Greece: SYRIZA's scores clear win amid high abstention, more austerity


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By Dick Nichols

SYRIZA pulled off a remarkable victory at the September 20 Greek election. Although burdened  by its acceptance of the draconian third memorandum of Greece's creditors and eight months of rule in the midst of recession, closed banks and capital controls, SYRIZA's vote fell by only 0.88% and its parliamentary seats by just four.

On September 20 SYRIZA won 35,46% and 145 seats: at the January 25 election it won 36.34% and 149 seats. Its lead over the main opposition party, the conservative New Democracy, fell by only 1.17%, from 8.53% in January to 7.36% today.

While the ND vote increased marginally, from 27.81% to 28.1%, it actually lost a seat, passing from 76 to 75.

In January, SYRIZA was the leading party in 42 of Greece's 56 constituencies, and ND in 14: after this election the numbers are exactly the same, with SYRIZA overtaking ND as leading party in three regional constituencies, while ND replaced SYRIZA as leading party in another three.

This result flew in the face of all the opinion polls, which had SYRIZA winning by 3% at most. Nearly all polling had the election too close to call, while polls some had ND winning.

While the polls on the last two days of the campaign pointed to a narrow SYRIZA win and the bookmakers had SYRIZA as a 75% and ND as a 33% chance, no-one remotely predicted the size of the left coalition's win.

All the pre-election commentary was of a weakened SYRIZA or ND having to govern in coalition with some  combination of the social-democratic Pan-Hellenic Socialist Movement (PASOK) or The River, the hipsterparty of cool urban professionals. Yet the September 20 result allows SYRIZA to repeat its governing alliance with the socially conservative right-nationalist Independent Greeks (ANEL).

Within SYRIZA confident predictions, like this of Giorgios Katrougalos, labour and social solidarity minister in the second Tsipras minister (in the September 17 French weekly Politis) had looked very rash:

We are going to win the elections. I am very optimistic because in Greece there are two political fronts. One is the same as as that of other peoples in Europe, of opposition to neo-liberalism. The other front, specific to our country, pits us against the oligarchy and the system of political and economic corruption which ruled up to January 25. I'm confident that our experience of a left government will not be stopped and that we will be given a second chance.

The most plausible explanation of the result is that SYRIZA's relentless warnings against the threat of an ND win induced people (especially the young), leaning towards abstention or a vote for other left parties, to switch back to the left coalition. In his victory speech leader Alexis Tsipras made a special point of thanking the young people who had voted for SYRIZA.

Petros Markopoulos, a former member of SYRIZA youth's management committee who resigned after  Tsipras agreed to the the creditors' bailout conditions on July 13, expressed this motivation in a comment in the September 14 Financial Times:

“If SYRIZA loses this election, then we will see a total collapse of the left...Sure, SYRIZA has not achieved the revolution we hoped. But we have to do all we can to ensure they win now. Then the debate on our future can restart.”

The two main victims of this returnto the fold of disappointed SYRIZA voters were the Communist Party of Greece (KKE) and Popular Unity (PU), the split from SYRIZA of outright opponents of the July 13 memorandum agreement, led by former energy minister Panagiotis Lafazanis.

All but the very last polls gave PU between 3% and 4%, enough to get the new formation over the 3% threshold for parliamentary representation with between 8 and 13 seats. Yet the final result for PU, which accepts that Greece probably needs to leave the Eurozone, was only 2.86%, leaving it out of the parliament altogether. This compares with the 25 seats previously held by MPs from SYRIZA's former Left Platform (the core of PU).

The KKE was averaging  6.4% in polling before September 20 (as compared to its 5.47% won on January 25). Yet its final score was only 5.55%, leaving its representation in parliament unchanged at 15 seats.

The setback for non-SYRIZA left forces was compounded by the decision of ANTARSYA (Anti-Capitalist Left Cooperation for the Overthrow) not to join the PU ticket. Its own vote increased from 0.64% to 0.85%, but if it had stood with PU on a joint ticket this would have passed the 3% threshold.

The decision of former finance minister Yanis Varoufakis to sit out what he called a “sad” election also weakened the position of the non-SYRIZA left. His initial analysis (in the September 21 Guardian) stated:

The greatest losers were smaller parties that attempted to occupy the polar opposites [of the debate] following the 5th July referendum. Popular Unity failed stunningly to exploit the grief felt by a majority of “No” voters following Tsipras’ U-turn in favour of a deal that curtailed national sovereignty further and boosted already vicious levels of austerity. POTAMI [The River], a party positioning itself as the troika’s reformist darling, also failed to rally the smaller “Yes” vote.


SYRIZA's win was achieved with 320,000 less votes than it won in January, its share of the 764,500 extra abstentions at this election compared to January 25.

In a country where voting is formally compulsory and 9.84 million are on the electoral roll, on September 20 :only 5.567 million (56.57%) bothered to vote, 600,00 less than in the July 5 referendum and the lowest participation rate since the  dictatorship of the colonels was overthrown in 1974.

In the greater Athens region participation reached 63.3%: on the island of Lesbos it fell to 43.34%. Two million more Greeks voted in the 2004 national elections than in this one.

PASOK, running in this election on a joint ticket with the Democratic Left (DIMAR, a 2010 split from SYRIZA which lost all 17 of its MPs  in the January election), was the only party with parliamentary representation to actually increase the number of people voting for it (from 319,000 to 341,000, 5.15% to 6.29%).

The only other party to lift its vote haul (and enter parliament for the first time) was the Union of Centrists (EK).Established in 1992 as a middle-of-the-road “alternative” to the PASOK and ND dynasties by a late-night talk show host (and former ND and PASOK candidate) Vassilis Leventis, EK had little chance of getting into parliament while SYRIZA was seen as the only realistic alternative to the old parties.

However, its average score over the last week's opinion polls was 3.6% and its actual result 3.43% (186,500 votes and nine seats), compared to 111,000 votes (1.79%) in January. This result indicated that its neither-left-nor-right-but-little-people-first message could win support in the confusion produced by the imposition of the third memorandum.

All the other parties, including those whose share of the vote increased, received less votes at this poll than on January 25. This was even true of the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn, whose share increased from 6.28% to 6.99% (from 17 seats to 18), even as its vote haul fell from 388,000 to 379,500.

It would have been very surprising if the abstention rate had not leaped at this election. The euphoria of the overwhelming victory for NO (OXI) in the July 5 referendum on the “final offer” of Greece's creditors' turned into confusion and demoralisation once the SYRIZA-led government—facing European Central Bank threats to turn off liquidity to Greece's insolvent banks—felt it had no choice but to accept the conditions of the third bailout.

In the run-up to September 20 media coverage from Greece on the mood among SYRIZA's most active supporters, especially the young, stressed feelings of betrayal, tiredness and disgust with politics. According to party officials cited in the Financial Times report: “in the aftermath [of the July 13 acceptance of the memorandum] at least one third of SYRIZA's membership defected to other parties, including those to its left, with others leaving political campaigning altogether.”

A similar report in the August 28 Le Monde quoted the former secretary of SYRIZA's Pangrati branch (in central Athens):

The core members are no longer there. SYRIZA won the elections on a promise to abolish the memorandum, and then it signed a new one. For decades we had been waiting for the Greek left to  get into government. And then, after a few months, Tsipras adopts Margaret Thatcher's formula: “There is no alternative.” But in the rest of Europe people are fighting against that formula.

At the level of the voting public the abstention rate reflected the sentiment “What's the point?”. When the

third memorandum aims to convert Greece into an economic protectorate of Brussels and Berlin, many asked whether it really matter who “governs” in Athens.

SYRIZA support holds

Nonetheless, despite the rise in apathy and the turmoil and membership loss within SYRIZA caused by July 13, all the pre-election polls showed that the left coalition was maintaining the support of at least 85% of those who had voted for it on January 25.

There were three basic reasons for this. Firstly, the government's six-month-long struggle to win an acceptable deal was seen by many as the best that could have been achieved in the face of the blackmail of the European Commission, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund (“Troika”).

The argument that an alternative course was possible without sooner or later ending in “Grexit” seems not to have convinced many, if the vote won by PU (and the KKE) is an accurate indicator of support for that argument.

Secondly, the SYRIZA-led government at least started to implement some aspects of the “Salonika Program” on which it was elected. These measures included free electricity for over 200,000, food vouchers for 350,000, an accommodation program with rent subsidy for 30,000 families and cuts to various health care and hospital payments.

The government also provided tax and social security contribution relief for 750,000 individuals and small businesses, reopened public radio and television, and started to go after the big tax evaders.

According to Leo Panitch, co-editor of the Socialist Register and a close observer of Greece: “The humanitarian stuff they introduced immediately in February, right after they were elected, has not been pulled back, and it's had an enormous impact on the people who are suffering the most.”

Thirdly, the SYRIZA government is still regarded as the first honest administration in contemporary Greek history: despite its defeat in the battle with “Brussels”, SYRIZA is still viewed as a break with traditionally corrupt Greek politics as represented by ND and PASOK.

A secondary reason, according to Channel 4's Paul Mason on September 21, was SYRIZA's policy of closing refugee detention centres and helping refugees to move through Greece to destinations in northern Europe:

I got the a sense last night [at a dinner with some SYRIZA voters] that even people disgusted with the party's climb-down over austerity voted left because they wanted to avoid the conservatives taking charge of Europe's front line. Any return to tight border policing, round-ups and preventing migrants from moving out of Greece would have plunged this country into immediate chaos.

SYRIZA's election propaganda hammered its main point: given Greece had had to swallow the memorandum, whom did the voter trust to govern?

Who do we want to negotiate the debt reduction soon after the election? Those that for years now declare it to be sustainable or those that imposed the need for its reduction onthe creditors?

Who do we want to negotiate labor rights, workers’ protections and liberties and collective contracts? SYRIZA or those that imposed a nightmare for workers?

This message seems to have been at the heart of SYRIZA's win. Abstention or a vote for other left forces would only help ND—the eternal party of Greece's corrupt oligarchy despite its avuncular new leaderVangelis Meimarakis—toget its hands back on the helm.

The vote in the constituencies

What does a regional breakdown of the vote reveal? Greece is divided into 56 electorates, of which 48 are multi-member seats and eight single-member seats, according to population size. These 56 electorates return 288 MPs, with the remaining 12 elected on a national basis.  Those seats are shared proportionately among the parties that have passed the 3% threshold for representation, proportionately distributing among them the vote of those who have not.

There were percentage swings against SYRIZA in 37 constituencies, and swings to it 19. The  biggest swing against (9.03%) took place in the western Thracian electorate of Rodopis, with its large Muslim community (Greece's only officially recognised minority). Yet this was less than half the massive swing to SYRIZA that took place in that constituency in January (19.75%), when PASOK lost 20.54% of its vote.

This time SYRIZA hung on to its two seats in Rodopis, with ND losing the third to The River.

The next greatest swings against SYRIZA (between 2% and 6.94%) were on the Ionian islands of Lefkada, Zakynthos, Corfu and Kefalonia, the Aegean islands of Samos and Lesbos, as well as various constituencies in Thessaly, on the Ionian coast, Crete and the Peloponnese.

At this poll SYRIZA lost twelve seats, seven of them in the major metropolitan centres: two in greater Athens and and Magnesia (in Thessaly, site of Greece's third largest port, Volos), and one each in urban Salonika, central Athens and Attica. Its other five seat losses were in regional constituencies—one in Macedonia, two in central Greece, one in the Peloponnese as well as the Ionian island of Leucadas.

Offsetting these losses, SYRIZA managed to win percentage gains in 19 constituencies, with its greatest success being in Evros, on the border with Turkey and Bulgaria, with a 5.18% increase. This was followed by Xanthi (4.18%, also on the Bulgarian border) and 12 other Macedonian electorates—Grevena, Drama, Serre, Pieria, Kastoria, Kilkis, Thesprotia, Pellas, Kavala, Kozanis, Imathia and Florinas.

SYRIZA's percentage also picked up on the Aegean island of Chios, the Dodacanese islands (off south-western Turkey) and Arcadia (in the Peloponnese).

In terms of seats, the left coalition picked up eight seats in regional Greece to offset its decline in the cities, leaving it with a net loss of four.

The basic pattern of this vote would seem to suggest that SYRIZA most lost support areas where people have been most actively engaged in struggle against Troika austerity, and gained support in those regions where its social support measures have helped out the old, unemployed and the poor.

Obviously, however, we shall need to see a more detailed analysis from Greek sources before drawing too definite conclusions.

There were few standout features in the results of the other parties. ND lost four seats and picked up three; Golden Dawn lost five and picked up six; the KKE lost one and gained one; ANEL lost three and picked up none; The River lost seven and picked up one, while a revived PASOK in partnership with DIMAR picked up five and lost one.

As expected, on the Aegean islands affected by the refugee crisis (Lesbos, Samos, Chios and the Dodacanese) Golden Dawn's vote went up--by between 1.14% and 3.12%--but this was not enough to win it any seats in those constituencies.

PU's best results generally occurred in constituencies where SYRIZA's vote fell most and it lost seats (including in greater Athens). This occurred in 18 of the 19 constituencies where PU cleared the 3% threshold and reached as high as 5.05% (on Corfu).


SYRIZA won this election because it held together a voting base of just under two million Greeks who feel that it can weather the coming storm of memorandum requirements. Potential future ministers in the incoming SYRIZA-led administration have also claimed that the agreement allows “wriggle room” in the areas of labour rights and privatisations, and that its promised tax war on the oligarchy will uncover a lot of the funds needed to finance the memorandum's primary surplus targets, reducing the tax burden on ordinary Greeks.

For example, Giorgios Katrougalos, in his September 17 Politis interview, said that “it is true that with the new memorandum we are forced to follow policies that are not ours. But as far as labour is concerned, we have a margin of manoevre for carrying out our policy. The memorandum in effect envisages that we must 'legislate according to good European practices.'”

According to Katrougalos, this creates a battleground for struggle between those for whom “good European practices” are collective agreements, labour and social rights and those for whom they are exactly the opposite.

Certainly, many of Europe's economic and political powers-that-be were wondering out loud how tamed SYRIZA now is, especially given the continuing discontent in the party over the government's failure to consult it on key decisions.

Another point of concern is the repeat of the alliance with ANEL. Why, asked European parliament head Martin Schulz on September 21, is Tsipras allying with

“this strange, far-right party”, instead of memorandum supporters like PASOK, The River or the Union of Centrists?

Immediately after SYRIZA's win the foot-in-mouth Spanish foreign ministerJosé Manuel García-Margallo said that it was “bad news for Europe”, thinking no doubt of the boost that it could give the Podemos and other left forces in the November Spanish national elections.

On the other hand, most “market analysts” are sanguine, as represented by Marius Daheim, a “senior rates strategist” with SEB AB in Frankfurt, who was quoted by Bloomberg on September 18: “Tsipras is not much of a political threat since the agreement was signed. The moment the extreme left quit SYRIZA Tsipras was seen as even less of a political risk.”

Yet the memorandum's horrors will come, and in a likely economic context of continuing recession, with a banking sector needing at least €25 billion injected to keep it solvent, and tax increases and spending cuts that can only deepen recession.

For Ashoka Mody, former IMF mission boss in Ireland during that country's “rescue”, achieving the objectives of Greece's third memorandum “will require a miracle”.

The immediate future is full of question marks. Now that Greece has been made to see who's boss, the powers-that-be and even neo-liberal economists can agree that the country needs immediate debt relief. But how much? And on what conditions?

On this vital issue Greece's “partners” squabble amongst themselves. The IMF insists on a “bold” program of debt relief before it commits its funds and joins the bail-out, while the German-dominated Eurogroup (of Eurozone finance ministers) demands action on the memorandum's conditionalities before there is any talk of debt relief.

In the run-up to January 25, the powers of the European establishment intervened to try to prevent a SYRIZA victory. This time, with SYRIZA apparently tamed, voices that were loud and aggressive in January were largely silent.

One exception is German finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble. In the week before the election he told the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung that “as a member of a monetary union in which the instrument of external devaluation is not available”, Greek society still had to face up to the question of whether it was prepared to accept “necessary economic adjustment processes”.

According to Varoufakis, SYRIZA's plan for making these adjustment processes as painless as possible “is founded on three pledges”.

1. The agreement with the troika is unfinished business, leaving room for further negotiation of important details; 2. debt relief will follow soon and 3. Greece’s oligarchs will be tackled.  Voters supported Tsipras because he appeared the most likely candidate to deliver on these promises. The trouble is, his capacity to do so is severely circumscribed by the agreement he has already signed.

The re-election of SYRIZA points to a likely new period of class struggles in Greece, struggles that will continue to impact on European politics as a whole.

Dick Nichols in Green Left Weekly's European correspondent, based in Barcelona. Parts of this article appeared in a pre-election version on its web site.