The general elections in Greece came to a close on July 7. The outcome of the poll has been described as a landslide victory for the centre of right New Democracy party – and a crushing defeat for the governing leftist Syriza party. Dr Ronald Meinardus, who until recently has held the position of Regional Director South Asia for the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom (FNF) in New Delhi, speaks to Hardnews in an email interview.
Dr Meinardus has also served as the Director of the Greek Service of the Radio Deutsche Welle (DW) and his PhD was on Greek and Turkish relations during the Hellenic Republic (1967-1982) and is currently in Greece.
Good afternoon, Dr. Meinardus. Syriza lost. The Left lost. Was it due to the austerity measures? Did the Greek Left fail?
Quite obviously Syriza and their charismatic young leader Alexis Tsipras lost these elections. This was widely anticipated and, thus, hardly came as a surprise. On the other hand, the party managed to garner 31 per cent of the popular vote. Considering the very dismal result for Syriza in the elections for the European Parliament just a few weeks earlier, when Tsipras and his followers fell to a low of 23 per cent, the result in the parliamentary elections of early July may be termed very respectable. For me, and many others, this relatively strong showing has been one of the surprises of this contest. The day the results came out, I tweeted that for me, Syriza’s strong showing was one of three surprises. The other two were the defeat of the Neo-Nazi party Golden Dawn, which was not returned to parliament and the success of Yanis Varoufakis and his Mera25 Party.
Before we get to Varoufakis, let’s look at the reasons for the defeat of the left in Greece. Was it due to the pressure of Angela Merkel and the Western capitalist model?
We need to look at these issues one by one. First, the left – if you wish to group the various left and left from centre parties into one category – continue to enjoy sizeable support. New Democracy (ND), the right of centre government party, won close to 40 per cent of the popular vote. This percentage has secured the new Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis a comfortable majority of 158 seats in the 300 seat chamber. On the other side, and to answer your question, the accumulated vote share of Syriza, plus the left of centre KINAL party, plus the communist party and finally Varoufakis’ group adds up to close to 50 per cent of the popular vote. In short, very many people in Greece continue to support left or leftist views.
That a party can rule with a clear parliamentary majority without the support of a majority of the popular vote is due to the Greek electoral system which gives a bonus to the strongest party. In a way, this reminds me of India, where the BJP is also far away from a popular majority but still almighty in parliament – and consequently in government. Another parallel that comes to my mind would be the lack of unity among the parties on the left of New Democracy. It is politically inconceivable that they join hands to form an alternative to the right-from-centre party in government.
The main points of contention in the elections were the economy and the various ways to get the country back on her feet, and the many unemployed back to work
Of course, Syriza paid a political prize for implementing the austerity measures agreed upon with the European institutions. That it has been Angela Merkel who stands behind all this, is one of the many myths of the populists in Greece and other countries. It might sound awkward, but in the end Tsipras and Merkel got along very well. One main reason, why Tsipras lost domestic support was because some of the austerity measures disproportionately hit the middle class – and these people reacted by punishing the government at the polls. I find this a perfectly normal process in a democratic country.
What about the refugee crisis that has affected electoral politics in many European countries. Has that accelerated the crisis in Greece?
Surprisingly, the refugee crisis and – more importantly – the Macedonian issue, where Tsipras had negotiated a landmark agreement with the government of the neighbouring country which has for all practical purposes defused a decades-old international crisis, was not high on the agenda of the election campaigns. The main points of contention in the elections were the economy and the various ways to get the country back on her feet, and the many unemployed back to work. New Democracy stands for a pro-market approach. After seeing that the policies of Syriza which relied heavily on government interventions failed to attract the needed foreign investments, many Greeks are now ready to give Mitsotakis a chance.
The future will show to what extent Kyriakos Mitsotakis has the space to implement liberal policies. He was off to a very bad start when he announced a cabinet of 51 members with only 5 women. This, many Greeks find, is not acceptable in the times we live in. And I agree.
So this is the main reason for the victory of the conservatives in Greece – their economic program? Are they extreme right-wing? Will they follow the trend of right-wing assertion as in Poland and Hungry?
As I said, a pro-market economic program and the promise to reduce taxes stood at the centre of the party’s campaign. New Democracy (ND) is a traditional party with roots that reach far back in history. It was founded under the present name in 1974, the year Greece threw off a seven years military dictatorship. Since then, the party has been in power more than once. ND is not an extreme right party but has included in the ranks politicians who hail from the extreme right. This strategy of reaching out is one explanation for the political marginalization of the Neo-Nazi party. Kyriakos Mitsotakis himself is all but a right-wing extremist. I could easily call him a liberal, some have even termed him a progressive liberal. But, in the end, he is the head of a big party with different wings – and the right-wingers and deeply conservatives play a formidable role. The future will show to what extent Kyriakos Mitsotakis has the space to implement liberal policies. He was off to a very bad start when he announced a cabinet of 51 members with only 5 women. This, many Greeks find, is not acceptable in the times we live in. And I agree.
Let me get back to the Left, led by Alexis Tsipras of Syriza, has he forgotten its original ideals? What led to its rise and what led to its fall?
As I mentioned, the fall is not bottomless. As the results came out, the party was actually quite happy with the vote share. In what I found a powerful programmatic speech, Tsipras announced that his priority would now be to rebuild the party. The main victims of this relative success of Syriza are the traditional Panhellenic Socialist Movement (PA.SO.K) which for long years was a dominant force in Greek politics and continues to be widely associated with former Prime Minister Andreas Papandreou. For all practical purposes, Syriza has destroyed the hope of that party to become the dominant force of Greece’s centre-left. Political observers here agree that Syriza will sooner or later assume this role – with the perspective of returning to power as the big left of centre party in the future. In the context of the general crisis of social democratic parties in Europe, this I find an interesting – and rather singular – development.
What is your opinion of Yanis Varoufakis winning 9 seats in the latest polls? Do you think it is a trend-setter or will he always be a marginal player?
The political revival of Yanis Varoufakis for me was one of the special surprises of this election. I would not call this result a trendsetter, more an indication of the popularity of this extraordinary politician. While I do not agree with him in most issues (and am aware that many Greeks despise him as they make him responsible for the deepening of the crisis during his tenure as Finance Minister), Varoufakis continues to be popular with a group of Greek voters. He is a nay-sayer, a rejectionist of the European integration of the Greek economy, and this in a more radical manner than others. Many Greeks are sick-and-tired with the austerity measures agreed upon with the European creditors, and some – and these are the supporters of Varoufakis – believe that Greece can get along without them. I have my doubts about whether this is a viable option. But some Greeks see this differently – and they like Varoufakis.
He is greatly respected as a classic and brilliant Marxist intellectual. Do you think the young follow him in Greece? Do you think the people understand his language and theories which are often original and non-conformist?
The success of his publications shows that he has a following also outside of Greece. From published exit polls, Varoufakis’ vote share among the youth is 5.7 per cent, which is 2 per cent more than the general average. Also regarding Syriza’s vote, the share of young voters is higher than the overall number. I am not sure whether this has to do with the language. My understanding is that Greece’s young generation has been hit by the crisis more than other age groups, and is therefore open to radical, leftist, anti-establishment rhetoric. It will now be up to Kyriakos Mitsotakis to prove that he has the better, more effective policies to give these people who deserve a better future a chance in their lives. In this regard, Tsipras has been great as an orator, but he has failed to deliver many of the results he had promised. And this, in democratic countries, comes at a political cost.