Monday 22 May 2023

Greece - paying the price of betrayal

The first round of Greece's 2023 General Election took place on Sunday 21 May. The results gave no single party the overall majority needed to immediately form a Government on their own. However, the main party of Greek capitalism, “New Democracy”, were the clear winners, taking over 40% of the vote. They won the largest vote in all but one of Greece’s election districts.

Result with nearly all votes counted:

New Democracy 41% 146 MPs

Syriza 20% 71 MPs

PASOK 11.5% 41 MPs

KKE 7% 26 MPs

Hellenic Solution 4.5% 16 MPs

Other Parties 16% but without any reaching the 3% threshold required for seats in Parliament

Turnout: 61% with 2.6% of those as spoilt or blank votes.

‘New Democracy’ (ND) are set to be able to continue as the governing party, with their leader, Kyriakos Mitsotakis continuing as Prime Minister. Their clear margin of victory means that ND won’t even have to opt to find a coalition partner. Instead, Mitsotakis has indicated that he will wait for a second round of voting in early July, confident that he would then be able to secure an outright victory.

These results are a major blow to the hopes of a return to office by the former left Greek PM Alexis Tsipras. His party, Syriza, retained its position as the main ‘left’ opposition party in Greece but, far from closing the gap on the ruling ND, its vote share fell substantially compared to the previous general election in 2019, from 31% to just 20%.

How did this result come about? Why has the conservative ND retained its 40% vote share when most Greeks are struggling with low wages and rising prices?

To answer these questions, it’s important to remember the events of the previous decade.

First of all, faced with a debt crisis, the formerly left-wing PASOK-led government presided over the sweeping austerity measures demanded of Greece by the ‘Troika’ of IMF and EU institutions. Greek workers suffered massive cuts to their wages, jobs and pensions, alongside mass privatisation of state assets. However, PASOK paid for their abandonment of socialist ideas in general, and the working-class in particular. Their electoral support collapsed. From once being the main party for Greek workers, their vote fell to just 8% in the 2019 elections. In Sunday’s poll, their vote recovered slightly, to around 12%, but their betrayal has not been forgotten by the Greek working-class.

Greek workers made valiant efforts to resist the attacks imposed on them by their governments at the behest of the ‘Troika’. But the hopes and fighting traditions of the Greek working-class weren’t just betrayed by PASOK. The supposedly socialist government of the new left formation, Syriza, also caved in to the demands imposed by EU capitalism, despite the huge ‘OXI/NO’ vote in the 2015 referendum that had rejected the Troika’s program of yet more spending cuts. The 2023 election results show that Syriza’s failure to stand firm has also not been forgotten by Greek workers either.

After Syriza’s capitulation to the Troika, Mitsotakis’ right-wing ND government was elected in 2019. As a reliable representative of capitalism, the ‘markets’ were happy to support Mitsotakis in his efforts to ‘manage’ the debt-ridden Greek economy. The money-lenders were also keen to get their money back - plus a tidy profit – all at the expense of the working-class, of course. Overseas investment also rose, with profiteers taking advantage of privatisation and low wages.

Official figures show that government budgets are now (just) back in surplus and that growth rates for Greece are some of the highest in the EU. However that ‘growth’ is starting from a low base, thanks to the damage done largely by Troika-enforced austerity but also by the Covid pandemic.

Greek GDP is still only 80% of its pre-crisis levels. The Greek economy still carries a huge debt burden. Above all, any ‘growth’ has certainly not been reflected in the living standards of most Greeks. Far from it. Average wages are only about 75% of what they were before the debt crisis began. At the same time, the prices of food, fuel and other essentials have rocketed upwards. Many Greeks are living in poverty and the public services that they need, like health and education, are in a dire state.

Those contrasting features of the Greek economy were the main features of the contrasting campaigns of Mitsotakis’ ND and Tsipras’ Syriza. Whereas Mitsotakis’ campaign stressed that only an ND government could be trusted with the economy, Tsipras stressed that only Syriza could bring “change” for the better. 

However, Syriza’s programme for increased public expenditure was only spoken about in very vague terms. Previous radicalism was replaced with "moderation'. There was little to convince Greek workers that, this time, Syriza could be relied on to stand up for them and resist the demands of the capitalist ‘markets’.

Cartoon by @yianderm - Tsipras heading for a fall by reaching out to right-wing voters

In fact, most voters had little faith in any of the main political parties. Bitter experience has understandably left many Greeks, particularly young voters, cynical about the promises made by all the party leaders. “They’re all the same” was a comment made by many discussing the election.

Recognising their need to mobilise younger voters, one of Syriza’s election broadcasts showed a well-dressed older couple laughing at a group of youth saying they weren’t going to bother voting. “Don’t worry, we’ll vote for you” say the wealthy pair, before driving away.

However, cleverly crafted adverts were never going to be enough to overcome the feeling of betrayal felt by so many young people who have seen their hopes of a decent future stolen from them. The turnout in the election was only about 60%, similar to the turnout in the 2019 poll.

That cynicism and disappointment at past betrayals was also reflected in generally low attendances at the various parties’ election meetings and rallies. Yes, party stalls were visible in the squares of even small towns, but their volunteers were usually talking to themselves rather than the public who mainly passed by with disinterest. Mitsotakis didn’t even risk a major outdoor rally although Tsipras did – with Syriza’s supporters filling Sintagma Square in Athens a few days before the election day. However, those supporters will now be demoralised by Syriza’s poor results.

Yes, Syriza remains the main opposition party. It was seen by some ‘left’ voters as at least being the ‘lesser evil’ compared to voting for ‘New Democracy’ (ND) party. However, far more than ‘lesser evilism’ was required to mobilise the support needed to kick Mitsotakis out of office.

A genuine workers’ party standing on a clear socialist programme could have defeated Mitsotakis, particularly after the two scandals that mired the last months of his outgoing administration.

Firstly, it was revealed that a section of the security services, supposedly under Mitsotakis’ control, had been using spyware to intercept the calls of journalists and political rivals. For many Greeks, that is a reminder of the unhappy past of a country where a military government was in power only 50 years ago.

Secondly, the Tempi train crash on 28 February, where 57 people died in a head-on collision on what was a supposedly modernised railway track, exposed how privatisation and foreign investment has been carried out for the benefit of the profiteers, not in the interests of Greek workers.

The results show that, despite these scandals, and the crisis in living standards, Tsipras was not able to persuade enough workers that Syriza could be trusted with their votes. That’s hardly surprising given their record of betrayal.

MeRA25, a new left formation led by former Syriza Finance Minister Yannis Varoufakis, failed to get even the 3% minimum vote needed to retain its seats in Parliament. In fact, on 2.6%, as many voters decided to demonstrate their ‘protest vote’ by putting a blank or spoiled vote in the ballot box as voted for MeRA25.

Despite his separation from Syriza, Varoufakis is still tainted by his failure, alongside Tsipras, to stand firm against the Troika. His confused programme of tweaking capitalism through various financial reforms also failed to convince voters that he offers a way forward for workers and youth.

The only party on the left to have improved their vote – from around 5% to 7%, is the KKE, the Greek Communist Party. Their campaign at least reflected the anger of Greek workers and correctly warned that whichever of the three main parties - ND, Syriza and PASOK – formed the next government, they would carry out the cuts and attacks demanded by capitalism. The KKE could now use their position to build a genuine mass workers’ party leading the struggles that will be necessary under another right-wing conservative government. But that would mean them being prepared to build a united front with other trade unionists and socialists in a joint struggle to defend living standards.

Without such a party challenging the parties of capitalism, Mitsotakis has been able to persuade most voters – that is out of those who could bring themselves to vote for anybody - that he was the ‘best of a bad bunch’. These voters will be hoping against hope that Mitsotakis’ promises to restore ‘stability’ to the weak Greek economy will be kept. Sadly, given the perilous state of both European and world capitalism, those hopes could soon be dashed.

Mitsotakis also sought to win away voters from the only other party that has ended up with MPs, the far-right “Hellenic Solution” party, by making clear that he was going to be “tough” on preventing refugees entering Greece from Turkey. What this means in practice was shown just before the election when footage was revealed showing refugees being forcibly taken from the island of Lesbos and left at sea in an inflatable boat to be picked up by the Turkish coastguard.

The final results mean that Mitsotakis would be able to form a coalition government if he sought the support of those far-right MPs or, alternatively, some of the PASOK careerists. However, he has already indicated that he is likely to wait for a second round, where different rules apply that give “bonus” MPs to the biggest party. Mitsotakis will feel confident that ND will then be able to form a majority government of their own.

What’s certain is that these election results show that Greek workers and youth, just like the working-class globally, need to build determined mass political parties that are prepared to stand firm when faced with the inevitable attacks that will come from global capitalism.