The Left suffered a historic defeat in national elections held in Greece two weeks ago. Syriza, in opposition since the Right came to power in 2019, was crushed at the polls, losing to New Democracy by a full twenty points.
All preelection polls had suggested a narrow victory for New Democracy, but the results were far more punishing, with Syriza managing to win just 20 percent of the total vote. The conservative party hasn’t managed to form a government yet, however, due to an electoral reform introduced by Syriza in 2016, forcing an almost-absolute majority for any party, or the formation of coalitions. A second election will take place on June 25, which should allow New Democracy to form a government.
New Democracy’s first term in office was known for corruption, cruelty, and the implementation of a slew of neoliberal policies across the board. Rights for workers, renters, migrants, and the environment have all suffered since 2019, as inequality has continued to rise.
Prime minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis ran on a stability ticket and cited the economy’s “recovery” as a main achievement during his first term. Indeed, regaining its investment grade rating, which it is expected to do later this year, became a “national goal.” Though the economy has officially rebounded, inequality continues to rise. Moreover, inflation has meant that though the economy grew by 5.9 percent in 2022 (mainly due to the return of tourism and an injection from the European recovery fund), Greek workers saw their purchasing power nonetheless decrease by 7 percent.
A second term for New Democracy promises more privatizations, particularly in the areas of water, heath, and education. Meanwhile, Greece’s tax system targets the poor — in what is effectively a flat-rate tax system — and gives the rich a free pass. Among EU countries, the capital gains tax remains low — like Hungary’s, it sits at just 15 percent — and dividends tax is even lower — 5 percent. On the other hand, indirect taxes, targeting mainly consumption and the working class, contribute more than 60 percent of the overall revenues of the state.
Law and order has been a key pillar of Mitsotakis’s first term in office. This has meant the increased criminalization of refugees, in flagrant defiance of international law, and the continued pushback of migrants at sea and on land, according to several independent reports. Complaints of police corruption have soared since New Democracy have come to power, and reports of a spyware scandal involving the cabinet itself have caused outrage at home and abroad.
Under Mitsotakis, the judiciary has been devalued, and the administration’s own violation of the rule of law has gone unpunished. It has forced even traditional supporters of New Democracy to wonder whether Greece is now being transformed into a rogue state.
The chronic underfunding of public infrastructure and services has been a defining feature of New Democracy’s rule, leading to the tragic rail accident between Athens and Thessaloniki in March, killing fifty-seven people. Since then, more avoidable deaths have occurred thanks to insufficient safety standards, most recently near the port of Piraeus.
Despite this record, New Democracy received support from the media, banks, and business. This has allowed the party to convey a sense of normality to the outside world, even as life inside the country for working people continues to worsen.
New Democracy’s victory is one half of the story. The other half is Syriza’s defeat. Once the representative of the anti-austerity movement and the electoral vehicle of Greek resistance to the Troika, Syriza is now in crisis. This isn’t new. At the 2019 European elections, the party scored just above 23 percent of the vote, though at the national election later that year, it managed a result of 31.5 percent of the vote.
After a decade of austerity imposed by the Troika — and supported by Greek conservatives — Syriza has opted for a strategy of “pragmatism,” which has meant attempting to enlarge the party’s structures to form a progressive alliance that can include the middle classes — who are the constituency that handed New Democracy victory in 2019. But Syriza has failed to transform itself into a real mass party, and its initiative has backfired. Both PASOK (the centrist social liberal party) and the KKE (Marxist-Leninist) seized on the opportunity to gain more ground for their own parties.
Minor parties like Yanis Varoufakis’s MeRA 25 party shirked the opportunity for unity; the divides were then exploited by New Democracy, which managed to paint a false image of Syriza as responsible for the closure of the banks in 2015.
Inside Syriza itself, the tone was often more melancholic than inspiring. Calls to raise wages above the poverty levels, reduce consumer prices, and protect a decent standard of living within a welfare state failed to convince the majority of voters.
Future of the Left
Syriza’s defeat is not only a setback for Greece, however. It is also a warning for the rest of Europe, where far-right populist parties are multiplying and taking power.
Mitsotakis’s victory is not only a victory for neoliberalism but also for right-wing populism. His economic policies are likely to deepen inequalities, and his disrespect for the rule of law may further reduce the popular support for democratic legitimacy, against the imposition of arbitrary authority.
In this context, the Left must come up with a new analysis and a new strategy. It cannot afford division or sectarianism. Syriza is running a new campaign, prioritizing justice and prosperity for all, while renewing party structures and presenting more women, younger candidates, and more representatives from marginalized communities.
Although it’s unclear what the Greek political landscape will look like on June 26, it is certain that unity and defense of the lower classes must orient the Left. If not, in four years from now, it will be in an even weaker position, less capable of fighting back at the next election.