Athens, Greece – There was a sense of shock on Sunday night in the headquarters of Syriza when it became clear that Greece’s left-wing party had, even by modest projections, severely underperformed in the first round of elections.
Its leader Alexis Tsipras, a former prime minister, admitted the results were “unexpectedly painful” as he faced reporters in the wake of the vote, which saw his party win only 20 percent of the ballots compared with the conservative New Democracy party’s 40 percent.
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Syriza’s share significantly decreased from the 31 percent it had won in 2019 when it was kicked out of office after four years in power.
Because no party gained an outright majority or formed a government, a second vote is scheduled for June 25.
New Democracy and its standard bearer, Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, performed much better than expected despite multiple scandals during their time in office, including the wiretapping of some of his closest ministers by the security services and a significant decline in press freedom.
There were huge protests and public anger, particularly among younger Greeks, in the wake of a deadly train crash in February, which killed 57 people, most of them students returning from a bank holiday weekend. Many viewed the disaster as a symptom of years of neglect of the public service system.
A New York Times article released days before the election also provided the strongest evidence yet of illegal pushbacks of asylum seekers from Greek territory, an issue that has been raised continuously by many Greek and international human rights organisations.
But none of this appeared to impact New Democracy at the polls.
The election results have provoked soul searching on the left about what the future holds for Syriza and other left-wing parties, such as MeRA25, headed by former Syriza Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis, which failed to gain enough votes to qualify for even one seat in parliament.
“The victory of the right should be seen independently from the defeat of the left,” said Dimitris Christopoulos, dean of the political science faculty at Panteion University in Athens.
The right’s strength is also not a “particularity” to Greece, he said, and is being seen across several other countries in Europe.
In the lead-up to the elections, Syriza “failed to provide a comprehensive narrative which could convince people it could be an alternative to the right wing”, he added.
At times, Syriza even appeared to hide its “own left identity”, according to Christopoulos, and Tsipras seemed to think he could capture votes from the centre while retaining traditional support – and in doing so, lost both.
“He lost the left, because he failed to speak to the left people,” Christopoulos said, pointing to the example of a fence being built along the land border with Turkey.
Mitsotakis campaigned heavily on his so-called “firm but fair” migration policy, repeatedly promising to extend the land border fence at Evros at any price – even if the European Commission refused to pay for it.
Christopoulos said Tsipras had no clear position on issues such as the fence, which led to voters deserting his party.
There had been hope that newly enfranchised 17-year-olds voting for the first time might bolster support for Syriza, but polls showed the party won only 29 percent of 17- to 24-year-olds compared with New Democracy’s 31.5.
“What is happening in Greece is not only bad news for citizens, it’s bad news for the left in a country that has a strong traditional left presence,” Christopoulos said.
A university lecturer and a former Syriza member who requested anonymity and has since voted for Varoufakis’s MeRA25 agreed that Syriza’s messaging was unclear.
Voters have gone for what they perceive as the more “stable” option in New Democracy, she said, pointing out that the Syriza campaign was also kneecapped by PR gaffs such as a Syriza party heavyweight, George Katrougalos, suggesting only weeks before the election that he would heavily tax the self-employed if he came to power.
Katrougalos, a former foreign and labour minister, was reportedly later excluded from running in Sunday’s elections.
The university lecturer said it remained to be seen if the left could come together and consolidate its vote before the next round.
“The only goal is to have another small left party, such as MeRA, in the parliament to reduce the seats of New Democracy,” she said.
Michael Bakas, a member of the left-wing Green and Purple alliance, said one of the reasons behind the success of New Democracy was that there “are no big flows of migrants” in voters’ eyes.
Speaking from Lesvos, the island that became the epicentre for arrivals during the 2015-2016 European refugee crisis, Bakas said that it appeared some voters were either not aware or chose to ignore the issue of the illegal pushbacks while Syriza did not have a cohesive, “stable” position on the migration issue.
The aim of the Green movement, Bakas said, is to persuade people that an environmentalist agenda is important for all of society.
“We just stick on giving our message,” he said, adding, “It’s also very crucial for the migration and refugee issues.”
Giorgos Tekirdalis, who voted for Varoufakis’s party, said MeRA failed to perform because of negative press attention.
“It’s a party considered populist by the Greek media and has negative publicity,” he said. “Things are worse with migrants and freedom of press, but nothing of that is covered here in Greece.”
One of the first actions taken by Mitsotakis after being elected in 2019 was to place the Greek public service broadcasters under the supervision of the prime minister’s office.
“Most of the media in Greece is pro-government. Even if this government doesn’t respect human rights, nobody asks or criticises Mitsotakis’s government in the Greek media,” Tekirdalis says, adding that he does not have much optimism in the future. “It seems there won’t be another left-wing government in Greece for some time.”