Voters are expected to oust the anti-establishment government despite its successes.
If the polls of the last two years are anything to go by, 2019 will see the Greek political pendulum swing swiftly back to the right. New Democracy is tipped to defeat the ruling SYRIZA party in the highly anticipated national elections, the exact date of which is yet to be confirmed. Although several possible dates are on the table, Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras is expected to call voters to the polls in May, the month of local and regional government as well as European parliament elections. Timing aside, this year’s poll will be the first in a decade to be held in Greece following a full, four-year term of government.
Tsipras’ leftist government, which has been able to defy the odds and remain in power since 2015 largely thanks to its uneasy alliance with the far-right Independent Greeks party, is hoping to enter the electoral battlefield this year with three key achievements under its belt.
First and foremost, SYRIZA can claim to have brought Greece into the post-crisis era, with the worst austerity measures and fiscal deficits behind them. Second, the government is ending the long-drawn-out name dispute with neighbouring Macedonia, which henceforth will have the geographical qualifier North before its name for both domestic and international use. And third, the party is modernising the state and rectifying its relations with institutions such as the powerful Greek Orthodox Church, which for almost two centuries has enjoyed a special status within society unknown to other European countries.
Whether Tsipras decides to abandon his plans for a May election in favour of an earlier one in March or a later one in September will depend heavily on his government’s success in achieving the second undertaking. The bill for ratifying the name deal — known as the Prespa agreement — and lifting the Greek veto on (North) Macedonia’s membership in NATO and the EU will likely come to the Hellenic parliament towards the second half of January. Tsipras’ coalition partner and defence minister Panos Kammenos has made it crystal clear that the Independent Greeks will not support Prespa and will withdraw from their pact with SYRIZA once the controversial bill is brought to a vote.
Tsipras failing to secure the support of independent lawmakers as an alternative source of support, combined with New Democracy upping the ante as the name deal comes to parliament, could trigger the collapse of the SYRIZA-led government. This would undoubtedly work in the opposition’s favour, as New Democracy has effectively led the anti-Prespa campaign ever since the agreement, which enjoys the support of no more than a third of the Greek population, was signed in June last year.
Even if the prime minister continues to defy the odds and survives the vote — fulfilling the final stage of implementing the name deal — New Democracy is confident voters will return the centre-right to power in the upcoming elections. The shift is not driven much by ideological reasons or a genuine desire within the electorate to see the liberal establishment once again in control of the country, but because there is no other real alternative. Greek voters are disenchanted, to say the least, with Greek politics and many consider SYRIZA to have reneged on its various ground-breaking promises; they now see little difference between the two parties vis-à-vis their stance towards the EU and IMF.
From day one in office, Tsipras sought to present himself as a leader who was different: his wardrobe included no neckties and his swearing-in ceremony was of a secular nature, without the archbishop of Athens officiating. Despite identifying as anti-establishment, both in a Greek and a European context, his government proved unable to secure its ideological base and was highly divided. Leftist household names and popular cabinet ministers left the government at crucial periods, including former speaker Zoe Konstantopoulou, Tsipras’ mentor Panagiotis Lafazanis, foreign minister Nikos Kotzias, and finance minister Yanis Varoufakis. Losing their support badly wounded the party.
As for the likely new administration, New Democracy may have undergone a rebranding — it now presents itself as a renewed, all-inclusive movement — but its moderate, US-educated leader Kyriakos Mitsotakis will have to face the difficult task of convincing voters post-election that they made the right choice in pulling his party out of the darkness that is being in opposition. On top of this, as well as having to accept Prespa (which in all likelihood will be untouchable once formally ratified), Mitsotakis will also need to deal with Erdogan’s Turkey. Athens has repeatedly accused Ankara of violating Greek airspace as well as the maritime border in the Aegean, while Turkish activity in Cyprus’ exclusive economic zone north of the island has also caused deep concern in the Greek capital.
Finally, a Mitsotakis-led government would look to further strengthen Greece’s ties with traditional Western allies, including the US. The leader of New Democracy, coming from a prestigious political family and having spent several years at Harvard and Stanford, maintains a strong network of ties with various figures among America’s elite as well as the well-to-do Greek-American community. Winning over Washington in matters concerning Turkey and its provocations in the East Mediterranean will doubtlessly be one of his top priorities for 2019 and beyond.