As Brexit Advances, Grexit Recedes: The Greek Elections and the New Normal
Angelos Angelou (LSE European Institute)
One would be in for a surprise looking at the press coverage that Greece received after its recent elections on 7 July. The outside observer will find himself looking at two entirely different narratives. On the one hand, the victory of the centre-right New Democracy is presented as a monumental victory against Syriza’s populist rhetoric: It seems a glorious comeback of the modernising powers against the populist waves that have rocked Europe over the last few years. On the other hand, the conservatives’ return to power is presented as Greece’s “Salvini” moment. The new prime-minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, is pictured as being constrained by a party of xenophobic right-wingers that wish to make Greece an unregulated paradise for liberatrians. As has been usually the case with outsiders’ narratives concerning Greece over the last ten years, these accounts lack nuance and a better understanding of how the Greek political system works.
Starting from the question of whether Greece has elected its version of Trump, the short answer is no. New Democracy is a typical catch-all centre-right party that mainly consists of economic liberals, social conservatives and a small number of libertarians. Its leader, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, positions himself within the moderate liberal wing of the party and has a pro-reform record due to his tenure as the minister of Home Affairs in a previous New Democracy government. Subsequently, as the party’s president he has steered it towards a more pro-business direction while adopting a modernising rhetoric. He has presented himself as economically liberal and more open to social progressives; a position that is far more on the left compared to his predecessors. Mitsotakis’ tendency to open up the party to people outside the traditional right-wing has been indicated by the fact that his government includes a few former members of the main centre-left party, PASOK. Given that the party’s president usually dictates its general direction and agenda it would not be too far-fetched to assume that this approach will continue in the future. By the same token it would be safe to argue that many of the policies that Mitsotakis is accused of favouring, e.g. a tilt towards social conservatism and opposition to the recent agreement with North Macedonia, are likely to be low on the new government’s agenda. Overall, the new government’s agenda will mainly focus on the economy and public order. In other words, the country elected a pro-EU and pro-business government with ambivalent and weak views on contested social questions; thus Matteo Salvini, Italy’s populist Deputy Prime Minister, did not just obtain a new ally in Greece.
Turning from New Democracy to Syriza, one can see some clear changes since Alexis Tsipras was first elected as prime-minister four years ago. The party has dropped its anti-euro rhetoric and has sought to realize the last adjustment program of economic reforms as best as it could. It managed to deliver on this goal despite the major economic implications that this had for the country’s sizeable group of self-employed professionals. After concluding the program, the Tsipras government subsequently signed an agreement of enhanced economic surveillance with the European Commission, a far lighter package of economic reforms with very little conditionality attached. At the same time, it promoted a very progressive social agenda by taking some brave steps in regard to the naturalisation of second-generation immigrants and the legislation of same-sex marriage. While worrisome signs remained, like the party’s rhetoric of economic populism and its questionable appointment of judges at the higher courts, Syriza has, overall, moved in a more moderate direction. The initial maverick days of Syriza seem to have been long gone. The fact that its notorious first minister of finance, Yannis Varoufakis, managed to win nine seats in parliament with his new party MeRA25 (The European Realistic Disobedience Front) is indicative of this political and electoral transformation.
The recent Greek elections consolidated the view that the Greek political system has returned to a relative normalcy — one unseen during the crisis. Both major parties at this point appear to not question the country’s position inside the EU and the Eurozone and openly support Greece’s active participation in European fora. They seem to be far more prone to clash over issues that are more pedestrian like welfare benefits, taxes and pensions. In other words, the Greek political system has entered a bi-partisan new normal in which party politics are not centred around existential questions such as whether Greece should be in the EU or not. Instead, political contestation has returned to the typical economic and social issues that usually decide elections; unfortunately for scholars and political commentators it is “business as usual” in Greece. All in all, as Brexit comes close to a completion that increasingly looks like a car-crash, Grexit seems to be vanishing from sight and for good.
Angelos Angelou is a PhD candidate at the LSE’s European Institute. He works on international bureaucracies and financial crisis-management with a particular focus on the European Commission. Prior to the PhD, Angelos worked for the European Commission and a series of think tanks in Brussels. He holds an MA degree in European Studies and International Economics from the Johns Hopkins University- SAIS.