Greece, Nea Dimokratia and ‘second chances’
Greece’s election of Sunday 21 May 2023 was far from the resounding acclaim for Nea Dimokratia’s policies, outlook and achievements that the party and large sections of the media have claimed, but the country’s Left is in a great deal of trouble, and has just a month to claw back an enormous deficit if it is to prevent four more years of the party’s authoritarian far-Right rule.
In a result predicted by almost nobody, and which is in some ways almost unbelievable, Nea Dimokratia won the Greek election yesterday (Sunday 21 May 2023) with more than double the vote taken by its nearest rival SYRIZA.
The (far- we will come to this) Right wing party beat its (supposedly, ditto) Left-wing rival by 40.79 per cent to 20.07 per cent.
The result is not enough for Nea Dimokratia to form a government (it has 146 seats whereas a majority requires 151), but it is a victory by a far greater margin than anyone predicted or expected.
There are a few reasons why no-one expected it:
Absolutely not one single poll predicted anything like a 20 per cent lead over SYRIZA for Nea Dimokratia. Almost every polling company had the far-Right party ahead by a minimum of four and maximum of eight points, and some international polling companies suggested that the polls were flawed not because they underestimated Nea Dimokratia’s lead, but because they believed SYRIZA was in fact equally popular, or at most 1.5 per cent behind.
The exit polls, too, were extremely misleading. While they suggested a wider lead for Nea Dimokratia than the pre-election polls, they predicted Nea Dimokratia to take 36-40 per cent (a top range very close to the actual figure, and just 2.1 per cent larger than the pre-election polls’ highest level: we will come back to this), with SYRIZA on 25-29 per cent (the lower of the two 3.5 per cent less than the pre-election polls, the upper only 0.7 below the predicted higher amount of those polls), nowhere near the 20 per cent gap which actually took place.
We will note at this point that the same polls predicted PASOK would take 9.5-12.5 per cent, KKE 6-8 per cent, Elliniki Lisi 3.5-5.5 per cent, MERA25 2.5-4.5 per cent and Plefsi, a Left-wing party which was not even included in the pre-election polls, 2.2-4.2 per cent.
In the event, Nea Dimokratia took 40.79 per cent, just above the predicted exit poll figure, SYRIZA 20 per cent, 5-9 per cent less than the exit polls suggested, and ten per cent less than the pre-election polls had predicted, PASOK took 11.45 per cent, well within the predicted range of the exit polls, and less than 1.5 per cent more than most pre-election polls stated.
KKE ended on 7.23 per cent, also well within the exit poll predictions, and largely within the predicted limits noted by the pre-election polls (though closer to the top than bottom limits). Elliniki Lisi took 4.45 per cent, similarly within the ranges predicted by both the exit and pre-election polls.
Mera25 took just 2.63 per cent, below the three percent threshold for a party to enter parliament, only slightly higher than the exit polls’ lowest predicted amount, two per cent lower than most pre-election polls suggested, and also behind the far-Right Victory party, whose main aims appear to be abolishing abortion, preventing immigration to Greece and forcing the Republic of North Macedonia to change its name (again), as well as the Left-wing Course of Freedom party on 2.89 per cent, which was founded by former parliamentarians who had broken away from SYRIZA in 2015.
So it is worth noting that with the exception of SYRIZA and MERA25 the pre-election and exit polls were reasonably accurate. Nea Dimokratia scored higher than predicted by the pre-election polls, but almost precisely as the higher-end of the exit polls had predicted.
Why the polls were so wrong about SYRIZA
Since the results were announced, some polling firms have claimed that they ‘knew’ the SYRIZA vote in particular would be lower than they had published, but had inflated it because SYRIZA complained if it published such low figures. (we should note here that SYRIZA does have a record of complaining about polling data, mostly because in both 2015 and particularly 2019 all polls predicted far worse performances than it actually achieved in the elections of those years: that is, SYRIZA believes polls predict it to get lower totals than it actually gets, because this is precisely what has always previously happened)
If this is true, it is an outrage. The polls exist solely to show the public and politicians alike the reality of the pre-election process, and if polling companies are deliberately manipulating and misrepresenting data for any reason at all, they should be prevented from ever practicing again. As much as anything else, should such polling lies affect the outcome of an election, for example by making one party believe it is doing far better than it actually is, this is a deliberate attack on and subversion of democracy.
In the event, however, this seems very unlikely to actually be the case – though quite why polling companies believe that pretending to subvert democracy is preferable to being shown to have just been wrong is an extremely important question in today’s Greece.
What in fact appears to have happened is voters’ shame. That (some) people who planned to vote Nea Dimokratia lied about it when asked, and that others who did not plan to vote for SYRIZA, or were undecided, told both pre-election and exit polling companies that they would do/had done so.
Why this should be the case is in fact deeply concerning.
Nea Dimokratia’s ‘achievements’ to date: the far-Right in government
There are many good reasons why people should not have voted for Nea Dimokratia.
Its main appealing claim (to those of its voters who are not comfortable to call themselves or be called racists or bigots) was that it had ‘improved the economy of Greece’.
There is an extent to which this is true, though with many huge codicils.
These are that in fact, the groundwork for these ‘improvements’ was laid not by the party but by SYRIZA and in fact more accurately by the EU, which forced Greece into four years of austerity from which it is still far from having recovered. Nea Dimokratia came to power after the EU’s restrictions were lifted, and used the extra freedom it had to pretend it, rather than the EU and SYRIZA had been the main player in ‘improvements’ in the economy.
And even those improvements – few of which can really be claimed by Nea Dimokratia – are less magnificent than the party suggests.
Despite a growth-rate higher than many other EU member states – which is itself to be expected in an economy so hugely reliant on tourism, which was the sector to bounce back fastest globally following the COVID pandemic – the majority of Greek people are still far poorer than they were in 2012, and many people have spent the last two years struggling to pay utility bills and rent, and buy food, as inflation has rocketed in all parts of the economy.
Nea Dimokratia, like many other Right-wing parties across Europe, blames Russia’s invasion of Ukraine for this, but that invasion took place on Thursday 24 February 2022, and in the 11 months prior to that electricity bills (which have driven every other piece of inflation in the Greek economy) rose more than 100 per cent.
This situation was made worse because the party, driven by Chicago-school policies which have failed in every state they have been attempted since 1979, divested itself of its majority shareholding of the country’s electricity production company DEI, leaving it with absolutely no control over what the company charged.
Nea Dimokratia also likes to claim that inflation in Greece is no higher than the EU average (in fact for eight of the last 12 months it was above average) but this does not explain why Greece’s electricity bills are higher than anywhere else in the EU, or why food costs are so much greater as a proportion of the average wage than elsewhere in the bloc.
It also does not like to mention that Greece has the highest debt and highest debt to GDP ratio of all EU member states, and remains the second poorest state in the bloc, behind only Bulgaria.
In short, there have been some improvements, though most of them have little to do with its policies and a great deal to do with the solid foundations left by SYRIZA and really the EU (though at extreme cost), but they have not made most people better-off, and in many cases the opposite is true.
Which leads to the question, who or what is a country’s economy for, if not the people of the country?
And apart from the economy and its dubious successes there, Nea Dimokratia has been a catastrophe for Greece.
In its four years in charge, Nea Dimokratia has basically shredded the rule of law.
In February 2021, after three months of strict lockdown to ‘combat COVID’, the party including prime minister Kiriakos Mitsotakis held a dinner in Ikaria which broke all of its own rules on socialising, meeting for events and even wearing masks (in December 2020, Mitsotakis had broken these laws with his wife when they were photographed mountain biking and flouting social distancing rules, as well as not wearing masks).
These were laws the party had set itself, and which it told police to enforce strongly, but which it broke openly and wilfully, on more than one occasion.
Nor was this disdain for the law – and behaviour as though it did not apply to them – restricted to the pandemic response.
For more than three years, in direct contravention of the law and the Greek constitution, Greek citizens including journalists, civilians, and politicians – including even in Nea Dimokratia itself – were spied on by the Greek intelligence service EYP, which is under the direct command of the Prime Minister's office. Mitsotakis remains in office, and he and his party have attacked the EU for even daring to investigate.
The party has also openly abused the country’s courts and legal system by deliberately prejudicing trials, misleading parliament and making absurd and malicious legal attacks on demonstrators and NGOs.
It has carried out tens of thousands of vicious pushbacks, which are illegal in themselves, but almost all of which included the stripping of people's possessions and their beating, many included torture and sexual assault and some resulted in death.
Even those who are registered as arrivals in Greece are treated as less than human, locked in concentration camps on the Greek islands (and at Fylakia) surrounded by barbed wire, surveilled by remote cameras and drones, and with many deprived of food, or in walled ghettoes on the mainland under similar conditions.
And its contempt for and assault on the rule of law are far from the only catastrophes it has delivered upon Greece.
It has 'overseen' the absolute worst media freedom performance in Europe, and Greece now ranks 107th in the world for media freedom, and it has spent billions on armaments and armed police: Nea Dimokratia has benefitted greatly for coming to power after the EU-enforced austerity had begun to lift, but what it has used the country’s cash for is not to benefit its people, but to pose on the world stage with weapons while using its police force as an armed enforcer of its beliefs and destroyer of opposing viewpoints.
None of these policies, we must note, are those of the ‘centre-Right’. Bolstering and using the police to smash opposition, spending vast sums on the military, spying on its population and beating, raping and killing people on its borders to prevent foreign people from entering are all far-Right measures, and should be called for what they are.
Nea Dimokratia, if it ever were a centre-Right party, is not in its post 2019 (and arguably post 2015) iteration. It is a party of militaristic racists and bigots and it is a stain on the history of Greece.
We must also note that it caused the worst rail disaster in Greece's history, in which 57 people were killed on Tuesday 28 February 2023.
Of course, this could have happened to 'anyone', but it didn't, and Nea Dimokratia had been handed millions of euros to improve the system and had spent none of it on required safety improvements.
And Kiriakos Mitsotakis called the 57 dead people – most of them students returning home from a bank holiday – ‘sacrifices to make the rail system safer'.
This all goes some way to explain the shame of voters who went to vote for them anyway, but it does little – except in the case of racists and bigots – to explain why they did so.
Nea Dimokratia’s story – and the media support it receives
There are several reasons for this.
The first is the deeply sorry state of Greek media. As we mentioned above the country is ranked 108th in global terms for freedom of the media, and soon after the Ikaria meal was revealed to have been held, it emerged that the government had sent a note to all newspapers and broadcasters telling them not to report it, and… they didn’t.
By contrast, in the UK, a country where the media has a strong bias in favour of the Conservative Party, when the party’s advisor and widely-acknowledged ‘political guide’ Dominic Cummings drove during the pandemic (and probably with COVID) several hundred miles to visit family members and also a local tourist attraction, the Sun, one of the most outspoken backers of the party, had the story on its front page. Had such a note been sent in the UK, it would have remained on its front page for several weeks.
And this is not solely because the party threatens and uses legal and financial penalties against media which does not do what it says. The country’s media owners strongly support the party, and use their power over their staff to dictate what they report, and how they report it.
For example, when the organisation Rapporteurs Sans Frontieres ranked Greece 108th in the world for media freedom in 2022 (it rose one place in the last 12 months not because its media freedom rating improved – it fell – but because Chad, which had been ahead of it, fell further, dropping below it to 108th) almost no Greek media even reported it, and far more reported the party’s dismissal of it as a ‘Leftist NGO’, and gave its politicians space to lie to the public about media freedom in Greece.
It has reported verbatim and as truth statements from Migration Minister Notis Mitarachis which have since been proven to be false, or which it was clear he could not possibly have known (or still knows) whether they were true or not. It has failed even to ask questions when Mitsotakis has denied carrying out pushbacks in the Aegean Sea.
And in the wake of the Tempi rail catastrophe, it took just two days for large sections of the media to begin to discuss ‘how Nea Dimokratia recovers’.
The sad fact is, a lot of people do not know the extent of Nea Dimokratia’s awful behaviour because the media just does not report it, and what is known is excused by a media which acts like its PR team rather than as news reporters. This is not quite enough to absolutely convince the public that Nea Dimokratia is wonderful, hence the shame in voting for them, but it does enough to make them believe they are somehow ‘under attack’ when Nea Dimokratia is criticised.
This same level of ‘support’ has been extended to the party throughout the election campaign, during which Nea Dimokratia has received almost non-stop coverage, all of it positive, while the other parties have had a tiny fraction, almost all of it negative.
We should also mention here that of course, and understandably, the Greek economic crash still hangs very heavily over Greek hearts and minds, and Nea Dimokratia’s claims of ‘fixing’ the economy, even though people are suffering as much as they ever have, are simply what they want to hear.
The media does not report the realities of people’s daily lives in Greece anywhere near as much as they do the claims about those lives made by Kiriakos Mitsotakis and his party, and what it does report is something that has gone virtually unmentioned in discussions about Greek politics and media here.
Because Nea Dimokratia really is the ‘party of government’ in Greece since the country’s military junta fell in 1974. It has been in power – individually or in coalition - longer than any other party, and indeed more than all other parties combined.
It, more than any other party, was responsible for the catastrophe that struck Greece in 2012. Its policies and behaviour (we should note that PASOK also helped) caused the crisis from which Greece still has not yet recovered.
And Mitsotakis is not only the scion of that party’s ‘greatest’ (in at least one sense of that term) family, his father and a great uncle were Prime Ministers of Greece, and his great-great uncle was the country’s most famous and celebrated prime minister and indeed politician in all its history, Eleftherios Venizelos. Even today, Mitsotakis’ sister is an MP, and his nephew is mayor of Athens, by far the biggest city in the country
That is, Nea Dimokratia was the major cause of Greece’s collapse, and Mitsotakis is the latest iteration of the family which oversaw and led the country to it.
They and he are the political establishment, and yet the media has allowed him to claim to be the alternative to that establishment while in a number of ways claiming that SYRIZA was somehow to blame for Greek people’s hardships, even as it was fighting the EU to end them.
Nor has this been confined to current members of the latter party. Before his entry to politics, Yannis Varoufakis was regarded as one of Greece’s most intelligent economic theorists and speakers. Since becoming a politician he has been portrayed as a narcissist (an odd criticism to make of a politician: one is supposed to vote for them because one agrees with them or believes they are bright enough to be in parliament, not because one would like to have dinner with them) and nothing else.
Even if one disagrees with his opinion – and that is absolutely fine – the idea that he has somehow become less knowledgeable than he was, let alone less knowledgeable than a parliament containing some of the least talented people ever gathered in a legislative house anywhere on Earth, is ludicrous.
And yet, that is the opinion one hears from the media, and – and this is vital – the public simply does not get access to any dissenting voices.
Nea Dimokratia is painted as the ‘new idea’ and the ‘solution’ to the problems it and its leader’s family literally caused, while SYRIZA and its former members are castigated for causing things that happened when they had zero power, and through misrepresentation of its reaction to them.
But there are other reasons.
The trouble with SYRIZA
The first of these is that, despite everything we have laid out above, SYRIZA fought one of the worst campaigns in electoral history. It would have been almost impossible for it to have actually succeeded in the circumstances in which it has been placed, but it is supposed to represent the country’s Left, which is an active and passionate part of its society.
Instead, it refused to set out any position which would have offended Greece’s (far-)Right, arguing that it would be ‘as tough’ against ‘migrants’ as Nea Dimokratia, refusing to be pictured with people not born in Greece, never once setting out why it stood for the policies it did, and claiming it stood for the illegal wall the latter party wishes to use to illegally prevent people entering Greece to apply for asylum.
No-one in SYRIZA is a particularly gifted speaker, and nor are any of the party especially talented politicians. But this was a campaign of cowardice, in which SYRIZA attempted to present itself as both centrist and to the Right of ND and that simply is not what any of its backers or potential backers actually wanted.
Which is particularly important because…
Nea Dimokratia did not ‘bring Greece with it’
In fact, despite claims made by national and international media, Nea Dimokratia did not do especially well in this election. It increased its share of the vote by just 0.94 per cent, despite the turnout increasing 3.16 per cent: two in every three voters inspired to vote this time, who had not done so in 2019, voted against Nea Dimokratia.
And if one considers that just 60 per cent of people entitled and registered to vote in Greece actually did so, and ND took just 40 per cent of that total, not only did three in every five people who voted, vote for someone else, but less than one in four people – 24 per cent – who could have voted, voted for Nea Dimokratia.
One example of this in practice is Kostas Karamanlis. He was transport minister at the time of the Tempi catastrophe, and resigned having for four years refused to spend money on vital rail safety equipment and technology upgrades.
By the time of his resignation, Greece was eight years behind schedule on bringing its rail infrastructure to the level of safety considered the minimum acceptable by the EU.
Despite public outrage, he ran and won a seat in Serres, North Greece.
In a genuinely sickening speech for a man who at best caused 57 people to die by failing to do his job, he said:
‘I cannot hide my deep emotion for the resounding response given by the people of Serres to the relentless personal attacks I was subjected to.’
But the truth is this:
In Serres, there are 217,984 registered voters. Of those, just 111,079 voted. Just under 51 per cent. Of those, 50,965 voted for Nea Dimokratia, and of those, 22,333 voted for Karamanlis.
Just 10.23 per cent of people in Serres voted for Karamanlis. More than 49 per cent did not vote at all, and even of those who did, just 20 per cent, one in five, voted for Karamanlis.
Almost nine in every ten people allowed to vote in Serres did not vote for Karamanlis, yet he will be in parliament, gushing about the people of Serres’ support and crying to himself about the ‘abuse’ he received for having helped cause the death of 57 people.
This election was not, as Mitsotakis and the media who back him suggest, a glowing vote of approval, or a strong mandate for Nea Dimokratia’s policies. His party did not win by being well-liked, heavily-supported and voted for by the popular masses. It beat SYRIZA because SYRIZA collapsed, and it beat the rest of the Left because the rest of the Left shattered.
The problems of the Left
We should recall that PASOK claims itself to be centre-Left, and won an increase of 3.35 per cent at the polls – the largest increase of any party. KKE is the country’s communist party and increased its vote share by 1.93 per cent, more than double the increase achieved by Nea Dimokratia.
If we include the 31 other parties who ran and did not win enough votes to gain seats in parliament, 28 were Left-wing and took between them around 13.5 per cent of the vote.
The result was not an indication of Nea Dimokratia having won the hearts and minds of Greek people – even some of those who did vote for them were clearly ashamed of having done so (another indication of the sorry state of the Greek media when it comes to politics – a sense of hopelessness and ‘there is no alternative’) – but of SYRIZA collapsing under the weight of the blame piled upon it and its cowardice in its campaign, and the rest of the Left either not voting at all, or splintering into tiny shards, most too small even to make a dent in a parliamentary seat cover.
The ’second chance’: not Nea Dimokratia’s, Greece’s
It is not over yet.
Mitsotakis, buoyed by his party’s better than expected performance, has already announced he will not seek to form a coalition, believing he will win outright in a second vote, likely to take place on Sunday 25 July.
In this vote, under a law devised by Nea Dimokratia, if no party gets more than 50 per cent of the vote, the largest party will win 20 extra seats for reaching 25 per cent of the vote, plus up to another 30, based on one seat per half percentage point over 25 per cent.
The chance to form a coalition has also been turned down by SYRIZA’s leader Alexis Tsipras, and should he refuse it, then to PASOK leader Nikos Androulakis. A coalition between their two parties would have too few seats to form a majority government. While a coalition between Greece’s current fifth-largest party, Elliniki Lisi, and Nea Dimokratia would have 162 seats, Mitsotakis seems extremely unlikely to accept power-sharing at this point.
Parliament will be recalled on Sunday, 28 May 2023, for its members to be sworn in, and dissolved on Monday 29 May 2023 in preparation for the next election.
What this means is that Greece and the Left, almost uniquely in political history, has a second chance.
Even on its best day, Nea Dimokratia took fewer than one in four of the votes available to it.
And the old adage that the Right always gets its vote out, while the Left struggles to do so, remains true, but given the result on Sunday, this is not necessarily as negative as it usually seems.
However, any change requires several things. SYRIZA must remember what it actually stands for (perhaps it must in fact decide) and shout it from the rooftops, Mera25 must react fast, and probably explain its ideas better, to win back its place in parliament, and the wider Left must agree, for once, to set its differences aside and come together behind two or three, rather than 31, parties.
Because the alternative is a Nea Dimokratia which has got away with being a far-Right illiberal restrictive and violent group driven by bigotry and hatred, and that behaviour is not likely to improve in the next four years if it does so. In fact, things may get a great deal worse, as resistance which has lasted four years is slowly broken down, and the fabric of Greece’s society is gradually atomised.
The problem is, four weeks is not a long time, and Greece’s Left is far from an organised or cohesive group.