Syriza took a beating in last month’s election, but the Greek Left is determined to continue the struggle. Read more in this interview with Danai Koltsida, director of Syriza’s greek foundation the Nikos Poulantzas Institute, and vice president of transform! europe.
Greece has been a central focus of the European Left’s attention since the financial crisis broke out in 2007–2008. After the country’s first bailout and an avalanche of public spending cuts in 2010, the first laboratory of European austerity soon became a laboratory of European resistance, as popular protests against the austerity measures blossomed across the country, soon converging around Syriza, the Coalition of the Radical Left led by Alexis Tsipras.
Syriza became the primary political vehicle expressing popular opposition to the EU’s austerity offensive, culminating in Tsipras’s election to prime minister in January 2015. Syriza governed the country through the next four years, but not without internal turbulence and prominent defections from its left wing. Since 2019, however, Greece has been governed by the conservative New Democracy (ND) party and its leader Kyriakos Mitsotakis. Whereas Syriza in government cooperated with the European institutions while seeking to prevent the worst from happening, ND, by contrast, enthusiastically embraced an anti-labour, pro-privatization agenda and imposed further damaging cuts to the welfare state.
Going into the 21 May general election, Tsipras and Syriza sought to build a broad, popular front against the Mitsotakis government, uniting the traditional Left with wider layers of centre-left voters concerned by Greece’s swing to the right since 2019. Although polls seemed to give Syriza a decent chance at unseating ND, when the dust settled, the result proved to be a political humiliation for Greece’s leading socialist party: 20.07 percent, its worst result in a decade and less than half of Mitsotakis’s result. What went wrong, and can Syriza still recover? With a second election scheduled for 25 June, Rosa Luxemburg Foundation’s political scientist Friedrich Burschel spoke with Dania Koltsida, director of the Nicos Poulantzas Institute in Athens, about the defeat and how Syriza plans to chart a path back to power.
Polls in the days and weeks leading up to the Greek parliamentary election on 21 May consistently showed Syriza only a few points behind New Democracy, the party of sitting Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, yet the actual result saw the party’s result decline by over 10 percentage points. How did this crushing and unexpected defeat come about?
It is, of course, difficult to briefly explain such a result — which was a surprise for everyone, not only for us in Syriza, since the polls suggested a much closer race between the two main parties. There are many levels on which one should look for the answer. I would mainly point to three.
First, there is the macro-level, i.e., the results of the consecutive crises — the “polycrisis” or “permacrisis”, as it has been described — such as the pandemic, the war, the energy crisis, the climate crisis and natural disasters, inflation etc. The sentiments of fear and insecurity these crises created opened, in my opinion, a window of opportunity for conservative views to grow and to flourish.
Second is the intermediate level, i.e., citizens’ overall assessment and perceptions of New Democracy’s time in government and Syriza’s performance as the major opposition throughout the 2019–2023 period, both in parliament and in the social movements, and its inability to present itself as a real, credible alternative to a right-wing government in every aspect.
Third, the micro-level: if the two aforementioned levels can provide an explanation for why Syriza remained behind in the polls, the micro-level, i.e., the tactical choices during the last one or two months of the campaign, might account for the extent of New Democracy’s win and Syriza’s defeat.
How could polls and predictions have been so off? What’s wrong with the tools of professional opinion polling?
Greece is not the only case where the polls failed to predict the result. Traditional polling tools were designed in an era when voters had strong links with their respective parties of choice. Today, by contrast, party affiliation is much weaker and political parties as a social phenomenon overall are in a major crisis. As a result, these tools turn out to be lacking or, in extreme cases, utterly incapable of predicting the electoral results.
Generally, there are many factors that explain this failure. For example, sometimes the methodology each polling company follows, e.g. whether they conduct polling via home or office phones, mobile phones, or online leads to social, generational, or political biases. Similarly, it is difficult to assess and interpret what the refusal to respond to a poll means — in cases when people who refuse to respond come from a specific socio-demographic or political background, this might point to mistrust of the political system or anti-systemic choices, which affect the result.
"The misplaced public statements even in the last days before the elections, the vacillations, the lack of responsibility, and even the fact that we didn’t understand how suspicious the electorate was of us cost us dearly."
In the case of the last Greek elections, the explanation seems to be twofold. On the one hand, the polling companies weighted their findings according to the respondents’ vote in 2019, assuming that all the people who voted for Syriza in 2019 would behave similarly in the 2023 elections. Syriza voters have traditionally been underrepresented in polling results during the past decade for various reasons. So, until last May, Syriza always performed better in actual elections than it did in the polls. Thus, practically everyone — researchers, pollsters, and politicians — assumed that the same thing would happen this time. What no one understood was that Syriza’s electorate, and more broadly Greek society, had undergone significant changes and that it was wrong to assume that things would turn out the same as always.
On the other hand, in fairness to the pollsters and, more generally, to not be so harsh with ourselves, we should note that according to exit polls, one fifth of the electorate made their electoral choice on election day itself, and half of those “last-minute voters” opted for New Democracy. That means ND won 10 percentage points over the election weekend — no one could have measured that.
I imagine you are still reflecting and analysing the result, trying to understand what went wrong. Nevertheless, do you have any idea why Greeks ultimately voted to keep Mitsotakis in office, despite years of controversy and scandals?
Much analysis is needed, indeed. All I can give you is an initial reaction and personal impression.
In my opinion, the vote for New Democracy was not — at least not in its totality — a positive vote, it shouldn’t be interpreted as 40 percent of Greek society supporting the kind of authoritarian neoliberalism the party stands for. I already told you that almost one fourth of ND’s electorate were last-minute voters, meaning people with no strong links to the party. We can also see that in the post-electoral polls: a large part of the electorate expresses negative sentiments — worry, sorrow, anger, etc. — over the election result and is rather pessimistic regarding Greece’s political future.
Another factor that, at least in my view, played a role is the impact of the consecutive crises. It seems to me that many citizens opted for stability over change, despite the fact that this stability meant the continuation of terrible governance in every respect. This was greatly exacerbated by the way in which most Greek media conducted the pre-election debates: instead of giving space to the political parties to account for their activities and present their programmes, they distorted the opposition parties’ positions and shifted the discussion away from current problems and challenges towards 2015 and the previous Syriza government’s confrontation with the troika. They deliberately spread fake news or stirred up moral panics in order to create the false impression that economic and social turmoil could surface if Syriza were to form a government.
Finally, we shouldn’t ignore the role of the electoral system. A proportional electoral system was applied for the first time since 1989 in the recent elections, which created a political paradox. On the one hand, New Democracy stated from the beginning of the campaign that it did not intend to pursue a coalition government and that it would seek a run-off election in order to gain an absolute majority in parliament, since the run-off would be conducted under a different, more majoritarian system. On the other hand, Syriza supported the proportional electoral system and said it would pursue the formation of a coalition government with other progressive parties like PASOK/KINAL, the Communist Party (KKE), and MeRA25. However, the other progressive parties rebuffed this proposal, thus giving voters the impression that a vote for Syriza was a vote for instability, since the party didn’t appear to have any allies.
At the same time, this pursuit of a coalition resulted in Syriza being held accountable not for its own political programme, but for the programme and statements of its prospective allies. This was the case, for example, with MeRA25’s proposal to create a substitute currency as a parallel system alongside the euro.
Is it possible to say who voted for Mitsotakis and what they hoped to achieve by doing so?
The analysis of the electoral data is still ongoing. However, it is clear that Mitsotakis and his party prevailed in almost all regions — even those with a strong anti-right-wing tradition, such as Crete — and across socio-demographic categories.
According to exit polls, it appears that Mitsotakis received particularly strong support among the self-employed and pensioners, but his electoral performance was quite strong even among the segments that traditionally voted for the Left, such as public sector employees. The same applies for different demographic categories and especially different age cohorts, since it was the first time since 2012 that ND managed to gain a larger share of the youth vote (17–34 years old) than Syriza.
As I said, it is difficult to explain this choice in just a few words. Roughly, I would say that these voters opted for Mitsotakis as “the devil they know”, so to speak, over Syriza, which they perceived as sailing into uncharted waters because of what I already explained.
How is Syriza preparing for the second election on 25 June? How can members possibly motivate themselves to fight after such a demoralizing defeat?
Like all leftists, the members and supporters of Syriza are people who kept up the fight for social justice, equality, and democracy in times that were much more difficult than now. Besides, we must not forget that, even after the results of 21 May, Syriza remains one of the strongest parties in Europe — not only of the radical Left, but also of the progressive camp more generally.
For us, the upcoming elections are important not in terms of shortsighted party interests but for Greek society as a whole. We firmly believe that our criticism of the Mitsotakis government was valid: it was socially insensitive, economically extremely neoliberal, institutionally antidemocratic and opaque. Their plan for the next four years is even worse: a victory for ND, especially if it results in a large parliamentary majority, will be socially destructive.
We already have several indications of the policies they intend to pursue. Only a few days ago, one of the party’s candidates stated that patients with terminal cancer should not be admitted to the health care system — not even for palliative care — because they cost too much. He was not the only one to attack access to the public health care system. The same is true for public education and other spheres.
"The Greek Left as a whole should reflect more deeply on the recent electoral results and reorient itself towards not only more modern and radical programmatic proposals and bolder ideological work, but also towards more unity or, at least, collective action."
As Alexis Tsipras said in his speech to Syriza’s Central Committee after the elections, Mitsotakis’s plan is “to win not just a parliamentary majority, but omnipotence, which will allow him to proceed with deeply conservative changes to the constitution. If he has the chance, he does not want to have a rival. He wants to get rid of Syriza, which is the only political opponent who can stop him and who can fight to defend the welfare state, public health, education, and workers’ rights.”
This is why, on the day after the elections, Syriza and its leader, comrade Alexis Tsipras, of course assumed responsibility for the mistakes we made that alienated part of our electorate. But at the same time, we committed ourselves to correcting those mistakes and, most importantly, to participating in the upcoming run-off elections more determined and united than ever. We collectively decided that, although the result was a painful shock, now is not the time to grieve, but to fight. That’s what we’ve been doing ever since, because we know that overthrowing the balance of forces that came out of May’s vote is crucial for Greek society and, most importantly, for the people we seek to represent.
In that spirit, Syriza is taking concrete initiatives to communicate its message more effectively. Under the slogan “Just Society — Prosperity for All”, we are focusing on making our programme better known and understood and making clear what alternative Syriza represents. In terms of communication, we put forward a group of very competent comrades who have both the political experience and the academic and professional knowledge to fully support our positions.
In that sense, we are optimistic and, most importantly, determined to keep fighting until the last minute of the upcoming election.
What mistakes do you think Syriza made in terms of its political performance and election campaign?
After such a result, mistakes and causes can and should be traced on several levels. However, right now, since we are obliged to identify our mistakes and correct them while still on the electoral battlefield, I will limit myself to the most obvious and important ones, which have also been discussed in the party. Of course, this list is not exhaustive, and an overall assessment of our electoral performance will follow after the run-off elections.
I already referred to how, partially because of our own mistakes or inefficiency, New Democracy managed to impose an agenda of fear and promote stability over change, as well as the dead end we faced when defending the proportional electoral system and the formation of a coalition government. Apart from those two aspects, however, I think one of our main mistakes, or rather shortcomings, was that sometimes our image as a collective entity — for a long time but especially in the critical days before the vote — was not one of cohesion, responsibility, and organisation.
As Alexis Tsipras pointed out, the misplaced public statements even in the last days before the elections, the vacillations, the lack of responsibility, and even the fact that we didn’t understand how suspicious the electorate was of us cost us dearly. In his exact words, these mistakes force us to change “towards seriousness, towards responsibility, towards collectivity”.
Did the party perhaps have the wrong public face? Or, to put it more provocatively, does Greek society suffer from “Tsipras fatigue”?
Alexis Tsipras has never avoided responsibility throughout the 15 years he’s been the leader of Synaspismos and then Syriza. He has fought many crucial battles on behalf of his party and his country. In that sense, he didn’t hide after this election, either. From the first moment, he assumed responsibility for the unexpectedly bad result.
However, not only Syriza and all its officials and members, but also the supporters of the party are standing behind him in this crucial battle. The first reason for that is that Tsipras is an experienced political leader, someone with great achievements both in opposition and certainly in government. I would dare say he is one of the few real statesmen of our times.
It was under his premiership that Greece exited the vicious cycle of the bailout programmes and austerity, that we managed to safeguard many social rights and to protect — even under the most difficult circumstances — the most vulnerable parts of our society. We concluded a very important agreement with Northern Macedonia promoting peace and stability in the Balkans, and Greece received and successfully handled, with respect to international law and human rights, perhaps one of the biggest migration flows Europe has ever known.
"In my view, it is important for the European Left to go beyond the expression of mutual solidarity and start discussing in more depth."
It is thus only reasonable that he remains very popular among Greek citizens, even after our recent defeat and despite the fact that ND and our opponents have systemically targeted him personally with fake news, because they know that his leadership was an important asset for Syriza.
The second reason why we stand by our leader and why I wouldn’t attribute our defeat to Tsipras personally is that on the Left we do everything collectively. We have been together in all our victories, in all our struggles, and in all our defeat, and this is what we will keep doing.
Of course, criticism and self-criticism are part of our identity, and of course, Alexis Tsipras made mistakes — it would be impossible for someone who has done so much not to make any mistakes. He was the first one to acknowledge them. But it’s a long way from that to saying that the public face was wrong, and I wouldn’t agree.
Syriza is not the only left-wing party that lost votes. Yanis Varoufakis’s MeRA25 failed to re-enter parliament, while only the Communists and the Social Democrats (PASOK–KINAL) managed to increase their vote share. What does these results say about the state of the Greek Left more generally?
The Greek Left’s overall electoral share fell in May’s elections. The main left-wing political parties, including PASOK–KINAL, collectively received 41.4 percent, whereas the same parties won 48.4 percent in 2019, and 50.2 percent in September 2015, including Popular Unity/LAE instead of MeRA25. That said, I am not sure we can conclude that the Left in Greece is generally in decline. Greek society has been one of the most left-leaning in Europe for many decades, so we should refrain from jumping to rash conclusions.
However, and regardless of the specifics for each party, it is in my opinion true that the Left suffered from its fragmentation. The gains for PASOK and the KKE, although noteworthy given the overall strength of these parties (each gained 2–3 percentage points), don’t indicate a significant change in the structure of the Greek party system.
Thus, in my view, the Greek Left as a whole should reflect more deeply on the recent electoral results and reorient itself towards not only more modern and radical programmatic proposals and bolder ideological work, but also towards more unity or, at least, collective action.
Supporters of the government claim that Mitsotakis prevailed because of the economic growth of 3–5 percent, above the EU average, declining unemployment rates, and ongoing labour market and digitalisation reforms. They say Greece’s reputation has improved since Mitsotakis took over and that ND had no serious opponent in Syriza. Does that sound reasonable?
It sounds nice, but unfortunately, it has nothing to do with the social and economic reality the Greek people experience.
First of all, let’s see what part of the improvement of the socio-economic conditions can actually be attributed to Mitsotakis. For example, since you mentioned it: the decline in unemployment was mostly an achievement of the Syriza government, which brought unemployment down from 26.5 percent in 2014 to 17.3 percent in 2019 — a decrease of 9.2 percentage points amidst a very difficult period due to the imposed austerity. The ND government further decreased it only to 12.2 percent from 2019 to 2022 — by 5.1 percentage points, in a period during which the fiscal framework in the EU was significantly different and the government had many tools to fuel economic growth.
As for ND’s socio-economic performance, I will mention only some of the most characteristic indicators. First, according to OECD data, Greek workers suffered the fourth-most significant decrease of real wages — 7.4 percent — due to the Mitsotakis government’s insufficient and wrongheaded measures against inflation.
Similarly, Greece has the third-worst position in the EU in terms of per capita GDP in purchasing power standards, according to Eurostat. As you can see, the Greeks’ standard of living has been severely hit by the ongoing inflation crisis. Second, the index of income inequality, the Gini coefficient, which had decreased significantly when Syriza was in power, increased again as a result of ND’s policies.
As for Greece’s reputation, let’s not forget that during the past year Greece made headlines in all major international media not for its achievements, but because of the huge wiretapping scandal targeting politicians, journalists, military and government officials, and other public figures. This scandal directly involved Mitsotakis’s office, if not him personally. Furthermore, Greece was downgraded from a liberal to an “electoral democracy” — i.e., only one step above autocratic regimes — in the V-Dem Institute’s 2023 Democracy Report.
How are you personally coping with this defeat?
In one sentence? With what Gramsci taught us: pessimism of the intellect and optimism of the will.
I know that things are difficult — not only for Syriza, but most importantly for Greek society as a whole, to which of course I also belong. I am worried, for instance, about what will happen to the public health care system to which I also personally owe my well-being. I am worried about further backtracking on social and labour rights or rising social inequality and exclusion. And, of course, I am worried about what impact the dominance of such an authoritarian right-wing party will have on rights and democratic institutions.
However, I know that we have no way but to keep fighting, correcting our mistakes and flaws as we go. Ultimately, I am optimistic that we will manage to overturn the balance of forces that emerged from May’s vote. Besides, as I told you before, I don’t forget that — even after such a defeat — we remain one of the strongest left-wing and progressive parties in Europe.
How can European left-wing parties and organisations support the Greek Left, and specifically Syriza, during the run-off election?
The solidarity of our comrades and friends is and has always been precious. Knowing that leftists and progressives across Europe and around the globe also fight for social justice, equality, and democracy in their respective countries, usually facing hardships much more serious than our own, make us stronger and more determined.
Apart from that, and beyond the current electoral battle in Greece, I think that the best way for the European Left to help Syriza and each other is to achieve victories and become stronger in their respective countries. This is the only way to shift the balance of forces on our continent.
In my view, it is important for the European Left to go beyond the expression of mutual solidarity and start discussing in more depth. With regard to understanding our national and regional particularities, we must learn from our mistakes, analyse the trends in our respective societies, and, most importantly, exchange ideas on how to become more influential and effective in our political battles, in convincing people that the future is in a solidary and just society with prosperity for all.
This article was first published on the website of the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation.