Greece prepares for elections that may herald a new political era

Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis will fight to keep leading the country, which is reeling from a rail disaster and worries about the economy.

Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis visits the site of a crash, where two trains collided, near the city of Larissa, Greece, March 1, 2023. REUTERS/Alexandros Avramidis
Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis faces a tough campaign, months after a deadly rail disaster rocked the nation [File: Alexandros Avramidis/Reuters]

Athens, Greece – Greece’s ruling conservative party, the New Democracy, are making a strong bid for a second term.

But a new electoral law and a rail disaster that killed 57 people on February 28 have complicated that task.

Here’s what you should know about the May 21 vote:

Who is in the running?

The three main parties are:

New Democracy is promising to build on tax cuts it delivered in its first term and to achieve 3 percent annual growth, more foreign direct investment and less than 8 percent unemployment – down from 11.4 percent today.

The government budget returned to primary surplus last year after a debt crisis, three bailouts and years of oversight by lenders. It expects to achieve AAA investment grade status with ratings agencies this year, which would lower its borrowing costs. It also promises to produce almost all of Greece’s electricity from renewable sources by 2027 to make the country more autonomous.

Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis is banking on his high personal approval ratings. He was praised for his management of the COVID-19 pandemic, a row over refugees with Turkey in 2020 and the energy crisis that broke out with the Ukraine war. Greece paid the highest per capita energy subsidies in Europe after Germany, spending 4.8 billion euros ($5.27bn) last year.

Alexis Tsipras
The head of the leftist Syriza party, Alexis Tsipras, speaks to supporters in 2015 after the party won national elections [File: Marko Djurica/Reuters]

Syriza, or the Radical Coalition of the Left, which lost power to New Democracy in 2019, has criticised Mitsotakis unrelentingly.

It believes he has sided with the likes of Hungary’s populist leader Viktor Orban and Italy’s far-right premier Giorgia Meloni on refugee policy, accusing him of turning a blind eye to illegal pushbacks of asylum seekers at the borders with Turkey.

Syriza also decries as inadequate Mitsotakis’s response to a phone-tapping scandal. Last year, Mitsotakis fired his nephew from a top government post for signing permits to tap the phones of Pasok leader Nikos Androulakis, two opposition members of the European Parliament and at least two journalists. He also passed a new law to promote transparency on clandestine operations.

But Syriza says he betrayed the public trust and asked for a parliamentary committee of inquiry. Party leader Alexis Tsipras also blames New Democracy as solely responsible for inadequate safety measures on Greek railroads, which led to the February train collision that killed many university students.

A bank marked with graffiti burns during riots in Athens December 8, 2008. Protesters set fire to a major department store in central Athens and torched the city's giant Christmas tree outside parliament as anti-government protests worsened. REUTERS/John Kolesidis (GREECE)
A bank marked with graffiti burns during riots in Athens in 2008 after the global financial crisis broke out [File: John Kolesidis/Reuters]

Pasok-KINAL, the Movement for Change-Panhellenic Socialist Movement, used to be New Democracy’s main rival and commanded 44 percent of the popular vote in 2009. It fell to single-digit electoral performances after supporting government spending cuts to balance the budget in the wake of the global financial crisis.

Its new leader, Nikos Androulakis, is bidding for a high share of the vote, promising a green transition away from coal and natural gas, a strong national healthcare system, transparency and meritocracy. He decries Mitsotakis and Tsipras as unfit to lead because both supported austerity policies during the post-2008 global financial crisis, which impoverished many Greeks. He referred to the two politicians as “populism with a tie and populism without a tie”.

Androulakis insists that a coalition in which he participates will pick a non-party leader as a consensus premier.

How does voting work?

Parties must win at least 3 percent of the popular vote to enter parliament.

They will then be allocated parliamentary seats in direct proportion to their share of the vote.

It is highly likely that this will result in a hung parliament because no party appears to have the votes to claim 151 seats in the 300-seat chamber, and the three top parties have said they do not want to work with each other – although that is standard polarising behaviour before an election.

If no party can form a government, a repeat election is to be held in early July.

Why is the election important?

Greece has been trying to become a competitive economy since the fall of communism in Europe.

Political corruption, onerous state bureaucracy, a backlogged judicial system, problematic public education, high taxation and an ageing population have bedevilled its efforts to attract and retain investors, but Athens has taken halting steps to address these issues.

In 2010, Greece effectively went bankrupt and was forced to accept emergency loans from the European Union and International Monetary Fund on strict conditions. It managed to balance its budget but at great cost – a cumulative 25 percent loss of GDP, 28 percent unemployment and a population loss of more than half a million educated, productive taxpayers.

New Democracy’s signature promise in 2019 was to finally overcome Greece’s endemic problems and build a prosperous economy that would be on track to offer average EU living standards. It was stymied by the COVID-19 pandemic, a standoff with Turkey in 2020 and high energy costs during the Ukraine war. It says that given another term, it could finally fix Greece’s ills.

This election is also important because Greece’s dispute with Turkey over maritime borders in the Aegean and eastern Mediterranean is becoming increasingly tense. There is a good chance that the US and EU will put pressure on both sides to come to an agreement or seek arbitration at the International Court of Justice. An experienced administration, some observers say, would be key in managing this front.

What issues do Greeks want politicians to address?

Greeks’ main concerns, according to opinion polls, are inflation and the economy in general.

Migration statistics suggest the country is bleeding young Greeks with university educations to Western job markets despite New Democracy’s promises to reverse the flow.

Security with neighbour Turkey is also a concern.

What do the polls say?

New Democracy leads in opinion polls and is projected to win about 32 percent of the popular vote. Syriza, follows with an estimated 27 percent.

Pasok-KINAL is in third at roughly 9 percent. The Communist Party of Greece, KKE, is polling an unusually high 6 percent.

A slew of smaller parties may also clear the 3 percent threshold to enter parliament. Should they achieve that, they would take up seats that would otherwise be distributed to the larger parties in proportion to their share of the vote, reducing their chances of forming a single-party majority.

These smaller parties include the Diem25 with 4.5 percent support in opinion polls. The disruptive left party was founded by former Syriza Finance Minister Yianis Varoufakis, who believes Greece should give up the euro and reclaim its financial sovereignty with a return to the drachma.

Greek Solution is polling at 3.5 percent. The leader of the Russophile, religious, populist party used to sell documents he claimed were original letters Jesus wrote to his disciples.

Finally there is the National Party-Greeks, predicted to secure about 3 percent. It was founded by the neofascist Ilias Kasidiaris, currently serving a 13-year prison sentence for helping lead the Golden Dawn party, which was convicted of being a criminal organisation in 2020.

Source: Al Jazeera