Advertisement of New Democracy in Greece for the 2023 elections in a bus stop in Athens, with Kyriakos Mitsotakis Advertisement of New Democracy in Greece for the 2023 elections in a bus stop in Athens, with Kyriakos Mitsotakis. Photo: Nikos Likomitros / Wikimedia Commons / CC0 1.0

Kevin Ovenden reports from Athens on a serious electoral setback and argues what comes next

Triumphalism on the right and a terrible result for the left and for the working class in Greece.

That was the result of Sunday’s Greek general election. For any socialist, it is sickening. The election saw the outgoing centre-right government of New Democracy (similar to the Tories in Britain) do better than expected with over 40 percent of the vote.

The opposition Syriza party slumped to 20 percent. New Democracy and its leader Kyriakos Mitsotakis is just short of an outright majority in the 300-seat Greek parliament.

There is set to be in effect a second round of the election in five weeks’ time as no one expects a government to be formed in the next two weeks set aside in the constitution for doing so. The new election in July will be on a system that gifts up to 50 seats to the first placed party above its allocation according to percentage share of the national vote. Mitsotakis had already signalled that this would be a two-round election and that he was ruling out coalition. The right is now aiming for at least 180 seats, giving it the 60 percent super-majority needed for certain voting procedures.

A stroke of luck

The shock of this result, which is still sinking in in Greece and across the left internationally, is that neither Mitsotakis nor New Democracy are that popular. His government has been beset by disaster and scandal. He earned the nickname ‘Unlucky’ – as in bringing bad luck wherever he turns up.

A horrific rail crash at Tempe, central Greece, in February killed 57 mainly young people returning to university from their break. It was a national tragedy. The mass of people rightly drew the connections with privatisation, profiteering and the official callous disregard for the lives of ordinary people.

Protests, vigils, church services and clashes with the authorities involved millions. Just 12 weeks ago. Two years ago there was national anger at the authorities’ handling of a wildfire that devastated the north of Greece’s second largest island, Evia. It led to the viral social media slogan: ‘Fuck Mitsotakis’.

That migrated to everyday life offline, with people way beyond radicalised youth raising that slogan to any journalist trying to gauge opinion. People joined protests on their holidays and made their views known at family gatherings and in the villages.

Then there are the scandals of nepotism, corruption and authoritarianism. There was some international embarrassment for the government as the stories of illegal pushbacks of refugees and of extensive phone tapping of political opponents, journalists and even rivals within the ruling party made it into papers such as the New York Times. The Greek ruling class worries about the impact of such reporting on its bid to attract inward investment.

Sections of pro-systemic liberal opinion publicly questioned whether the country was departing from the rule of law. Noises were made in the European Parliament.

So how on earth could this result happen and working-class people now face an emboldened government that is of the hard, capitalist right? New Democracy under Mitsotakis is both strongly free-market capitalist and has reabsorbed many of the traditional hard-right social conservatives and nationalists. The right has recohered after 15 years of fragmentation – at least temporarily.

The fascists have been crushed electorally, with votes going either to the radical-right Greek Solution, which took 4.45 percent, or to New Democracy.

A part of the reason for this result is the dominance of the right-wing media and how New Democracy has pulled together virtually all the capitalist and conservative institutional forces. It is not so much that they comprise large numbers of people directly. It is rather that they shape the national discourse.

Growing authoritarianism

Greece fell to 108th in the global press freedom index for last year. It is the lowest placed in the EU. That is lower than Viktor Orban’s Hungary, to which the increasing authoritarianism of Mitsotakis has been compared.

But media power alone cannot explain these results. After all, the entire commercial media in Greece – and in Europe, for that matter – campaigned in the summer of 2015 for a yes vote in the referendum. But 61 percent of Greeks sent a defiant ‘No!’ The right has always dominated the private media even when a portion of the capitalist class backed the Labour-type party Pasok.

There was a concerted effort – including in the international business media – to talk up the story of national recovery under Mitsotakis. That Greece had come out of the memorandum years when it had to account directly to the Troika of creditors. That the country is growing again. That its government bonds are now of investment grade.

But despite all that there remains a gulf between the glittering prospectuses for new property developments in select parts of Athens and the reality of life for most people. The country has lost a quarter of its productive output since the crisis of 2008.

Living standards have never recovered – once higher than the EU average, they are below 78 percent of that. And that was before the recent cost of living crisis, where inflation is concentrated in the price of food and basic goods.

Opinion surveys and other evidence show that these realities mean few people were taken in by the government’s claims to have presided over a miraculous recovery, which in fact takes the country barely back to the start of the pandemic three years go.

But after a decade of turmoil, bookended by the debt crisis and the pandemic, the hiatus of the last year of economic stabilisation seems to have had some effect.

Not so much positive support for the government (its economic performance is little different from Syriza’s up to 2019) but a faint hope that we may escape the current cost of living crisis by holding on and not doing anything too drastic.

The hope – hyped in the media – is that a predicted very good tourist season this year will boost the economy, as tourism is the largest industry in the country. That was the pitch of Mitsotakis’s election campaign. He may not have won a positive embrace of his message of being the competent technocratic figure from a high political family and with a Harvard business degree. But he did win enough acquiescence. He did this through a campaign of unconvincing hope but very real fear.

Crisis for the left – questions of strategy

The key reason for that success is what must now be recognised as a strategic dead-end for the Syriza opposition and the approach adopted by its leader Alexis Tsipras.

It was justified eight years ago on these grounds. First, that it was not possible to rupture with the imposition of devastating austerity. Sad, but true. Thus the capitulation of the summer of 2015, despite the massive no vote in the referendum. Second, that the re-election of essentially the same government in September of that year showed that people wanted a humane, progressive way of implementing savage cuts to working-class life. They did not want an adventure of confrontation with the EU.

And third, that Syriza had now to reject in the most demonstrable ways possible its earlier radicalism, instead to situate itself as the centre-left systemic pole of the political system. That is: to replace the historic Pasok.

Put to one side the immense demoralisation the capitulation of 2015 brought and that it meant even then the end of Syriza as any kind of insurgent left political force. What happened on Sunday was a crushing defeat for the conventional approach Syriza adopted in the aftermath and as an apparent alternative to the ‘craziness’ of the anti-capitalist left. The problem devastatingly revealed at the election could be crystallised before Sunday in this question: ‘What exactly is Syriza standing for in this election?’ The main slogan ‘Justice Everywhere!’ was vacuous. It is not just that the policies were timid or barely existent. It is that the overall political thrust was impotent. The party went out of its way to distance itself from the ghost of radicalism. So it spent considerable time attacking MeRA25, the party founded by former finance minister Yanis Varoufakis and standing on a combative left basis. Sadly, Varoufakis’ party failed to get above the 3 percent threshold.

But none of this diminished the deep anti-left, ‘anti-Communist’ reflexes of the right and pro-system layers in their broadest extent. Syriza has spent four years modifying itself and seeking relations with the Greek establishment in order to be accepted as a legitimate part of the political system, like Labour under Keir Starmer.

The problem is that there is no such forgiveness on the conservative right in Greece. So deep down is still a great fear that not eight years ago this party threatened to trigger a radical upheaval in which our property and power might be threatened. (Britain and the Labour Party are different. But Keir Starmer should not imagine that the Corbyn shock does not still resonate with the billionaire class in its assessments of Labour v Tory and its appeals to middle-class layers.) New Democracy tapped and organised that sense among the people who hold property, or think they do.

Assailed – falsely, as it happens – for threatening to seize property and embark on national strife and class war, all Syriza did for two years was to insist that it wanted nothing of the sort.

As for what it did propose, that narrowed over the same period. If you rule out policies such as democratic nationalisation in the wake of the Tempe rail disaster or radical redistribution over the cost-of-living crisis, then you are left with political attack lines that are remote from people’s daily concerns. In January 2015 Syriza offered a government of national salvation in the face of economic collapse. In 2023 Syriza offered a government that would respect the rule of law. No confrontation with the system. Just offering to be immune from the graft and personalised authoritarian practices of the Mitsotakis years. A government of the European Court of Justice, you might say.

The problem is: the rule of law does not pay the electricity bill or the food shop at the street market. And with regard to the systemic liberal professional layers who voice some concern with the Mitsotakis regime, that does not mean them suspending their class scepticism of Syriza, despite its sanitising efforts.

Losing on both sides

So this meant shedding support from the radical layers that delivered the no vote and the Tempe protests on the one hand, but not gaining from the pool of the political centre either. It meant neither holding the insurgency of yesterday nor cohering a new progressive centre today.

But it is not so easy for the actual radical and anti-capitalist left to make the case that you just have to present a left programme at elections and hold to radical orthodoxies. It is true that the Communist Party increased its vote to 7 percent. But that is very modest and the election was bad for the left overall. MeRA25 lost its parliamentary representation. The anti-capitalist left was terribly fragmented – unnecessarily so.

In a subdued election campaign nothing erupted into an official political contest that rested upon widespread alienation from the political system and caution. Whatever the number of parliamentary seats that delivers for the right – on a turnout of 60 percent – it is not a good measure of where the mass of people are in Greece.

There will be confrontations with the government, as the last four years have shown. But there are very serious issues for the left as to why those did not damage the capitalist right at yesterday’s election. There are municipal elections in October where the left faces a wipeout, unless things change. There is a crisis for the left. It is vital that there is a commitment to two things: a serious discussion about what went wrong and where we go from here. And also to maximum unity in action and of purpose in the social struggles which are the basis of any advance for the left.

Pro-system journalists and intellectuals are already crafting their stories of what this election amounts to on a big scale of political developments in Europe and elsewhere. It goes like this: all that chaos and wild populist politics of the last decade is over. Look at Greece. It faced frightening social insurgency, then a shocking advance by a radical left force. All sorts of conflicts, but then… the result a decade on is the restoration of the political system and a victory for the modern conservative right. (We shall pass over its liaisons with fascism.)

That is the story that they want to tell. Do your protests and rallies, and cast your eccentric votes all you like. It makes no difference. It will always end up with the status quo and its natural party – the right. That’s not true. A proper examination of the last decade will show, in my view, that it is not true. But that requires a serious and honest discussion about what the left in our majority have got wrong. You cannot blame the people for this. And it is sickening cowardice for any socialist to do that given what the people have been through. We have to look at our own mistakes and weaknesses. For the success of the right in Greece can be explained only out of considering those. 

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Kevin Ovenden

Kevin Ovenden is a progressive journalist who has followed politics and social movements for 25 years. He is a leading activist in solidarity with the Palestinian struggle, led five successful aid convoys to break the siege on Gaza, and was aboard the Mavi Marmara aid ship when Israeli commandoes boarded it killing 10 people in May 2010. He is author of Syriza: Inside the Labyrinth.

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