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A clear win for New Democracy, a manageable defeat for SYRIZA, Golden Dawn being booted out of Parliament and the emergence of two smaller parties that might prove troublesome to their larger opponents were the key features of Sunday’s elections in Greece.
The numbers clearly show that, above all else, this was a victory for New Democracy and particularly its leader Kyriakos Mitsotakis. The centre-right party gained around 725,000 votes compared to the last national elections in September 2015, a few months after which Mitsotakis took over as party leader.
His decision to put most of his energy into a positive campaign, focussing on liberal economic reforms, growth and restructuring the public administration and education system, was rewarded by voters. It should be noted that this approach unnerved many within the party and there were times over the last 3.5 years when Mitsotakis appeased them by taking a more populist or hardline stance, as in the case of opposing the lowering of the tax-free threshold or resisting the Macedonia name deal.
Nevertheless, the 2.25 million votes that ND received, giving it almost 40 percent of the vote, have provided Mitsotakis with the space he needs to govern his way and with the people he wants. Without this tremendous swing in voter preference, the new prime minister would not have had the ability to appoint 21 non-parliamentarians (mostly technocrats or experts in their fields) to his, admittedly large, 51-member cabinet.
The ability of these experts to make an impact, transferring from theory to practice and dealing with the particularities of the Greek public sector will be crucial to determining whether the new government is a success or failure.
Mitsotakis also needs this gamble to pay off because he struck a wrong note with the lack of female appointments in his cabinet. Naming just five women in the government meant that his bid to send a message domestically and internationally that a page has been turned and a new administration which is up to European standards has taken over was severely diluted, if not completely overshadowed. Only if his cabinet proves a roaring success will he be in a position to argue that the choices he made were justified.
It was noticeable that during the handover at the prime minister’s office on Monday, Alexis Tsipras was smiling whereas Mitsotakis had a more serious demeanour. Maybe this is because one no longer has the responsibility of running this troublesome country, while the other is just beginning.
Maybe, though, it is because Tsipras emerged from Sunday’s elections less damaged than he expected to be. Considering that SYRIZA gained just over 23 percent in the European Parliament elections in May, the 31.5 percent that the left-wing party gained in the national vote was a much better performance than expected.
SYRIZA lost around 145,000 votes (and 4 percentage points) compared to its performance in September 2015. It is a small haemorrhaging of support compared to other Greek parties that have implemented a bailout. It is also a remarkably low loss when compared to the criticism levelled at the previous government, particularly in terms of its style of governing and use of underhand tactics.
Part of this was down to the addition of around 500,000 first-time voters, including 17-year-old, who were given the right to choose a government for the first time. It appears that SYRIZA’s effort to target young voters met with some success, especially after changes to its communications strategy following the May defeat. According to analysis of the exit poll data, SYRIZA’s support among younger voters was 8 points stronger than for ND.
This is also a legacy for the future as SYRIZA tries to rebuild in opposition. In fact, Sunday’s result is a huge help to Tsipras as he thinks over his strategy for the years ahead. SYRIZA’s performance means that his leadership is not in question (this wasn’t a given after the EU vote) and that the party has established itself as a force in Greek politics, a decade after it was relieved to get 4.6 percent in the general elections.
The question is which direction Tsipras will choose next. Will he try to return to SYRIZA’s radical roots and focus on protest or will he adopt a more nuanced approach, pouncing on any unpopular moves by New Democracy but also focussing on developing his own progressive message? Political sense dictates that it will be the latter because that is where most votes lie. Given his relatively young age for the standards of Greek politics, Tsipras’s aim is to get back into power and this means gaining as many votes as possible. He will not overlook the fact that SYRIZA and the centre-left Movement for Change (KINAL) combined gained just 13,000 votes less than New Democracy.
Tsipras has shown during the last 4.5 years that he has a unique shapeshifting ability, allowing him to wriggle out of one position and into another before his opponents have had a chance to pin him down and voters the opportunity to work him out. During this time, he has treated SYRIZA as a blank canvas that can reflect its radical leftist roots one minute but then not have any qualms about compromising its advertised principles the next.
This means Tsipras has one part of the political skill set needed to reinvent himself and SYRIZA, which may end up becoming something substantially different over the months to come. However, if he is to appeal to the centre-left and centre as the opposition leader, he will also need to develop skills that he has not displayed so far. There will be a need to moderate his rhetoric, build consensus, forge alliances, improve the quality of the people around him and create a clear, progressive plan for the future.
The most obvious option for Tsipras is to turn towards the KINAL either in a bid to destroy it and pick up the pieces or to nurture a common understanding, leading to cooperation. If he chooses the latter, this might be a sign of political maturity and a willingness to adapt to new circumstances.
KINAL held its own on Sunday, gaining just over 8 percent of the vote, which was better than in the EU elections in May and meant a gain of 115,000 voters compared to September 2015. The current incarnation of PASOK must now also decide where it wants to stand in Greek politics.
It has the option of going it alone and trying to connect with young voters, which have largely shunned it, as well as picking up Greeks who might lose faith in Mitsotakis or not believe in Tsipras’s bid to give SYRIZA a rebirth.
This would require patience and probably younger leadership in the hope that at the next elections KINAL could earn double-digit support and play the role of kingmaker.
The other option is to explore a form of alliance with SYRIZA. KINAL officials, though, will be wary of Tsipras’s tendency to chew up his political allies and spit out the remnants, as was the case with Democratic Left (DIMAR) and Independent Greeks (ANEL) in the past.
The inability of Golden Dawn, which gained 2.93 percent, to enter Parliament was one of the highlights of election day. It confirmed the durability of Greek democracy through an extremely testing period and indicated that Greek society is not ready to buy into the beliefs of extremists. That this happened despite the potential for the far right to exploit the refugee crisis means it is worthy of greater attention.
However, there is a caveat to this notable development. Golden Dawn lost almost 215,000 votes compared to September 2015. A new addition to Parliament this time around is ultra-nationalist Greek Solution (Ellinki Lysi), which ran for the first time at the national level and gained almost 210,000 votes.
Many of its supporters will have backed Golden Dawn before, although some probably voted for ANEL four years ago. ANEL gained 200,000 votes in 2015, many of which will have gone to New Democracy this time around. So, there has been a slight dilution of the far-right vote, but mostly it has been a case of fragmentation.
It is true that Greek Solution is not active in the same way as Golden Dawn, which has promised to go back to the streets and squares. But the ultra-nationalist party, led by fringe TV persona Kyriakos Velopoulos harbours some extreme and pernicious views that cannot be dismissed lightly.
It is also worth pointing out that it is unlikely the Greek political system will take away one of the most important lessons of Golden Dawn’s demise, which is that in a rare moment of unity after the murder of rapper Pavlos Fyssas, the other parliamentary parties joined forces to adopt legislation that bans any grouping from receiving state funding if it has been charged with criminal offences. This led to the NeoNazis having to close down a lot of their offices around Greece and limiting their activity.
The other small party to upset the odds and make it into the new Parliament is the radical left grouping MeRA25 led by former finance minister Yanis Varoufakis. The nine MPs it elected are like nine middle fingers raised at his former political colleagues, opponents and the Greek media who have blamed him for the failure of the 2015 negotiations between SYRIZA and the European lenders.
Varoufakis will see his return to Parliament as a personal triumph, which one suspects is how he approaches everything in life. The likelihood that he will treat MeRA25 like the famous motorcycle he rides, i.e. a personal vehicle, means the party’s impact on Greek political life will probably be limited.
However, even within these limitations, it is likely that he will be a thorn in the side of the two main parties. The fact that he has old scores to settle means it is likelier that Varoufakis will cause more problems for Tsipras than Mitsotakis.
This is another reminder as to why it will be difficult for Tsipras to make a convincing return to his radical left roots. He burnt his bridges with that part of the Greek political spectrum by signing the third bailout in 2015. This spawned three splinter parties, with Varoufakis’s the first to make any kind of noticeable impact.
Whereas Popular Unity, the party founded by other radical leftists that quit SYRIZA in 2015, gained 155,000 votes four years ago, it picked up just 15,000 ballots this time. Some of the lost votes went to MeRa25, which attracted almost 195,000 supporters. The Greek radical left has found a new home for now and Tsipras will know there is little chance of tempting these voters back.
Greece’s new Parliament will sit for the first time in the coming days. The result of Sunday’s elections and the way the pieces have fallen after New Democracy’s victory mean that we are in for quite a ride over the next few years.
"Varoufakis will see his return to Parliament as a personal triumph, which one suspects is how he approaches everything in life. The likelihood that he will treat MeRA25 like the famous motorcycle he rides, i.e. a personal vehicle, means the party’s impact on Greek political life will probably be limited."
That truly was a beauty!