I’m Ryan Heath, political editor at Politico. Welcome to Politico’s special European Elections Playbook series looking into the political scene in 19 European Union countries in the weeks running up to the European Parliament election on May 23-26. This week’s edition comes to you in partnership with Yannis Palaiologos, Eleni Varvitsiotis, Tom Ellis and Aristotelia Peloni of Greek news outlet Kathimerini.
Quick fixes: ICYMI, the first Greece Playbook | Greece Politico election page | Essential voting information | EU Elections News Twitter account | Save the date: Politico is co-moderating the Maastricht EU presidential debate April 29.
EU election insight
Five years ago, Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras was the long-shot green-left candidate for European Commission president. Today, after leading his country through yet another bailout, his latest attempt to guard a place on the European stage revolves around defining next month’s European Parliament election as a battle to save the EU from Euroskeptics.
Tsipras wanted Europe’s four progressive party groups to unite around a common platform. He got nowhere with that idea, but is taking steps to implement a Greek version of it via a SYRIZA-Progressive Alliance. Even that idea has had limited success: So far there’s just an alliance with the Democratic Left (DIMAR), a former junior governing party that has previously allied with both the Greens and socialist PASOK. These moves are about more than ideals: Tsipras needs an alliance to outgun the center-right New Democracy party which has led every national opinion poll for more than two years. For its part, New Democracy is one of the few bright spots for Europe’s largest grouping, the European People’s Party (EPP).
As for the Euroskeptic threat that Tsipras warns of: No Greek parties are so far involved in the maneuvers to unite Euroskeptics into just one or two voting blocs in Brussels and Strasbourg. That’s because Greece’s main Euroskeptic party, the neo-fascist Golden Dawn, is seen as too toxic an association for the likes of Alternative fur Deutschland (AfD), Italy’s League, and Poland’s Law and Justice.
You can’t separate any Greek election from the backdrop of economic crisis. This week, there are signs of spring arriving for the Greek economy. Greece secured modest debt relief and the country’s 5-year bond yields are now lower than the US (2.28 percent vs 2.31 percent). The Greek government also plans to make an early repayment on the 10 billion euros it owes the International Monetary Fund, Macropolis reported, and Kathimerini is reviving the Vogue Greece magazine, run by 29-year-old editor-in-chief Thaleia Karafyllidou.
But it’s not all good news: In 2018, more than half the Greek population declared an income under 10,000 euros, according to Greece’s Independent Authority for Public Revenue (IAPR). Since 2010, declared income is down by a quarter. The income of freelancers, the self-employed and businesses also dropped. Greece continues to hemorrhage people and deaths outnumber births. Meanwhile, a chunk of the economic revival is based on a system of “golden visas” and income from platforms like Airbnb, to the detriment of low-income Greeks pushed out of their permanent housing to make way for tourists.
Migration set to stick as an election topic: Days of migrant protests were met with force by police – in both Athens and at the Greece-North Macedonia border. Migrants traveling north reportedly hoped to make an organized mass crossing of the border in early April. “It’s a lie that the borders will open,” Migration Minister Dimitris Vitsas told Greek state television ERT last Friday.
Varoufakis vs Tsipras – the personality clash that keeps on giving: Former finance minister Yanis Varoufakis’ latest volley is his claim that Tsipras looked into raiding 17 billion euros from the security deposit boxes of Greeks at the height of the country’s liquidity crisis in 2015. Listen to Varoufakis on the FT’s Alphachat podcast – on “radical Europeanism,” erratic Marxism and, er, Pamela Anderson.
Extremist violence threat: Dimitris Koufodinas, a convicted hitman of the leftist November 17 terrorist group, can sometimes be seen strolling around central Athens, despite 11 life sentences for the murder of foreign diplomats and Greek businessmen. He’s had six temporary releases from prison in the past year, leading the Financial Times to report that his “increased visibility in recent months has sparked fears of a return of extremist violence ahead of this year’s elections.” Why is he allowed to walk the streets? The FT says “his recent lenient treatment at the hands of the Justice Ministry plays well with parts of [ruling party] SYRIZA’s left-wing voter base.”
Domestic political backdrop – Kathimerini
A tale of two parties: Less than seven weeks before the European election, the domestic political scene is fixed, with the two main parties – the governing leftists of SYRIZA and the center-right New Democracy (the official opposition) – locked in a polarizing showdown. How it plays out will affect the Greek Parliament election that will take place by September. On the two recent occasions when the national polls followed soon after the European ones, the winner of the first contest significantly increased their winning margin in the second.
That’s good news for New Democracy, which looks poised to win handily in May – recent surveys put its lead close to or into double digits, making it a golden child of the European People’s Party, which is shedding seats nearly everywhere else. Greece’s continued recovery, a pause on pension cuts, and a recent minimum wage increase have not moved the needle in SYRIZA’s direction.
The EU election is everything but European: Both the prime minister, Alexis Tsipras, and the leader of the opposition, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, are looking ahead to the upcoming struggle for national power and are pitching their arguments accordingly.
SYRIZA rebranding: The key to Tsipras’ strategy is to appear as the leader of a so-called “progressive alliance” of the Left, not merely of SYRIZA, which will prevent the “restoration” of the corrupt old establishment. In a much-advertised speech last Saturday in Athens, Tsipras repeatedly referred to this wider coalition of progressive forces (versus mentioning SYRIZA only twice) and he pointedly avoided slinging his arrows at Movement for Change (KINAL), the successor to the socialist PASOK party. SYRIZA hopes to entice its disappointed voters by presenting New Democracy as neoliberals increasingly veering toward the far-right.
Mitsotakis is seeking to present the vote as an opportunity for anyone let down by SYRIZA to express their anger. In a recent speech, he said the European election is “the first chance that the Greek people have had to speak in their own voice in four years.”
Meet the candidates
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SYRIZA – when celebrity backfires: Tsipras’ plans to put a fresh face on his coalition suffered a major blow with the candidacy of Myrsini Loizou, the daughter of the famous left-wing songwriter and singer Manos Loizos. She was forced to withdraw from the race after it was revealed she was convicted in 2017 for falsely claiming her dead mother’s pension (for five years). The prime minister also courted controversy by picking businessman Petros Kokkalis as a candidate. SYRIZA spokespeople did their best to connect him to the Resistance credentials of his grandfather, a famous communist activist. The opposition succeeded, however, in linking him to his father, Sokratis Kokkalis, a billionaire blasted by the left and the right as the epitome of “diaploki,” meaning business-government collusion, who also recently took over as CEO of a gaming company.
Other notable SYRIZA candidates include Tourism Minister Elena Kountoura, who hails from the ranks of Independent Greeks (the ruling party’s erstwhile coalition partner), and independent MP Spyros Danellis (a breakaway from the centrist Potami). The support of their votes is critical for the government’s wafer-thin parliamentary majority.
New Democracy – heavyweights: The opposition's strategy is to prove how seriously it takes the EU election by putting heavy-hitters on its list. At the top is Vangelis Meimarakis, a former leader of the party who fought Mitsotakis for the leadership in 2016. Other big names include current MEP and until recently party spokesperson Maria Spyraki. Other candidates include Stelios Kympouropoulos, a quadriplegic psychiatrist, and Dimitris Kairidis, a professor of international relations and TV commentator.
The Papandreou wars: For KINAL, the latest incarnation of the Greek center-left, the European election is a key battle in the war of survival against SYRIZA. Alexis Tsipras is making a clear move for leadership over all voters and parties of the Left, both with the domestic audience and in EU circles. He almost openly styles himself as the successor to Andreas Papandreou, the founder of PASOK and former prime minister. In a bid to block Tsipras, KINAL is resorting to dynasty politics. It has recruited Nick Papandreou, son of Andreas and brother of another former PM, George Papandreou, to run for a European Parliament seat. Another important KINAL contender is Giorgos Kaminis, the mayor of Athens, making his first run for office outside of local government.
Golden Dawn latest: The extreme-right party is fielding six candidates, and general secretary Nikolaos G. Michaloliakos promises this election “will be the Golden Dawn of Hellenism; the Golden Dawn of the Nationalists. The dawn of a strong Greece in a free Europe, where the nationalist banners will fly high.” Yet, with 8 percent of the vote, the EU’s most unloved party (no party group will take them) is set to drop to just two seats in Brussels.
Playbook interview – Janis Emmanouilidis
Nearly everyone agrees that May’s EU election is the most crucial ever. One of the most insightful EU political analysts, Janis Emmanouilidis, director of studies at the European Policy Center, helped us map out the challenges ahead as the EU prepares to enter into a new political cycle.
The EU’s core problem over the next five years will be fragmentation: “not only fragmentation between countries but also a high level of polarization within national societies,” Emmanouilidis said. He talks about the “battle of split camps,” the growing confrontation not only between nationalist forces and the defenders of EU values, but also within these two camps. These conflicts “will not be resolved in the foreseeable future.”
Emmanouilidis sees Europe’s future as depending on mastering the ability to counter sources of fragmentation and polarization: “EU business will not become simple or straightforward,” he warned, “either in Brussels or in national capitals. However, trying to move things forward while having a compass indicating the EU’s future direction is still worth trying for the sake of current and future generations.”
The situation today “is much better than it was at the height of the poly-crisis” that hit Europe in the past 10 years, Emmanouilidis said, but he laments Europe missing a window of opportunity for significant change in 2016-17, in the aftermath of the Brexit referendum, the election of Donald Trump and the French presidential elections. “We did not take advantage of that period,” he said, pointing to eurozone inaction. At the same time, the “negative coalition” – as Emmanouilidis calls the Hanseatic League, the group of EU countries led by the Netherlands which are trying to obstruct the dominance of France and Germany – is having a damaging effect on the prospects of the EU.
This month, New Democracy leads Greek opinion polls as it has for more than two years, with an average lead of 10 percent over the ruling SYRIZA coalition. That puts New Democracy on track to win nine seats out of 21, though New Democracy insiders say internal party polling gives them a shot at up to 11 seats. SYRIZA won six seats in 2014, and may even improve to seven seats in 2019.
When the new MEPs head to Brussels, the socialist and democrat party group is set to be the biggest Greek loser: Their Greek member parties are on track to win just two seats, down from four in 2014, and eight in 2009.
Cornelius Hirsch, co-founder of pollofpolls.eu, said: “New Democracy is doing slightly better in the few polls asking specifically about the voting intention in the European Parliament election compared to those for the national election in Greece, and could have a shot for a 10th seat. The Euroskeptics both from the far-right with Golden Dawn and the far-left with the Communist Party have little chance to be as successful as in the 2014 election and are on track to lose one seat each. The seventh seat for SYRIZA is a rather uncertain one but definitely within reach.”