Four years ago, Alexis Tsipras and his left-wing Syriza party came to power to challenge austerity and Greece’s international creditors. But on Sunday, Tsipras was defeated by opposition leader Kyriakos Mitsotakis of the centre-right New Democracy party, who was sworn in as Prime Minister of the Hellenic Republic on Monday.
Winning almost 40 percent of the vote, New Democracy secured 158 seats in the 300-seat parliament – a comfortable majority – and more than double its representation during the Tsipras-led administration. Syriza, on the other hand, came away as the second most voted party, with 31 percent of the vote.
The snap election was called four months prior to its originally intended date in October, as a response to the poor results Syriza pulled in the European Parliament elections, earlier in May.
Harvard graduate Kyriakos Mitsotakis is the son of the former Prime Minister, Konstantinos Mitsotakis, and is widely credited with the revival of New Democracy. Known to have a more liberal stance than the party’s traditionalists – having voted in favour of LGBT rights and adopting a more flexible stance on thorny issues such as migration – Mitsotakis steered the New Democracy party more towards the centre, while also siphoning away support from far-right party Golden Dawn.
Speaking to his supporters after his win, Mitsotakis enthused, “Society wants us to move forward united (…) I’ll work to convince you that I’m everyone’s prime minister.”
“I know the difficulties lying ahead. (…) I don’t request a grace period because we don’t have time for it.” He added, “Transparency and meritocracy will return to Greece and our country’s voice will be heard in Europe.”
While a major political change, it’s worth noting that Greece is successfully bucking populist trends felt elsewhere across Europe, where national elections have propelled both left and right wing anti-establishment parties to power. New Democracy, in contrast, is a more traditional conservative, centre-right party – the exact type of party that’s been struggling to win elections or form majority governments across the continent.
The Price Tsipras Paid
There can be little doubt that the Tsipras-led government helped steer Greece through stormy financial waters, as the Greece we know today is much stronger financially than it was four years ago, in the aftermath of the sovereign debt crisis. However, shifting positions on key issues ultimately cost Syriza both popular and electoral support.
Mitsotakis, on the other hand, comes from the establishment that is attributed with having plunged Greece into the sovereign debt crisis. And yet, a commitment towards market-friendly change sparked a vote against the over-promising and under-delivery experienced under Syriza’s rule.
“Greece already has first-hand experience of economic populism and is now rejecting it, making a turn towards pragmatism”, says George Pagoulatos, a professor at the Athens University of Economics. “The vote in 2015 was one of hope, of desperation. Then the idealism collapsed. Now people are focusing on who they believe can deliver.”
In July 2015, Tsipras persuaded Greece to reject another bailout and the austerity measures that came with it, only to cave in when faced with enormous economic challenges. This obligated Tsipras to heed the demands of policymakers in Brussels and the IMF, and whip his party members in line to vote in favour of austerity.
And while Greece did restore economic normality, which is still growing at an estimated 2 percent, unemployment remained stubbornly high at 18 percent. Tsipras also pushed forward an array of unpopular measures, including pension cuts, raising taxes, and slashing spending to meet Greece’s strict fiscal targets and major budget surpluses – imposed by the country’s lenders.
Young people, in particular, swung right this election. Many are exhausted with ongoing financial difficulties, and the unemployment rate is particularly high for people under the age of 25. Despite many leaning liberal in their social politics, cynicism about the economy won out.
“I’m not proud of their social policies to be honest, but I truly believe that if we make an effort to improve the economy then social liberalism will be easier to implement in future”, said Tasos Stavridis, a young Greek speaking to the BBC.
“The basic reason (for the result) is the economy”, said analyst Theodore Couloumbis. “In the past four and a half years people saw no improvement, on the contrary, there were cutbacks in salaries and pensions.”
Tsipras had kept a hold on power by allying with the nationalist, far-right party, the Independent Greeks. But their support evaporated when he pushed through the Prespa Agreement – an historic, yet unpopular, agreement with neighbouring country, North Macedonia, that resolved a decades-long dispute over the latter’s name.
This deal also removed Greece’s veto block on its neighbour’s eventual accession to both NATO and the EU, and is generally considered a massive win for the West. But back home, the agreement proved deeply unpopular, especially among nationalists.
To complicate matters further, what should have been a proud moment last summer, when Greece exited its bailout programme, was overshadowed by wildfires that left over 100 dead in the Greater Athens area, leaving Tsipras to deal with a public outcry over an alleged mishandling of the tragedy.
When conceding defeat Sunday night, Tsipras promised to fight for the working class, and noted that it was his party that “liberated” Greece from its creditors.
“We hold our heads up high as the Greece we are handing over in no way resembles the Greece we took over four years ago”, he said. “Today we hand over a country that is free again.”
Mitsotakis has claimed his priority is to kick-start the economy by slashing taxes and cutting regulations, while also attracting investment. Most importantly, perhaps, Greece’s new premier has set out to renegotiate terms – and reduce targets – that the Tsipras government agreed to with international lenders, in a bid to reduce the tax burden on workers, and stimulate private sector growth.
Under the agreement – which established the conditions for Greece’s exit from its third EU economic adjustment programme over the course of eight years – Greece committed to maintaining a primary budget surplus, before debt costs, of 3.5 percent of GDP until 2022. However, the measures have hampered government spending and, according to critics – such as the IMF –constrained the economy’s recovery.
“I believe I can negotiate with the Europeans more fiscal space, and the markets are showing that they are quite excited about us coming into power”, said Mitsotakis.
And yet, it isn’t clear that Greece’s creditors in the EU or the IMF will give Mitsotakis the new deal he hopes to bring home. While under Tsipras Greece exited the bailout programme, the country remains under strict monitoring until all dues are repaid, and Mitsotakis’ success relies on getting Greece’s creditors on board with a new repayment plan.
Mitsotakis told the New York Times before the election, “I think 90 percent of our programme is outside the scope of the restrictions that have been imposed on us. Even within the constraints of the programme, everyone agrees that Greece needs to lower taxes.”
However, on Monday Eurogroup chief Mario Centeno urged the new Greek administration to stay on track with reforms and public spending commitments, previously agreed by Athens with its creditors – in return for the bailouts.
Klaus Regling, the head of the European Stability Mechanism, said on Monday that 3.5 percent of GDP target was a “cornerstone of the programme”, adding that “it is the precondition for additional debt relief measures”, and “very hard to see how debt sustainability can be achieved without that”.
Mitsotakis faces internal challenges as well. He is a liberal leading a conservative party, so pushing through reforms may rile up his party members and his electoral base. For example, one of his campaign promises was to get refugees out of their camps more swiftly by speeding up the asylum process, but this runs afoul of his own party’s right wing.
The makeup of Parliament is noticeably different this time around. Four parties, including New Democracy, the Communists, the centre-left Movement for Change (KINAL) party, and MeRA25 – an anti-austerity party founded by former Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis – gained seats.
However, Golden Dawn – a far-right neo-Nazi party with members standing trial for crimes including murder – suffered a major setback and lost representation in Parliament altogether. This contrasts greatly with the result of the previous election in which, leveraging the migration crisis, Golden Dawn garnered the support required to become the fourth-largest party in Parliament.
However, the far-right pro-Russian party, Greek Solution, won ten seats. Their leader once suggested using land mines against migrants trying to make landfall in Greece.
Speaking about the fall of Golden Dawn, head of MRB pollsters, Dimitris Mavros noted that “The element of rage (among Greek voters) is no longer here. Greeks have realised that the system must be fixed for the country to move forward.”
Costas Panagopoulos, head of Alco pollsters, agreed. “Golden Dawn was born from the rage that people felt. This rage no longer exists. The people who were very angry in 2012 or in 2015, feel uncertain rather than angry now, and see no reason to vote for it.” Instead, such voters have a range of parties to choose from – including New Democracy, Hellenic Solution, and Syriza.
It is this divided political landscape that Mitsotakis said he would unite. In his acceptance speech, he said, “I asked for a strong mandate to change Greece. You gave it to me generously. Today begins a difficult but beautiful battle.”
He also urged Greek citizens abroad – many of whom fled during the sovereign debt crisis – to return home. “Keep your eyes and hearts turned toward Greece”, he said. “We will work hard to change the country you were forced to leave behind.”