Populists’ 2015 rise to power in Athens has now become a symbol of defiance against the constitutionalized neoliberalism of the European Union (EU). Although the center-right New Democracy party won the 2019 general elections with a comfortable margin, the far-left Syriza remains a major political actor and the largest opposition party in the Greek Parliament. These two parties are accompanied by five others, two of which are considered populist: The Communists and the pro-Russian Greek Solution.
Located in Southeastern Europe, Greece – officially the Hellenic Republic – is a parliamentary republic, and the font of Western civilization. What makes Greece unique in recent European politics is slightly at odds with its ancient contributions to Western modernization: despite the rise of populist parties all over Europe, Greece was the lonely country where a radical left-wing populist party came to power.
The territories that today fall within the borders of modern Greece were a part of the Ottoman Empire from the mid-15th century until the 1830 Greek War of Independence, also known as the Greek Revolution. With independence from the Ottoman Turks, Greece became a kingdom in 1832; this endured until the monarchy was vacated by the country’s Parliament in 1924. The following period of republican governance lasted only eleven years: Georgios Kondylis disbanded the Second Hellenic Republic in 1935, restoring the Kingdom of Greece, which lasted until 1973.
With the fall of the junta regime in 1974, the current Greek state, the Third Hellenic Republic, came into existence following a popular referendum. Joining the “third wave” of democratization in the late 20th century, Greece became a two-party democracy when its political system was reorganized and democratized in 1975. Greece’s accession to the EU in 1981 consolidated its democracy and contributed to its political stability while paving the way for the rise of a full and generous welfare state. Despite the superficial restructuring of its financial system, Greece became more prosperous and seemed to enjoy relative growth in the 1990s (Kalaitzidis & Zahariadis, 2015).
However, this seemingly rosy post-authoritarian Greece came at a certain price: the advent of left-wing populism. Blended with nationalist, anti-American, and anti-NATO discourses, the Panhellenic Socialist Movement (PASOK) and its charismatic leader Andreas Papandreou introduced left-wing populism to Greek politics in the early 1980s, paving the way for it to sweep through the country’s entire political system in the coming years. PASOK’s populism fed “cronyism, corruption and inefficiency” in Greece, creating an expensive welfare state that was designed to reward loyal supporters (Kalaitzidis & Zahariadis, 2015).
Left-wing anti-establishment populism in Greece rose again in the aftermath of the financial crisis of 2007–08, a situation exacerbated by Greece’s dangerous amount of sovereign debt owed to the EU. The debt crisis, also known as the Greek government-debt crisis, brought about rounds of tough austerity measures, which eventually led to a high level of impoverishment, bankruptcies, foreclosures, and homelessness (Iefimerida, 2015). Greece increasingly became a hub for both left-wing and right-wing populism. The 2012 general election was a warning to the country’s two major political parties, the center-left PASOK, and the center-right New Democracy (ND) and led to the rise of the Coalition of the Radical Left (Syriza), the radical right Independent Greeks (ANEL), and the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn (GD) party.
In the January 2015 election, Syriza became the governing party, receiving 36.3 percent of total votes. The coalition’s left-wing populist narrative laid the blame for the country’s struggles on “exploitative powers” and pledged to restore Greece’s sovereignty. ANEL also campaigned on a populist, nationalist, and Eurosceptic platform and received 4.8% of the total vote. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the extreme right-wing Golden Dawn, known for extremism and violence, received 6.28 percent of all the votes and 17 seats in the Greek Parliament. Nine months later, the September 2015 legislative election also resulted in a large victory for Syriza, while allowing Golden Dawn to maintain its vote and seats in Parliament.
There are currently 12 populist political parties in Greece; although the discourses that define them can easily be found within all political parties in the system (Baboulias, 2019). Eight of these parties are considered left-wing; the remaining four are right-wing. Although they are divided on several social issues, such as religion, the 12 parties have adopted similar “us versus them” narratives, extreme nationalist rhetoric, an ideology of national sovereignty, and rejection of foreign domination.
The Coalition of the Radical Left, or Syriza, is the most significant populist party in Greece. Founded in 2004 as a coalition of left-wing and radical left parties, Syriza is considered a left-wing authoritarian party with a socialist and anti-globalist agenda. However, the party’s populist characteristics became more visible during the post-2010 period of socio-economic and political crisis. With strong, charismatic leadership, Syriza increasingly appealed to “the people” – including key outgroups such as the young, women, workers, the unemployed, the poor, and other underprivileged groups, including immigrants. The party’s populism, in one sense, is “egalitarian and inclusionary,” (Font et al, 2019) making it an anti-establishment populist party with a mildly Eurosceptic approach.
While in power, Syriza’s inclusionary populism gave citizenship to second-generation migrants and added over one million people to the Greek National Health Service. The party, however, not only failed to deliver its anti-austerity promises but accepted even more catastrophic EU- and IMF-driven austerity policies. After four-and-a-half years in government, the party suffered a defeat in the 2019 general election, losing power to the center-right New Democracy (ND) party. Syriza is often considered an authoritarian populist and anti-liberal party, but still a democratic organization. Gradually abandoning its radical left program, the party is now turning into a strong center-left force in Greek politics.
With its ultra-nationalist, xenophobic, far-right, neo-Nazi stance, Golden Dawn (GD) is another populist party worthy of mention. The GD embraces “the idea of an organic inter-classist state, which is a ‘People’s state’ that protects the ‘biological’ and ‘cultural unity’ of the Greek nation” (Georgiadou et al, 2016). Nikolaos Michaloliakos, the leader of the party, is actually proud that the GD is “racist, nationalist and not hiding that” (Today’s Zaman, 2015). In 2012, the party’s official website was shut down due to death threats made against Greek journalist Xenia Kounalaki. In 2013, Michaloliakos and several party MPs were sent to prison as part of an investigation into the murder of an anti-fascist rapper. Michaloliakos was released in 2015, but the party’s vote share decreased to 6.3% in that year’s elections. In 2019, the Golden Dawn secured only 2.9% of the total votes and failed to pass the Parliamentary threshold.
Another significant populist party in Greece is the Greek Solution (GS). A far-right, ultranationalist populist party, the GS entered Parliament for the first time following the 2019 election, after securing nine seats. Although the party is still nascent, it desires to establish stronger relations with Russia, opposes the use of the word “Macedonia,” and emphasizes nationalism and Orthodoxy.
Another populist party, the Communist Party of Greece (KKE) was founded in 1918. KKE is a far-left political party that explicitly maintains an anti-LGBT position (International Communist League, 2016). As one of the oldest political parties in Greek political history, this Soviet-style communist organization secured 5.3 percent of total votes in the 2019 election. A large majority of its members self-identify as Stalinists.
The Independent Greeks – National Patriotic Alliance, ANEL, was Syriza’s coalition partner from 2015 through the June 2019 parliamentary election. Created on 24 February 2012, ANEL is often described as a conservative, right-wing populist, Greek nationalist, and Eurosceptic party. ANEL wants to reduce immigration, opposes multiculturalism, and has declared support for a Christian Orthodox education system. The party did not participate in the 2019 election.
In terms of civil liberties, Greece is a free country. Although the prevailing religion in Greece is that of the Eastern Orthodox Church of Christ, the constitution provides all citizens with freedom of religious beliefs, freedom of conscience, freedom of expression, and of thoughts, opinions, or beliefs (Greece, 2001). In practice, the country retains a good record of civil liberties, human rights, and political opportunities. Parliamentary democracy is well-functioning.
Still, the Greek system has been fertile for populist parties. Although the center-right New Democracy won the 2019 general election with a comfortable margin, Syriza remains a major political actor and the largest opposition party in Parliament, and both the Communists and the pro-Russian Greek Solution retain seats in Parliament. Populist rhetoric has been embraced by all political parties. Indeed, the ruling ND may just become as populist as Syriza over time, as the party’s tone is increasingly set by its far-right faction. It is, therefore, safe to argue that ND’s position in relation to populism will determine the degree and influence of populism in Greek politics.
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Baboulias, Yiannis. (2019). “Greece’s New Prime Minister Is Just as Populist as the Old One,” Foreign Policy, July 8, 2019. https://foreignpolicy.com/2019/07/08/greeces-new-prime-minister-is-just-as-populist-as-the-old-one-mitsotakis-tsipras/
Font, Nuria; Graziano, Paolo & Tsakatika, Myrto. (2019). “Varieties of Inclusionary Populism? SYRIZA, Podemos, and the Five Star Movement,” Government and Opposition. s. 8-9.
Georgiadou, Dinas, E. V.; Konstantinidis, I.; & Rori, L. (2016). “From dusk to dawn: Local party organization and party success of right-wing extremism”. Party Politics. 22/1: 81.
Kalaitzidis, Akis & Zahariadis, Nikolaos. (2015). “Greece’s Trouble with European Union Accession”. Cahiers de la Méditerranée 90. December 01, 2015. http://journals.openedition.org/cdlm/7951
 These are: The Coalition of the Radical Left, or Syriza — Συνασπισμός Ριζοσπαστικής; The Greek Solution — Ελληνική Λύση; The Marxist–Leninist Communist Party of Greece — Μαρξιστικό-Λενινιστικό Κομμουνιστικό Κόμμα Ελλάδας; The Popular Association – Golden Dawn — Λαϊκός Σύνδεσμος – Χρυσή Αυγή, Laïkós Sýndesmos; The Independent Greeks – National Patriotic Alliance — Ανεξάρτητοι Έλληνες; Course of Freedom — Πλεύση Ελευθερίας; The Front of the Greek Anticapitalist Left — Αντικαπιταλιστική Αριστερή Συνεργασία για την Ανατροπή, Popular Unity — Λαϊκή Ενότητα (ΛΑΕ); The Organization for the Reconstruction of the Communist Party of Greece — Οργάνωση για την Ανασυγκρότηση του Κομουνιστικού Κόμματος Ελλάδας (ΟΑΚΚΕ); The Communist Party of Greece (Marxist–Leninist) — Κομμουνιστικό Κόμμα Ελλάδας (μαρξιστικό-λενινιστικό), The Workers Revolutionary Party — Εργατικό Επαναστατικό Κόμμα (ΕΕΚ); The Popular Orthodox Rally or People’s Orthodox Alarm — Λαϊκός Ορθόδοξος Συναγερμός.
 — (2019). Freedom in the World 2019 Narrative Report for Greece. Freedom House. https://freedomhouse.org/country/greece/freedom-world/2019