Mitsotakis needs new elections, SYRIZA a new direction

Nick Malkoutzis

6 mins - 22 de Mayo de 2023, 10:09

Sunday brought a huge electoral victory for Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis and his centre-right New Democracy party, but an even bigger defeat for the main opposition party, left-wing SYRIZA, and its leader Alexis Tsipras.

New Democracy gained almost 41% of the vote, which was slightly more than in the last elections in 2019, and several percentage points more than opinion polls had suggested. SYRIZA, though, won just 20%, which was more than 11 points down from four years ago. Opinion polls had suggested that the leftists would gain around 30 pct in these elections.

Because proportional representation was used in these elections, the result will not lead to a government being formed. Mitsotakis does not want to seek an alliance with third-placed PASOK. The centre-left party gained 11.5% and could have been a coalition partner for New Democracy, but Mitsotakis prefers to go to second elections, where the winning party will gain a bonus of up to 50 seats. This will give him the chance to win an outright majority on his own.

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On the surface, this divergence between the two main parties, New Democracy and SYRIZA, is difficult to explain. Apart from suffering the normal wear-and-tear of any government that has been in power for four years and experienced the impact of Covid and the cost-of-living crisis, Mitsotakis also encountered additional problems.

Under his watch, Greece experienced its largest ever single wildfire, had one of the highest Covid mortality rates in the EU and, less than three months ago, lost 57, mostly young people, in a tragic train crash.

Furthermore, his government used a Covid awareness campaign to provide financial assistance to friendly media and impeded a thorough investigation by Parliament and independent authorities into the use of spyware in Greece even after it had been revealed that the National Intelligence Service had been spying on the leader of centre-left PASOK, albeit with the approval of a prosecutor.

Under normal circumstances, this would have made Mitsotakis’s re-election difficult, if not impossible. But the circumstances in Greece are not normal.

Firstly, the long and deep economic crisis that Greece went through has left many wounds, as well as a fatigued population that longs for normalcy and a chance to make up for lost time.

This has made issues of an economic nature – growth, investment, jobs, wages, cost of living – the top concerns for Greek voters. On these issues, the electorate places more trust in Mitsotakis than his rivals.

The Greek economy grew by almost 6% last year, foreign investment reached record numbers, unemployment fell to 10.9% in March – the lowest it has been since 2009 - and the minimum wage was increased twice this year to reach a pre-crisis level of 780 euros per month.

Mitsotakis has been credited for these gains, but voters also felt they could not trust SYRIZA to continue on this path. The left-wing party still carries a lot of baggage from 2015, when, as a new and inexperienced government, it engaged in confused negotiations with the eurozone over a new bailout before holding a hasty referendum, whose result the then Prime Minister, Alexis Tsipras, ignored.

The cost and the trauma of this period has not been erased from voters’ minds and when New Democracy started to raise questions about the economic programme that SYRIZA presented in this campaign, it compounded the fears voters had about Tsipras on economic issues.

The ruling conservatives argued that SYRIZA’s proposals would cost four times as much as the opposition party claimed and would put Greece at risk of needing another bailout. Tsipras and his team were not able to provide a convincing response, which leads us to the two other defining factors in this election.

The first, which is also something that makes Greece a somewhat unique case, is that the media landscape is heavily tilted in the government’s favour. For the last two years, Greece has scored the lowest ranking in the EU for press freedom, according to the annual index compiled by Reporters Without Borders (RSF).

In this environment, stories that paint the government in a positive light are given maximum exposure, while developments which raise questions about the competence and honesty of the Mitsotakis administration are given little or no attention.

As a result, the government has been able to systematically build its narrative about the recovering economy, a more modern state sector and more confident Greece even though there are serious questions about the sustainability of growth as well as the effectiveness of the public administration.

However, the fact these questions are not being asked, and were not in the minds of voters on Sunday, is also down to the weakness of SYRIZA. It started as a small coalition of radical left parties before the turmoil of Greece’s debt crisis thrust it into power in 2015. Since then, SYRIZA has been searching for a new identity but has never found it.

Over the last few years, it has been trying to position itself as a centre-left party. The transition, though, has not been convincing and too often SYRIZA behaves like a party of protest. The problem, though, is that Greeks – as they showed in this election – are tired of protesting. They want something more, and SYRIZA has not been able to provide it.

The left-wing party also made a major strategic mistake. It voted through proportional representation when it was in power in 2016, knowing that these would be the first elections that the new system would apply. However, in those intervening seven years, it did little to build any consensus with parties on the left of Greece’s political spectrum. The result was that voters had no vision of what a potential left/centre-left coalition might look like or what it would stand for. It was one more reason for Greeks not to trust Tsipras with their vote.

Sunday’s elections could be seen more as a resounding defeat for SYRIZA rather than a remarkable victory for New Democracy. Mitsotakis’s main opponent contributed to his victory and as the Greek Prime Minister switches his focus to the second elections, possibly on June 25, and an outright majority, SYRIZA will look inwards and perhaps start to ask questions about where it goes from here, if anywhere. 
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