Carlos ZGZ / Flickr / CC0 1.0
Carlos ZGZ / Flickr / CC0 1.0

A Rightward Shift and Early Parliamentary Elections

Stratis Bournazos & Dimosthenis Papadatos-Anagnostopoulos

The results of the European elections in Greece are a clear victory for right-wing New Democracy (ND), which took first place with a 9-point lead over the Coalition of the Radical Left (Syriza), which has governed the country since 2015. Overall, this result is confirmed by the local government elections (regional and municipal elections took place in the same day). These results triggered rapid developments, with Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras declaring that he would call snap national elections for late June (these would have been held by October at the latest).

The rest of the information emerging from the election results are varied and contradictory. There has been an obvious dip in support for the neo-Nazis but new far-right formations have emerged, with significant percentages. The social democratic Movement for Change (Kinal) and the orthodox Communist Party (KKE) had a middling performance, The European Realistic Disobedience Front (MeRA25/DiEM25), the party of Yanis Varoufakis, former finance minister in the first Syriza government, is likely (at the time of writing) to enter the European Parliament, while the parties of the far left performed poorly (each polled under 1%). But before we proceed with the analysis, it’s necessary to consider the pre-election period.

The pre-election [political] landscape

Throughout the pre-election period, governing Syriza’s goal was not to lag behind ND by more than 3 points, so that this lead could be reversed in the national elections (planned for October 2019, but now to be held in late June). Accordingly, ND intended to secure a broader victory, which it certainly has achieved, as a prelude to its dominance in the parliamentary elections as well.

This endeavour of both parties can be understood on the basis of two parameters: a) the decline in expectations that European policy can be changed through the European Parliament (with the inevitable consequence of shifting the focus of confrontation to the domestic political scene), b) the experience of recent contests on how European election results affect national ones (see Table): in 2009, social democratic Pasok not only confirmed its victory in the European elections but also performed even better in the national elections a few months later. The same happened again more recently, with Syriza’s victory in the 2014 European elections repeating itself in the national elections, in January 2015.

So, the common objective of both parties was to set the European elections as a precursor of the upcoming national poll. For that reason, they characterised the European elections as a confrontation regarding who will govern the country and is more suitable as prime minister and, secondarily, concerning attitudes towards Europe (which has, of course, also happened in several previous European elections).

In its attempt to rally the social layers that supported it in the September 2015 national elections, the Syriza government sought to correct its image in the economic field. It adopted the slogan “For the many” while, three weeks before the European elections, Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras moved to reduce the VAT on food, electricity and natural gas, as well as grant a benefit to pensioners, dubbed the “13th pension”. At the same time, he tried to showcase his alliances with former Pasok politicians and with human rights advocates, seeking to associate ND with the far right. In the pursuit of motley objectives, Syriza’s catch-all slate of candidates included ministers with conservative views and human rights activists, entrepreneurs and trade unionists, party officials and apolitical actors. Syriza also took advantage of comments by Manfred Weber, the European People’s Party candidate for the presidency of the European Commission, made on German television shortly after the announcement of the aforementioned measures (“When Tsipras takes irresponsible financial decisions, the people in the rest of Europe should not pay for the consequences”), in order to highlight the European dimensions of a ND vote, emphasising the affinities of its policies with Weber’s positions.

ND rebuffed the government’s financial provisions as “electioneering”. It focused its efforts on the ideological conflict with the left, labelling the government as incompetent and corrupt, but also as obsessively leftist. Attempting to generate extreme polarisation and to contain any leakage of support to smaller formations to its right, ND engaged in personal attacks on Tsipras (as Syriza did with ND’s leader, Kyriakos Mitsotakis). ND’s tactic also had secondary aspects, targeting specific audiences. For the voters in the centre of the capital, it underlined the issue of safety. For the voters in Eastern Attica, it emphasised the incompetency of the state mechanism during the forest fires in summer 2018, in which 102 people lost their lives. In northern Greece, and despite the fact that nationalist rallies have stopped, ND focused on the Prespa Agreement between Greece and North Macedonia, which it denounced as detrimental. Finally, in addressing the voters on Aegean islands that constitute the entry points for migrants and refugees, it sought, using xenophobic rhetoric, to underscore the government’s failure in this region.

The pre-election tactic of both large parties, and foremost of ND, shifted the field of confrontation towards the space of anti-politics. The tone was defined by a heated, anti-political, and almost black-and-white confrontation between right and left, with each side demonising the other. Also remarkable was ND’s adoption of an agenda combining neoliberalism (in the economy and in labour matters) with extreme conservatism (nationalism, jingoism and repression): a similar policy mix was also adopted under the party leadership of Antonis Samaras (2009–2014), which ended up boosting the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn.

Finally, we ought to mention the outbreaks of neo-Nazi violence, mostly against the Communist Party (KKE) and extra-parliamentary left activists. These incidents can be interpreted either as an attempt on the part of Golden Dawn to show that it remains undaunted by the departure of its existing MEPs and by the revelations against it during the ongoing trial of its leaders on a series of criminal offences, or as attempts on the part of smaller groups to pitch themselves in the far-right space.

Election Result Analysis

Two major parties

a) ND’s clear victory shows that the advantage gained by Syriza in 2014–2015, and confirmed on four separate occasions (European elections 2014, national elections of January 2015, national elections of September 2015 as well as the referendum in July 2015), has been overturned. It also shows that representation relationships cannot be produced or changed in a couple of months as Syriza had hoped, when in April-May it went on a spree of benefit increases for weak social groups, and on an effort to mobilise its people, dangling in front of them the danger of a return of the right. Naturally, nobody could guess what ND’s lead would have been without these pre-election benefits and this mobilisation. It seems, however, that the leftward momentum of 2012–2015 has been reversed, as has been reflected in the ballot box.

b) ND’s electoral lead is in line with – and not contradicted by – the large percentages garnered by the parties on its (far) right: the emerging Greek Solution party of the far-right, ultra-nationalist and known conspiracy theorist Kyriakos Velopoulos (an MP for the far-right Popular Orthodox Rally [Laos] from 2007 and 2012, and ND politician until 2015), as well as the neo-Nazi organisation Golden Dawn. Greek Solution’s rate reflects the charm of anti-politics in Greece (as demonstrated by Vasilis Leventis’ Union of Centrists [Enosi Kentroon] in 2015), constitutes a capitalisation of sorts by the nationalist rallies against the Prespa Agreement, and reaffirms the importance of the aggressive political utilisation of a television channel.

c) ND, with its 9-point lead, has gained a significant – and not easily reversible – head start for the snap national elections that will be held in a month. Syriza may expect a rise in its percentages (due to the fear of a return of the right that will work in its favour, due to its capacity to draw certain percentages from its left, or due to an increased turnout, precisely due to this fear). ND may also expect an increase in support, drawing from its right, as well as the current and climate of victory that will work in its favour. While it is difficult to predict whether the gap will further expand or decrease, what is certain is that bipartisanship will gain from it.

Other tendencies

d) With up to seven parties acquiring over 3% of the vote, which for Greece is the threshold for entering the Greek and European parliaments (ND, Syriza, Kinal, Golden Dawn, KKE, DiEM and Greek Solution), and with the combined share of the remaining parties that did not cross the threshold at 18%, it is evident that the stabilisation of the political system, the mitigation of the representation crisis (that began as early as 2007) and the return of the powerful bipartisanship of the early part of the last decade (where the two major parties had a combined share of around 80-85%) are definitely not prospects on the political horizon. The representation crisis (the fragmentation of the left and right, the far-right vote or the vote for anti-political parties, the fact that both hegemonic political alternatives are incapable of rallying broad forces as they did in the past while, at the same time, many voters are opting for parties that are not going to be represented on an institutional level) predates the austerity measures of the memorandums. The permanency, however, of austerity is one of the major reasons why this crisis in political representation still seems so hard to resolve.

e) It is very important that, for the first time since 2012, neo-Nazi Golden Dawn has suffered a significant blow: its share of the vote at the European level has been halved. This development is the combined outcome of the ongoing trial against it for serious criminal offenses, its internal conflicts but also the emergence of the far-right Greek Solution. However, despite the fact that Greek Solution is a clearly far-right and racist party, the drop in support for Golden Dawn is extremely positive and important for a number of reasons: Golden Dawn is a neo-Nazi organisation engaged in criminal activity and it is doubtful whether it will regain its previous percentages in the future. Moreover, Greek Solution’s percentages may more easily prove to be circumstantial. As Thanasis Kampagiannis, lawyer for the civil prosecution in the Golden Dawn trial, noted, it is a significant blow for the symbolic prestige of Golden Dawn, as a Nazi formation “can only exist by ‘selling’ constant forward advances to its core members”. It is worth noting that one of the two MEPs that the Nazi organisation will likely sent to Europe is prohibited from leaving the country due to the trial.

f) For Kinal, the message is ambivalent. Despite the fact that it concurred with ND on crucial political issues, and despite the fact that the Syriza’s “progressive alliance” tagline found a receptive ear among several centre-right figures and symbolic intellectuals, Kinal managed not to plunge and emerged in third place. On the flipside, this advantage is limited, as it does not seem to have leveraged greatly from the decline of the governing Syriza party.

On Syriza’s left

g) The KKE failed to take third place, as it had intended, coming behind Kinal. This performance, a result of the party’s sectarianism, marks its incapability to leverage the discontent with the government, even though it remains the most powerful – on a political and organisational level – institution to the left of the governing party.

h) Apart from the KKE, the two main formations to the left of Syriza, the Anticapitalist Left Front (Antarsya) and Popular Unity (LAE), which comprises Syriza dissidents who left after the signing of the memorandum, suffered a crushing defeat, both electorally and politically. Confined to rates of 0.70% and 0.60%, respectively, they are incapable of leveraging the fall in Syriza’s support. This defeat is even more clearly depicted and sealed by success of Yanis Varoufakis’ MeRA25/DiEM party. This success is owed to its leader’s radiance (DiEM is a total personality cult), who appears as a “retroactive magician” (claiming that had his line prevailed in 2015, Greece would have avoided the memorandum), but not just that. DiEM’s rhetoric, less confrontational and revolutionary, contains radical elements and proves to be more appealing, occupying the space of the left opposition (that remains uncovered by LAE and Antarsya, despite their presence in social spaces and social movements where DiEM is absent).

In conclusion, the European elections have resulted in a clear defeat for Syriza, but also the left in general, and a victory for the right. The only positive outcome was the significant drop for Golden Dawn, which may mark the beginning of the end for it. Whether Syriza’s defeat (inevitable for a party implementing austerity measures; the same happened to Pasok in 2012 to an overwhelming degree, when it plummeted from 44% to 13%, to reach 7% today) will extend to the national elections and whether it will prove to be structural or temporary is unclear and remains to be seen.