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Greek Elections 2023: Overturn without Governmental Change

Greek Elections 2023: Overturn without Governmental Change

By: Iason-Nikolaos Rodopoulos
Political Scientist
PhD Candidate, Department of History, York University

The results of the double Greek elections surprised most people who were closely watching opinion polls between July 2019 and May 2023. All recent surveys seemed to agree that the governing center-right party, New Democracy, would win by a small margin—especially after the anger the Tempe tragedy aroused. Instead, New Democracy received 40.79% in May 2023, increasing its vote share from 2019 by 0.94%[1]. On the other hand, the Coalition of Radical Left (SYRIZA), the party of the official opposition, only earned 20.07% of the vote, down from 31.53% in 2019.[2]

Despite its overwhelming victory, New Democracy could not form a majority government last May. To understand why, we must get a little technical. In 2016, while SYRIZA was in government, it enacted a law to eliminate the “majority bonus system,” which awarded the party that received the most votes with 50 extra seats in parliament. As obliged by the Greek Constitution, the introduction of the new simple proportional system could not come into effect in the following election (July 2019) without a two-thirds supermajority but in the second election following its enactment.[3]

Fast forward to May 2023—the first election with SYRIZA’s preferred electoral system—and New Democracy won decisively but only received 146 out of 300 seats. New elections were called for June 2023. Previously, New Democracy’s government had enacted a new electoral system that restores a—less generous than before—bonus of seats to the first party.[4] As a result, in the second election, New Democracy received 40.56% and secured a majority of 158 seats. SYRIZA’s vote share dropped to 17.83%, winning 47 seats—24 fewer than they had in May 2023 and 39 fewer than in 2019.[5]

Hellenic Parliament. Photo by Leonhard Niederwimmer. August 22, 2022.

The results were shocking. For the first time in modern Greek history, the electorate “punished” the leading opposition instead of the governing party. Most voters—including many SYRIZA supporters—seemed to agree that the party of the radical left failed to constructively criticize the government and present an alternative plan while in opposition. SYRIZA neglected to articulate a persuasive governmental programme that could have been the foundation for an alliance or common platform with other parties like the social democratic PASOK. SYRIZA’s vote share shrunk, while the Communist Party’s (on its left) and PASOK’s (on its right) increased.

Many voters reluctantly chose New Democracy because it seemed a safer choice for “political stability.” Despite the domestic implications of the COVID-19 global health crisis and the Russian invasion of Ukraine (with the latter impacting fuel prices as well as housing, electricity, and food costs), rising inflation, the Tempe Valley tragedy, catastrophic forest fires, and the scandal that followed the news that the National Intelligence Service had been monitoring PASOK leader Nikos Androulakis’ phone, people from all ages and professional groups agreed that the center-right government had succeeded in creating an environment friendly to investment, which, in turn, paved the path for new job positions (dropping unemployment from 19.1% in 2019 to 9.6% in 2023).[6]

New Democracy also benefited from the broad public support for the digitization of many public sector functions by the Ministry of Electronic Governance. Many credited the incumbent party with saving Greek citizens from long waits outside public sector buildings, but also for the measures they introduced to counter inflation (electronic vouchers for supermarket visits, even though their effectiveness is disputed) and the introduction of the “112” emergency service line to minimize the risk of casualties in a public safety emergency. New Democracy swept the election, winning a majority across all demographics. This includes both genders, all professional categories and all age groups, even 17-to-24-year-olds, among whom SYRIZA was the most popular party until 2019,[7] with many supporting controversial policies, such as repairing a fence at the borders between Greece and Turkey in Thrace, to counter illegal migration.

The large margin between the first and second parties was more shocking, considering an opinion poll published in March 2023—during an arduous time for the government following the Tempe tragedy. The poll showed that, even though citizens trust “nobody” enough to solve Greece’s problems, they trust Mitsotakis more in matters of criminality, national defence, migration and countering the domestic implications of the war in Ukraine.[8] Surprisingly, they seemed to trust Mitsotakis and Tsipras equally on education, health care, social security, and unemployment—areas of governance where the left traditionally dominated.[9] They also believed a government by Tsipras would be involved in fewer scandals and could have avoided the Tempe tragedy.[10] New polls published after the elections revealed the general public does not think any government can make the necessary changes to improve society.[11] Voters chose New Democracy not because they believe in the party’s cause—in fact, another poll had shown that most Greek citizens lean towards the left ideologically[12]—but because they do not think there is any better option. Mitsotakis’ efforts to court support from the center also played a role.

Indeed, SYRIZA failed to persuade the electorate that its political platform could transform into a realistic governmental programme that could counter New Democracy’s conservative but pragmatic policies. For some, the collision of the trains at the Tempe Valley was comparable to the July 2018 nightmare, when 104 people were killed in a catastrophic fire in Mati, Attica. For others, despite lengthy—and widely supported—negotiations with the Troika creditors, SYRIZA was responsible for the banks’ closure in 2015 and the enforcement of capital controls in the same year, at a time when Greece barely avoided withdrawal from the Eurozone. For many, SYRIZA was not a good choice because of the “Prespes Agreement” that the left-wing government signed with the government of FYROM, renaming the latter to “North Macedonia.” The agreement was quite unpopular, especially in the region of Macedonia in northern Greece, because it recognized a “Macedonian” language and identity to Greece’s Slavic neighbours.

The internal conflict between different ideological groups within SYRIZA became evident after the electoral defeat and further hampered voters’ views of the party. Alexis Tsipras, leader of the party and former Prime Minister, resigned after fifteen years in leadership, and elections were held in September to identify a new leader. Former Ministers Euclid Tsakalotos and Efi Achtsioglou were among the candidates. Still, SYRIZA members elected Stefanos Kasselakis, who had appeared on the Greek political scene only two months earlier, failing to be elected in parliament during the national elections. The Greek-born American entrepreneur is a former Republican who once worked for Goldman Sachs, as well as the first openly homosexual leader of a political party in Greece’s history. Analysts have described Kasselakis’s election as a “meta-political” phenomenon.[13] That was because Kasselakis—who neglected to present a political programme and did not appear to be inspired by socialist ideals—was elected due to his attractive social image and ability to attract young voters via social media. His election led to a party split, with many members, including Tsakalotos and Achtsioglou, choosing to leave the party in November, blaming Kasselakis for intending to transform SYRIZA “into a center-right party.”

For two governmental periods in a row, one of the two predominant parties of the Third Hellenic Republic has formed a clear majority. This development seems to signal that the electorate’s antagonism toward the traditional party system that emerged during the economic crisis has faded. Before 2019, the last single-party majority belonged to PASOK in 2009. In the following decade, unpopular austerity measures forced every government to rely on the support of two or three parties in parliament to sustain itself. Early elections became the norm, with elections every two to three years, until SYRIZA called for an election four years after its second victory in September 2015.

The absence of a strong opposition capable of constructively criticizing the government is a worrying phenomenon. It is especially worrying given that SYRIZA’s split makes it more uncertain whether there is a political party that can play this role in future elections. Mitsotakis has stated that he aims to move the policies adopted by his government closer to the centre than the right. It will be interesting to see whether he and his ministers will do so, given the new political landscape. In contrast to his first term, when his government faced opposition mostly from its left, it will now face pressure from a weakened and fragmented left and far-right extremists, strengthened by three nativist parties.

It is clear that, despite New Democracy’s political dominance, the re-elected government still has a lot of challenges to face. In his first speech in the new parliament, Prime Minister Mitsotakis declared that his first priority for this term is to win back investment-grade status for Greece, which was lost during the crisis. In October, after thirteen years, Greece regained its investment grade rating. But even though unemployment has fallen and life for the average Greek person seems to be slowly improving after the crisis, salaries remain low, employees work countless unpaid hours, and most remain uninsured.[14] These low salaries are inadequate for many, given skyrocketing rents and property prices spurred by the uncontrolled spread of Airbnb in the housing market. Slow productivity in the agricultural sector and the absence of industry since the 1980s—an issue ignored by all parties in their electoral platforms—put the future of Greece`s economy in question. The fast growth of artificial intelligence and the adaptations it will force in the workplace, education and many other aspects of social and economic life will pose another challenge in the future. Meanwhile, Greece is facing a demographic crisis due to the economic downfall and the last decade’s subsequent brain drain, with the population decreasing quickly.

Also, Greece is not prepared to act to avert the climate crisis. In the summer of 2023, new catastrophic fires burned valuable forests in Rhodes, Thrace, and elsewhere, costing 28 people their lives. The ecological damage caused by forest fires contributes to flooding. In September 2023, many villages in Thessaly were destroyed because of the “Daniel Storm,” which killed 17 people and 200,000 animals and destroyed local agriculture. The destruction in the valley of Thessaly delivered the region a humanitarian and health crisis. At the same time, the loss of agricultural products is expected to cause a further rise in food prices throughout the country this winter.

The challenges do not end here. Since its re-election, the government faced two shocking incidents of violence. In August 2023, a convoy of cars, driven by fans of the Croatian football club Dinamo Zagreb, crossed the border to Greece, travelling to Athens. Police did not stop the convoy despite warnings by Europol that it consisted of members of the neo-Nazi “Blue Bad Boys” group. A few days later, a young fan of AEK F.C. was killed by the BBB. In the following month, the first mate of a Blue Star ship sailing from Piraeus to the Aegean islands kicked a young, disabled man into the sea, resulting in the man’s death. These two murders are part of a much longer list of violent incidents, which have increased in frequency in recent years. Examples include many cases of femicide, domestic violence against women, as well as incidents of excessive police violence.

At the international level, recent gestures towards rapprochement between Mitsotakis and President Erdogan of Turkey began with the Greek government’s initiative to provide humanitarian aid and send volunteers to parts of Turkey destroyed by the February earthquakes. This positive development led to Erdogan visiting Athens on the 6th of December and signing fifteen agreements with Mitsotakis on national and social issues. Yet, the chronic differences between the two countries, the ongoing war in Ukraine, the fear that the conflict in Israel could spread, and the uncertainty about the future of the 1.4 million displaced Palestinians present significant challenges. Should Greece face a refugee crisis similar to 2015, it is uncertain whether the country is prepared.

It remains to be seen whether Greece—a small country with an enormous history—can confront these challenges and secure prosperity for its citizens. History has shown multiple times that democracy must never be taken for granted. During a time when far-right parties are vying for power in countries throughout the European Union and challenging the values of liberal democracy, Greece will never be able to flourish if the country is unable to resolve the issues of social, economic and institutional injustice that citizens are facing, while simultaneously surviving in the ruthless jungle of international antagonism.

[1] Hellenic Republic. Ministry of the Interior. Previous Election Results. May 2023.

[2] Hellenic Republic. Ministry of the Interior. Previous Election Results. July 2019.

[3] The Constitution of Greece. Article 54. “Electoral System; Election Districts, Members of Parliament Elected At Large”. Hellenic Parliament, 2022, pg. 69.

[4] Alivizatos, Nikos. Interview to Maria Agrimanaki. Εκλογές 2023: Από την απλή αναλογική στην ενισχυμένη (Elections 2023: From Simple Proportional to Enhanced Proportional). KATHIMERINI Newspaper. May 19th, 2023.

[5] Hellenic Republic. Ministry of the Interior. Previous Election Results. June 2023.

[6] Hellenic Republic. Hellenic Statistical Authority. November 30, 2023. Labour Force Survey: October 2023, pg. 2.

[7] Rouggeri, Natasa. Εκλογές: Πώς ψήφισαν οι Έλληνες κατά ηλικία, φύλο, επάγγελμα και ιδεολογία. (Elections : How did Greeks vote per age, gender, age and ideology). OIKONOMIKOS TAHYDROMOS. June 25th, 2023.

[8] Tsatsouli, Argyro. Δημοσκόπηση: Ποιος μπορεί να λύσει τα κρίσιμα προβλήματα της κοινωνίας; (Poll: Who can solve society’s crucial problems?).

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Δημοσκόπηση: Μια κοινωνία μειωμένων προσδοκιών σε μια εποχή πολυ-κρίσεων (Poll: A society of limited expectations at a time of [simultaneous] crises). November 5th, 2023.

[12] Ioannidis, Petros, and Gerasimos Moschonas. Aνάλυση Έρευνας: Η Ακτινογραφία των Ψηφοφόρων. (Research Analysis: Voters’ Radiogram). ETERON. April 6th, 2023.

[13] Chadjiantoniou, Natali. Ο μεταδιάλογος και το «φαινόμενο». (The meta-discussion and the "phenomenon"). EFIMERIDA TON SYNTAKTON. November 26th, 2023.

[14] Γιατί παραμένουν χαμηλοί οι μισθοί στην Ελλάδα – Τι συμβαίνει στις άλλες χώρες. (Why do salaries remain low in Greece – What is happening in other countries). TA NEA, November 21st, 2023.