Greece’s Election Offers Little Hope for an End to Austerity
Greece votes in a general election today, with the right-wing New Democracy resisting the challenge from Alexis Tsipras’s Syriza. The campaign has been subdued, reflecting voters’ limited faith in Syriza’s ability to undo the austerity it helped to impose.
For the past few months, Ero feels like she and her friends have been discussing today’s elections constantly: “How do we vote? Or do we vote?” Based in Athens, the twenty-five-year-old occupational therapist is unsure who she’ll pick: “I don’t feel one party will honor what I have in mind, and the last few years I haven’t been following politics, because I’m very disappointed. This makes it very difficult to decide.”
According to polls, Ero is part of over 10 percent of the Greek electorate who are undecided ahead of today’s elections. The right-wing New Democracy, in power since 2019, looks unlikely to gather the numbers needed to win another majority. Yet polls indicate that the Left isn’t exactly rallying a wave of support, either. Potential voters and political analysts told Jacobin that none of the parties on the Greek left seem to have hit on a message that speaks to voters.
Over a decade since the beginning of the country’s debt crisis, the atmosphere ahead of the vote instead seems to be one of disappointment and malaise.
Recent polls show New Democracy still ahead, backed by around 36 percent of respondents. It leads Alexis Tsipras’s Syriza, at 29 percent, and the historic social democratic party Pasok, at around 10 percent. Other parties trailing further back include the Communist Party of Greece (ΚΚΕ) at around 7 percent, the far-right Greek Solution at 4 percent, and the radical left MeRA25, led by former finance minister Yanis Varoufakis, at around the same level. While two or more parties could form a coalition, this possibility seems remote, meaning that Greeks will probably have another election as soon as six weeks from now.
New Democracy and its prime minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis have focused the campaign on a message of stability. Billboards across Athens feature the prime minister’s pensive face and the slogan “firmly, boldly, forward.” The Mitsotakis administration has argued that it has brought the country economic successes — a return to GDP growth, and exiting the surveillance mechanisms imposed on the country after the debt crisis and the subsequent bailouts. In a TV debate between candidates on May 10, Mitsotakis claimed that voters will have to decide if the country “will continue to move forward or roll back into a past that I believe we want to forget.” With this he suggested that should Syriza gain control of the parliament again, Greece will topple back into the financial chaos of 2015. That said, the administration’s delivery of this financial stability is surely up for debate: Greece’s GDP has rebounded rapidly but from a very low base (around 80 percent of precrisis numbers), wages are still lagging far behind 2008 levels, and the unemployment rate is the second highest in the EU.
For their part, Syriza and the rest of the Greek left have spent much of the campaign highlighting the scandals of New Democracy’s last four years, zeroing in on the surveillance scandal that revealed that the Greek government was wiretapping journalists and opposition politicians. (One of the people wiretapped was Nikos Androulakis, the Pasok leader currently also campaigning to be prime minister.) The surveillance scandal took up much of the debate between the candidates, with fingers being pointed toward Mitsotakis.
“There is an attempt to play up the problem, which is an existing problem, the problem of institutions,” modern history lecturer George Giannakopoulos told me. “We can say that certain scandals in Greece have shown that the government of New Democracy meddled with institutions. Syriza is trying to peddle this message to a wider audience but it doesn’t seem to be touching base. I think that’s a wider question for Syriza’s strategy: ‘what is the new message that makes a Syriza government radically different than a New Democracy government?’”
Syriza’s preelection campaign promised a “tide of change.” MeRA25’s billboards call for a “rupture” in the system, arguing that “everything could be different.” But what exactly this difference will be is unclear to voters. This is a particularly hard concept to sell to voters who have been so sorely disappointed by Syriza in the past, either during the economic bailout, or during their time in opposition.
“I don’t want to vote for Syriza, I don’t think they’ve done anything all these years to protect against the votes of New Democracy,” said Ero. She explained: “I don’t feel there was a counter-argument to what has happened — either with coronavirus, with the police, with the demonstrations, or in the universities,” referring to increased policing during the pandemic and the move to install police in Greek universities.
Polls of undecided Greek voters indicate that many of their main concerns ahead of election day have to do with the increased cost of living. But a more specific issue important to Greeks, particularly younger voters, is the tragic train crash in Tempi, in which fifty-seven people died, many of them students who were returning to the city of Thessaloniki after a holiday weekend.
The train crashed due to inoperable signaling systems on the train lines — a failure that had been highlighted over and over by railway workers and safety oversight bodies but was never remedied. In the weeks after the crash there was a public outcry at the governmental failures, lack of investment, and years of negligence, which culminated in two days of national general strikes across the country. Much of the blame for this crash was placed on the shoulders of New Democracy, but also on Syriza, which oversaw the privatization of the national rail system during its time in government.
The KKE has tried to mobilize the rage and anguish at the system following the train crash. Its slogan, “Them alone, all of us,” seeks to draw contrast between a government interested in a few, and a Communist Party interested in the many.
The KKE and MeRA25 will each take seats in parliament, and are performing better in the polls than they have in previous years, but have no chance of winning. And while Syriza is the official opposition party, it cannot alone come close to a majority.
Syriza party leader Tsipras says his party is willing to form a coalition with the old center-left party Pasok and Varoufakis’s MeRA25 to take control of parliament. “I invite you on Monday to sit at one table after Syriza’s great victory, after our people’s great victory, which will open the way for a progressive government,” said Tsipras, addressing Pasok at a campaign rally. But it seems doubtful this this coalition can form — Pasok leader Androulakis has said that he will not form a coalition “either with Mr. Tsipras or with Mr. Mitsotakis,” and Varoufakis has said that a postelection agreement with Syriza is impossible.
For his part, Prime Minister Mitsotakis has scoffed at the idea of a coalition of losing parties, calling it a “political monstrosity.” It is likely that no single force will conquer the Greek parliament on May 21, but there will be no coalition, either.
The likely ambiguous result reflects the subdued campaign. “I don’t think there’s much enthusiasm for either New Democracy or Syriza, among anybody I’ve spoken to in Greece,” said Helena Sheehan, author of The Syriza Wave: Surging and Crashing with the Greek Left. “There’s a feeling of ‘this is all there is and we’re powerless in the face of this.’ And I think there’s still a lot of people not voting.” Sheehan contrasted this with when Syriza was first elected in 2015, and an enthusiasm for the party she described as “electric.” For many Greeks, that hope has since been broken.
Their views ahead of election day were well summed up by Miranda, twenty-eight, a psychologist in Athens. She told me that she is deeply frustrated with Greece’s economic situation and feels no political party is speaking to the needs of her generation. Last election she voted for Syriza, but she doubts she will this time. “I feel disappointed, and confused with how I should vote,” she said. “There is not one party that represents me politically and that I would want to vote for. I am thinking of just voting for the party that would do the least damage.”