Greek election results: the beginning of the end for populism?

Most voters rejected radical extremes. Can the country now begin to come together?

July 08, 2019
New Democracy leader Kyriakos Mitsotakis . Photo: unreguser/Xinhua News Agency/PA Images
New Democracy leader Kyriakos Mitsotakis . Photo: unreguser/Xinhua News Agency/PA Images

Four years after a divisive referendum which put Greece on the brink of leaving the eurozone, its citizens have delivered a strong message, by ushering centre-right New Democracy (ND) into power with 40 per cent of the vote. After the crisis that decimated the economy and sowed deep divisions in Greek society, a new political cycle seems to be kicking in. Indeed, this is the first time since 2009 that a party has been elected with a clear majority in parliament, suggesting a return to political stability that is a deviation from the fragmentation defining European politics at the moment.

ND has recovered to its pre-crisis levels and this victory is largely personally attributable to its leader, Kyriakos Mitsotakis. Despite hailing from a political dynasty in Greece, Mitsotakis was an underdog in the 2016 ND leadership race, underestimated both within his party and by his political opponents. Positioning himself on a more liberal, pro-business wing in a party that is still slowly modernising, he reached out to the centre by adopting a moderate tone. The theme of unity played a central role in his campaign, along with a focus on reinvigorating the economy and making Greece an attractive country after a sustained period of brain drain.

The left-wing incumbent government Syriza punched above its weight, achieving 31 per cent—8 per cent more than in May’s European elections, showing that it still has a solid electoral base. Leader Alexis Tsipras abandoned his confrontational leftist agenda on the EU in 2015, but domestically Syriza remains far from a social democratic force. Ridding the party of its remaining radical elements might prove critical to its recovery in the coming years. Can the party now adapt to a new era, one in which similar forces such as Spain’s Podemos and Germany’s Die Linke are not faring well?

A big question mark remains over whether Syriza will revert to its pre-2015 technique of sowing division or if it will embark firmly on a less populist path. It seems likely the party will try to evolve into a centre-left social democratic force, a route it has already chosen in the international arena.

This comes as the traditional centre-left party KINAL failed to perform, with the departure of heavyweight member Evaggelos Venizelos meaning that centrist voters flocked to ND. A new, more charismatic KINAL leader might change the current state of play.

The current of radicalisation and polarisation that racked society is dissipating, indicating that Greek democracy remains robust, despite the huge setbacks of the crisis. Possibly the greatest manifestation of this is the decline of the neo-fascist Golden Dawn, which failed to reach the 3 per cent parliamentary threshold. Its rise had sent shockwaves across Europe and prompted analysts to compare Greece to the Weimar Republic. This was the darkest manifestation of the crisis.

The Communist Party retained its loyal basis and won 5 per cent. A staple of Greek politics is the election of smaller parties that hover around the 3 per cent threshold; right-wing ultraconservative ANEL and centrist Potami were these parties during the crisis. This time, the MERA25 party created by former finance minister Yanis Varoufakis and the right-wing populist Greek Solution secured some seats, gaining 3.5 and 3.7 per cent of the vote respectively.

Importantly, adding up the vote shares of Syriza and MERA25, it is clear that a proportion of Greeks still support what Syriza stood for in 2015.

Vestiges from the height of the crisis are still evident in the state of public education and health services; unemployment is at 18 per cent and Greece is still obliged to run budget surpluses of more than 3 per cent a year, since Greece’s debt is about 181 per cent of its annual GDP. Mitsotakis has a strong mandate to carry out the promises laid out in his pro-business campaign, but public sector reform is a difficult hurdle to clear and cronyism remains a key feature of the Greek political landscape. Meanwhile, his own party is not yet entirely free of reactionary, nationalist elements and it might become a personal commitment for Mitsotakis to steer the party onto a longer-term path of moderation.

Greece was the first European country to elect a left-wing populist in the wake of the financialcrisisand has showed a clear change of tack four years later. Is this really the end of the road for populism? Europe will be interested to see what comes next.

The political anger released during the crisis was rejected by Greeks, who voted for unity and reconciliation. Political renewal is underway, though significant internal change is required to rid Greece of clientelist politics and usher in the economic growth that will allow it to more fully recover. It cannot come soon enough.