical left during the crisis and memorandum years. From polling rates of approximately 4–5%, it was catapulted to 17% and 27% in the elections of May and June 2012, respectively, finally winning 36% in January 2015 and forming a coalition government with Anel, with Alexis Tsipras as prime minister. The signing of the new memorandum in July 2015 resulted in a severe political crisis for Syriza, since its strategic cornerstone had been the abolition of the memorandums. Many party members dissented and the party split. Syriza, however, remained the country’s largest party, garnering approximately the same percentage in the September 2015 general election. Even though the July events resulted in no considerable electoral cost for Syriza, they had a significant political consequence in that the party lost much of its momentum, trustworthiness and connection to social movements.

Since then, Syriza has followed a policy mix that combines the adoption of neoliberal measures and privatisations in the economy, limited social welfare (and benefit) measures, progress in the institutional field of individual rights, a contradictory policy on the refugee issue (refugee-friendly rhetoric and initiatives, but support for the EU-Turkey deal, inhuman living conditions in the camps such as in Moria, Lesvos) and a reconciliatory foreign policy in the Balkans (with the Prespa Agreement with North Macedonia as its greatest achievement), but also a policy of alliance with Netanyahu’s Israel and a policy of compliance at the bidding of the US. Even though it plays a leading role in GUE/NGL, it has cultivated relationships with the S&D and, inside the country, has attempted to form alliances with figures from the socialist and broader progressive space, but also, to a lesser degree, from the centre-right.

b) ND fills the traditional conservative space. Under a younger leader (as the “anti-Tsipras”), Kyriakos Mitsotakis, since January 2016, it has followed a policy that combines unbridled neoliberalism in the economy, authoritarianism in society, superconservative, even far-right positions regarding the migrant-refugee and rights fields as well as fearmongering. The party mostly follows a superconservative agenda, evident in its reluctance to support measures concerning individual rights and its extreme reaction to the Prespa Agreement (which was contrary to that of its European partners), which it voted against.

c) Golden Dawn is not only a far-right and racist organisation but is openly neo-Nazi. Its entire parliamentary group is on trial on serious charges (homicide, direction of a criminal organisation, etc.). Its electoral durability is significant – and very alarming – as it has maintained around 7% of the vote since 2012.
d) Pasok is the traditional socialist party that governed the country for 20 years (1981–1989 and 1993–2004) and was associated with corruption. Today, it is in disgrace as the party that introduced the memorandums and IMF to Greece (in 2010, under Prime Minister George Papandreou), but also due to its participation in a coalition government with ND (2012–2014). Recently, it created a broader formation, the Movement for Change (Kinal), in an unsuccessful attempt to dominate the centre-left space. Kinal is on a downward spiral, while politically it is in line with ND (indicatively, it voted against the Prespa Agreement). With its stance, Pasok/Kinal stands in stark contrast to the European socialists’ policy on these kinds of issues.
e) Potami is a small, modernising, centre-left party. While it participated in the formation of Kinal, it later withdrew from the group. Although it has a steady anti-Syriza position, it voted in favour of important government bills (on human rights and the Prespa Agreement). It is in crisis and on the verge of survival, as many of its MPs have quit and approached or joined ND.
f) KKE is the largest orthodox communist party in Europe. It maintains some power and a significant activist presence in labour unions and among the youth; however, it remains fossilised and is self-cancelling due to its intense sectarianism and conservativism. Lately, it has also developed chauvinistic tendencies, while it has also voted against legislation on individual rights.
g) Anel is a right-wing populist party, with a strongly anti-memorandum – before 2015 – and conservative character. It was part of the Syriza-led coalition government from January 2015 to December 2018, when it pulled out, denouncing, with radical nationalistic tendencies, the Prespa Agreement. It has constantly moved towards the far-right since.

Regarding the 2019 European Election, it is also worth mentioning:

  • A number of parties to the left of Syriza, which either pre-existed within the leftist space or were created by Syriza dissidents, will contest the election. This space, despite being especially active in social movements after 2015, remains highly fragmented and has not managed to acquire a crucial social or political presence, and thus has not really featured in opinion polls. The sole exception could be Yanis Varoufakis’ MeRA25, which has generated far greater publicity than its organisational strength. It is a party very much centred on its leader and based on European networking and radical language, despite the fact that in several aspects its policies are reminiscent of Syriza’s programme, which was negated after the “negotiation” in the summer of 2015.
  • It is very likely that many far-right and nationalist parties, either independently or allied, will make an appearance, in an attempt to capitalise on the reactions against the Prespa Agreement. Politically, they remain marginalised personality cults, despite the strong support they have within parts of the state (for example, the army, church), as well as in northern Greece.
  • As in the past, the liberal tendency is almost non-existent in Greece. There is no party that adequately represents it, nor does it have a figurehead or clear position (if we exclude some ND voices that rail against the public sector), so this space is negligible ideologically and socially.

Interpretive approaches: a) Greece and Europe, b) the “double electoral earthquake” of 2012

To comprehend the current circumstances, we should not overlook the long-term historical relations between Greece and Europe and the more recent “double electoral earthquake” of 2012.

Greece and Europe. Traditionally in Greece, there has always been a strange hybrid of (unbridled) anti-Europeanism and (servile) philo-Europeanism. These two tendencies cut through the whole political spectrum and are heterogeneous. On the one hand, anti-Europeanism/anti-Westernism has been the main ideological element of 20th-century Greek society. Often connected to anti-imperialism, it could have either radical or nationalist traits. On the other hand, philo-Europeanism also co-hosted a wide spectrum of opinions, from Eurocommunist views (“Europe of the workers”) to the hegemonic views of the dominant bloc: for example, at a geopolitical level, the EU as a “card” against Turkey and, secondarily, as a tool for Greece’s Balkan policy. Here, we should also take into consideration the financial (over half of Greek exports are to the EU) and disciplinary aspects: Europe (and mostly the threat of expulsion from it) has historically worked as the ultimate weapon against the making of demands.

The functional and utilitarian philo-Europeanism – among both the elites and society – of the 1980s and 1990s (due to the European funding that poured into the country) was severely questioned during the crisis and memorandum years, as the EU (particularly Germany) was considered responsible (even at the level of perverse, primitive and unhistorical analogies with Nazism) for imposing extreme austerity, the shrinking of the social welfare state and the memorandums. Although the appeal of Europe has faded, the fear (as well as the “bogeyman”) of a Grexit from the eurozone remains strong.

The crisis and the double electoral earthquake of 2012. The two consecutive general elections in May and June 2012 constituted what the literature refers to as a “double electoral earthquake”: the good old bipartisanship (social democratic Pasok and right-wing ND) collapsed, as the combined strength of the two parties was 32% and 42%, respectively (they used to win 80% of the vote). Pasok in particular saw its power evaporate; from the 44% it took in 2009, it now had 12%. The big winner of those elections was Syriza, a party of the radical left, one closely linked to social movements, whose share of the vote jumped from around 5% to 27%, making it the main opposition.

This earthquake was the result of sociopolitical processes produced by the crisis: the strong contempt for the dominant parties, the complete delegitimisation of the political system, rage and vigorous protests (including the Movement of the Squares). The transformation seemed to change a political landscape that had more or less been in place since 1974. After 2012, this tendency was temporarily reversed, as Syriza expressed the general hope for change (which was often vaguely and passively invested in the party and its leader), as well as a suspension of austerity and impoverishment. Syriza’s “capitulation” in July 2015 triggered a new delegitimisation crisis of the political system and estrangement from it; several important choices of the Syriza administration also contributed to this: a modernising rhetoric of “responsibility” (“growth is coming”, the agreement to create large primary surpluses in the economy, etc), a prime minister-centred policy, along with the weakening of radical criticism, which has fostered the impression that the two parties are in agreement on certain basic choices.

Nevertheless, the consequences of the “electoral earthquake” of 2012 are still evident. ND and Pasok have not managed to politically capitalise on the dissatisfaction with the Syriza government. At the same time, the defeat of July 2015 was total for the left; even the formations and organisations that were against the third memorandum suffered the consequences of this defeat. Hence, today, there is no socially crucial left opposition to Syriza. In short, the representation crisis remains.

Towards the ballot box

In an extremely fluid landscape, attempting to make accurate predictions is a risky venture. The consistent inaccuracy of polls ahead the previous elections and the 2015 referendum stands out. These failures did not stem from the untrustworthiness of pollsters or from their dependency on ND and Pasok, as it is often said, but from the fact that the electorate is like quicksand. The parties’ traditional commitments have loosened, clientelism has been dismantled due to the crisis and there is an acute “distancing” attitude. It is rather telling that in opinion polls a large percentage of respondents refuses to answer, while those who say they will spoil their votes (“not applicable”, “no opinion”, blank ballot, invalid ballot) or abstain can be as high as 30%. And what is even trickier is that it is not as easy as before to predict which way the undecideds will go. As the latest elections showed, the undecided voter often decides on how to vote – or whether he or she will participate at all – at the very last moment, which can determine the outcome of the election.

With these points in mind, we can note the following:

a) It is not Europe that is at stake, but Greece; there will be an intense polarisation, similar to that of a general election. Traditionally, the vote in European elections in Greece, as they are considered of lesser importance and do not determine the formation of the government, is looser, which benefits the smaller parties. With that in mind, both Syriza and ND will turn them in a prelude to the general election and will turn up the heat in order to boost their own percentages.

b) The basic elements of Syriza’s campaign will be “the end of the memorandums”, benefits, the “upcoming economic growth”, scandalmongering at the expense of ND and Pasok, a call for the centre-left to unite against the bogeyman of the superpatriotic ND and the far-right in Europe in general (under the slogan “Progressive alliance in Greece and Europe”). For ND, the platform will comprise opposition to government “overtaxation”, chauvinistic demagoguery against Syriza, anti-left animosity and the rhetoric of “law and order”.

c) Conceivably, as the 2014 European election – in which Syriza proved victorious – was the prelude for its prevalence in the subsequent general election, the same could happen for ND this May. Despite the government’s publicly expressed belief that Syriza will be the winner, all indications point towards ND emerging as the largest party. However, there are still three crucial elements to consider: the gap between the first and the second party, the percentages of the two parties, and the abstention rate. A difference of three points, for example, in favour of ND would be a borderline success for the party, and to a large extent, manageable for Syriza. A difference, however, of over five points would represent a heavy and non-reversible defeat for Syriza. Furthermore, very low percentages for the two parties and a boost for smaller parties, as well as an increase in the abstention rate, would have a negative impact on both parties in total, as they will further decrease the importance of European elections and relativise the results.

In a fluid political landscape, the path to the ballot box, as well as the ballot box itself, may hold surprises for all. Time will tell.