EU elections in Greece: Applying a different scale of values

Agora Contributor: Nick Malkoutzis
Photo by MacroPolis
Photo by MacroPolis

Elections, especially when they point to a substantial shift in power, often coax observers into making snap judgments even though history tells us that the fluctuations of politics and political figures are best assessed from a distance.

“When the perspective of time has lengthened, all stands in a different setting. There is a new proportion. There is another scale of values,” Winston Churchill told the House of Commons in November 1940 during his valediction of Neville Chamberlain.

The irony is that Churchill attempted to get around this principle by writing the historical record himself. For many years, his memoirs (The Gathering Storm) were the accepted, although dishonest/idealised, version of events. This ensured heroic status for Churchill and consigned Chamberlain to the sinbin of history. Decades later, with the perspective of time, another scale of values were used and a new proportion was found.

Elections come around so often, though, that the luxury of time and distance is not afforded to those trying to discern political patterns and draw conclusions about voters’ thoughts. Also, when there has been a notable shift there is a temptation to exaggerate its importance or to attach a permanence to something that may soon prove to be transient.

Sunday’s European Parliament ballot in Greece produced this kind of swing in voter preferences, delivering New Democracy a resounding victory over SYRIZA as well as numerous other changes. There have already been attempts to explain the driving forces behind the change but there is a danger that in this process facts are being twisted, or completely ignored, in order to neatly fit theories.

End of populism

One of the most popular assumptions about the May 26 elections is that it signalled the end of populism, with SYRIZA’s defeat marking the end of its stint in power (to be confirmed in the July 7 national elections). This suggests populism’s star shone briefly in Greece, nicely bookended by SYRIZA’s arrival in 2015 and its departure in 2019. It fits well with a pan-European narrative that is developing about populists either failing to make the advances that many feared/predicted or suffering the wear-and-tear that comes with being in office.

If we take the scientific definition of populism (pitting the people against an elite), then SYRIZA’s fate does suggest it rode a wave of anger into power but once the economic crisis subsided and this frustration dissipated, its populist message no longer resonated. Alexis Tsipras tried many times during the recent campaign to convince voters that they must take sides in the battle between “the many” and “the elite,” but Greeks did not seem interested in his binary view of the world.

However, in the political sense of the term, we must question whether populism in Greece either started, or has finished, with SYRIZA’s troubled reign. Populism in the everyday political discussion has come to signify the tendency to intentionally mislead or incite voters or to offer them unattainable promises in a bid to mobilise support.

If we think back to the years before the first EU-IMF programme was signed in 2010, numerous Greek governments either promised or implemented destructive policies solely on the premise they were doing so in the name of the people. This form of populism, if we apply this term, contributed to the Greek economy and public finances going off the rails.

But even when the crisis broke out, and a bailout was needed, the practice of tempting voters with magic alternatives did not cease. It is worth remembering that New Democracy, which now stands on the threshold of power, voted against the first programme (including current leader Kyriakos Mitsotakis, who later described it as a mistake) and spent the next 18 months or so raging against the government and the creditors, feeding conspiracy theories and fuelling accusations of betrayal and treachery.

Its leader at the time, Antonis Samaras, launched three times supposed economic alternatives to the EU-IMF scheme, promising a relatively painless way out of the crisis and a quick path to economic growth. In the end, within days of being appointed as the prime minister of a three-party coalition in June 2012, Samaras accepted that there was no alternative to implement the lenders’ (second) programme. Unable to target the creditors, the conservative leader turned his fire on irregular migrants, describing them as “tyrants.” Perhaps this falls more into the category of nativism than populism, but it was still an appeal to the basest instincts in the electorate.

And, while we are on the subject of stirring up anger among voters (as SYRIZA did using terribly divisive language about the government and the creditors when it was in opposition), we cannot overlook New Democracy’s more recent behaviour with regard to the Macedonia issue.

SYRIZA seemed just as focussed (if not more) on trying to create problems for its rivals by settling the longstanding diplomatic dispute as it did on actually reaching a deal with Skopje. But the centre-right party also displayed a disregard for the poison it allowed to be released into the political debate.

The opposition seemed content to misrepresent the agreement, to offer its moral support for public gatherings where the far-right had a notable presence, to whip the public into a frenzy and to allow its opponents to be labelled as sell-outs or traitor (just as SYRIZA had done between 2010 and 2015). It could have opposed the agreement in a responsible, measured manner but chose not to. Many people, including liberals or moderates in Greece, have chosen to ignore this because they saw it as a means to an end (kicking SYRIZA out of office) but it is not certain that this genie can be put back into the bottle easily.

Either way, it would be naive to assume that SYRIZA’s exit from power puts a firm conclusion to the tactic of mobilising support by stirring division or promising another slice of pie in the sky. In fact, that is one of the fascinating aspects of the new period Greek politics is entering. Part of Mitsotakis’s success, both in gaining control of his party and winning the European elections, has been because in many instances he went against the grain and ignored some of its traditional reservations or obsessions. His challenge, should the centre-right party win the national elections on July 7 as well, is to ensure that the reformist principles he would like to stand for win out over ND’s populist, state-centred and nationalist tendencies.

Far-right collapse

For some, the supposed death of populism has gone hand in hand with the apparent demise of the far-right. Many observers pointed to the fact that support for Golden Dawn fell from 6.99 percent in the September 2015 national elections to 4.88 percent on Sunday. In real terms, this was a decline of around 100,000 votes.

The drop is significant, especially as the long-running trial of the NeoNazi party’s members for murder and other crimes has yet to be concluded. But we cannot look at Golden Dawn’s numbers in isolation.

These elections elevated another party from the far right, Elliniki Lysi (Greek Solution). Led by a Putin-loving, conspiracy theory-obsessed TV presenter/telemarketer, the party gained 4.1 percent of the vote. Riding the wave of opposition to the Macedonia name deal, its leader Kyriakos Velopoulos drew some support from Golden Dawn, but particularly from the collapse of SYRIZA’s former ultra-nationalist coalition partner, Independent Greeks (ANEL), with which Greek Solution has some similarities.

ANEL went from 3.69 percent of the vote in 2015, to 0.8 percent on Sunday, marking the end of the political career (at least for now) of its leader Panos Kammenos. Many of the 155,000 votes ANEL lost ended up with Velopoulos’s party.

This means there has been a realignment of the far-right vote, rather than a collapse. In fact, the support for the extreme right does not seem to have budged an inch over the last four years. In September 2015, around 580,000 voters backed Golden Dawn and ANEL. On Sunday, just over 511,000 Greeks voted for Golden Dawn and Greek Solution. Another 70,000 voted for Popular Orthodox Rally (LAOS). The far-right party, which was briefly part of an interim governing coalition in 2011-12, did not take part in the September 2015 elections.

Some have also argued that a vote for Greek Solution is not the same as a vote for Golden Dawn. It is true that Velopoulos’s party does not have a menacing presence on the street and its supporters have not (to anyone’s knowledge) been involved in attacks on migrants or others, but this does not make his views any less poisonous.

Among the policies that Velopoulos has advocated recently are the death sentence for people smugglers (to stop the flow of migrants to Greece rather than out of concern for how they are treated by traffickers) and building a wall on Greece’s border with Turkey and laying mines next to it.

As things stand, those hoping for a decline in the support for the extreme right in Greece can draw no comfort from Sunday’s election results. It remains to be seen if a similar pattern emerges in the upcoming national elections. Pollsters have some doubts about whether Velopoulos can repeat his success in the national vote given that some voters are more frivolous with their ballots in European Parliament elections.

No handouts

Another misconception about the result of the EU elections in Greece is that New Democracy eschewed the normal practice of offering voters economic benefits and focussed its message only on reforms.

It is true that the opposition party did more than SYRIZA to present a vision for Greece going forward and talk about structural changes. It is also true that the government ramped up its so-called positive measures over the last few months, ending up making thinly disguised handouts to voters just a few days before they went to polling stations. But it is wrong to say that New Democracy did not also try to entice the electorate with voter-friendly fiscal interventions.

In September last year, opposition leader Kyriakos Mitsotakis presented a long list of economic pledges at the Thessaloniki Expo, as is customary for Greek leaders. The measures proposed by New Democracy undoubtedly appealed to a broad range of voters but could be viewed as aspirational when Greece’s fiscal constraints are considered.

The proposed interventions included dropping the basic rate of income tax from 22 to 9 percent for those earning less than 10,000 euros per year, slashing corporation tax from 29 to 20 percent, bringing down dividend tax from 15 to 5 percent, decreasing property tax by 30 percent over two years, scrapping the trade tax for the self-employed, cutting the VAT rate in the food service sector from 24 to 13 percent (which the government did before the EU vote) before then reducing it to 11 percent.

Mitsotakis also pledged to launch a new scheme to allow taxpayers who owe money to the state to settle their debts. He said those owing up to 3,000 euros to tax offices or pension funds, which covers most debtors, would be allowed to pay as little as 20 euros per month to eliminate their debt over a period of 120 months.

The opposition leader also said he would make 2 billion euros of savings in the public sector over two years but vowed not to sack any civil servants. He said he would instead implement a 1:1 hiring ratio.

Three months later, at New Democracy’s party congress, Mitsotakis upped the stakes and promised, among other things, a 2,000-euro lump-sum as well as a 1,000-euro increase in the tax-free threshold for each child born into a household and an increase of the minimum wage at twice the rate of GDP growth (the government implemented an 11 percent increase earlier this year).

The conservatives, like SYRIZA, also vowed not to implement next year’s increase in the tax-free threshold for incomes, which the International Monetary Fund says is vital for broadening the tax base in Greece and creating fiscal space for tax cuts and other growth-enhancing measures.

New Democracy views its measures as part of a comprehensive programme, rather than the more spasmodic handouts from SYRIZA. Nevertheless, Greece’s fiscal space means that they will be equally challenging to implement.

The centre-right party says that over four years, the cost of its programme would be 6 billion euros and would be funded by savings in the public sector, more electronic transactions, better tax compliance and higher growth (Mitsotakis pledged to double the current growth rate to around 4 percent). Alternate Finance Minister Giorgos Houliarakis put the cost of what New Democracy wants to do at closer to 10 billion euros and suggested that the opposition party’s calculations for how to cover this were far too general.

Either way, it is worth bearing in mind that Greece’s lenders have warned that the latest measures/handouts adopted by SYRIZA (VAT cuts and pension bonus) are enough to throw the budget off course and make it impossible for Athens to reach its primary surplus target of 3.5 percent of GDP this year. The government estimates their fiscal impact at around 1 billion euros, while the institutions reportedly think it is closer to 1.5 billion euros. The lenders’ concern, which may lead to Greece’s early repayment of its IMF loans being put off, might be a taste of what will come when ND tries to implement its ambitious programme. In the euphoria of Sunday’s result, the centre-right party does not seem concerned about such details.

In the final days of the campaign for the European elections, New Democracy also promised some kind of permanent support for low-income pensioners as it countered the government’s decision to award a bonus to retirees, which SYRIZA also said it would make a permanent feature of the fiscal calendar.

On Wednesday, the party’s vice president Adonis Georgiadis said it is the conservatives’ aim to ensure that under their administration “pensioners will have more money than with Alexis Tsipras” and vowed that they would use all the available tools at their disposal.

“Handouts are one tool, another is reducing taxes and bringing back EKAS [benefit for low-income pensioners],” he said.

Commenting on the schemes launched recently by the government to allow taxpayers to settle unpaid taxes and social security contributions in up to 120 month instalments, Georgiadis dismissed concerns that New Democracy would scrap them (prompted by the shadow labour minister suggesting they undermine payment culture and act as a disincentive for prompt payers). He noted that his party voted for the schemes in Parliament and “argued that they should have been bolder.”

The post-election data is not yet available to indicate what kind of effect these interventions had on voters’ choices but it is safe to assume that the promise of lower taxes, benefits and other relief measures did have an impact on the final outcome. It would be incorrect to claim that New Democracy did not go down the tried and tested route of offering economic incentives or gifts to voters during the campaign. If it comes to power, its performance will be measured against the promises it has made. And, as was the case for all previous governments, this will leave no hiding room.

Mature voters

Debunking the myth that New Democracy’s campaign was free of attractive economic incentives is also important because this claim is being used to back up the theory that Greek voters showed a newfound maturity at the ballot box last Sunday.

It is being tied in with other factors, such as the supposed demise of populism (as examined earlier) and the fall of the far-right (ditto) to create a narrative that envisions Greek voters recovering from the dizziness caused by the crisis, when their political tendencies went haywire, and now making choices based on sound reasoning, with their long-term future in mind.

However, a closer look at who Greeks voted for in the European elections suggests there may have been a subtle modification in preferences, but certainly not a sea change.

For starters, a whopping 21 percent of the vote went to small parties that did not elect any MEPs (they did not surpass the 3 percent threshold), which was slightly higher than around 17 percent that voted the same way in the EU vote of 2014. While there is a more pronounced tendency in European elections to back smaller, more obscure, parties than in the national vote, Sunday’s numbers suggest that for around one in five Greek voters the main motivating factor was to protest or just to have a laugh.

The parties that did not elect a single MEP also include three groups launched by prominent figures that left SYRIZA in 2015 – Yanis Varoufakis, Zoe Konstantopoulou and Panayiotis Lafazanis. Combined, their three parties earned 5.16 percent of the vote, meaning there were roughly 300,000 Greeks (double the amount that voted for Lafazanis’s Popular Unity in the September 2015 national elections) that believe a more radical leftist approach is needed in Greek politics.

But if we are looking for the most obvious sign that Greek voters have not suddenly had an epiphany, it is evident in the quality of the candidates that they decided to send to European Parliament.

New Democracy, which elected eight MEPs, made much of its attempt to invigorate its candidate list. But the offer to pick fresh faces was overwhelmingly rejected by voters. Seven out of the eight centre-right candidates elected either previously served as MEPs or MPs, for several terms in some cases. They include the former captain of the Greek national football team and a politician who is being investigated for fraud and irregularities by EU authorities.

SYRIZA’s six successful candidates make for equally miserable reading. There are three newcomers, but they consist of a TV/radio presenter, an actor and the son of one of Greece’s richest businessmen. Out of the three established politicians being sent to, or sent back to, Brussels one was an MP with ultra-nationalist Independent Greeks (ANEL) until this January. SYRIZA’s voters appeared to have forgiven or forgotten her political past very quickly. Or perhaps they were just attracted by her familiar name. Either way, it is a defeat for progressive values.

KINAL voters also re-elected two existing MEPs, one of whom has indicated that he might pass on his seat so he can stand in the national elections. Given that Greece was due to hold general elections by October at the latest, there have been suggestions that he disrespected the voting process by standing in Sunday’s ballot for the European Parliament.

To top it all, one of Golden Dawn’s successful candidates is a key suspect in the ongoing trial of the NeoNazi group and has been banned from leaving Greece. It appears he will have to miss hearing European Parliament be addressed by the leader of ultra-nationalist Greek Solution, Kyriakos Velopoulos, who was the sole candidate elected with his party. Velopoulos indicated that he may not take up his seat, passing it on to the next candidate, so he can stand in the national elections. MEPs might miss out on the chance of grabbing one of the copies of letters he claims to be signed by Christ, which he’s been selling in Greece via his TV programmes.

Out of the 21 MEPs Greece is sending to Brussels, there are few about which it can be proud. This does not stack up against the claim that voters showed maturity when making their choice on Sunday. When faced with the option of renewing the political personnel representing their country and rewarding quality, they largely opted for familiar or famous names. It seems Greek voters still have plenty of growing to do.

Perspective of time

The emphatic nature of Sunday’s result lends itself to making sweeping statements about why Greeks voted the way they did. But if we look at the facts and figures dispassionately, rather than try to stuff them into a specific narrative, the picture is much more muddled.

There are certainly not enough grounds to argue convincingly that this marks the end of populism in Greece, that the far-right is disappearing, that voters were not swayed by economic promises or that they have suddenly matured.

At this stage, the safe conclusions we can draw following Sunday is that it was a big defeat for SYRIZA (which lost around 585,000 votes in comparison to the September 2015 general elections) and a significant win for New Democracy (which gained more than 340,000 votes).

SYRIZA’s defeat has many fathers, while New Democracy’s win may largely be attributed to Kyriakos Mitsotakis and the direction he has taken the party in since assuming its leadership in 2016.

The result of the national elections on July 7 will provide further evidence to explain these trends and determine what conclusions we can draw. In the meantime, it is best to wait for this new scale of values and use the perspective of time to improve our understanding of the changes that are unfolding.

1 Comment(s)

  • Posted by: Demetrios Velis

    Incisive analysis. One more thing. The author should have elaborated on why the top MEP vote-getter of ND was a young professional newcomer rather than one of the old political cronies. I wonder whether that could be an expression of newly found 'maturity' or emphasis on 'political renewal' on the part of his electorate or merely a protest vote against the sitting Deputy Minister of Public Health, who had expressed totally unacceptable remarks towards this MEP candidate. Or should one consider this aspect voters' preference to have been 'just for the fun of it'? As the old saying goes 'vox populi, ...'.

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