Even though the Greek left-socialist party Syriza massively reconfigured the electoral system in 2016 to favor their long-term return plans before being ousted by New Democracy in the 2019 parliamentary elections, Greece’s May 21 parliamentary elections produced another massive loss for the socialists, with the new election rules requiring a second election now set for June 25 before a government can be created.
New Democracy did far better than expected in this round and was given the mandate to form a government, which it quickly turned down. The second-round elections will be held under election rules that largely existed before Syriza’s 2016 redesign of the system, so New Democracy confidently forecasts better results. New Democracy’s long-stated objective in the second round will be to gather sufficient votes to form a single-party government, resorting to a coalition government only as a last resort, and probably with only one partner if needed.
It’s all about the election rules
Reformatting the Greek electoral system was the key element of the Syriza party’s plan to remain in power, even if temporarily displaced. Accordingly, Syriza set out to rebuild Greece’s electoral topography through a new electoral law it wrote and passed in 2016, creating a massive outcry. The objective was to bring in new voters by lowering the voting age to 17, and to re-introduce the simple proportional representation system for seats in parliament, theoretically positioning Syriza to attain a left-of-center majority in any elections held under the new law.
Fortunately, the Greek constitution requires a supermajority of 200/300 in parliament for a government to enact electoral law changes with immediate effect, meaning that Syriza’s 2016 changes did not have the support needed to take effect in the upcoming 2019 parliamentary election, but only in the ones held after that — which meant May 21, 2023.
When New Democracy came to power in July 2019, it took care to reverse most but not all of the Syriza electoral system’s modifications through a new law in January 2020, meaning that whenever elections are held after the May 21, 2023 election, the pre-2016 system of reinforced proportional representation will apply, with a few mostly technical modifications to the older formula. That system, for all its faults, has tended to produce more stable Greek governments if not single-party governments because the system’s key attribute awards a large bonus of parliamentary seats, which can be up to 50, to the party gathering the majority of votes. This allows the winner a strong base for government formation, if not a self-contained core for a single-party government. Analysts are already predicting New Democracy will be calling the shots after the June 25 elections, barring unexpected tragedies.
Greeks abroad also voted in this election for the first time, primarily through polling stations at Greek embassies and consulates; however, voters abroad could not vote for candidates by name, simply their party preference. In addition, legal restrictions on voter registration have caused some concern, with only around 22,800 diaspora Greeks approved to vote in this election because of residency requirements and the Greek tax documentation demanded in the legislation.
Campaign themes to snooze by
New Democracy has long promoted an agenda that focused on reform and re-orienting Greece to embrace globalism while associating Syriza with leftist populism. New Democracy’s campaign focused on tax cuts and lower unemployment promises, as well as on its success in digitalizing the state bureaucracy and upgrading the economy to attract foreign investment.
Syriza’s negative campaign focused on the 2022 wiretapping scandal, blaming New Democracy for the inadequate safety measures that resulted on the deadly Tempi rail crash in February 2023, as well as the lack of trust citizens appeared to have in Prime Minister Mitsotakis, the housing crisis, the problems of the middle class (mostly caused by inflation) and others.
Foreign media outlets have repeatedly focused their narrative on the wiretapping scandal, while downplaying repeated polls showing that that the average Greek citizen was not particularly interested in the subject as the elections have just demonstrated. A number of analysts have questioned this apparent systemic bias since the majority of foreign reports before the elections simply repeated the group’s strongly negative consensus on the Mitsotakis government’s record without digging further.
Mitsotakis’ successful management of the Covid-19 crisis as well as the EU-wide energy shock emanating from the Ukraine war was given little credit in the campaign, while no other party was able to challenge the Mitsotakis government’s impressive track record of supporting strong economic growth while in office, well above the EU average, which steadily reduced Greece’s once staggering debt-to-GDP ratio to 171 percent by 2022.
The country is also on the verge of moving back to investment grade on its sovereign debt rating, with several key rating agency decisions expected immediately after elections. Had Mitsotakis moved more boldly on reforming Greece’s antiquated and overstaffed public sector in his first years in office, Greece’s rating would already have been up to investment grade. This is clearly a work in progress with much remaining to be done.
Nonetheless, dissatisfaction with both major parties was an essential theme in the election, opening the path for the smaller parties to enter the political fray. All parties also utilized social media intensively in an attempt to reach out to newly-registered young voters.
Once one of Greece’s two main parties before its support cratered, Pasok ran a campaign focusing on meritocracy, a green transition, a stronger healthcare system and transparency. Nikos Androulakis, its leader, criticized both Mitsotakis and Tsipras because they supported the international donors’ austerity measures, failing to provide any other option available to Greece. Hoping he might become kingmaker and even leader of Greece’s second-largest political party in the near future, Androulakis still insists that a newly invigorated Pasok would only join a coalition government with a nonpartisan leader approved by consensus. In the first round, Pasok actually came in above Syriza in six Greek electoral districts.
The other three small political parties elected in 2019 – the Greek Communist Party, the Greek Solution and MeRA 25 – offer voters more choices to voice dissent as well as comic relief to foreign analysts who must review the potential for a broad coalition government or a potential Syriza-based left-wing coalition. All the parties except for the leftist MeRA 25, led by former Syriza Finance Minister Yannis Varoufakis, have rejected the idea they might join a coalition, but MeRA 25 itself failed to meet the threshold for entry into Parliament in the first round.
Results – Greece fades to blue
After all national votes were tallied New Democracy had obtained 40.79 percent of the total while Syriza received 20.07 percent, which many analysts are categorizing as a total rout, with severe repercussions for the party. Pasok, the third party, took 11.45 per cent of the total along with the perception that many former Syriza voters who originally migrated from Pasok are returning to the fold.
The Communist Party received 7.23 percent while the Greek Solution party took 4.45 percent. No other parties surpassed the three percent threshold to obtain seats but several (three) came tantalizingly close and may well reach their targets in June as the voting public redefines election objectives for round two. The final voter participation level was recorded at 60.94 percent.
Of interest primarily to the analysts, if the old electoral system had still been in place, New Democracy would have taken enough seats to be able to form a single party government with the votes it received May 21. That will have to wait.
Impact of Turkey’s elections
It will take some time for opinion polls to clarify the direct impact of Turkey’s May 14 elections on Greek voters. If anything, the stronger-than-forecast showing of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in the first round of presidential elections will have pushed a number of Greek voters to embrace a more conservative approach to foreign policy and higher defense spending. This favors New Democracy, as voters come to understand that the current extensive arms procurements will need to continue in order to deter potential Turkish aggression. In other words, after the elections, the old incumbents face the old problems again, together.
Nightmare scenario – courtesy of Greece’s allies
The Greek public had been focused on, if not horrified by, a theory developed solely by local journalists that a more Western-leaning, partially democratic Turkey, led by Kemal Kilicdaroglu, would be substantially more amenable to compromise with Greece over the Aegean and Cyprus, and that both Washington and the EU would press the incoming Greek government relentlessly to agree to unacceptable settlement terms, in a gambit referred to locally as “the Prespes of the Aegean.”
This refers to the 2018 agreement between Greece and the country now called North Macedonia over that country’s name and nationality/language which was only achieved after substantial pressure on Athens from Greece’s erstwhile allies in Washington and the EU.
Accordingly, the name “Prespes” is now interpreted negatively by the Greek public as an externally imposed surrender/deal involving a foreign party. However, with the prospect of a cooperative pro-Western Turkey now receding, this scenario no longer causes nightmares for residents of Greece’s Aegean islands.