The heat lies heavy on Exarchia Square in central Athens. Summer has come to Greece’s capital city.
The migrant peddlers from Africa, the Middle East and South Asia hawk their rip-off DVDs and trinkets with uncharacteristic lethargy. Punters sit in canvas-covered chairs outside cafes; they drink iced lattes; they talk; they sweat.
Greeks have begun the long descent towards holiday season, a near-ritualistic time in this part of the Mediterranean, which reaches its peak in August. Regular temperatures of close to 40 degrees empty Athens of its inhabitants, who scurry eagerly to island hotspots. But this year is different. The country is gearing up for a general election on Sunday, and it could not be more important.
The election marks the first time Greeks will go to the polls since the height of the financial crisis in 2015. This was when fears that the country might tumble out of the Eurozone, and – though an unlikely scenario – the European Union, caused political and financial tremors from Brussels to Washington.
The far-Left and populist Syriza party emerged victorious twice that same year. Its first victory was in January, after a campaign that promised to tell the so-called Troika (a decision group comprising the European Commission, European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund) to get stuffed. Second in September, to ratify its decision to accept even more austerity measures from the Troika after its (obviously doomed from the outset) attempts to take it on failed.
Now, almost four years later, the centre-Right opposition party New Democracy looks almost certain to win – a result that will have severe ramifications, not only for Greece, but almost certainly for Europe as well.
The domestic implications of this are clear. As journalist Yiannis Baboulias, tells me: “Politically, Greece has moved from the anti-austerity financial-based narratives and conflict of the past decade to a political space in which culture wars now dominate.”
In this sense, Greece is merely reflecting a Europe-wide trend – not least the UK’s internal divisions over Brexit. As Baboulias also points out, it was Syriza that set the scene for this state of affairs with its pre-2015, highly populist and ludicrously unrealistic anti-austerity narrative.
Now, New Democracy has continued the populist trend, but from the other extreme, with a scattergun deployment of hard-Right tropes regarding migrants and LGBTQ issues. And as far as they are concerned, Syriza are hardcore communists who will turn Greece into Venezuela.
Meanwhile, an exhausted society looks on, either angry or apathetic.
“Society has been decimated by austerity and humiliated politically. It’s a dangerous mix,” says Baboulias. “Syriza didn’t manage to be the anti-austerity champion it promised to be and New Democracy has capitalised on that.”
But most alarming of all is New Democracy’s virulent opposition to the June 2018 Prespa Agreement – the treaty that saw North Macedonia change its name in return for Greece dropping objections to the country’s NATO accession.
The Macedonia dispute is the archetypal 21st-century culture war. At its heart sit questions of identity, nationality, and the weaponisation of history, from Alexander the Great to the wording of treaties. Sizeable chunks of Greeks and North Macedonians are also unhappy with the new status quo.
And so into this potent and volatile societal mix comes Russia. The Kremlin’s nightmare since the end of the Cold War has been encirclement by NATO, and to a lesser degree, EU states. North Macedonia is meanwhile preparing to join the NATO alliance.
Yet, no matter how unhappy it is with the Prespa Agreement, New Democracy will almost certainly not abrogate an international treaty that has been passed by the Greek parliament and is backed by the EU, the US and NATO. It can, however, drag its feet and hold up the process. In particular, it can cause problems when it comes to its neighbour’s desire to join the EU – which Russia will do everything in its power to encourage.
During the Prespa talks, Kremlin disinformation flooded Greece, both at an overt level with the Greek RT and Sputnik channels broadcasting incessantly against the deal, and more covertly as trolls and bots flooded the social media ecosystem with coordinated attacks on both it and Syriza. It is even alleged that the Russian-Greek oligarch Ivan Savvidis paid hooligans in both countries to stage violent protests against the agreement – charges he denies.
With an anti-Prespa New Democracy in power, the Kremlin’s position on North Macedonia will align almost perfectly with that of the Greek government.
Meanwhile, the country is facing an increasingly problematic figure in Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Turkey’s sitting president. Erdoğan is in political trouble, having been dealt a blow after his chosen candidate for mayor of Istanbul, Binali Yildirim, was defeated in local elections earlier in March by opposition candidate Ekrem Imamoglu, by a 54% majority.
A sure-fire way of uniting Turks is to take up sabre-rattling against Greeks. A critical test for any new Greek government will be handling a potential crisis with Turkey in the next few months. For that to succeed, there must be at least some degree of unity in the country.
Will Kyriakos Mitsotakis, New Democracy’s leader, be able to bring this? He is an able, liberal-minded politician who is keen to overhaul much of the entrenched statism that has caused Greece so much damage. He is pro-business and he is dynamic. He is also the sane face of a party that contains many elements that could be described – charitably – as falling “within the alt-right ambit”.
The trouble is, Greece may still not be ready for the type of tough free market measures New Democracy wants to deploy. It has promised, among other things, to cut taxes for corporations, reduce the size of the state and re-introduce fees in public hospitals. There is much to be said for these measures. The question remains however: are they realistic?
“New Democracy has promised to cut taxes for corporations, reduce the size of the state, re-introduce fees in public hospitals and other measures reminiscent of the agenda that brought down their 2012-14 government headed by Samaras,” says Baboulias. “But this time there is no Syriza to challenge them. I’m afraid that without an alternative political outlet through which to channel the anger that these policies will generate, the rage will spill out into the streets. Again.”
If this happens, we will have come full circle. Four years of austerity and pain will have achieved nothing. And meanwhile, other forces are at work. Roderick Beaton observes in his 2019 book Greece: Biography of a Modern Nation, the fate of the Greeks is, as ever, woven into the decision of the other powers. The years that followed the 1821-32 War of Independence, he argues, can be seen as a cycle of repeating patterns of political conflict, social change and economic upheaval. History has already borne out his thesis – the future will almost certainly reinforce it.
In Exarchia, the hawkers continue to wearily ply their trade among the many cafes and restaurants that dot the area’s central street grid. In between shooing them away from his customers, Yiorgos, a cafe waiter, has spent all day serving iced coffee and cold beer to locals and tourists alike.
He is going to vote on Sunday, though feels it is hardly worth it. “In 2015 I voted for Syriza because I was desperate, but nothing has really changed,” he explains.
“This time I’ll vote for New Democracy – pretty much for the same reason.” But he doesn’t expect much. “In the end,” he concludes “all these bastards are the same.”