Friday, September 29, 2023
Courthouse News Service
Friday, September 29, 2023 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Greeks go for business-minded conservatives, left suffers crushing election defeat

Greece's ruling right-wing New Democracy party won national elections in an unexpected landslide while its main rival, the left-wing Syriza, suffered a staggering loss. New Democracy is expected to win a majority in the second round of voting.

(CN) — With the economy picking up after years of economic depression, Greece's ruling business-friendly, right-wing New Democracy party overcame doubts about its alleged authoritarian drift and scored a landslide win in parliamentary elections on Sunday by routing left-wing rivals Syriza.

But due to changes in election laws, this is not the end of Greece's voting season and a second ballot will be held in late June or early July. The upcoming election is expected to give New Democracy another overwhelming win and a comfortable majority in parliament.

Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis' New Democracy won in every region of Greece except for one and trounced Syriza's Alexis Tsipras. New Democracy got nearly 41% of the vote to Syriza's 20%. It was the worst showing of any opposition party since democratic elections were restored following the end of a military dictatorship in 1974.

The traditional center-left party, Pasok, took in about 11.5%, a decent result for a party that collapsed after it was blamed for Greece's catastrophic debt crisis a decade ago.

About 6 million Greeks voted, equating to a turnout of about 60%, continuing a trend of lower turnout in the past couple of decades.

Since coming to power in 2019, Mitsotakis, a Harvard-educated former banking executive, has steered Greece with a business-friendly technocratic approach to make Greece more friendly to foreign investors while he's also streamlined Greece's bureaucracy through technology. On Monday, markets responded very favorably to Mitsotakis' electoral success.

Under his watch, Greece has enjoyed positive economic trends, including lower unemployment and higher growth, though such a bounce was predicated on massive budget-cutting by the former Syriza government. During the eurozone debt crisis, the European Union imposed severe austerity on debt-ridden Greece and the country is slowly recovering from its economic depression, one of the worst ever suffered by a Western economy during peacetime.

MacroPolis, a Greek political analysis firm, said Greece's economic rebound was on voters' minds.

“They appear to appreciate the fact that the economy is recovering, even though many will not have felt the benefits of this,” MacroPolis said in a briefing. They “believe that keeping Mitsotakis in power would provide a greater guarantee of this recovery continuing, potentially delivering benefits for all in the future.”

Mitsotakis also has pushed a nationalist agenda with tough language against aggressive actions taken by its neighbor Turkey over gas drilling, the construction of a border wall to keep migrants out and the harsh treatment of migrants trying to reach Greece by boat. He's also railed against Syriza and other left-wing groups in Greece, declaring them responsible for “chaos” while arguing he represents “stability.”

His premiership also has been overshadowed by a domestic spying scandal dubbed “Greece's Watergate.” Political rivals, including the leader of Pasok, journalists, members of his government and others have been targeted for surveillance by the national intelligence service.

But Greek voters appeared largely unconcerned by the scandal and other accusations that Mitsotakis is a danger to democracy.

In a speech to supporters on Sunday night, Mitsotakis called the win a “political earthquake” and said his message of “hope overcame pessimism.”

It was also the first time since 1974 that an incumbent party performed better than it had in the previous election. In 2019, New Democracy got just under 40% and Syriza garnered 31.5% of the vote.

“The result is exceptionally negative for Syriza,” Tsipras said in a statement. “Fights have winners and losers.”

But he vowed to “fight the next crucial and final electoral battle with the best terms possible.”

Pre-election polls had shown Syriza doing far better than it did on Sunday and the loss put Tsipras' leadership in doubt, with many pundits saying Syriza was in danger of imploding.

“Syriza faces a terrible dilemma: if Tsipras resigns, as he should, it will collapse. If he stays, very likely the same,” said Stathis Kalyvas, a Greek political scientist at the University of Oxford, commenting on Twitter.

Kalyvas added that New Democracy's stay-the-course optimistic economic message resonated with voters eager to move on from Greece's economic woes.

“In my view, voters expressed a preference for moderation and growth. They want to put the crisis behind them,” he said. “New Democracy expressed that wish, Syriza didn’t.”

In his campaign, Tsipras relentlessly attacked Mitsotakis and accused him of running a government for the rich and undermining democratic values by consolidating power in his hands and putting critics under surveillance. Syriza also criticized the government's handling of a horrific train accident in February that killed 57 people.

Syriza rose to power in 2015 amid Greece's catastrophic economic collapse following the 2007-2008 global financial meltdown. Its victory was one of the first examples of a populist wave that shook establishment politics in Europe but Syriza has struggled to keep its support because it ended up agreeing to deeply unpopular financial bailout packages it had vowed to oppose. The bailouts forced Greece to drastically reduce public spending and take numerous other controversial steps, including the sale of public assets such as airports, the rail system and ports.

New Democracy even performed better than Syriza among young Greeks, winning 31.5% of the votes of those between the ages of 17 and 24. With its progressive platform, Syriza was expected to do much better among young voters, but it picked up about 28.8% of their ballots. Syriza campaigned on fighting for LGBTQ rights, supporting migrants and expanding welfare.

Greece will hold a second election because Sunday's election was based on a new proportional representation system put in place by the Syriza government. This system was meant to make Greece into a parliamentary system run by coalitions.

But after winning in 2019, New Democracy scrapped Syriza's election changes and re-instituted Greece's former system which gives the first-place party up to 50 extra seats. Under this formula, New Democracy is expected to obtain a sizable majority.

Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.

Follow @
Categories / Government, International, Politics

Read the Top 8

Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.