Greek Election: Five Key Takeaways

Syriza leader Alexis Tsipras celebrates with supporters after his party's victory in the Greek general elections at his campa
Syriza leader Alexis Tsipras celebrates with supporters after his party's victory in the Greek general elections at his campaign headquarters in Athens on September 20, 2015. With over half of the votes counted, Tsipras' Syriza party won 35.54 percent of the vote against 28.07 percent for conservative New Democracy and is likely to again form a coalition government with the nationalist Independent Greeks party. AFP PHOTO/ LOUISA GOULIAMAKI (Photo credit should read LOUISA GOULIAMAKI/AFP/Getty Images)

The conclusion after many European elections in recent years has been that while much has changed, everything stays the same. In fact, this now also best describes the "historic" Greek elections of January 2015, which did not bring the hoped (and promised) end of austerity in Europe in general, and Greece in particular. Today's Greek elections are almost the opposite: while everything seems to stay the same, some important things have in fact changed. Let me highlight five.

1. Syriza Is Now Truly Tsipras' Party

The only reason that PM Alexis Tsipras called for the September elections was to weed out the (real) radicals from his increasingly misnamed Coalition for the Radical Left (Syriza). Faced with a parliamentary faction of at least one-third 'dissidents,' i.e. MPs opposed to the third bailout and the more moderate course of Tsipras, he by and large called a Greek election to solve a Syriza problem. Ironically, Tsipras realized that he was more popular in the country than in his own political party, so a national election was more expedient for him, not necessarily the country, than a party election.

And he got exactly what he hoped for. While the party will have a similar number of MPs, the new and remaining Syriza MPs will (blindly) follow their leader. With Syriza unscratched and Popular Unity of the dissidents below the electoral threshold, they will realize that Tsipras is their only ticket to success. Hence, the elections have significantly increased Tsipras' power in his party and therefore in the country. In fact, he has even strengthened his position in Europe, as he can (rightly) argue that the "radical" elements are no longer (relevant) in the party.

2. A Syriza-Independent Greek Coalition Lost Its Raison D'etre

Many people were initially disappointed and shocked that the 'radical left' Syriza would form a coalition with the 'radical right' Independent Greeks (ANEL). Leaving aside that neither was really that radical, the coalition actually made perfect sense in the worldview of both parties, the only two pro-EU but anti-Memorandum parties in the Greek parliament. However, the Memorandum is now a reality that even Syriza and Independent Greeks have accepted, grudgingly and under a different name. Consequently, there is no longer a raison d'etre for a Syriza-ANEL coalition.

If Tsipras chooses to continue his coalition with ANEL, as is widely speculated, this is either a disturbing ideological choice -- indicating that the 'patriotic left' is more patriotic than left -- or a disturbing tactical choice -- as Tsipras was the first to rule out any coalition with 'the old forces,' i.e. New Democracy (ND), Panhellenic Socialist Movement (PASOK), and The River (To Potami). While it makes sense for Syriza to stay away from a 'Grand Coalition' with ND, which would only further increase the deep dissatisfaction with Greek politics, PASOK and To Potami share more of Syriza's alleged progressive politics than the ultra-conservative ANEL.

3. The Brown Bogeyman Is No More

While it remains disturbing that a political party that has an anti-democratic ideology and has been involved in endemic violence is the third largest party in the country, all the opportunistic and sensationalist warnings of a huge rise of the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn have predictably proven wrong. Its modest increase is mostly an effect of the combination of a remarkably loyal support base and a lower turnout (see below). It is clear that roughly 5 percent of the Greek population supports Golden Dawn, accepting that it is a violent neo-Nazi party, and will almost always come out to vote. But this makes Golden Dawn less like the French Front National, a party that has systematically broadened and increased its support base, and more like the Communist Party of Greece (KKE), catering to a devoted but relatively stable subcultural base.

It is therefore time for Greek politicians of left, center, and right to stop using the brown bogeyman to push through unpopular decisions. At the same time, the Greek state should do all it can to ensure that no more youth get sucked into the neo-Nazi subculture. One of the most important ways to do this is by ensuring that the court case against Golden Dawn is well-prepared and -executed. So far it doesn't look good, with endless postponements and more confusion than dedication on the side of the prosecution.

4. The Biggest Party Is The Non-Voter

In January it was already very close, but in the end Syriza had a higher percentage of votes than the percentage of non-voters. This time the non-voters win convincingly (almost 10 percent higher!). There is nothing remarkable about non-voters being the largest group in elections in Europe -- in fact, this is increasingly becoming the norm in both national and European elections. However, this is the first time that non-voters are the largest bloc in a country that has compulsory voting -- even though it is no longer strictly enforced. Imagine that, in a country where people are obliged to vote, more than one-third would rather break the law than turn out to vote for one of the parties! It makes one wonder what the turnout would be if there would have been no compulsory voting.

5. Greek Politics Is Now Officially Post-Memorandum

The final, and most important, change is that, for the first time since at least the May 2012 elections, Greek politics is officially post-Memorandum, in the sense that the negotiations with the EU are no longer the dominant issue on the agenda. Obviously, the constraints of the conditions of the various bailouts will continue to seriously limit the political space of the governing coalition; the key focus of people and politicians will now slowly but steadily turn to domestic politics. While this provides enormous opportunities to the government parties, it is doubtful that they will be able to profit from them. After all, both ANEL and Syriza have almost exclusively campaigned on the Memorandum. Moreover, they have so far never owned up to their decision, instead arguing that the EU 'blackmailed' or 'humiliated' them into making these decisions. This is getting old fast and the Greek people will want to hear a new tune.

After years of blaming the other parties and of claiming to have no choice, Tsipras will now have to actually lead the country into a new era. While Greece remains a semi-sovereign country in the post-Memorandum era, Tsipras has at least as much power as his predecessors had. He also has been able to convince the Greek people that he is the TINA (There Is No Alternative) candidate... for now. This was the last election that Tsipras could win purely on the basis of the failure of the other candidates. The next time, be it in one year or in four, voters will judge him, rather than his opponents. Is Tsipras ready for this?