Kyriakos Mitsotakis, Alexis Tsipras

Greece’s Path Towards the European Status Quo

Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, left, gestures during his meeting with Syriza party leader Alexis Tsipras, in Athens, on Friday, October 11. (AP Photo/Petros Giannakouris)

Greece has been featured in global news many times in the last decade, often for its challenges. Despite the deep financial mismanagement and crises the country has faced, in the past five elections before 2015, governments of different ideological colors have largely kept fiscal and monetary policies the same. Against this background, the fact that the Greek legislative election in July brought in a right-leaning government has been received with great enthusiasm. This euphoria invites a fact-based reflection on the election results, and what they mean for Greece.

A Victory for Democracy?

Crucially, just over 42 percent of eligible Greek voters abstained in the July election. Despite it being a high proportion of voters, it is also puzzling for two reasons. First, voting in Greece is compulsory, a mechanism known to increase turnout. Second, we know that in disproportional systems, like the Greek one, voters tend to vote whether or not their views are expressed by the parties running. This lies in contrast to proportional systems, where non-centrist citizens that fail to find a viable party that is ideologically congruent with them are likely to abstain. To put it differently, voters in systems like Greece typically go to the polls even if there is no ideologically congruent viable party. Given that they are also obliged by law to vote, why did only a bit more than half of eligible Greeks cast a ballot?

An important note is that the abstention figures are estimated based off of 2011 census data. Since then, some voters may have deceased or emigrated. At the peak of Greece’s financial crisis (2010–2015), for example, more than 600,000 citizens migrated to northern Europe. In their golden era of state mismanagement, the parties alternating in government—the Panhellenic Social Movement (PASOK) and New Democracy (ND)—would reserve entire Olympic Airways flights so that Greeks living abroad who were registered with either party could fly to Greece at a reduced price to cast their ballot. Since the sovereign debt crisis, this is no longer the case. Moreover, Greeks living abroad were unable to cast a ballot by mail in the recent election. If Greeks living abroad lacked the necessary resources, then this year’s massive abstention could be due to emigration.

The abstention rate may also be indicative of the fact that Greek voters view representative democracy as ineffective. None of the recent cabinets—PASOK from 2009–2012, ND from 2012–2015, or the Coalition of the Radical Left (SYRIZA) from 2015–2019—managed to pursue radical structural reforms in order to bring the state in order. Research shows that in order for such reforms to be realized, newly elected governments rely on the support of the state bureaucratic machinery, which not only possesses the necessary knowledge and information, but also ensures continuity of policy implementation. Information and expertise, however, may be used to bargain power with newly-elected governments (especially in clientelist systems, such as Greece). In this regard, the government that faced the most difficulties was SYRIZA, which had to work with a state administration built by PASOK and ND through clientelist practices.

As the government of Alexis Tsipras was not embedded in the bureaucratic institutional setting created by ND and PASOK, its first one and a half years in power was spent getting to know the state machinery and becoming familiar with and gaining the trust of civil servants, who were hostile towards and doubtful of the new government. Our fieldwork shows that the stance of the state apparatus created important delays in the policy process and in the implementation of policy decisions, especially during the first year of the Tsipras government.

In addition to an antagonistic state bureaucracy, the Tsipras cabinet faced hostility from European Union institutions, which were dominated by Conservative and Christian Democratic parties. At the same time as most other parties were lying in ambush, the Tsipras cabinet had to also deal with internal conflict within the SYRIZA party. While Tsipras was able to navigate though the intra-party storm—and got rid of internal opposition in the September 2015 snap election—large portions of voters were disappointed in SYRIZA’s policy reversals.

Having promised to end austerity, Tsipras ended up signing a third memorandum of understanding and pursuing the harsh economic policies demanded by creditors. SYRIZA thus had raised high hopes for a better future, and these hopes were betrayed due, inter alia, to the party’s lack of experience with power, the state apparatus, and the EU system. Rather than a positive feeling for what ND could do differently, it is the negative sentiment caused by SYRIZA’s failures in government, which is primarily responsible for the electoral outcome.

Though its defeat was expected given the results of the May 2019 European elections, SYRIZA still managed to get 30 percent of the Greek vote by attracting especially young Greeks (approximately 40 percent of young voters supported SYRIZA). However, middle class voters punished SYRIZA, either by supporting ND—which attracted voters from all camps (from left-wing SYRIZA to the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn)—or by abstaining.

The New Government’s Assets

The international euphoria about ND’s victory is not surprising. Compared to the outgoing (left-wing) Tsipras government, the current Greek government is strengthened by its membership in the European People’s Party (EPP), which, holding majorities at EU institutions, constitutes the leading force in Europe.

To be sure, the EPP is a mixed bag ranging from Angela Merkel’s to Viktor Orban’s understandings of Christian Democracy and Conservatism. But this mixed bag is also present within Kyriakos Mitsotakis’ cabinet and the ND party organization, which embrace a wide range of right-wingers, from centrist liberals to far-right nationalists. Not surprisingly, one of the new cabinet’s first steps was to appease the far-right on the issue of migration and asylum policy. Moreover, Margaritis Schinas, the ND government’s appointee at the new EPP-dominated College of European Commissioners, was assigned the role of “Protecting the European Way of Life,” a new vice presidency post introduced by President-elect of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen.

Liberals in the EP and human right activists have criticized the fact that the role’s portfolio bundles together security, migration, education, and employment. It is very symbolic that this controversial post goes to the appointee of the country that constitutes the EU’s south-eastern border and is most affected by the refugee crisis. Following critiques during a hearing in European Parliament (EP) on October 3, Schinas refers to his title as Commissioner-designate for migration, security, social rights, education, culture, and youth. The EP vote on the commissioners will take place on October 23.

On the economic front, Prime Minister Mitsotakis has promised growth through the promotion of the free market economy, tax cuts, and privatizations. It was in this spirit that Mitsotakis announced a series of corporate and individual tax cuts to encourage investments at the 2019 Thessaloniki International Trade Fair. Such measures are congruent with the policies that most EPP members advocate. However, many EPP parties have also fervently supported austerity policies that failed to resolve a series of problems (e.g., economic growth or unemployment, which has also been linked to immigration).

As a member of EPP, and being very well embedded in the Greek administrative apparatus, ND is in a better situation than the previous government. It remains to be seen whether the Mitsotakis cabinet will provide sustainable solutions to the pressing problems that Greece faces in the areas of state management and administration, and economic modernization and job creation. Such problems cannot be resolved by neoliberal policies, but demand radical structural reforms.

In the short term, reforming deeply-rooted institutional structures often comes at a high political cost, but in the long term, changes can ensure economic growth and social cohesion. Prime Minister Mitsotakis can find allies in the EU institutions and the domestic administrative apparatus to help him pursue the necessary reforms against corruption and tax evasion and in favor of transparency and efficiency. All it takes is political will.

Sevasti Chatzopoulou is an Associate Professor in the Department of Social Sciences and Business at Roskilde University. Zoe Lefkofridi is an Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science and Sociology at the University of Salzburg.