Blogs 25 Mar 2019

#EUWHATSNEXT – Greece’s long journey back to political normality

Acumen is publishing a special blog series in the run-up to the European elections in May 2019. On the occasion of its Independence Day, we continue our tour of Europe with a take on Greek politics.


Out of trouble?

After almost a decade packed with drama, flamboyant negotiations and radical changes in domestic politics, Greece is no longer in the headlines. The debt crisis appears to be mainly over, Greece’s macroeconomic situation is expected to improve, and the country is sluggishly returning to ‘normality’.

In 2019, Greeks will vote for the first time in years with their country outside of a bail-out programme. Municipal, regional and European elections are planned for May 26, with a general election in October (though it may take place earlier).

Greek politics are adapting to this new normality. Originally, on the radical left, SYRIZA capitalised on the perfect storm of a dire economic situation and discontent towards traditional political parties, and on its leader’s charisma to make a spectacular rise to power, cannibalising once dominant parties. Efforts to provide a moderate centre-left response or alternative to Alexis Tsipras have floundered, as the Prime Minister is successfully portraying himself as the leader of the ‘progressive bloc’.

On the right, Nea Dimokratia (ND) under Kyriakos Mitsotakis, manages to wear two hats, retaining a faithful core of conservative voters, while appealing to moderates. Mitsotakis would identify himself as a liberal, closer to the centre rather than the right wing of Greece’s political spectrum. However, the spread of MPs from the centre all the way to the very conservative right may undermine any progressive ideas Mitsotakis puts forward.

Notably, almost 10-12% of the electorate is voting for far-right parties; the neo-Nazis of Golden Dawn will battle to retain the third place in election results, while new permutations of far-right conspiracist parties will aim to beat the 3% threshold.

The Prespa Agreement between Greece and North Macedonia on renaming the latter brought political turmoil in the former. SYRIZA’s ally, Independent Greeks (ANEL), the right-wing populist party that helped Tsipras form his first government after the 2015 elections, withdrew their support in protest over the name deal. With eloquent manoeuvers and political tricks, Tsipras managed to chip away a sufficient number of MPs from other parties, eventually securing the absolute minimum majority (151 MPs out of 300) to stay in power.

A tale of two leaders

The big question that Greeks will answer this year is who is most capable of managing the country in the post-bailout era.

Tsipras, a political activist since his high school years as a member of the Communist Youth of Greece (KNE), has managed to become the longest serving Prime Minister of the crisis. After his initial fiery performance, he presents a social agenda for ‘inclusive growth’, based on income redistribution. He burnishes his moderate credentials in completing and exiting an adjustment programme he once excoriated and solving the name dispute with North Macedonia. That was a calculated risk that earned him international praise but is likely to cost him votes in Greece’s conservative-leaning northern region of Macedonia.

Mitsotakis is largely the antithesis of Tsipras: a Harvard-educated, McKinsey alum, and son of a former prime minister, who pulled an unlikely victory for the ND leadership in 2016, and is set to become Greece’s next Prime Minister on current polling form. He promises tax-cuts, lower government spending, and greater private investment. At the same time, he is also trying to milk opposition to the Prespa Agreement, adopting a harsher rhetoric against it, and thereby causing some friction within the center-right European People’s Party to which ND belongs, which openly supported the deal.

Tsipras, at 44, is obviously too young to go into retirement, but 2019 will be key for his political future. As premier, and a good strategist, he can choose when to call the general election. Losing by a close margin in May’s set of elections could allow him to build political momentum by the autumn and go on to win the general election. Nea Dimokratia, seeking a “strategic defeat” of SYRIZA, views the European elections as the prequel to October.

A battle for two

Current polls indicate that ND will win its first elections in four years, doubling its European Parliament delegation to ten, going against the trend of a shrinking EPP. SYRIZA will also increase its presence, remaining an important voice within Europe’s left while both Kinima Allagis (Movement of Change; primarily formed by PASOK, the once dominant social-democrats, who saw their electoral power diminished to single digits during the crisis), and social-liberal To Potami (The River) that sit in the S&D Group with two seats each, are projected to lose three of these. Independent Greeks will most probably be shut out.

Golden Dawn will enter the EP for the second time, while the deeply Eurosceptic Communist Party is projected to elect one MEP (down from two). What remains a mystery is whether smaller parties like the Enosi Kentroon (Centrist Union) and Elliniki Lysi (Greek Solution) will beat the 3% threshold and win their first-ever MEPs.

The outcome remains, as ever post-2008, fraught with uncertainty. Since 2015, political parties often hint that polls are manipulated in order to shape public opinion as illustrated by the very wide spread of findings now ranging from 4 to12% between ND and SYRIZA.

Arrivals and departures

A notable arrival is ND’s Vangelis Meimarakis, a political powerhouse and former party leader, who lost to Mitsotakis in a tight leadership contest in 2016. He has held high profile positions such as Speaker of the Hellenic Parliament and Minister of Defence and will lead ND’s group of MEPs.

SYRIZA has not announced all of its candidates yet, but former ministers, Ioannis Mouzalas and Panagiotis Kouroublis, are likely to move to Brussels. Interestingly, a hot issue is whether former MEP, Spyros Danellis, and Minister for Tourism, Elena Koundoura, who deserted their parties to support SYRIZA in a no-confidence vote last month, will be ‘rewarded’ with a place on its EP list.

Kostas Chrysogonos, Sofia Sakorafa, and Nikos Chountis (GUE) have left SYRIZA and are likely returning to Greece, while a lacklustre performance by PASOK would suggest that either Eva Kaili, part of the MEPs ‘Tech Gang’, or Nikos Androulakis, who almost became the party’s leader in 2017, may be heading home.

Next Commissioner

The timing of the national election will be key for the appointment of the next Greek Commissioner. There are three scenarios: a SYRIZA nominated Commissioner, a political compromise, or a ND candidate.

SYRIZA is expected to remain in power until October, making it likely that they will nominate the first-ever Commissioner from GUE (if SYRIZA does not move to S&D as some believe). EP Vice-President, Dimitris Papadimoulis, a moderate, is a strong favorite.

A strong performance by ND in May and an impending change of government later in the autumn may lead to a political compromise between the two parties. Migration Commissioner, Dimitris Avramopoulos, an EPP moderate, could be a compromise candidate, and may pursue a second term and a Vice-Presidential position.

A third option is that a ND government might replace the SYRIZA nominated commissioner, with its own high-profile candidate. Former Prime Minister, Antonis Samaras, a fierce critic of SYRIZA and Tsipras, has been rumoured to be eyeing an office at the Berlaymont.

Sadly, it’s not about Europe

The upcoming European elections are going to set a narrow political tone in the lead-up to the general election later this year. Unfortunately, that’s bad news. Having gone through the almost Herculean task of exiting a debt crisis, this election would be a great opportunity to have a meaningful debate on European politics and Greece’s position in the Union, but it is now virtually lost. Greek politics are no longer all about epic battles, Trojan horses, and fallen heroes, but rather about a long journey back to the Ithaca of political normality.

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