As Greece heads to the polls, the left-wing governing party SYRIZA is expected to lose by a wide margin. In the first general election during the country’s financial crisis that follows an almost full government term of four years, opinion polls are projecting a ten point lead for New Democracy, the right-wing main opposition party, with at least one opinion poll setting the margin as high as fifteen points. This appears almost an exact repeat of the recent EU election.
It is interesting, however, to observe that New Democracy’s lead does not translate to a significant increase in number of votes. In the January 2015 general election, about 1.720.000 people voted for New Democracy. In the May 2019 EU election, the number was approximately 1.870.000. By contrast, SYRIZA’s 2.245.000 votes in January 2015 turned to roughly 1.340.000 in May 2019.
As the difference appears to only be boosting the other, smaller parties to a limited extent, there’s only one possible answer to what SYRIZA’s former voters are doing: they are staying home.
The disillusionment of people that supported SYRIZA should come as no surprise. Arguably, SYRIZA’s policies improved matters during the last four years in two main areas: first, they offset some of the direst consequences of EU imposed austerity programmes for certain segments of the population—for example by extending public health insurance to the uninsured, or by marginally raising the minimum wage; second, they supported marginalised groups—for example through laws to extend citizenship to the children of migrants born in Greece, or to institute civil partnerships for same sex couples. Ending the naming dispute with the Republic of North Macedonia, through the Prespes Agreement, was hailed as a successful foreign policy move for SYRIZA by most outside Greece, although domestically opinion was sharply divided.
Any concept of significant change in European economic policy was snuffed out, relegating radical progressive politics to the realm of the inconceivable
Still, in its main promise, SYRIZA failed: it did not end austerity, and it did not influence the EU political architecture towards a more democratic way of decision making, which was its main rallying cry—“L'Altra Europa!” boasted the slogan of Alexis Tsipras’s candidacy for the European Commission in 2014— in previous years.
The result of this failure was two-fold: In practical terms, although Tsipras was commended for his newly discovered “sense of responsibility” by EU leaders, people in Greece continued to live under unreasonably high taxation, rampant unemployment, and crumbling public services. In political terms, any concept of significant change in European economic policy was snuffed out, relegating radical progressive politics to the realm of the inconceivable. This development should perhaps be noted in countries where progressive parties born out of the crisis have made similar pronouncements, including Spain.
As SYRIZA’s promised “hope” faded and disillusionment set in, polarisation mounted. This might at first glance seem contradictory, but it isn’t. As SYRIZA tried to consolidate its new, EU aligned position, it moved closer to the political centre and attempted to claim the heritage of social democracy. New Democracy, in opposition, retreated further to the right, embracing its most nationalist and reactionary elements. Public discourse migrated from the deeply political divisions of previous years to an ostensible clash of “values” (to use an American term). New Democracy accused SYRIZA of everything from capitulating to the EU to being Bolshevik (at the same time). It opposed human rights legislation and denounced the Macedonia deal as “treason”, all the while fomenting a virulent rhetoric that pandered to its most conservative audience. SYRIZA retorted by focusing on financial scandals by New Democracy officials, and attacking its leader’s dynastic claim to the premiership, claiming that what connects Kyriakos Mitsotakis to power is his family, which has been a player in Greek politics for several generations. As a great part of the population resigned from political participation, conflicts between partisan armies, die-hard supporters of either of the two main parties, and affiliated networks of media, journalists and pundits, reached a fever pitch.
Greece heads to this election in a stream of paradoxes: Although no one seriously challenges the orthodoxy of austerity, and Kyriakos Mitsotakis has explicitly vowed to extend privatisations and labour deregulation, SYRIZA is being punished for not delivering “hope”. New Democracy’s hard-right turn has not yielded an increase in votes, it is however headed to a strong victory and a strong government—a feat which SYRIZA, for all the surge in popular radicalisation and support that it enjoyed at times, never managed to accomplish. Polarisation is extreme and social divisions run deep, but the true stakes seem elusive, and most people are dismissive of all political programmes, as public discourse is increasingly debased.
On this side of the Mediterrannean, after ten years into a crisis that continues unabated, the outlook is bleak.
Augustine Zenakos is an independent journalist, based in Athens, a member of the investigative team The Manifold. He tweets @auzenakos.