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Bad news from Greece: round one

Former Syriza member Marina Prentoulis examines the results of the first round of the Greek elections and explains the party’s continued decline

3 to 4 minute read

Kyriakos Mitsotakis, a white man wearing a suit with his hands clasped, speaks into a microphone against a backdrop of more white men in suits listening from their seats in the European Parliament

On 21 May, the right-wing party New Democracy and its leader Kyriakos Mitsotakis won a huge victory in the first round of the Greek general election, receiving 41 per cent of the vote. This most probably (depending on the outcome of the second round on 25 June) will guarantee their second consecutive term in government. Significantly, this latest election was not conducted under the traditional system of enhanced proportional representation, which rewarded the winner with extra parliamentary seats. It was conducted under simple proportional representation; the result of a reform introduced by the Syriza government of 2015 to 2019. 

In this first round, no party won an outright majority in the 300-seat parliament and New Democracy had little incentive to push for a coalition, especially when the runner-up, Syriza, only gained 20 per cent – a devastating result for Greek progressive forces. The rate of abstention was high, but given the background of a series of scandals – ranging from refugee pushbacks, to deadly accidents due to the sorry state of the railway infrastructure, to secret service illegal wiretappings of politicians, all of which are attributed to the ruling party New Democracy – the size of their victory left many gasping. 

Despite Syriza’s attempt at ‘cool’ TV and social media advertising to attract the younger generation and first time voters, the percentage of New Democracy voters between the ages of 17 to 24 was 31.5 per cent, with Syriza second at 28.8 per cent. PASOK, the once-upon-a-time king of the centre ground, had a minor comeback from its abysmal 4.68 per cent in 2015, to 6.29 per cent in 2019, to 11.46 per cent in last month’s election. The term ‘pasokification’, used to describe PASOK’s marginalisation during the financial crisis, now seems to apply to Syriza’s downward trajectory, even though a more nuanced and multifaceted analysis is necessary.   

Lost illusions

The May 2023 election confirms that what the Syriza leadership thought would be a winning strategy – the return to the centre and the persistent erasing of its radical left past in order to attract more moderate voters – has failed spectacularly. Furthermore, the lending agreement that Syriza signed with the EU implemented between 2015 to 2019 cost the Greek people dearly, but Syriza never initiated a public dialogue or showed any sign of remorse.

The active Syriza membership that once upon a time was inspired by promises of true, participatory democracy in both party and government lost their illusions long ago. Even though members were stripped of any power in party decision-making processes, some stayed, struggling to deal with the new reality, whilst others left, in droves.

A new membership has been won over. But their expectations and aspirations are very different from the ones held by those who brought Syriza to government in 2015. They accept the way Syriza used initiatives like the move to digital platforms to gloss over the transformation of the party to another aspiring electoral machine, valuing spectator/voters more than activists. They don’t challenge the creation of think tanks staffed with experts without solid ties to society and instructed to advise Syriza leader Alexis Tsipras directly. This is an example of how distance has been created between members and Syriza’s centres of power. 

This distance is not only relevant for the party and the government but also translates into a distance from society, from the electoral base, from the grassroots – all of whom are not addressed as partners but as customers in the electoral marketplace. These features of Syriza will not change before the second round on 25 June – but will the threat of another four years of the authoritarian and neoliberal right produce any changes in voting patterns?    

Marina Prentoulis is an associate professor in politics and media at the University of East Anglia and author of Left Populism in Europe: Lessons from Jeremy Corbyn to Podemos (Pluto, 2021)

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