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Alexis Tsipras was due to deliver his final campaign speech at around 19.30 on Friday, at a rally in front of Parliament in central Athens. In fact, it was closer to 21.30 when he emerged to speak to the relatively small crowd of SYRIZA supporters before Sunday’s European and local elections.
Rather than a barnstorming performance to round off a bitterly-fought contest, Tsipras delivered a rather tired and tepid address that must have been a let-down for the SYRIZA faithful hoping they would leave convinced their party was on the way to its fifth consecutive victory at the ballot box (May 2014 European elections, January 2015 national vote, July 2015 referendum and September 2015 general elections).
Exactly 48 hours later, the official projection for the results of the EU ballot was delivered, also later than scheduled. It was another huge disappointment for SYRIZA voters.
The ruling party went into Sunday hoping to get more than 25 percent of the vote, aiming to limit New Democracy to around 30 percent and keeping the margin of the opposition party’s victory down to around 5-6 points. The leftists failed on all fronts.
The crushing nature of the defeat, which saw SYRIZA’s share of support drop by more than 10 points (from 35.4 percent) since the last general elections in September 2015 and New Democracy’s backing increase by more than 5 points (from 28 percent) during the same period, meant that Tsipras had no option but to call snap general elections.
Given that the tendency in the past has been for the gap between the winner of the European Parliament elections and the second-placed party to widen when a national vote follows soon afterwards, SYRIZA is facing another painful defeat in a few weeks.
Tsipras appears to have little hope of stopping New Democracy from not only winning the national vote, possibly on June 30, but also gaining an absolute majority in Parliament. The momentum behind the centre-right party appears too great following Sunday’s results, which also saw ND dominate in the municipal and regional elections.
SYRIZA’s main target will be to achieve a respectable result (again, above 25 percent would suffice) and ensure that it is well-positioned in relation to the centre-left Movement for Change (KINAL) so it might dictate terms regarding any cooperation among Greek social democrats after the general elections.
Tsipras rejected the option of seeking any common ground with KINAL and had instead been aiming to obliterate the successor to PASOK so he could pick up the pieces. His strategy for achieving this was to add former socialist officials, albeit low profile ones, to SYRIZA’s team over the last few months. This cherry picking of personnel appeared to galvanise KINAL and its voters. This was one of several moves that backfired during the campaign for the European Parliament elections, which was fought more like it was a national contest.
At 7.5 percent, support for KINAL on Sunday was 1.2 points higher than PASOK’s share in the September 2015 national elections. Admittedly, running under the umbrella of the Olive Tree alliance in the 2014 European Parliament elections, the socialists gained 8 percent of the vote. Either way, though, KINAL proved more resilient than Tsipras would have expected, especially given the high level of polarisation between New Democracy and SYRIZA during the campaign.
SYRIZA lost the battle elsewhere, though. The left-wing party was propelled to power by the festering anger with the economic crisis and the austerity measures implemented as part of the EU-IMF adjustment programmes. After having to do an about-face and agree a third bailout when he had promised not to, Tsipras was left with just one option. He had to see the process through so he could claim to have succeeded where his predecessors failed by taking Greece out of the MoU and returning the country to growth.
In doing so, though, he suffered the same wear and tear as his predecessors. It turns out voters have little time for unpopular fiscal measures (tax hikes, spending cuts, etc) regardless of whether the government implementing them is from the centre-left, the centre-right, an amalgamation of political orientations or from the radical left.
The exit from the programme last summer came too late for SYRIZA. Despite its efforts to share out the benefits of the post-bailout era via bonuses for pensioners, increases in the minimum wage, rent subsidies and lengthy payment plans for unpaid taxes and contributions, voters appeared not to be swayed. According to Sunday’s exit poll, 66.4 percent of voters made up their mind about who to support well before the elections.
Tsipras’s other problem with leaving the bailout was it also exposed his lack of vision for Greece going forward. His policy of wanting to share out the spoils of the nascent economic recovery after so many years of gloom had appealing elements but the discussion about sharing out the pie more equally was not accompanied by a coherent plan for making the pie any larger.
Tsipras appeared to forget that he came to power delivering a message that many crisis-weary voters saw as hopeful, envisioning a life beyond the EU-IMF programmes. Yet, once out of the bailout, the SYRIZA leader could not paint a new picture for Greeks. “Hope is coming” was SYRIZA’s slogan in the January 2015 elections, but by 2018 it seemed that hope had been and gone.
In contrast, New Democracy leader Kyriakos Mitsotakis set out a more composed and optimistic image of Greece’s future, touching on vital areas such as education, business climate and innovation. Naturally, the centre-right party’s approach was not without its flaws (including fiscal pledges way in excess of what Tsipras proposed and carried out) but it was mostly a forward-looking exercise.
Where Mitsotakis brought in new and young faces to stand alongside some party hacks as European Parliament candidates (even though the newcomers largely failed to get elected), Tsipras settled mostly for hacks and celebrities, even bringing on board politicians from his discredited former coalition partner, right-wing Independent Greeks (ANEL). As if that wasn’t enough, his Alternate Health Minister Pavlos Polakis launched one of his usual uncouth social media tirades at New Democracy’s disabled MEP candidate Stelios Kymbouropoulos. Tsipras, showing none of the sensitivities that SYRIZA supposedly prides itself on, offered no apology and stood by his minister. Kymbouropoulos drew more votes than any other conservative candidate on Sunday, suggesting voters wanted to show their disdain for the leftists’ behaviour.
Tsipras thought that a combative campaign would work in his party’s favour, but all it did was expose SYRIZA’s thinness and lack of originality. The leftists had long tried to present themselves as the “new” in Greek politics, but by resorting to recycling old faces and practices, Tsipras dispelled this notion.
Where Mitsotakis tried to fire the imagination, Tsipras just tried to fan the flames. He limited himself to conjuring up imaginary battles between “the many” and “the elite” and scaring voters into believing that a vote for New Democracy would be the equivalent of letting the IMF in through the back door. It seems either of these lines caught on with voters.
Apart from sounding tired, the idea of Tsipras facing down a shadowy elite was undone by his own party’s dealings with wealthy businessmen and media moguls, including placing the son of tycoon Sokratis Kokkalis on the list of candidates for European Parliament. The revelations about the prime minister taking a brief, but undeclared, family holiday on board a shipowner’s yacht last summer also undermined the credibility of his anti-elite rhetoric.
The claims of the return to austerity and IMF policies if SYRIZA lost power rang hollow, like a remnant of the pro-memorandum and anti-memorandum clash that peaked between 2012 and 2015. Tsipras came across as a man trying to fight a war on an empty battlefield.
In his concession speech on Sunday night, Tsipras said SYRIZA will ask voters in the national elections if they want to continue with a “plan to support the many” or whether they want to “return to yesterday.” He said that there are only two roads ahead: “The road that leads to the definitive exit from the MoU… or the road that leads back to the darkness of austerity, the darkness of the crisis, the oligarchs and the IMF.”
This contrasted sharply with Mitsotakis’s tone in his victory speech, when he spoke of not celebrating, respecting those who voted for other parties and trying to win them over in the future.
It was as if Tsipras fed all his speeches into a machine to deliver a generic collection of phrases that could have been uttered at any time over the last few years rather than on the night his party suffered an overwhelming defeat and was desperately in need of a new direction.
In fact, Sunday’s brief speech was essentially a condensed version of the one he gave two days earlier in front of the small crowd in Syntagma Square. Although there was a fair mix of ages and backgrounds, there was a distinct lack of excitement. Few of Tsipras’s words triggered anything more than polite applause from most attendees. Gone was the “firebrand” that attracted so much attention from abroad in the past. This looked like a crowd hoping to catch a spark only to have its dying flame extinguished.
A few blasts of an air horn and an odd chant were all that disturbed the flatness of the occasion. There was a recap of the dark programme years and a rundown of the so-called positive measures that SYRIZA has implemented. But it was all matter of fact; Tsipras could have been reading his shopping list.
As it happened, the pension bonus SYRIZA paid out and the minimum wage increase (including the scrapping of the subminimum salary for under25s), both of which Tsipras emphasised, had little impact. Sunday’s exit poll suggests that most pensioners and voters aged 17-24 backed New Democracy. Waking up on Monday morning, Tsipras might have felt he’d been used by voters, leading him to expect so much more from them. Judging by Sunday’s result, it seems that many Greeks felt the same way about him.