Election preview: Greece

It would be needlessly cruel to title this as part 5 of “A centre-left revival?”, since in Greece more than anywhere the centre-left seems to be as dead as a dodo. The full story, however, is a bit more complicated.

Greece goes to the polls on Sunday for its sixth general election in ten years. No parliament has run its full four-year term since 2004, although this one has come close: the election was due in September, but prime minister Alexis Tsipras decided to go early after his Syriza party did badly in the European parliament election a few weeks ago.

Voting is proportional across the country (with a 3% threshold) for 250 seats, plus an extra 50 seats as a bonus to the party that wins the most votes. The current government has legislated to abolish the bonus, but that will not come into effect until the following election.

Last time around, Syriza, which stands for Coalition of the Radical Left, won 35.5% of the vote and (with the bonus) 145 of the 300 seats, just short of a majority. The centre-right New Democracy came second with 28.1% and 75 seats, followed by a big gap to the extreme right Golden Dawn, with 6.3% and 17 seats.

Five other smaller parties also won seats, so Syriza had a number of options for getting to a majority. It chose to renew its coalition with the right-wing ANEL, but the latter walked out at the beginning of this year over the agreement that ended the naming dispute with North Macedonia.

Sunday’s election will again be primarily a battle between Syriza and New Democracy. Unless the opinion polls are badly wrong – which has happened before – New Democracy has a substantial lead. Politico’s most recent projection gives it 38.7%, about ten points ahead of Syriza and probably enough for a very narrow majority.

Not surprisingly, that’s a very similar margin to the European election, when New Democracy had 33.1%, Syriza 23.8% and the centre-left alliance Movement for Change managed 7.7%.

So New Democracy leader Kyriakos Mitsotakis is set to be Greece’s new prime minister. He is said to be a moderate, but there is no doubt that his party has shifted to the right since it was last in government, particularly with its shameless opposition to the North Macedonia deal.

Since Syriza has not in fact pursued irresponsible far-left economic policies, but on the contrary has implemented (with considerable success) the austerity program demanded by Greece’s creditors, New Democracy has had to find other lines of attack. Like many other centre-right parties it has drifted into nationalism and xenophobia.

If Mitsotakis falls short of the 150-seat mark, the other parties may come into play – and even if he doesn’t, some of them may well be important for the future. Movement for Change looks like scoring a respectable tally in the high single figures, but a long way short of the 40%+ that its predecessor, PASOK, used to get in the glory days before the financial crisis hit.

The extremes of right and left, Golden Dawn and the Greek Communist Party, are still there, each polling around 5%, but neither is likely to play a role. Instead there are what have to be described as moderate far-right and far-left parties, Greek Solution and MeRA25 respectively – the former seems to have replaced ANEL, while the latter is led by Yanis Varoufakis, who achieved fame as Syriza’s finance minister during its first term in office.

That’s a total of seven parties that look like crossing the threshold; the liberal Union of Centrists, which just scraped in last time with 3.4%, may possibly make it eight.

Certainly no-one would present Greece as a model of health for the centre-left. But its collapse is to some extent illusory, since Syriza in office has behaved for the most part like a typical centre-left party, with no shortage of dissident voices further to its left.

It will be interesting to see how well Syriza and Movement for Change can co-operate in opposition. But equally critical to their joint or separate future will be how well New Democracy deals with the challenges of government, and whether Mitsotakis can keep his party away from the shoals of the Trumpist right.

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