The Greek political scene completely changed this May, as the New Democracy recorded impressive victory over the ruling Syriza party in European Parliament elections. The vote, however, turned out to be not only a defeat for Syriza`s leader, Tsipras, but also an "earthquake" on Greek political scene.
Alexis Tsipras and Syriza came into power in January 2015 with 36.34 percent of the vote, riding a wave of public anger at austerity and reform that creditors and partners imposed on the Greeks in the 2010 rescue deals hammered out in Brussels. In that moment Syriza and its leader offered reasons for optimism: reforms, transparency in government and reduction of the national debt and the elimination of the austerity program. Governing with the extreme right-wing Independent Greeks, it presented itself as the voice of the common people against the elites. Although they failed to prevail upon creditors to impose their will to Greek people, being forced in mid-2015 to accept a new bailout with troublesome conditions, Tsipras kept up his attacks on rivals at home.
Since they joined the social democratic mainstream in 2015, it was sought to take advantage of the decline of the traditional Pasok and its ideological alignment with the right-wing party of New Democracy. He found a way to insert Syriza into the credibility gap between them, spinning his own narrative, which has now been demonstrated to be equally misleading. Syriza, which following the agreement called and won snap elections in September 2015, managed the economy with high taxes and high surpluses. It was able to keep up payments to its creditors, who were chiefly its Eurozone partners, and regain market trust, graduating from Greece's eight-year fiscal adjustment program last year. But it happened at the expense of low growth and extremely high unemployment rates.
Greece lost a quarter of its economic output during its eight-year depression. Unemployment peaked at 28 percent in 2013 and remains at 19 percent. Although a recovery did begin under Syriza, it has not been sufficient to restore the trust of citizens. The economy grew by about two percent in 2018, representing the major accusation against Tsipras - that he has failed to honor his commitments to the EU and IMF. The radical measures they demanded in order to reboot the economy have largely gone unheeded, resulting in credibility fatigue.
During the recent weeks, as the European Parliament elections were approaching, he invested heavily in a campaign that was politically divisive and which also threatened to impede the minor improvements, being the results of the efforts and sacrifices of years of austerity. The Greek leader was referring to more than $1bn worth of handouts he had announced some weeks before, in the form of a halving of sales tax in supermarkets and restaurants, and a bonus pension. But, the tactic did not work. Voters were obviously not impressed by the measures. The handouts have averted a steeper defeat in the European election.
The overwhelming voter support to opposition party New Democracy in Greece’s local and European elections has precipitated a general election scheduled for July 7th. The results have been anticipated for some months, as the government of Syriza inevitably lost support in the face of continuing austerity. The fact that it achieved almost nothing in the area of reform was not necessarily a reason for rejecting Syriza, since the implementation of changes without a paradigm shift in political thinking seems not to be promising. However, the EU elections have indicated who is likely to come to power next.
While electoral forecasts favor New Democracy leader Kyriakos Mitsotakis over Tsipras, Greece’s economic situation would probably remain dire for the foreseeable future. The question is could any of the leaders actually offer any realistic program making the necessary changes in ensuring the political stability in order to alleviate the economic crisis which remains central to most people’s lives?
Here, we should take into account that the politics in Greece are known for their unpredictability, and estimations on voter’s preferences should always be perceived with caution. Additionally, voters’ preferences may shift in future as current trends show a dramatic increase of undecided and swing voters, while the transition from voting to non-voting is becoming more fluctuating.
Nevertheless, Mitsotakis’s options will depend on the fate of smaller parties, which come and go in parliament depending on whether they achieve the 3 per cent of the national vote necessary to elect MPs. Neither the KKE (communists) nor the Golden Dawn is a potential coalition choice, leaving ND looking at Kinal (Movement for Change), the new centrist party that has risen from the ashes of ND’s old rival, Pasok.
ND leader`s economic plan largely hinges on a key promise to negotiate a new deal with Greece's creditors. He has promised a restart of the economy. He said he will lower tax on businesses in two years and lower income tax on farmers. Outlining his policies, Mitsotakis added that with low taxes, faster reforms and a modernized state, they will attract investments and achieve far higher growth rates than the present government. He expressed the will to resolve the unemployment issue by seeking to create 700,000 new jobs in five years and has pledged to bring home at least half a million of the 860,000 skilled workers who, according to the Hellenic Statistical Service, have left the country since 2009. He also added that the high primary surpluses that the Syriza government has signed are putting a brake on growth and that he favors a smaller state, more investments and high-quality jobs. He insisted that the path which will lead to a reduction of Greece’s debt is not one of high primary surpluses but of high growth rates.
Certainly, the austerity is not the only issue on which the campaign will be fought. Which means the citizens will take the other factors into consideration, too. In addition to the economy, ethnic and international issues will feature. However, the question is could the upcoming elections may bring about the change in addressing the nation`s longstanding issues?
Tsipras’s "achievement" to resolve the long-running name dispute with North Macedonia which was criticized by Mitsotakis for "betraying the national heritage", while his former coalition partner, Panos Kammenos, called it "suicide committed in Prespes", ongoing relations with Balkan neighbors and Greece’s place in an EU increasingly disturbed by populism and nationalism are all matters for discussion. Moreover the central, unspoken issue in this election, as in every poll since during the turbulent history of the country, is its role and status in the Balkans as a country that both ethnically and culturally is between East and West. With Albania and North Macedonia poised to begin EU accession talks (New Democracy already threatens to put obstacles to the accession process of the second) and Turkey’s chances possibly diminishing, the question is if the Europe’s southeast with Greece as its most significant region represents the epicenter of the potential geopolitical change. This agenda also encompasses the US and NATO-supported upgrading of the regional role of Greece in the Balkans and the Eastern Mediterranean region.
Although never moving beyond the boundaries of the country's participation in the Euro-Atlantic institutions, Greek foreign policy, characterized by active political and diplomatic participation of the country in the effort to solve all the important regional issues, at the same time maintained relations of cooperation with other global or regional partners, which often competed with the West in the region. Thus, the Greek governments sought to act as a channel of communication between the West-Arab world, as a bridge between West-Russia and as a mediator of Chinese penetration in Europe. This so-called multifaceted foreign policy, which, to one degree or the other, was exercised by all governments, seemed to be replaced by the Syriza Anel government in September 2015 with a one-dimensional policy of exclusive adhesion to strategic planning, primarily the US, EU. Therefore the possible change in Greek political scene could offer the answer should the evolving shift to the foreign policy of country be understood as a transitory development or according to some estimates this policy will continue to be applied by the subsequent governments.
At this point the question mark hangs on assumptions if the changes to Greece's foreign policy should be attributed to the "new colonization from the West" that took place with the signing of loan contracts in the years of the crisis. Or instead of it could be defined as the part of the overall country's upgrading strategy in the region since the new geopolitical data was shaped by the evolution of the Arab Spring and the Ukrainian crisis. Combined with China's rapid rise and strategic rapprochement with Russia, these factors have transformed Western priorities and made it more urgent to strengthen their presence in the Balkans and the Mediterranean. In this context, the Greek state has taken a leading role in the implementation of NATO and EU projects in the region, attempting to take advantage of the worsening of Turkish relations with West. Within the framework of above considerations the Skopje Athens rapprochement which is claimed to had additional, geopolitical dimension and, indirectly was not only about the future of the Republic of North Macedonia but about the future of the entire Western Balkans should be taken into consideration. Further developments would certainly prove if this agreement will be regarded as the start of a strategic partnership or just another deal predominantly addressing the geopolitical needs of Western allies? But "that`s another story".
The most important is that the next few months could be crucial to domestic politics and to Greece’s relations with its partners in the European Union, its allies and its creditors. Moreover, the incoming government will have to deal with new faces in Germany and the EU who will certainly affect the future of Greece. If division reigns, many of the sacrifices of the past years will have been in vain and Greece will be in a worse position than it was before the crisis. Equally important is that both sides currently have a high degree of responsibility as they lead the nation to elections.