- - Sunday, June 9, 2019

ATHENSEuropean Union parliamentary elections last month shook up domestic politics across the continent. But it was only in Greece that the voting took down a government.

Greece is heading to new elections in July after sharp losses for the ruling leftist Syriza party and a surge for conservatives in Greek and European Parliament elections that have undercut the political base of Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras’ government.

Expect a repeat performance in July, analysts say, a reflection more of the unpopularity of the incumbents than the attraction of their conservative rivals.

“Greeks voted against Syriza, not in favor of New Democracy,” said Ioannis Konstantinidis, a professor at the University of Macedonia in Thessaloniki who specializes in political behavior.

The rejection in the May 26 EU vote was profound. Syriza candidates were defeated by conservative New Democracy candidates in every region they held, as well as in the major cities of Athens and Thessaloniki. Syriza trailed the New Democracy party by 9 percentage points, winning 24% of the vote. New Democracy picked up three additional seats to secure eight of the country’s 21 seats in the new parliament.

While the clash between centrist and euroskeptic populist parties played out in other countries, the battle was fought far closer to home in Greece. Analysts say that was a main reason for Mr. Tsipras’ drubbing was anger over his deal with Macedonia to change the latter’s name to North Macedonia, despite the international acclaim that the deal attracted.

Mr. Tsipras was also paying the price for the high expectations he set with voters, promising to end harsh financial austerity programs and increase living standards for ordinary Greeks when he was elected in 2015. He has not only failed to deliver on those promises but also has backtracked when he agreed on a $9.5 billion bailout package from major European creditors, along with fresh government belt-tightening measures soon after becoming prime minister.

“I voted for Syriza in previous elections, but now I’m really disappointed,” said Theoni Papachristou, a 22-year-old communications student at the University of Athens who is worried she won’t find a job after graduation because of the 40% rate of youth unemployment. “They did nothing concerning the unequal wealth distribution and the social inequalities.”

The economic crisis started in Greece and the eurozone in 2009. Since then, Greece has borrowed more than $280 billion in three bailout packages from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the European Commission and the European Central Bank. In return, lenders asked the government to cut spending and raise revenue to run government surpluses until 2060.

Today, the government is running a 4% surplus, but critics say financial discipline is not translating into rising incomes or increased economic activity.

The general unemployment rate is 18%. After dozens of cuts over the years, the median pension is down to $800 a month. Many retirees are struggling to make ends meet on a pension of less than $400 a month, even as many other workers make the minimum wage of $600.

Perceptions and performance

Still, Mr. Konstantinidis said Syriza’s loss is about more than economics. He said it’s about the government’s perceived arrogance, the mismanagement of its image, and broken promises to transform the political system.

“Voters usually vote with their perceptions and not whether life has gotten better,” he said.

He said many of Syriza’s disgruntled voters abstained from casting ballots in the EU elections. It is these voters whom the two main parties are focusing on in upcoming elections.

Kyriakos Mitsotakis, the leader of New Democracy who running on a platform of shoring up Greece’s borders with Turkey, privatizing state assets and lowering corporate taxes, said the EU parliamentary vote was a clear signal that it was time for a change for Athens.

“It’s obvious that the Greek people have lost their trust in the government,” Mr. Mitsotakis said last week, calling for the government’s resignation, “especially now with national threats on the horizon and new threats for the economy.”

In upcoming elections, Mr. Mitsotakis’ party will need to win 151 seats in the 300-seat parliament to take power. If it doesn’t, then the party will have to form a coalition with one or more of the seven parties likely to win seats.

Some Greeks are worried that New Democracy will partner with Greek Solution, the party of pro-Russian TV show host and TV channel owner Kyriakos Velopoulos, a far-right conspiracy theorist best known for his cures against baldness — although he remains bald himself — and a book he published that allegedly includes original letters written by Jesus Christ.

With 4.2% of the vote last week, Mr. Velopoulos’ party will enter the EU Parliament for the first time with a single seat.

One fringe party whose support has slid over the past few years — and in Sunday’s elections — is the far-right Golden Dawn, Greece’s neo-Nazi party, which is being tried as a criminal organization. It lost half of its voters Sunday and barely reached the 3% threshold needed to enter Parliament.

“The party of Golden Dawn suffers from internal conflicts, and many of its voters abandoned the party” for Mr. Velopoulos, said Eftichia Teperoglou, a professor of political sciences at Aristotle University of Thessaloniki.

Mr. Mitsotakis is now promising to attract more foreign investment in Greece, but Mr. Konstantinidis doesn’t see that much will change for regular people.

“I don’t believe that this will better Greece or that it’ll even materialize,” Mr. Konstantinidis said. “The economy in Greece will change only when bureaucracy will cease and when the close-knit relationships between political parties and private interests end.”

But Syriza’s poor performance and the fact that its coalition partner, the far-right Independent Greeks, failed to win even one seat in the European Parliament show that Greece is bucking a trend toward the fringe in other EU countries.

“There was a defeat of populist forces from both sides of the ideological spectrum in Greece,” Ms. Teperoglou said.

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