Alexis Tsipras with members of the Greek government after the historic vote that ratified the Prespes Agreement
The forthcoming European election inaugurates for Greece a prolonged electoral period, in a highly polarised political climate. In May, on the same day with the EU election, municipal and regional elections will be taking place. And most importantly, a national election is normally expected for October 2019, since the government of SYRIZA completes its term. This electoral marathon has two important results: a) The choices of the electorate are very likely to be subject to internal criteria and strongly influenced by the question of who will win the next government, thus transforming the upcoming EU election from second-order to first-order election, and b) the internal debate is almost totally focused on domestic issues to the detriment, at least to some extent, of the European question.
Overview of the Greek electorate – The balance of political forces: Towards first-order European election
In the European election of 2014 (Figure 1- see document on the right of the page), the Left 1 in Greece had an unprecedented victory, with a total percentage of 33,39%, not only due to the victory of SYRIZA (26,56% and 6 seats out of 21) but also to the relatively good result of the Communist Party (KKE) with 6,11% and 2 seats. The Centre/Centre-Left 2 gathered a total 16,47% of the vote, whereas the Right 3 gained 28,87% of the vote. The Far-Right represented mainly by the neo-nazi party of “Golden Dawn”-GD reached the alarming percentage of 9,39%. After the two subsequent national elections held in January and September 2015, the balance of forces remained roughly the same, as it is shown in Figure 2 (see document on the right of the page).
As far as the upcoming European election is concerned, it is difficult to make any estimation about the expected balance of political forces, since all the available poll data refer to the national election. Besides, it is only logical to assume that the timing of the national election – whether it will be held in October 2019 or earlier (e.g. on the same day with the European, regional and municipal elections in May) – will affect the voting behaviour of the Greek electorate.
Politically speaking, though, it will be more difficult for the Left to achieve its previous victory. First of all, as it is the case at the European level as well, the Left is divided even further than in the past: Apart from SYRIZA and KKE, the two “traditional” parliamentary left parties and the also “traditional” extra-parliamentary organisations of the Left (such as ANTARSYA and other smaller groups), there is also a whole constellation of parties and organisations that directly or indirectly emerged from the split of SYRIZA in 2015 around well-known ex-SYRIZA officials, such as “Popular Unity” – LAE (Panagiotis Lafazanis), “Plefsi Eleftherias” (Zoi Konstantopoulou), Mera25 (branch of Diem25 of Yianis Varoufakis) etc., and they are also going to separately participate in the EU election.
Secondly, the result of the Left as a whole will be decisively affected by the result of SYRIZA as the major pillar of this political family. Regardless of how someone would evaluate the major choices SYRIZA made at the governmental level, it is certain that SYRIZA will be judged by the voters for its performance during the four years of governance and not for its programmatic positions for Europe. And at this level, taking into account the time series of polls data (that however refer to the national election), it is clear that in the middle of its governmental term (from mid-2016 to mid-2018) SYRIZA was in a difficult position, being behind “New Democracy”-ND at the polls even by 10% according to some findings. The main problem, at least according to the polls, was that the popular dissatisfaction for the continuing austerity resulted in a large percentage of SYRIZA voters to shift to an electoral “grey zone”, declaring themselves “undecided”. However, after the end of the memoranda period and a series of positive recent initiatives (e.g. the annulation of pension cuts, the substantial rise of the minimum wage, the ratification of the Prespes Agreement) recent findings indicate that SYRIZA gradually bounces back, trimming the difference from New Democracy. The electoral clock is, therefore, ticking in favour of SYRIZA, but it is still difficult to estimate the final result for this party and subsequently for the Left.
Thirdly, these recent developments, and especially the ratification of the Prespes Agreement, tend to significantly reformulate the landscape of the Greek party system. There has been noticeable mobility of MPs and a major public debate about the possible formulation of a wider alliance of progressive forces around SYRIZA, with the participation of well-known personalities of the Centre-Left formerly belonging to PASOK, but also to “Potami” and DIMAR. It is a rather common understanding that the previous cleavage between pro- and anti-memoranda parties (that was the base of the alliance between SYRIZA and “Independent Greeks”-ANEL) is currently reshaped into a cleavage between Left and Right, progressives and conservatives. If this debate proves itself fruitful, it might affect the coalitions that will be shaped with regard to the EU election.
The European debate in Greek politics
The Greek case was central to the previous EU election in 2014, as Greece had been the most characteristic example of the failure of the neoliberal, vindictive way the EU dealt with the economic crisis. At the same time, the – anticipated back then – pathway of SYRIZA towards power was a proof that the peoples’ resistance against austerity had a fighting chance to win, filling the leftists across Europe with hope, as it was also indicated by the selection of Alexis Tsipras as lead candidate (Spitzenkandidat) of the European Left Party.
Five years after, many things have changed both in Greece and in Europe. The Greek question is not central anymore to the European debate, on the one hand, because the country managed to exit the memoranda period, to relatively stabilise the economy and to improve most social indexes, on the other hand, because Europe seems to have other much more severe – even existential – challenges to face. And vice versa, after the end – at least the typical one – of the last memorandum and the subsequent decisive intervention of the “troika” in the process of decision-making, the EU is now less central to the internal political debate in Greece.
As already mentioned, given the character of the upcoming European election in Greece as a first-order election, it is inevitable that the political debate is dominated by internal issues to the detriment of the discussion of the big and serious challenges faced by the EU.
Of course, Europe and the forthcoming election for the European Parliament are not totally out of the sight of Greek political forces. The question of the financial policy is always an important issue, especially given the fact that Greece – despite having completed the last memorandum – is still under “enhanced supervision”. This is also true for the migration policy since Greece is among the EU countries that receive and host large numbers of migrants and refugees.
However, the main discussion in Greece that directly involves the European level is currently the one concerning the menace of the neo-conservatism and the rise of populist and extreme Right. The recent nationalistic outburst in Greece, with the occasion of the Prespes Agreement, included not only the “usual suspects” –the populist and/or extreme Right – but also a large part of “mainstream” parties, including both “New Democracy”-ND and PASOK 4, and resulted in sometimes extreme political reactions, targeting MPs in favour of the Agreement and using hate speech, threats and even raw violence. This ultra-conservative shift of Greek politics towards the Right caused significant worries to a wider progressive audience and made it obvious that – in contrary to what was happening some years ago, under the burden of memoranda, when the EU was used by the neoliberal Right as leverage factor against voices contesting austerity – now it is the progressive, democratic, leftist forces that appear to be the most pro-European. Whether that will be electorally fruitful for them, is yet to discover.
1. Here the Left is considered to include: a) SYRIZA (member of the European Left Party and of the parliamentary group of GUE/NGL), b) the Communist Party (KKE – formerly member of GUE/NGL until 2014) and c) ANTARSYA (extra-parliamentary coalition of radical leftist and communist parties and organisations).
2. As Centre/Centre-Left is here perceived: a) PASOK (and “Elia”, the coalition it formed with smaller centrist groups), that participates both in the PES and the S&D parliamentary group, b) “Potami”, that participates only in the S&D parliamentary group, c) “Democratic Left”-DIMAR and d) “Enosi Kentroon”-EK.
3. The parties that are included in the political family of the Right here are: a) “New Democracy”-ND, the main opposition party in Greece, member of the EPP and the EPP parliamentary group, b) “Independent Greeks”-ANEL, a small party of the populist right and minor government partner of SYRIZA until recently, whose elected MEP – currently independent – participates in the ECR parliamentary group, and c) LAOS.
By Danae Koltsida, Director of Nicos Poulantzas Institute