The May 2023 Greek elections surprised most people on the Left within Greece and across the world. After four years of major political scandals, controlling the media, and accusations of illegally spying on political opponents and journalists, New Democracy won the elections with a twenty-point margin against Syriza.
Understanding how we ended up here is essential for progressive social movements and left parties to offer a convincing progressive policy agenda and return to power. Rejecting austerity policies altogether, reconnecting with social movements and unions, and offering reliable policy alternatives are arduous but necessary tasks. The return to power for the Left is likely to be a slow process, and avoiding the repetition of the fall of Syriza should be the main objective.
The Rise and the Fall of Syriza
Syriza’s 2015 rise to power was the most significant political shock in Europe in recent memory. After five years of irrelevant austerity policies imposed on Greece by the European Union and the International Monetary Fund as part of the economic adjustment programs, the Greek people voted in favor of a potential rupture with the EU. Syriza promised a realistic possibility for progressive economic policies within the Eurozone.
Between 2012 and 2015, the right-wing New Democracy party and the formerly social democratic Pasok implemented austerity-oriented economic policy programs that led to mass impoverishment and social unrest. During this time, Syriza actively engaged with progressive social movements and openly critiqued the harsh and inefficient austerity policies. The story of the ultimate rise of Syriza to power is relatively well known. After forming a coalition government on January 2015, the Syriza-led administration attempted to convince EU institutions, powerful lobbies, and the political leaders of the EU North that a progressive alternative policy agenda is possible. But these aspirations were crushed after six months of negotiations.
The last act of Syriza’s attempt to change the direction of economic policies within the Eurozone was the 2015 Greek bailout referendum. While an overwhelming 61.3 percent of the popular vote was against new austerity policies and the support for a Grexit was higher than ever, Prime Minister Aléxis Tsípras decided to go against the result and sign a new bailout agreement. Leading members of the first Syriza-led administration, including the finance minister Yanis Varoufakis, resigned, and new elections were announced for September 2015.
Syriza issued an implicit promise that the new government would do anything to fairly distribute the costs of the upcoming austerity measures. People accepted that this was the only alternative after previous failed attempts to change EU economic policies, and Tsípras’s Syriza re-won the majority of the parliament and formed a new coalition government.
In the upcoming years, some limited social policies that protected poorer households were implemented, but economic policy has been focused primarily on maintaining budget surpluses and servicing public debt payments. Naturally, the process of creating a surplus that eventually reached thirty-one billion euros included heavy taxation and the stagnation of social spending, which particularly hurt the poorer segments of Greek society. Syriza argued that this was an unavoidable but temporary program that would be reverted once the memorandum agreements ended.
There Is No Alternative
New elections took place in July 2019. Syriza’s narrative was that after the completion of certain austerity-oriented agreements, it was time to implement their own, more progressive agenda and return the accumulated budget surplus to society. Unsurprisingly, the majority of the voters were not convinced, and New Democracy won the majority of seats in parliament, forming the first single-party government since 2009.
Under the leadership of the political heir Kyriakos Mitsotakis, son of a former prime minister and brother of a former minister, New Democracy absorbed various far-right politicians from smaller political parties. The party presented a xenophobic migration and foreign policy agenda. But in terms of economic policy, their narrative was that New Democracy was a party of well-educated technocrats that, unlike Syriza, knew how to efficiently implement trickle-down economics and create a more efficient, market-oriented public administration.
A few months after the reelection of New Democracy, the pandemic started and the new government had to abandon its austerity-oriented agenda out of necessity. Social unrest caused by the party’s authoritarian public health approach and disinvestment in public health care, which caused thousands of excess deaths, pushed the government to spend a big share of the surplus created by Syriza in wage subsidies and social benefits. Needless to say, this was not a deliberate policy choice, but a necessary measure to limit social unrest in extraordinary circumstances. In the meantime, the New Democracy administration also spent twenty million euros on COVID-19 public health media campaigns.
But soon after, criticism emerged claiming that the distribution of these funds was unequal and based on political affiliation with the governing party. This partisan favoritism, along with clear restrictions on journalistic freedom (Greece ranks 107th in a recent global press freedom ranking), strengthened the public’s impression of New Democracy’s corruption. On top of that, recent evidence also suggests that the Greek intelligence services, which are under the direct control of the prime minister, used illegal surveillance systems to spy on journalists and political opponents.
Last but not least, during the final months of the New Democracy administration, a major train crash killed fifty-seven people. This devastating event was largely the outcome of disinvestment in public infrastructure and the privatization of the railways, since no signaling system had been in place for years and the operators were not properly trained. And as a result of these black marks on New Democracy’s record, many believed that the Greek left’s chances to return to power have increased significantly.
Dream Deferred, Again
The outcome of the 2023 elections is the most unexpected result in Greek politics in years. While the reelection of New Democracy was not unanticipated, winning with a margin of 20 percentage points against Syriza after four years of authoritarianism and scandals was unforeseen. At the same time, three smaller far-right parties managed to enter parliament, where they now control over 10 percent of the seats.
How did we end up here? First, the temporary ease of fiscal constraints by the EU due to COVID allowed the New Democracy government to provide some benefits in cash as well as coupons in response to the cost-of-living crisis, using the budget surplus that Syriza generated. If the social unrest that COVID created had not pushed the government to provide such benefits, the actual economic policy agenda of New Democracy would look very different to what was actually implemented. Smartly, in the preelection period of 2023, New Democracy took advantage of this turn of events and argued that they, not Syriza, are the party that actually cares about working-class people.
Additionally, Syriza’s election strategy was to focus almost exclusively on New Democracy’s political scandals and blatant authoritarianism, without offering a more concrete economic policy agenda of their own. This approach missed that a precarious and impoverished population primarily cares about its economic survival and can be easily deceived by the rhetoric of the far right.
As for why Syriza toned down its economic promises, the party perhaps recognized that financial markets would have reacted very aggressively against the election of a left-wing government, leading to higher borrowing rates. As a result, a left-wing government would have had to implement austerity anyways, a lesson Syriza already learned the hard way — and which raises major questions about how financial markets constrain democracy, especially within an interconnected monetary system like the Eurozone.
The Way Out
Since New Democracy will control over half of the seats in parliament over the next four years, party officials feel at liberty to state that their agenda for the upcoming years includes implementing the program they had in mind if COVID had not occurred. Consequently, the further privatization of health care is likely to continue, the establishment of private for-profit universities is planned to happen soon, and thousands of households that cannot service their debt face increasing risks of eviction.
What’s more, under the current constitution no party can independently propose a motion of no confidence against the government, since that requires holding at least fifty seats. The main opposition party, Syriza, will hold only forty-eight. The formation of wider coalitions among left-wing and center-left parties seem extremely unlikely, as neither the communist KKE party or the social democratic Pasok have shown any willingness or interest.
Fighting austerity and privatization and defending democracy will be very difficult tasks in the Greek parliament for the next four years. It appears unlikely that politicians associated with the first Syriza government are going to be able, during that time, to convince the voters that they can offer a reliable pro-labor alternative.
For that reason, the task of rebuilding left-wing social movements and political organization is more necessary than ever. New progressive social movements will inevitably emerge with the return of marketization and privatization. While painstaking and difficult, the Left must consolidate and organize them, leading to the creation of new genuinely radical political alliances. These must offer realistic and reliable progressive policies against the EU’s neoliberal policies to convince people that there is a viable alternative road. The big question that emerges is whether resistance can ever be fully realized within the Eurozone system.