PM Alexis Tsipras (left) at a rally in front of the Greek parliament in Athens. ZOONAR GMBH / ALAMY STOCK PHOTO

A snap poll and Syriza on the slide—what next for Greek politics?

Don't count on a return to the sensible centre. Daniel Howden reports from Athens ahead of the election on 7th July
June 12, 2019

Greece in crisis has been a looking glass in which observers saw what they wanted. The outsider’s view typically contained a flourish of Ancient Greek in the lede and an argument to suit the author’s prejudices. Britain’s eurosceptic right saw the imminent death of the euro; the left saw the coming end of capitalism and in some cases the chance to relive a Trotskyist youth. Neither view had much merit. 

Undaunted, Greece’s European election results have spawned a new narrative, that of the country sobering up and rejecting populism. A first glance on the results appears to support this conclusion. Greece’s conservative New Democracy beat the ruling leftists of Syriza by 9.5 points. More support for this reading could be found in a halving of the vote for the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn. 

Before the election, Syriza was in populist form with a flurry of giveaways, such as cash bonuses to pensioners. Its campaign called on “the many” to strike back against the elite. The late-night chatter among Athens politicos was that its conjuror of a leader, Alexis Tsipras, would limit the damage to fewer than five points. He could not. The defeat was emphatic enough to compel him to announce a snap general election on 7th July. Reversing this loss of momentum now looks impossible, even for Tsipras. 

After four years in power Syriza is exhausted. The grassroots organisers who once distinguished the movement from the sleazy two-party system have long since walked away. Sympathisers will say that Tsipras is leading his party on a tough march from the hard left to more orthodox social democracy. They should look at the three MEPs the party succeeded in getting elected: the son of one of the oligarchs the party once promised to confront, a television anchor from the national broadcaster and an actor.

New Democracy’s roster of MEPs is equally dismal, consisting almost entirely of shop-worn ex-MPs from the old system. They include a flag-waving former national football team captain and an MEP under investigation by the EU’s anti-fraud office. Greek voters had fresher faces among the candidates but largely ignored them. 

The argument that Greeks voted to return to the sensible centre hinges on the reform of New Democracy by its leader Kyriakos Mitsotakis. He is the scion of one the trio of political dynasties who have ruled and misruled Greece for generations. Mitsotakis’s reputation as a technocrat stems from his time at management consultants McKinsey and in investment banking. The party he took over three years ago bore much of the responsibility for the debt crisis. It also had a nationalist wing that was uncomfortably close to the far right and an array of corrupt senior cadres. Its transformation is far from complete.  

A significant part of the swing from Syriza to New Democracy in the euros came over Macedonia. Tsipras forged a deal with Greece’s tiny northern neighbour to deliver them both from a decades-long dispute over what the country should be called. Greece had long blocked Macedonia from joining the EU and Nato until the dispute was resolved. The compromise, to call the country North Macedonia, enraged Greek nationalists.

So Greece’s arch-populist lost an election after taking a stand on an important but divisive issue, while the would-be reformer Mitsotakis played to nativists who decried the “national betrayal.” The rancorous atmosphere helped unleash Kyriakos Velopoulos, whose Greek Solution was the surprise of the Euro elections. Yes, Golden Dawn’s vote share fell but some of that space was occupied by Velopoulos, an ethno-religious tub-thumper and telemarketer who sells letters apparently signed by Jesus. His entry into the European Parliament is hard to read as a sign of sobriety in Greek politics. 

Mitsotakis may yet forge an authentically centrist government if his party wins a similar share of the July vote but the signs are conflicted. Thuggish tribalism is resurgent. The gloating, entitlement and score settling has already begun. I am reminded of a video that appeared in 2011, showing New Democracy student activists celebrating a win over their centre left opponents from Pasok. They had strung up a washing line of chickens painted Pasok green, each with a New Democracy blue dildo inside; they chanted football songs about rape.  

This time there was a similar lack of grace. Among Syriza’s losing candidates was Bulgarian Konstantina Kouneva, a hero of the trade union movement whose activism as a migrant cleaner saw her blinded in an acid attack. A mid-ranking New Democracy official joked that since she was now unemployed, he could use a cleaner for his house. Mitsotakis threw him out of the party. 

It is hard to know whether Greeks who vote for New Democracy in July will be getting bigots and nativists or discipline and reform. What is clearer is that Syriza is slipping and its more transactional clients are looking for shelter.