The recent election in Greece and the victory of Nea Dimokratia has strengthened Conservatives in Europe. The opposition in Greece is in a dire situation. They won't be able to put pressure on the new government, as they are too weak.
Transcript of Twitter Space with Jan Philipp Albrecht, Vula Tsetsi, and Michalis Goudis from June 27th, 2023.
Jan Philipp Albrecht: Today we’re discussing the elections in Greece. Our speaker is Vula Tsetsi, the General Secretary of the European Greens Group in the European Parliament. Also joining us is Michalis Goudis, a journalist and head of the Böll Foundation office in Thessaloniki.
The subject of our conversation is the elections that took place on Sunday, the 25th of June 2023 – and which were a repetition of sorts of the elections of May 2023. Michalis, can you tell us briefly why these elections took place – despite the fact that Nea Dimokratia, the party of Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, had won the May elections convincingly?
Right, this is an obvious question and something I asked myself after the first elections. There are two reasons for this. The first is the clearly stated goal of Nea Dimokratia to govern with an absolute majority, that is, independent of any coalition partner, and thus to continue with their reforms. Add to that that none of the progressive political parties were willing to form a coalition government with Nea Dimokratia. The second reason is that under the system of simple proportional representation, which was in place for the May elections, an absolute majority was impossible for Nea Dimokratia – and that despite the fact that they won a historic victory, winning over 40% of the vote, while second-placed Syriza won just 20%.
The electoral system used in the May elections was new and nothing like it had been done for decades. Therefore, it was impossible to form a government without forming a coalition and, since a coalition was not an option, a second election became necessary. The outcome of this second election is very similar to that of the first, at least as far as the front-runners are concerned, however, if you look at the smaller parties the results are indeed alarming.
Jan Philipp Albrecht:
About this we will talk some more later. First, however, I would like to know from you, Michalis, what do you make of Sunday’s election results – and what will a new Greek government look like?
The new government has already been formed and the first cabinet meeting will actually take place tomorrow. Nea Dimokratia was prepared because, after what happened in the May elections, nobody expected any surprises this time around. So the programs and the people were all in place and ready to go. The one new element is the total dominance of Nea Dimokratia. This is the first time that one party dominates Greece’s political landscape. In modern times, since 1974, Greece has always had a bipolar political system with at least two very strong parties competing for power.
The second thing one has to keep in mind is the comeback of the extreme right. In the most recent elections three parties of the extreme right have won a combined 12% of the vote – and that despite the attempt to ban the participation of any parties linked to the Golden Dawn extremists.
In the end, the effort to ban them failed, and Ilias Kasidiaris, who is in prison, managed to mobilise almost 241,000 votes for the so-called “Spartans”, a party of the extreme right. Today, three parties of the extreme right are in parliament, parties that are either populists spreading conspiracy theories, such as “Greek Solution” (Ellinikí Lýsi), or the Democratic Patriotic Movement – Victory (Dimokratikó Patriotikó Kínima – Níki), a party propagating so-called traditional values such as nation and religion (and that was supported by people within the Orthodox Church) and, finally, the “Spartans” that are some kind of extension of the Golden Dawn party.
The final point to remember is that now we are faced with a very messy parliament – a parliament with a plethora of positions that will not allow for serious debate or any consensus that goes beyond the one-party agenda. Another first is that the official opposition, that is, the major opposition party Syriza, has fewer than 50 MPs, which is important, because thus they’ll be unable to carry out basic parliamentary functions. For example, they cannot call for a vote of no confidence against the government because, for this, 50 MPs are necessary, nor can they make a proposal to revise the constitution, as again 50 MPs are the prerequisite. And even if they were to work with other opposition parties, they’ll be unable to force the government to establish a committee of enquiry, as this requires 120 votes.
Jan Philipp Albrecht:
At this point let me welcome, once again, Vula Tsetsi to our conversation. Vula, you are the Secretary General of the Green Group in the European Parliament. So what are your views on the situation in Greece after this election – and also, what do you think will be the fallout on the European stage?
For Greece, I think, this is the beginning of a dark period. Kyriakos Mitsotakis has managed to win this majority because he succeeded in convincing people that he will accomplish stability and security regarding the economy, foreign policy and Greece’s borders … and we know what that means when it comes to the issue of migration.
At the same time, some freedoms and fundamental rights have been sacrificed – and we’ve all heard about the scandals this government has faced over the last months and years, especially when it comes to the way migrants are being treated. Add to this the increasing monopolisation of the media, a voter turnout of only 52% and the rise of the extreme right – all of this is very concerning.
Even more concerning is the fact that many young people voted for the extreme right – among those aged between 18 and 34 the number is around 20%. This is very scary because these are the future voters and we absolutely need to act and show them that the extreme right is not the solution.
This, of course, is part of the strategy of Manfred Weber, the President of the European People's Party (EPP) in the European Parliament, who is trying to form more and more alliances between different conservative parties but also with parties of the extreme right. We already witnessed this in Italy with Giorgia Meloni, the leader of the European Conservatives and Reformists Party. In this case, the European conservatives have taken a dangerous approach and they are flirting with the extreme right and trying to rearrange the political landscape.
We will have to monitor very closely the elections due in Spain next month – because the Spanish Christian Democrats seem to be willing to govern with Vox. Vox is not just a party of the extreme right, it is attacking fundamental rights such as the rule of law, women's rights, the right to abortion and LGBTQ rights.
Jan Philipp Albrecht:
How do you think will Greece’s relationship with the European Union develop? Is the Greek government going to make changes? And how do you think will the European Commission react to the new government?
I think the developments in Greece will reinforce current narratives of the conservatives and the right wing such as: We need more security, greater stability, less migration and stronger external borders.
Also important are the recent elections in Turkey and the more general geopolitical situation. Because of these factors, Greece has become extremely relevant, as the region needs a certain degree of, let's call it “stability” - even if it is not what we view as stability. Also, we have to remember that the US government is supporting this line because they feel the need to have an interlocutor in the region.
My opinion is that we have to act jointly with other progressives, with Social Democrats, liberals and the left, and that we need to put more pressure on the European Commission and demand that it monitors developments in Greece – especially regarding fundamental rights and the rule of law … and that is not a mean task! In Greece, many politicians and journalists have been spied on, yet Mitsotakis didn't have to pay a price for that – which is amazing. Many people in Greece seem too have shrugged off this scandal. Then there’s the terrible shipwreck in the Mediterranean with so many migrants losing their lives … and again the EU, the European Commission and its institutions seem to be silent on that.
We, as a group in the European Parliament, are considering whether, in a joint effort with other groups, we shall demand an official enquiry into what happened on that fateful 14th of June 2023. When it comes to migration, the European Commission has to be much more ambitious and we need European search and rescue missions. We certainly welcome that, in this specific case, Frontex has finally launched an investigation.
I’m not sure whether the new Greek government will be more centrist or whether it will make advances towards the extreme right. We’ll have to monitor that closely – and so does the European Parliament and also Ursula von der Leyen herself, especially because there are rumours that she will be running for a second term in office.
Jan Philipp Albrecht:
Michalis, how do you view the situation for the opposition in Greece right now? Will it be able to reposition itself? And what is the role of green organisations and the Green Party?
Those are two distinct issues. The role of main opposition party will likely change hands – because Syriza seems to be in free-fall and some within the party now even attack Alexis Tsipras; after all he’s lost six elections in a row … and more elections are coming up in Greece: In October local and regional elections will be held. The Social Democrats of PASOK have seen a bit of a resurgence, yet not to the extent that one would have expected. So it’s unlikely that PASOK will be able to develop into a strong opposition party and a force for democratisation. The Greek Green political parties are in a sad state – they are very weak indeed. Most of those groups did run as a coalition of parties and movements under the moniker “Green and Purple” (Prasino+Mov) and as such they only won something like 0.7 to 1% of the vote, which is equivalent to about 37,000 votes.
I think the Greens missed an opportunity, especially as they had intended to run in the May elections but they failed to complete their registration in time and were disqualified, which hurt their image. In both the May and June elections many voters made their decision at the very last minute and a lot of people were undecided. Thus, better preparation would likely have won the Greens more votes. Also, many young people, 17- and 18-year olds voted for the first time, and so it really is a missed opportunity. The greatest hurdle for the Greek Greens still is that they are viewed as a one-issue party, that is, a party active on the environment and that they have nothing to say on the economy or on unemployment.
In an opinion poll we had run along with the polling company Kapa Research quite a few people say that they may vote for a Green Party in local or regional elections, yet less so in European elections, and in national elections it is only 2% who state they might consider casting their vote for the Greens. So the Green Party is facing an uphill struggle.
However, the upcoming local and regional elections of October 2023 present an opportunity for the Greens to come up with tangible policy proposals and to present positive examples regarding actual issues at hand.
Jan Philipp Albrecht:
What will be on the new government’s agenda? Are there issues where the opposition may be able to make a point?
Michalis Goudis: The government just outlined its main reform efforts. At the top of the agenda are health care reform, a reform of the judiciary and an overhaul of the way civil servants are hired and promoted. Regarding foreign policy, the relationship to Turkey is on the top of the agenda and a meeting between President Erdogan and Prime Minister Mitsotakis is supposed to take place during the upcoming NATO summit. Green and progressive activists have a number of issues on which to make their mark – for example, energy policy and energy transition. There had been some plans to reform this area in the past but due to the energy crisis they were mostly shelved and, wherever they were implemented, this happened in a very top-down manner, which made many people angry or afraid.
What is needed is better regulation of the energy markets. Greece is the only EU member state that is still trading 100% of its energy in the spot market and Greece has among the highest rates of energy poverty in the EU. A related issue is the urban-rural divide. The population of most Greek regions is shrinking according to the latest census, and everything in Greece is very centralised, meaning, everything is focussed around Athens. This makes it very challenging to improve living conditions even in smaller urban centres, never mind the countryside. The inequalities are huge and this includes the management of natural resources as well as the access to services.
The tragic Tempi train crash has highlighted that the Greek railways are in a very sad state – plus major parts of the country, especially in the north and east, don’t have any train service at all. Then there’s youth unemployment: Here, Greece tops the EU rankings and brain drain remains an issue, although it has declined somewhat compared to the previous decade. Finally, there’s the high cost of living and the lack of affordable housing. All of the above offer the Greek Greens plenty of opportunity to outline how things could be done in a better way.
Jan Philipp Albrecht:
Here, I’d like to involve Vula again. Vula, how do you look at the issues Michalis mentioned – and what other possible issues should the Greens address from a European angle? Today this may be especially challenging with the conservative parties doubling down on security. So what can and what should be done in the run-up to next year’s European elections?
Right. But first I’d like to say something about the Greek Greens and their poor results. To be quite frank, the biggest problem we face within the Greek Green movement are divisions and personal agendas. We Greens need to act in concert, otherwise we’ll be unable to make our voice heard. The result of the recent elections means that we’re probably the only country in the EU without a real Green Party. The green structures in Greece are very weak – and this is something that cannot be mended in Brussels, nor by the European Green Party. We’ve tried a lot … but what is really needed are new people, new dynamics, new ideas and a new leadership. The Greens have many good policy proposals for Greece, so that’s certainly not the issue.
Returning to your question, a major issue Greece is facing are bad loans. What I means is that people took out loans and couldn’t repay and so the banks are trying to impound their houses. In Greece thousands of people are faced with this and are at risk of losing everything. This issue will be a stress test for the government, as it will have to make sure that the banks don’t profit twice – first from the recovery funds they received during the financial crisis, and, second, from impounding debtor’s property.
Now, from a Green point-of-view, I believe, it is crucial that we closely watch ecological issues in Greece, for example oil drilling in the Mediterranean, which presents a huge problem, and the same is true regarding the lack of land management and the promotion of sustainable transport and sustainable tourism. It will be extremely important that we put pressure to the European Commission to monitor such issues very closely. One of the issues with monitoring – and this is something the next Commission needs to tackle – is to get city councils and regional authorities more involved in the decision making because there is a lot of money available in recovery funds, yet often these funds will go to the national governments. Here, it would be much better to partner with local authorities, with stakeholders and civil society. We, in the European Parliament, will have to make sure that regional and local authorities get much more involved in sustainable projects – in projects that affect their daily lives, and that such funds don’t go to big business and the national government and their cronies.
Also, we’ll have to follow the debate about the Stability and Growth Pact very closely because, over the years, this has been a major headache. People in Greece, Spain, Portugal, whenever they hear “Stability and Growth Pact” they know very well what this means – austerity measures. And that is something they can do very well without … The Growth and Stability Pact needs to be revised in such a way that we protect not only our economies but also our health systems and, on top of that, work towards a just energy transition.
Jan Philipp Albrecht:
Thank you very much, Vula, and thank you Michalis!
To sum up I’d like to say that, after the most recent elections in Greece and the landslide victory of Nea Dimokratia the conservative forces in Europe seem to be on the up – and not only that, they seem to be reaching out towards the right-wing populists. For the opposition in Greece the situation is dramatic. It is so weak, it will be unable to put pressure on the new government – and that despite the fact that there are such stark grievances as the spying on opposition politicians and journalists or the shipwreck of refugees with the possible involvement of the maritime authorities.
One major question is the issue of migration, which looms large in European politics and especially for European conservatives, as they are the ones using this to promote their security narrative. While the Greek opposition has fallen on hard times, there’s also some reason for hope, as there are many issues to which the new Greek government doesn’t have the answers. It is to be hoped that the Greek Greens will be able to close ranks and find a unified voice.
It’s only a year until the next European elections. This is obviously an important issue which we will be following closely in the months to come. I hope that the comments by Michalis Goudis, the head of our Thessaloniki office and by Vula Tsetsi, Secretary General of the European Parliament's Green Group, helped you better understand the situation and the challenges ahead.