The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Greek elections are expected to bring a populist experiment to an end

A resident of Makrinitsa offers a Greek national flag to New Democracy leader Kyriakos Mitsotakis on Tuesday. Elections on Sunday are expected to hand a decisive victory to his center-right party. (Aris Messinis/AFP/Getty Images)
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ATHENS — In 2015, Greece was on the forefront of a wave of populist revolutions around the world, voting into power a band of radical leftists who promised to reject economic austerity and revive the nation after a wipeout as big as the Great Depression.

Now Greece is poised to bring the revolution to an end. 

Elections on Sunday are expected to award a decisive victory to the same center-right party that held power before the populists. Greece’s probable future prime minister is a former banker who drinks his coffee out of a Harvard University alumni mug — hardly anyone’s idea of a rabble-rouser.

“Greece was the first country that experienced the peak of populism. And then it was deflated,” said George Pagoulatos, a professor at the Athens University of Economics and Business.

The result is an unusual reversion to a center-right party that doesn’t plan to throw any bombs. Leaders say they want to slash taxes and make their country of 11 million people more business-friendly. They are poised to win in a landslide.

“Are big-tent, mass parties still relevant? The answer in Greece is clearly yes,” said Kyriakos Mitsotakis, 51, the leader of the center-right New Democracy party who is likely to be the future prime minister.

“Of course, one could argue that the only way they can become relevant is if you experiment with populism first, and you actually elect the populists to see how much damage they can do,” he said.

Other countries that elected convention-busting politicians in the years after the Greek revolt are still running their experiments. A populist coalition just marked a year in power in Italy. Far-right nationalists and Greens scored wins in May’s European Parliament elections, denying traditional centrist parties a majority. Then there’s the United States.

In a few places, support for populists may be softening. In Germany, the anti-immigration Alternative for Germany party’s share of the vote is shrinking. The far-right Freedom Party of Austria was booted out of a ruling coalition.

But no country has made as decisive a reversal as Greece appears ready to do.

There is disappointment that Greece’s left-wing rulers — known as Syriza, a Greek-language abbreviation for the Coalition of the Radical Left — proved unable to deliver. Among other letdowns, they demanded the cancellation of a major chunk of Greece’s debt, then acquiesced to another bailout.

“We made a compromise” when taking a third bailout in July 2015, said Greek Energy Minister George Stathakis, who was involved in the negotiations. “It was not the choice of our ideas and our perspective. It was a compromise, no doubt about it.”

In 2015, Syriza leader Alexis Tsipras symbolized a new beginning in Greece, where voters were fed up with parties that doled out favors to loyalists as the economy suffered. He was a charismatic insurgent: brash, young and handsome. He promised a clean approach to governing and to defend the most vulnerable segments of society.

“They said they were going to make changes. They said they were going to raise salaries. They said they were going to take us out of the bailout,” said Artemis Gretsa, 31, who opened a hair salon in the lower-middle-class Athens area of Metamorfosi during the economic crisis.

Her sister had moved to London; her husband’s sister left for Norway. She didn’t want to go into economic exile, so she held her breath and voted for Syriza in January 2015, hoping for a big transformation.

On Sunday, Gretsa — who has a small tattoo of a pair of scissors on her right wrist — plans to vote for the center-right.

“As you grow up, you get more experienced” — and more inclined to treat grand promises with skepticism, she said.

The platform Syriza ran on in 2015 had been sharpened in airy university discussions but rarely tested in real life. That made for a bumpy transition into power.

Syriza leaders took a hardball approach with their international creditors, and in July 2015, six months into office, they held a referendum and got Greek citizens to reject a bailout proposal Syriza leaders derided as “blackmail.”

The country could not conjure money out of a vacuum, though. And other European leaders said their own citizens were just as opposed to using their taxes to write off Greece’s debts. With Greece hours away from being cast off the euro — and into North Korea-style economic pain — Athens folded.

After the July 2015 about-face, Tsipras ejected the most radical members of his cabinet and moved toward the center. He rebuilt relations with European leaders. He pushed through painful economic measures and lived up to the terms of the bailout — even holding on to more cash than was strictly necessary as a way of demonstrating fiscal bona fides to international lenders.

“We lost the battle for communication,” said George Chouliarakis, an alternate finance minister who has been one of the Greek government’s main bailout negotiators. “You need to show that you’re different from previous governments if you’re going to survive. I’m not so sure we showed that.”

The party won a snap election in September 2015, with voters offering it more time to make good on its populist promises. 

But the clock has run out. Syriza floundered in the recent European Parliament elections, finishing 9.3 percentage points behind the center-right New Democracy party. The loss pressured Tsipras, 44, into calling early national elections he knew his party had little chance of winning.

Chouliarakis said Syriza leaders are proud that they shielded the worst-off parts of society from the bite of the bailout, suggesting that austerity terms would have been worse had centrist leaders been in power.

“Whoever wins on Sunday will start from a very strong position, the strongest Greece has been in many years,” Chouliarakis said.

After nearly a decade of recession, Greece closed out its last bailout program a year ago. The economy is growing, if slowly. Unemployment remains high — at 18 percent, it’s still the worst in the European Union — but it has declined from its wrenching peak near 30 percent in 2013.

Battered for a decade, Greece feels an unexpected whiff of revival as Europe gains strength

But the frustration among Greeks isn’t just about the economy, analysts say. Nepotism and corruption scandals have convinced many voters that Syriza isn’t so different from traditional parties. An accord to end a decades-long dispute with the newly renamed Republic of North Macedonia has also been unpopular among nationalists who say Tsipras made too many concessions.

Greece approves Macedonia name change, ending 28-year row

Running the country, in short, forced Syriza to make choices that made it harder to distinguish itself from the old guard.

“It became evident to voters that they had been sold an illusion,” said Nick Malkoutzis of MacroPolis, a political analysis firm. The flameout wasn’t a foregone conclusion, he said.

“Syriza’s tactic was always to seek confrontation,” he said, even though European leaders might have been willing to compromise early on, understanding the degree of Greece’s economic pain and the political difficulty of austerity.

Now, he said, Greeks “want to hear from people who want to tackle problems, not just opponents.”

To do so, they have turned toward Mitsotakis, a scion of one of Greece’s most powerful political families. His father was prime minister. His sister was foreign minister. His nephew was just elected mayor of Athens. But despite his origins, after he successfully mounted an insurgent effort to take over his party over the objections of grandees, he has positioned himself as something of a maverick. 

“We’ve managed to move the party towards the center, while at the same time making sure that we don’t allow any political space to parties on the extreme right to emerge with any sort of credibility,” Mitsotakis said in an interview in his office, where a large blue abstract painting filled a wall and an Apple laptop sat on his desk.

He said he was hopeful that if elected, he could negotiate a deal with creditors to give him more spending flexibility.

“I’m not going to go back to the days of aggressive and unnecessary public spending, but give us some additional fiscal space to further cut taxes to turbocharge the growth that we need,” he said.

He said Greeks were rewarding his party for straight talk about what it would and would not be able to accomplish.

“Don’t try to imitate the populists. You’re going to fail,” he said. “They’re always going to be better at playing the game of overpromising and appealing to emotions.”

At Gretsa’s salon, her dominant emotion is hope, she said. Slowly, the economic recovery has taken hold on her corner. The salon expanded its hours as a steady stream of clients came in. A long-vacant storefront next door is about to reopen as a dry cleaner. Her husband’s elevator business has picked up as more people are constructing and renovating buildings.

“We needed an experiment. You make changes when you have a big problem,” said her husband, Lorentzos, 37, who also voted for Syriza in 2015 and plans to back the center-right. He said other countries should think twice about following Greece’s populist path.

“Greece back then was totally blocked, so we needed to do something different,” he said. “But if nothing’s wrong, why do it? It could create a catastrophe.”

Elinda Labropoulou contributed to this report.

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Today’s coverage from Post correspondents around the world

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