I’m Ryan Heath, political editor at POLITICO. Welcome to POLITICO’s special European Elections Playbook series looking into the political scene in 19 EU 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, Athanasios Ellis and Aristotelia Peloni of Greek news outlet Kathimerini. Coming next week are Ireland and Hungary (with hvg.hu).
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.
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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 the Socialists (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 for 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 to the Greek economy. Greece secured modest debt relief and the country’s 5-year bond yields are now lower than the U.S. (2.28 percent vs. 2.31 percent). The Greek government also plans to make an early repayment on the €10 billion 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, 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 on 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 from the security deposit boxes of Greeks at the height of the country’s liquidity crisis in 2015. Listen to Varoufakis on 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 leftwing voter base.”
**A message from the European Gaming and Betting Association (EGBA): Whether it’s placing a bet on the outcome of the upcoming European election or on your favorite football team’s next match, betting is a popular pastime for many Europeans. But the lack of EU betting rules jeopardizes their safety when they bet online — and more common, EU rules are needed.**
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. In 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 one.
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.
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 re-branding: The key to Tsipras’s 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 KINAL, the successor to the socialist PASOK party. Syriza hopes to entice its disappointed voters by presenting New Democracy as neoliberals increasingly veering towards 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”.