Greek conservatives clear an ‘open road’ to political supremacy

PM Kyriakos Mitsotakis’s New Democracy routed the left-wing Syriza in Sunday’s general election and seems set to do it again as the opposition faces fragmentation.

Kyriakos Mitsotakis addresses supporters at the headquarters of his New Democracy party in Athens on May 22, 2023, a day after winning a general election [Petros Giannakouris/AP]

Athens, Greece – Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis says he will not try to form a government after his party won the general election by a huge margin.

“I don’t believe there’s any basis for the formation of a government in this parliament,” the leader of the conservative New Democracy party told President Katerina Skellaropoulou on Monday after she gave him the order to do so.

Mitsotakis is expecting to be in an even better position after a second vote, which could take place as early as next month.

In Sunday’s election, New Democracy finished first with 40.8 percent of the popular vote, a percentage point more than in the previous national polls four years earlier and about 20 points ahead of the second-placed party, the left-wing Syriza.

The vote took place under a system of proportional representation, legislated by Syriza before it fell from power in 2019.

Under that system, Mitsotakis’s ruling party fell five seats shy of the 151 seats in the 300-seat legislative chamber needed to govern again.

New Democracy has passed a new electoral law, which restores seat bonuses to the winning party. But under the constitution, changes to electoral law can only take effect in the second election after the legislative change, so no party can game the system to remain in power indefinitely.

“If the electoral system were in force yesterday that will apply in the next election, New Democracy would have a strong majority of more than 170 seats, so I feel it is my duty to help us move beyond the obstacle, as it turns out to be, of proportional representation,” Mitsotakis said.

Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis meets Greek President Katerina Sakellaropoulou
Mitsotakis with President Katerina Sakellaropoulou on May 22, 2023 [Louiza Vradi/Reuters]

He said he would return the order to form a government to Sakellaropoulou within the day.

Procedurally, she must then ask Syriza, which won 20 percent of the vote, to form a government and, finally, the socialist PASOK-Movement for Change (PASOK-KINAL), which garnered 11.5 percent.

If these parties exhaust the three-day opportunity to form a government, the run-off would happen as soon as June 25.

It is a sign of Mitsotakis’s confidence that he decided to pass up the opportunity to form a coalition government, preferring to discredit proportional representation, a cause célèbre of the left.

On Sunday night, he hailed New Democracy’s resounding victory as a “political earthquake” and said the election result “surpassed even our expectations”.

Polls had predicted that New Democracy would win 32 to 35 percent of the vote, and even a joint exit poll put the centre-right party no more than 10 points ahead of Syriza. The result suggests New Democracy will handily win the rematch.

“New Democracy managed to persuade people that they are efficient and effective, and [left-wing leader Alexis] Tsipras and Syriza failed to present a credible alternative,” journalist and seasoned political commentator Panos Polyzoidis told Al Jazeera.

Mitsotakis’s party had promised to relaunch the Greek economy, but the COVID-19 pandemic, a refugee crisis with Turkey and energy inflation stemming from the Ukraine war sapped much of the government’s executive vigour.

Still, it did manage to lower business and personal income taxes, reduce unemployment, balance the budget and increase foreign investment.

Mitsotakis now promises to “move much faster and with greater boldness to implement our electoral commitments”.

Those include boosting exports, raising salaries and cutting more taxes.


What about the opposition?

Syriza’s precipitous fall from more than 31 percent of the popular vote four years ago has led many to predict its demise as a political force.

“The disappointment is that there’s no opposition now,” said Lefteris Dragomanidis, a Syriza voter who owns a stand at a farmers market in Athens. “I think in the next election, Syriza will go back to where it was before, and KINAL will rise. We all know that Syriza’s voters were formerly KINAL.”

A decade ago, during the global financial crisis, Greece’s ruling socialists cut government spending radically to tame the country’s massive deficit. As austerity led many socialist voters into unemployment and poverty, Syriza welcomed them.

When the Panhellenic Socialist Movement, or PASOK, came to power with 44 percent of the popular vote in 2009, Syriza barely cleared a 3 percent threshold to enter parliament, winning 4.6 percent.

Over six years, they traded places. Syriza came to power in 2015 with a transfusion of PASOK supporters, winning 36 percent of the vote. PASOK fell to 4.7 percent and renamed itself Movement for Change, or KINAL.

KINAL’s performance under new leader Nikos Androulakis is a 50 percent increase on its 2019 showing. “I thank all the Greeks for tonight’s great victory, for co-signing on the rebirth of PASOK,” the 44-year-old said on election night.

Lefteris Dragomanidis
Lefteris Dragomanidis, a Syriza supporter, believes it is all over for his party [Al Jazeera]

“The Syriza project has failed, and that means PASOK is back in pole position to lead that centre left,” Polyzoidis said.

“That’s going to take years. I don’t expect them to recover anytime soon. So Mitsotakis will have an open road for several years to come,” he added.

“We know that Tsipras was hoping to turn Syriza into the main party of the centre left,” the commentator said. “He definitely failed to do so because Syriza remains a plethora of different shades of left and centre left without a clear identity.”

Syriza, too, was eventually burned by the fire of austerity. Before taking office eight years ago, the party had promised to rip up Greece’s emergency loan agreements with creditors that bailed out the Greek state, only later to sign onto one itself.

But it also suffered a spectacular series of own goals.

Tsipras was unable to cleanse Syriza of what its opponents call the “loony left” when he failed to curtail the influence of former Health Minister Pavlos Polakis, a die-hard populist.

Days before the elections, Tsipras had to dismiss shadow Foreign Minister Yiorgos Katrougalos after he said Syriza should more heavily tax the self-employed – a million-strong cohort. Pollsters found that 9 percent of them switched to New Democracy on election day.

Also before the vote, police in the central town of Karditsa caught five Syriza operatives in a car with about 200 personal identity cards, envelopes stuffed with cash and ballots marked to support a local candidate of the party.

Syriza lost support not only to KINAL but also to the Communist Party of Greece, which went from 5.3 percent to 7.2 percent of the vote.

There was a huge difference in style between the top two parties.

New Democracy set out macroeconomic targets for growth, jobs, exports and the national debt. Syriza promised across-the-board pay increases without saying how these would be paid for and seemed to have no overall vision of its national economic goals.

“[Tsipras] campaigned on the basis of what was wrong with New Democracy, not what he was going to do for people,” said Dragomanidis’s assistant at the farmers market, who did not want to give his name. “He was painting everything black.”

Source: Al Jazeera