Many in Greece and throughout Europe are celebrating Syriza's "victory" in Greece's elections for the European Parliament. Though Syriza indeed finished in first place, a careful analysis of the election results and a comparison with the 2012 parliamentary elections in Greece reveals that talk of a "historic victory" is woefully premature.
By Michael Nevradakis
Reporting from Athens
The European parliamentary electoral contest in Greece on May 25 was accompanied by high hopes, both within Greece and abroad. Within Greece, there were many who viewed the European elections as a "referendum" on the current governing coalition and on the austerity policies that it has been imposing, at the behest of the troika, for the past several years. In many other European countries, voters looked towards Greece in hopes that a clear victory of left-wing and anti-memorandum forces could fuel a continent-wide turn away from the politics of austerity, as well as a rejection of the far-right, which has been making electoral inroads of its own throughout Europe.
As the results of the exit polls were announced, followed by the first electoral returns, many on the left, in Greece and in Europe, began to celebrate. The exit polls predicted a first-place finish for Syriza, with a difference of 3 to 5 percentage points over the right-wing (some would say far-right wing) majority coalition partner Nea Dimokratia (New Democracy). The vote count in the early morning hours of May 26 corroborates the predictions of the exit polls: Syriza is ahead by over three points and is poised to finish in first place in this most crucial of electoral contests.
There are many in Greece, particularly from many of Syriza's supporters and from many of the upstart online media outlets who have adopted a much more favorable tone towards Syriza compared to Greece's mainstream media outlets, who are declaring this not just a major victory for Syriza, but of the left in general. Foreign news outlets, who have often shown their ignorance of Greek politics and the workings of Greek society, have parroted this claim. For instance, the BBC heavily emphasized the major "gains" Syriza made compared to the European parliamentary elections of 2010, when it received just over 4% of the vote.
These celebrations and the accompanying declarations of victory for the "left" and for "anti-European" forces are not just premature, they are silly and come in conflict with reality. Let's look at the facts:
- Compared to the most recent national electoral contest in Greece, the Greek parliamentary elections of 2012, Syriza has actually declined, falling from 26.89% of the vote in the elections of June 2012, to 26.5% with approximately half of the ballots counted in the 2014 European elections. Even if Syriza manages to catch up to its June 2012 percentage or even slightly surpasses it in the end, this can hardly be seen as a success.
- Nea Dimokratia, after two years of harsh austerity, after having broken each and every one of its campaign promises from prior to the 2012 elections, after being rocked by scandals and after supporting numerous hugely unpopular measures, still finishes comfortably in second place, and only 3.5% behind Syriza. Syriza's "victory," if it could be said to be a victory, is hardly a landslide, nor is it a clear mandate for change.
- "Elia," the coalition which is mostly comprised of and supported by members of co-governing PASOK, surpassed perhaps even its own expectations, as well as the predictions of many polls (which are usually seen as being generous towards the governing and pro-memorandum parties), surpassing 8% of the vote and finishing in fourth place. This result has given a new burst of energy to a party which many in Greece had written off as being on its deathbed.
- "To Potami" (The River), a political party that can best be described as a creation of Greece's corrupt media moguls, and whose founder and leader, Stavros Theodorakis, has enjoyed a long career working for the aforementioned media owners, looks like it will secure 6.5% of the vote and two seats in the European parliament. This is a party that came into existence only a few months ago, a party which has not articulated any specific political platform but which is clearly seen as being favorable to many of the same corrupt interests which have traditionally supported Nea Dimokratia and PASOK. While there are numerous other new and upstart political parties which participated in this year's elections, none of them had the media support of To Potami, support which enabled this new party to become widely known to the electorate in a very short time.
- Altogether, the combined total of Nea Dimokratia and Elia (PASOK) surpasses 31% and garners 7 out of Greece's 21 seats in the European Parliament. When To Potami is added to the tally, the three parties surpass 37% and represent 9 seats. If DIMAR and LAOS, two smaller parties which have previously participated in coalition governments with Nea Dimokratia and PASOK, are added, the total percentage of voters who supported parties that have a pro-memorandum track record reaches 42%. And that's without including the almost 9.5% which voted for the far-right Golden Dawn, which if added to the total, brings us to over 50% of voters selecting a pro-memorandum and/or far-right political party, subsequently representing 12 of Greece's 21 seats in the European parliament.
It should be evident to anyone with half a brain that this is not a "victory" for Syriza. A decline in real numbers from the national elections of 2012 and a result which gives pro-memorandum and far-right forces in Greece over half the vote can only be seen as a victory for the status quo, for parties that are supportive of the crippling austerity that has resulted in a 25% reduction of Greece's GDP, in an official unemployment rate of almost 28%, in salaries and pensions and the social state being obliterated, and in tens of thousands of Greece's best and brightest young minds emigrating to other countries, most likely never to return.
If the above isn't enough, let's look at some of the results from Greece's local and municipal races, which were also up for grabs in this year's elections. Syriza earned a clear victory in only one of Greece's 13 prefectures. In the Attica prefecture (which includes the city of Athens), Syriza's candidate, Rena Dourou, is neck-and-neck with her PASOK and Nea Dimokratia-supported incumbent challenger, Ioannis Sgouros. As of the time of this writing (2:30 am on May 26), Dourou is ahead by slightly over 5,000 votes with approximately 55% of the ballots counted. Syriza's candidate lost the Athens mayoral race, and Syriza equally failed to win the mayoral races in most of Greece's major cities. In most cases, Syriza's candidate did not even finish in the top two, forcing a runoff.
A lot can be said in an attempt to explain these results. Factors ranging from entrenched political mentalities amongst the voters, to the evident barrage of pro-government propaganda by each and every one of Greece's major print and broadcast media outlets, all certainly played a role. But whatever the factors explaining the electoral results may be, it is clear that the claims of a "historic victory" boasted by Syriza's leader Alexis Tsipras are not supported by the results. At best, Syriza has treaded water since 2012, failing to make any gains whatsoever despite the supposed unpopularity of the current coalition government and the harsh austerity measures that it is implementing.
Indeed, if national parliamentary elections were held today, these results would call into question Syriza's ability to form a coalition government. Even with the 50-seat "bonus" that it would receive for finishing in first place, Syriza would be hard-pressed to form a coalition. The anti-austerity Independent Greeks, who made a debut with approximately 10% of the vote in the May 2012 parliamentary elections, have fallen to just over the 3% threshold for getting a seat in the European parliament (the same threshold also exists for gaining seats in the Greek parliament). The communist party, KKE, has continuously and rigorously rejected any suggestion of ever forming a coalition with Syriza. This leaves political forces such as To Potami, which are far more favorable towards current policy and towards the European Union, and Nea Dimokratia and Elia. And though Alexis Tsipras, in a recent statement, did not seem to rule out a future coalition with "good" members of both of the current governing parties, one has to question if such a development could be considered a "victory" for the left in any way, shape, or form.
On the other hand, today's results would have provided some obvious coalition partnerships for a clear-cut, pro-EU government, in the event of a national parliamentary election. It is also likely that if a government was not able to form based on such results, a new election would see pro-austerity forces merge their support towards their strongest choice, Nea Dimokratia, who would then have an excellent shot of finishing first and being in the "driver's seat" for the formation of a new coalition government. PASOK and To Potami are obvious partners, while Nea Dimokratia has also often flirted with the far-right Golden Dawn. In 2012, Nea Dimokratia, PASOK, and DIMAR formed a coalition with approximately 48% of the total vote. It is not far-fetched to think that such a scenario could repeat itself, especially if Syriza continues to remain at its 2012 electoral levels.
All of the above results point not to a "historic victory" of Syriza, but to a failure. A failure to capitalize on the anger and disgust of a significant percentage of the Greek populace towards the current government and towards the troika. A failure to inspire many people who are indeed so disgusted with the status quo that they abstained from voting. A failure to make any gains at all compared to the June 2012 elections, despite two additional years of economic depression, unemployment, harsh cuts, and a continued "brain drain."
To all those within Syriza who celebrated, and to all of those journalists--Greek and foreign--who jumped the gun and declared this a "historic victory" of the "left" and of "anti-EU" forces (of which Syriza, in reality, is neither): the election results are neither historic, nor do they represent a victory. A long road lies ahead for Syriza, if it ever hopes to take power and to govern Greece.
Wed May 28, 2014 at 6:40 PM PT: It is unfortunate that certain trolls have seen fit to destroy what had been a very constructive discussion in the comments section. I stand by my writings and post eponymously while others attack and hide behind pseudonyms. What is even more disconcerting is that double standards seem to apply as well. As a member of the site for over two years, and having responded to many other criticisms and disagreements before, discussions never once went out of hand. It took a very special group of "privileged" users to accomplish this. For all those readers who want no part of the undercurrent of sewage that lies below, my apologies. And if anyone who reads this piece is still interested in engaging in a more constructive discussion, that is more than welcome. Thanks.