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Speaking at the EU-Arab Summit in Athens on Tuesday, New Democracy leader Kyriakos Mitsotakis said the prolonged pre-election period Greece has entered is damaging the country. There is nothing wrong with the opposition chief’s observation, apart from the fact he and his party have been calling for snap elections almost daily since he assumed the New Democracy leadership in January 2016.
In Greece there is rarely a time when it doesn’t feel like the country is preparing for the next elections. The parties’ adversarial style, the partisan media and an enduring passion for all things political among voters means the election machinery is almost in perpetual motion.
There were many moments over the last couple of years that could be regarded as the start of the campaign for the 2019 general elections, but the conclusion of the third programme this August is a convenient point from which to pick up the campaign trail.
For many months prior to the bailout exit, SYRIZA’s strategy was based around maximising the political benefits it expected to flow from MoU's completion. In reality, though, the limited concessions on debt relief and the inability of the government to convince the public that Greece was making a clean break dampened the coalition’s fireworks. In addition, the sombre mood following the deaths of 99 people in the wildfire in Mati, on the outskirts of Athens, earlier in the summer meant that there was little appetite for celebration in Greece.
Rather than hoping to see his party’s ratings climb closer to New Democracy in the September opinion polls, Tsipras was bracing for the worst. Most commentators expected that the difficult summer would take a toll on SYRIZA and that the first surveys after the holiday period would be devastating for the leftist party’s fortunes. But this expectation also failed to come true. Mostly, the opinion polls did not show any widening of the gap for New Democracy, while some indicated that SYRIZA had narrowed the lead.
The Thessaloniki Expo (DETH) in September provided the two leading parties and their leaders the first opportunity in the post-MoU era to put forward a vision for Greece and to draw the battle lines for the upcoming elections, which many observers expect to be held in May along with, or just before, the European Parliament and local votes.
In Thessaloniki, Tsipras attempted to convince voters that only he and SYRIZA can guarantee an equitable recovery. His message to Greeks was that the least well-off will be those who will benefit most from the return of economic growth, supported by measures such as increasing the minimum wage, bringing back collective wage bargaining, enforcing the extendibility of labour contracts, introducing a new housing benefit scheme, shifting the burden of the ENFIA real estate tax to larger properties and bringing down pension contributions for the self-employed.
The SYRIZA leader argues that New Democracy is only interested in returning to its supposed bad old habits of sharing the wealth amongst the few, mostly those who cosy up to the ruling party.
The leftists have bolstered the argument about the tendency of Greece’s political establishment to look after itself and its friends by seizing on the pre-trial detention of former defence minister Yiannos Papantoniou last week. The former PASOK official is accused of laundering money that he received as bribes in connection to a 2003 defence deal. Although he has not yet been convicted, the government has used Papantoniou’s case to bring back into the public debate the “old vs new” divide. In this discussion, SYRIZA presents itself as the new force ready to hold they old system accountable and act as a bulwark against its efforts to return to power.
In an attempt to build on the momentum created by the Papantoniou affair, SYRIZA officials have indicated that an attempt is being made to wrap up the work carried out a by a cross-party parliamentary committee that investigated alleged corruption in the healthcare sector. The panel of MPs, which has yet to deliver its final report, looked into supposed mismanagement of funds at the Hellenic Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (KEELPNO), the running of the troubled Henry Dunant Hospital in Athens and the purchase of medicines, which is also linked to the claims that surfaced earlier this year about Novartis bribing politicians and public officials.
SYRIZA is investing heavily in the hope that it will be able to get something damaging for the opposition to stick, if not in a court of law then at least in terms of public opinion. The reluctance of New Democracy and PASOK, the two parties that governed Greece for roughly four decades before the crisis, to remove the skeletons from their closets (although the Socialists did oust Papantoniou from the party in 2006, albeit over a different matter) has left them vulnerable to such attacks from political opponents. SYRIZA also benefits from many Greeks apparently not being willing to forget that they hold either PASOK or New Democracy, or both, responsible for Greece spiralling into crisis in 2009.
Tsipras hopes that his combination of promising a fair distribution of the economic gains from the recovery and cleaning up political corruption will be enough to make the next elections a much more competitive affair than the opinion polls, which point to even a double-digit margin of victory for New Democracy, suggest.
Mitsotakis, on the other hand, faces the task of turning this lead into a parliamentary majority. So far, most surveys indicate that the conservatives are just shy of the support needed to gain 151 seats in the 300-seat Greek Parliament but that they have a strong platform from which to achieve this target.
In Thessaloniki, the conservative leader focussed on the need to pare back the role of the state, modernise the education system and give more space to entrepreneurship. The driving force for the latter will be a range of tax cuts, which will be scrutinised and most likely trimmed back by Greece’s lenders if New Democracy comes to power.
Nevertheless, Mitsotakis’s aim was to present an alternative perspective on Greece’s future. Where Tsipras wants the state to look after the worst-off, Mitsotakis envisages a booming economy providing benefits for all. After almost a decade in the mire, the prospect of a business-friendly environment that can nurture local entrepreneurs and their ideas will undoubtedly be appealing to some Greeks and certainly creates the image of a country moving on from the toils of the last few years.
However, Mitsotakis cannot rely just on cultivating optimism about how he might change Greece’s economic landscape to counter Tsipras's dual message on fair growth and old corruption. The other key element to his campaign will be a focus on the country’s institutional malaise.
New Democracy has consistently attacked SYRIZA over its apparent disregard for the independence and effectiveness of Greece’s key institutions. The conservatives have frequently claimed over the last years that SYRIZA has interfered in the judicial process, such as in its botched attempt in 2016 to carry out a tender process for TV licences, which was later deemed unconstitutional. The coalition was also accused of having a hand in the claims made by unidentified whistle-blowers earlier this year regarding the payment of bribes by pharmaceutical giant Novartis to opposition politicians and public officials.
There have also been accusations of attempts to exercise undue influence over the media, especially public broadcaster ERT. New Democracy has also targeted SYRIZA over law and order issues, especially regarding the activity of anarchist group Rouvikonas and the sorry state of Greek universities.
Mitsotakis hopes that by highlighting what he believes are clear institutional failings by the government, he will be able to convince enough undecided voters (roughly one in three of whom voted for SYRIZA in the September 2015 elections) that New Democracy is a safer bet than the leftists.
The two main quandaries that will be put to Greek voters in the months ahead are “equitable recovery vs unhindered growth” and “old corruption vs institutional decay.” These are the key concepts on which Greeks will be asked to make their decisions when they go to the polls next year.
If the recent trend is anything to go by, much of the discussion will be designed to inflict the maximum possible damage on each other and very little will have to do with making a fresh start after the pain of the last decade. The campaign has not officially begun but, as Mitsotakis suggested, it feels as if it has already been going for too long.
*You can follow Nick on Twitter: @NickMalkoutzis