Battle for Greece

Leftwing coalition Syriza’s rise to power in 2015 seemed to swept away the old greek political order. But a journey through the strongholds of these dynasties shows they never went away. Their power lies deeper in history.

Published On: July 4th, 2019
Battle for Greece_62ccae60d0614.jpeg
Battle for Greece_62ccae60d0614.jpeg

Battle for Greece

Leftwing coalition Syriza’s rise to power in 2015 seemed to swept away the old greek political order. But a journey through the strongholds of these dynasties shows they never went away. Their power lies deeper in history.

ATHENS — Until the economic crisis that gripped the country in 2009, Greece was rarely a breaking news story. International reporters used to focus mainly on the tourist attractions of the country or, more occasionally, on the unfortunate fires that ravaged its landscape. Then a political storm erupted. In 2015, Syriza, a previously marginal, left-wing coalition party, came into power and smashed the old Greek political order. At the same time, Golden Dawn, a neo-fascist party founded in the 90s but hitherto irrelevant, had entered the Parliament and caused international alarm. 

It was, or it seemed to be, the start of a new era. 

But Syriza never succeeded in conquering two regional units of Greece, Kastoria, and Laconia, strongholds of the Greek conservative parties. Neither of the rightwing parties could catch the vote of predominantly leftist Achaea, in the Peloponnese, and Chania and Heraklion, in the island of Crete, according to data collected by EDJN.

Political history and traditions weren’t swept away entirely and now, as the early general election of 7 July approaches, old rivalries festered in the bastions of Greek power begin to soften back into light. 

Crete, promised land

An intriguing history of ruling dynasties links the island of Crete to the coming electoral fight and promises to make the touristy and rich Greek island into one of the most observed places during the political race.

In fact, Crete’s regional units of Chania and Heraklion have voted overwhelmingly and uninterruptedly for the left and center-left political parties in legislative elections in Greece since 1996, according to official data of the Greek Minister of Interior.

The only reversal in the trend has been between the Panhellenic Socialist Movement (PASOK) and the leftist Syriza. In fact, PASOK governed Chania and Heraklion from 1996 to 2012, when Syriza took over.

The reason, says Angelos Kovaios, an Athens-based journalist who works for the Greek daily To Vima, is that the political positioning of the two areas is linked to the anti-nazi sentiment that grew up here during the World War II and is still alive.  

“The tourist island was a battleground of the resistance against the Nazis, and it has been for decades connected to progressivism,” says Kovaios.

“Since the beginning of the 20th century, Crete has been the center of the liberal anti-monarchy vote, being the homeland of Eleftherios Venizelos, the founder of Liberal Party in Greece. Similarly, Achaea, the homeland of Papandreou family, evolved into a bastion of the centrist vote, as shown by the high vote tallies of the Center Union in 1961-1964. Both these local traditions were inherited after 1974 by center-left PASOK, giving almost constantly two of its highest vote scores in the country until 2009,” adds Panagiotis Custenis, a Political Science expert and Researcher of Electoral Sociology of the University of Athens.

“To a large extent, after 2012, these regions switched their loyalties to SYRIZA, since old PASOK voters constituted the main electoral basis for Alexis Tsipras’s rise to power”, he says.

Even in the last European Parliament election in Greece, which resulted in a major victory (of more than nine points of advantage) for the center-right New Democracy (ND) party, voters of Chania and Heraklion did not punish Syriza, consistent with the previous national elections.

Even so, nowadays, a significant element of the island’s politics cannot be ignored. 

The family of Kyriakos Mitsotakis, the center-right favorite to become Greece’s next prime minister, comes from a Crete-based clan that was linked for decades to the anti-monarchist Liberal Party founded by Eleftherios Venizelos (1864-1936), the prominent Cretan statesman who backed the Allies in the First World War. 

In fact, the Mitsotakis are also one of the Greek political families with the most staying power. Kyriakos Mitsotakis’s father, Konstantinos — born in Chania and a nephew of Venizelos — was Prime Minister from 1990 to 1993. Kyriakos Mitsotakis’ sister, Dora Bakoyannis, was Foreign Minister from 2006 to 2009. 

However, Konstantinos Mitsotakis has had a complicated relationship with Greek politics. He first entered mainstream politics as a liberal parliamentarian in 1946, but then made a U-turn when he masterminded in 1965 a split in the governing Centre Union Party (led by Georgios Papandreou, grandfather of the socialist prime minister) that opened a political crisis and precipitated a military coup (1967-1974).

“The case was called ‘the defection,’ and it is related to the fall of the Papandreou’s government by some MPs that had as a leader Mitsotakis. This group of MPs formed a new government with the support of the right front and the monarchy. At that time, it was a shock for the center-left family,” recalls Nikos Marantzidis, a pollster and professor of political science at the University of Macedonia in Thessaloníki.