By Daphne Halikiopoulou (University of Reading)

Last Sunday’s Greek elections made international headlines as the ‘good news story in Europe’, generating much interest in a so-called ‘end of populism’. The most discussed outcome of this election is the victory of the centre-right New Democracy party with 39.85 of the vote, which translated into a comfortable majority of 158 seats in a parliament of 300. Greece’s new Prime Minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, a member of a long-standing political family is much the opposite of Alexis Tsipras: highly educated, centrist, a technocrat. His centrist policies, which pledge to focus on economic growth, foreign investment and privatisation, as well as the inclusion of technocrats in his new government, allude to sensible mainstream politics, in stark contrast to SYRIZA’s radical pledges to end austerity at all costs.

Another much discussed outcome of the election has been the inability of the neo-nazi Golden Dawn to make it into parliament. Gaining 2.93 per cent of the vote, the party fell short of the 3% threshold that guarantees parliament entry. For many commentators this again is another dimension of a similar outcome: the end of populism as normal politics is restored, and Greek voters are opting for mainstream, more sensible alternatives.

While optimism is much needed in a country that has suffered the severity of the economic crisis and its discontent for years, the results must also be treated with caution. Some of the less discussed elements of the election point to the significant structural constraints the Greek government faces and the very fine line upon which its success treads on.

First, the low turnout: only 57.9% of the registered Greek electorate turned up to vote. This is a very low figure for a country like Greece, whose strict compulsory voting rules until recently have helped shape a highly politicised electorate. Traditionally Greece has enjoyed some of the highest levels of voting turnout in Europe. The recent result reveals much potential electoral volatility, as high levels of discontent still exist among voters. If the government fails to deliver- and the structural constraints it faces are huge- then public opinion might turn again to anti-systemic forces.

Low turnout is linked to the little choice available, a by-product of the two party system and the prevalence of the left-right cleavage, which dominated these elections. Small parties occupying the middle ground collapsed- a notable example being POTAMI- leaving many centrists disenfranchised. New Democracy did manage to attract a broad range of voters, from centrist liberals to those on the hard right of the spectrum (who may have opted for GD or the Independent Greeks (ANEL) previously). But for others, more sceptical of New Democracy’s right-wing politicians, but reluctant to support the left, the choice was limited.

It doesn’t help that Greece’s progressive space remains divided. The Movement for Change (KINAL) gained 8.1%, indicating that it did not manage to attract many former PASOK voters who stuck with SYRIZA. With its many factions often in disagreement and still in search of a defining party-ideological identity, KINAL failed to mark an electoral breakthrough.

In fact SYRIZA proved particularly resilient, gaining 31.5 per cent of the popular vote. This figure is relatively high considering the erosion a party in power faces after 4 years of governance, especially within the context of severe economic crisis. SYRIZA was held responsible for the devastating fires that destroyed the seashore suburb of MATI and killed over 100 people in July 2018. It was criticised for passing the Prespes agreement – a deal that finally solved the long-standing ‘Macedonian’ question, despite massive nationalist demonstrations and opposition from almost all other parties in the parliament (with the notable exception of POTAMI that paid a dear price for supporting Tsipras’ deal). Despite this, it managed to retain a secure voting base consisting of those who supported this agreement and believed the party needed a second term to push through its agenda.

Some of the small parties that did enter parliament are populist. For example, while the GD didn’t make it, the Greek Solution did with 3.7% and 10 seats- a party whose leader has claimed to have in his possession letters by Jesus Christ. Varoufakis’ MeRA25 also entered parliament with 3.44% and 9 seats.

Another issue that deserves attention is that of diversity- or lack thereof. Greece’s newly formed government consists of 51 members. Only 5 are women. In a recent BBC interview, the Greek PM defended this, arguing there were not enough women interested in politics. This is very concerning, and not just a question of quotas. It raises broader issues of gender equality in the country, as it exposes the deeply rooted constraints facing Greek women in the labour force. Whether this requires developing better maternity leave regulations, equal pay and other institutions that empower women, or addressing a male-dominated political culture that sees women’s role ‘in the home’, the government must present its plan for gender equality.

Another problem is the lack of reflection on key issues that are generating new cleavages in the rest of Europe, such as artificial intelligence, which is displacing jobs, and climate change, with it’s severe social, economic and political implications. Just a few days after the election of New democracy in government a freak summer storm killed 7 people in the popular beach resort of Chalkidiki. The absence of a credible Green movement, both in terms of parliamentary representation but also more broadly as a political force in Greece is notable and, again, places pressure on the new government to develop viable and credible policies on climate change. This is not an easy endeavour, as the political costs from the potential losers of these processes could prove detrimental- as we know from other European examples, the losers of these processes may easily vote populist.

A lesson to be learned from past Greek elections is that it is easy to make big promises while in opposition, but parties in power face significant constraints that must be addressed. These constraints are related both to Greece’s deeply embedded clientelistic system that permeates all social, economic and political life; as well as its enormous public sector that both the lenders and Mitsotakis’ New Democracy government have pledged to shrink. And while this may be a necessary measure, its implementation poses a difficult a catch-22, given the significant tensions between economic and political incentives. Boosting growth is desperately needed, but in the short term generating revenues to fund welfare provision, public services and infrastructure, while not alienating the middle class that depends on them is the biggest riddle Greek government have had to face, and have been largely unable to solve. Greece’s ageing population- the highest in Europe- and high levels of youth unemployment do not help.

SYRIZA was more populist as a party of opposition than a party in power. Soon after its election in 2015, the party’s anti-EU and anti-memorandum rhetoric, which reached a peak during the July 2015 referendum, waned in favour of Realpolitik and the realisation that in order to address the crisis Greek governments must appease their lenders and the EU. Simply put, it is easy to make promises, but hard to keep them. In the case of SYRIZA, this was a positive as it meant a reversal of the radical populist pledges that could have resulted in euro and/or EU exit. In the case of New Democracy, however, not keeping its promises could prove detrimental, with significant costs for both the party and the country as a whole. All in all, last Sunday elections were both a sign of hope, as New Democracy’s victory signals a return to normality, but also caution, as this normality entails significant structural constraints.

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