A Crucial Battle for Greece and For Europe

Alexis Tsipras at the Future of Europe Debate at the European Parliament 2018 — Source: European Union 2018 - European Parliament via flickr.com

In less than a month Greece is heading to national elections. After an almost full four-year term of the right-wing PM Kyriakos Mitsotakis’ single-party government, a lot is at stake.

A brief account for Mitsotakis’ premiership: Authoritatian neoliberalism “a la greca”

Kyriakos Mitsotakis rose to power in July 2019, succeeding the SYRIZA government of the turbulent period of 2015-2019. Since its electoral victory, the ND government proved to be a version of authoritarian neoliberalism a la greca.

On the economic sphere, the government completed the neoliberal attack on all the remaining -after a decade of austerity- social rights and pubic goods and/or it backtracked on practically all pro-labour measures previously achieved by the government of SYRIZA amidst hard negotiations with the troika of the country’s creditors.[1] On the social and political sphere, the attack on civil liberties was intense. From the new legal framework which made practically illegal almost all social protests to the establishment of a special police force responsible for the Universities, the list is long.

At the same time -and this explains the term “a la greca”- the right-wing government proved to be one of the most corrupt the country has ever known: accountability and transparency regarding the use of public resources seem to be unknown words for the ruling party whereas small and big scandals regarding its links with vested interests and the economic activities of some of the majority MPs are on the daily agenda.

The pandemic as a catalyst

The covid19 pandemic proved to be a catalyst facilitating the aforementioned political choices. The state of emergency was used to justify practically everything: from a series of direct awarding of public contracts without open tender to the imposition of irrational curfews or other restrictive measures. Furthermore, the fact that, for a long period of time, measures of social distancing prevented the direct social interaction, increased the influence of the mass media – at a time where Greece had dropped to the 108th position in the World Press Freedom Index (down from position 70 in 2021), ranking last among EU member states.

Three key recent developments

Schematically, one could say that three successive developments of the last several months have deprived Kyriakos Mitsotakis and his government of his three basic claims, the three basic advantages that he claimed to possess.

First, the price hike and skyrocketing inflation that affected not only the weakest households but also a large percentage of the middle strata, small and medium enterprises, etc., traumatised the social alliance that ND had formed around it with the promise of supporting the "middle class". Greece is one of the EU-countries with the worst performance regarding the fight against the impact of inflation. Furthermore, the fact that Greek households and SMEs entered this new period of economic crisis from a considerably lower starting point because of the previous austerity period threatened to turn the economic crisis into a social and humanitarian one.

Secondly, the recent wiretapping scandal[2] significantly damaged the profile of Mitsotakis as a moderate, liberal European leader and damaged his relationship with the more centrist parts of his electorate. In addition, the fact that one of the victims was the leader of PASOK made a potential coalition government between ND and PASOK harder.

Thirdly, the recent train accident in Tempi[3], in combination with the high toll of deaths during the pandemic despite one of the strictest lock-downs in Europe, also cast considerable doubt on the image of Mitsotakis as a “good manager”, thus depriving him of his last asset. This accident had some aspects that are of high political relevance:

It was not unpredictable. The railway trade-unions and the opposition parties had repeatedly warned about serious lacks in safety measures. So, the railway administration and the government were aware of the risks which they chose to ignore and thus their responsibility for the accident was fully established in the public opinion from the very first minute.

It revealed the importance of high-quality public services. Railway transport privatisation was one of the prerequisites of the bailout programmes, whereas infrastructure remained state-owned. The fact that the causes of the accident laid on the infrastructure side opened up a discussion with deep ideological and political roots. The right claimed that transport and other important services should be totally privatised since the state proves to be incompetent, whereas large parts of the left suggested to reclaim the public ownership of important goods and services, with Syriza highlighting the importance of a reform of the public administration in order to become more efficient.

It affected almost everyone in Greece. The fact that the majority of the victims were young students returning to their studies after a long weekend, many of them having visited their parents, led practically everyone to identify with them. The main slogan of the protests, which were impressively massive and mostly attended by the Greek youth, was “call me when (if) you arrive”, a really common phrase between family and friends.

Electoral perspectives

It is in the aforementioned political context that Greek national parliamentary elections will be held on May 21st. Right now, the polls suggest a close battle between ND and SYRIZA,[4] however the fact that a proportional electoral system will apply for the first time will make it necessary for the parties to look for alliances and -if an agreement is not achieved- second elections will be held on July 2nd, under a majoritarian electoral system this time.

Whereas the popularity of and support for ND and Kyriakos Mitsotakis have constantly and significantly dropped, a clear alternative electoral choice hasn’t emerged yet. SYRIZA is electorally stable and slowly rising but hasn’t fully profited from the ND losses, at least yet. Its governing past and its catch-all strategy, alongside the fact that competition on the left of the political spectrum is harder as more left-wing party choices are offered to the voters, seem to make it difficult for SYRIZA to build a stable electoral base. Besides, the Greek party system hasn’t fully recovered from the 2012 electoral earthquake, as the process of voters’ realignment seems to be ongoing. Party identification levels are rather low (which especially for SYRIZA voters it can be also explained by the fact that its electorate is anyway a rather “young” one since it was formed after 2012) and almost one out of four voters will decide what to vote during the last month of the campaign.

These remarks make it clear that the outcome of the upcoming elections is wide open. The race will definitely be a close one, but the winner -even more so the one who will be able to form a government after the first of even a second possible election- is yet unclear.

Social and political discontent is high but for the moment silent and without a clear representation. Whether, how, against whom and by whom will this discontent be electorally expressed is the big question of the upcoming elections. The odds are that in the end the voters will choose to participate to this electoral process in order to express their discontent against the government. Most probably, SYRIZA will be favoured by this choice, as the most viable government alternative, thus having a real chance of winning, but the far right and the abstention might have important gains as well. The participation or abstention of the youth, who were the protagonists of the recent social protest and usually vote more for the left, will also be a determining factor.[5]

Conclusion: A fight for Greece and a fight for Europe

The important thing to highlight for now is that the outcome of this electoral process is crucial not only for Greece but for Europe as well. The Greek society favours political change and is demanding justice on all levels of the economic, social and political life. But, at the same time, the continuation of Greece’s slide towards a deeper and deeper authoritarianism, if the current government’s mandate is renewed, is something that cannot be disregarded by the European societies, and more specifically by the European left and progressive forces, as well. At least not in a period when the European countries take a more and more right-wing turn the one after the other. The recent visit of Alexis Tsipras in Berlin and his meetings with the Chancellor, Olaf Scholz, and the German Left suggest that many progressive political forces are aware of that. The fight of the Greek left is a fight for Greece and a fight for Europe.


[1]  For more details see: Achtsioglou, E., “Syriza and the social issue”, in: Douzinas, C., Bartsides, M. (eds.), Thinking Left Governmentality: The Syriza Experience 2015-2019, Transform Europe/Nicos Poulantzas Institute, 2022,  (accessed 22/4/2023), Karamessini, M., “Mass unemployment and poverty, and welfare state reform: the governmental experience of Syriza”, ibid.

[2] The full extend of the scandal is yet unclear and new evidence is coming to light constantly. The core of the scandal is that -with the alleged knowledge if not coordination from the PMs milieu- the communications of a series of persons (political leaders ministers and other officials, high rank military officers, journalists, businessmen etc.) were illegally monitored either through the spyware Predator or directly by the Greek Security Agency (EYP) but with no legitimate reason. In addition, investigative journalists and the head of the Independent Authority responsible for Communications Privacy have been targeted in an attempted cover-up. The scandal has gained significant international attention and the European Parliament and Commission have repeatedly taken initiatives on the subject.

[3] On the night of February 28th two trains collided in Tempi, a region right outside the city of Larissa in central Greece resulting in the death of 57 people. In the days that followed, significant protests took place across the country, with the general strike of March 8th being one of the more massive protests at least of the last decade.

[4] According to the periodical analysis of the polls published by the Nicos Poulantzas Institute, for the period between December 2022 and April 2023 ND is ahead by 2,3 percentage points from Syriza, but with a diminishing tendency. See more (in Greek): Koltsida, D., Poulakis, K., Eklogikes Taseis #13 [Electoral Trends #13]., Nicos Poulantzas, Institute, 13/4/2023

[5] According to the latest wave of the annual survey on youth and politics conducted by the Nicos Poulantzas Institute, which was completed just a few days before the railway accident in Tempi (February 2023), 96,0% of young voters (17-34 years old) replied that they will “certainly” or “most probably” vote in the upcoming national elections, 89,2% said that they are “very” or “somehow interested” in the upcoming national elections. Regarding their voting preferences, 27,7% opted for Syriza whereas 19,7% opted for ND.