The Context of the 2015 Greek Elections: Can There Be a Similar Leftist Victory in Turkey?
The Context of the 2015 Greek Elections:
Can There Be a Similar Leftist Victory in Turkey?*
SYRIZA’s electoral success in the January 2015 elections gave many in Turkey the hope that the left in Turkey could similarly triumph in the near future. But, is this a realistic assessment when the historical, economic and political context of Turkey is compared with Greece? The answer is not as optimistic as many commentators and leftist activists would wish. There are differences between the two Aegean countries that make a similar victory difficult to attain. Historically, the power and influence of the leftists in Greece have been much more significant than it has been in Turkey. The current political and economic conditions that ensured the rise of the radical left in Greece do not seem to exist in contemporary Turkey. SYRIZA capitalised on the sudden reversal of living standards and economic conditions, filled the vacuum created by the electoral collapse of the traditional centre-left party, the Pan-Hellenic Socialist Movement (PASOK), and forged close links with protestors on the streets that did not have any affiliation with a particular party. None of the same conditions seem to exist in Turkey as the country prepares for the June 2015 general elections.
The widely anticipated general elections in Greece in January brought about the victory of the Coalition of the Radical Left, known by its Greek acronym SYRIZA. The main slogan of the party during the election campaign was ‘Hope is Coming,’ referring to better living standards for the country that was forced to bend its knees in front of its foreign lenders following the 2009 fiscal crisis. ‘Hope’ meant, among other things, reversing austerity, increasing public spending, raising the minimum wage, rehiring public sector employees, providing free electricity and distributing food and housing to the poor. In essence, SYRIZA’s populist promises were to abandon neo-liberal policies and to fight against the corruption and tax evasion of the rich. Like many Greeks, SYRIZA too put the blame of the economic crisis on the old political elite, represented by the New Democracy (ND) and the Pan-Hellenic Socialist Movement (PASOK) parties and argued that their austerity measures made the crisis worse than it should have been for many citizens.
SYRIZA gave hope not only to Greeks but to many leftists worldwide by getting 36 percent of the votes and leading the coalition government that was formed. Turkey was one of the countries that most discussed and celebrated the victory of SYRIZA. According to an assessment of social media activity, Turkey-generated tweets on SYRIZA were at a similar rate to Spanish, Italian, French and German originated ones. In a country that has been ruled by the right-wing government of the Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi (Justice and Development Party) (AK Party) for more than a decade, expectations rose that a leftist party could succeed in the upcoming June 2015 elections as well. Parallels were drawn between SYRIZA and its closest ideological counterparts in Turkey, the Özgürlük ve Dayanışma Partisi (Freedom and Solidarity Party) (ÖDP) and the Halkların Demokratik Partisi (Peoples’ Democratic Party) (HDP). Both parties claim to represent the poor, repressed and anti-privileged groups, such as immigrants, minorities, women and LGBTI people, and are against anti-democratic forces, imperialist powers and capitalism. In their composition, both parties bring together several groups ranging from extreme leftists to environmentalists. In these respects they are ideologically similar to SYRIZA, with the obvious exception that the HDP primarily represents the Kurdish minority in Turkey. An ethnic minority with similar size and political demands does not exist in Greece. Although SYRIZA members visited the HDP mayor in Diyarbakır and declared their backing of the party in the Turkish elections, the affinity between the HDP and SYRIZA is only partial. Keeping in mind this difference, but without focusing on the ideologies of the leftist parties per se, this article explores the circumstances under which SYRIZA succeeded in Greece and compares them with the context in Turkey.
Simply put, can a leftist party in Turkey succeed any time soon like it did in Greece? The answer to this question is not as optimistic as many commentators and leftist activists in Turkey would wish. There are historic, political and economic differences between the two Aegean countries that make a similar victory of leftists unlikely in a few years’ time. Historically, the power and influence of the leftists in Greece have been much more significant than it has been in Turkey. The current political and economic conditions that ensured the rise of the radical left in Greece do not seem to exist in contemporary Turkey either. A crude comparison between two countries shows that SYRIZA capitalised on the sudden reversal of living standards and economic conditions, filled the vacuum created by the electoral collapse of the traditional centre-left party, PASOK, and assumed the leadership of the protestors on the streets that did not have any particular ideological affiliation with a political party. None of the same conditions seem to exist in Turkey today.
History of the Left in Greece and Turkey
The rise of the radical left in Greece dates back to the interwar period and the Great Depression, which also resulted in the support of socialist and communist movements elsewhere in Europe. The Communist Party of Greece (KKE) was founded in 1918 and in the 1936 elections it received around 6 percent of the votes, holding the balance between centrist parties in parliament. The relative success of the KKE and growing labour activism brought about the Metaxas dictatorship. The authoritarian regime repressed the left until the occupation of Greece by Axis powers in 1941. During the years of occupation, the resistance organization of the National Liberation Front (EAM) and its military arm, the National People’s Liberation Army (ELAS) controlled most of the Greek territory. Both organizations were dominated by the communists and after the liberation of Greece; they came into conflict with the rightist government. The struggle spiralled into a Civil War that lasted until 1950. With considerable British and later American aid, the leftist forces were suppressed and the right established a competitive, yet highly repressive regime. Although political parties that represented the communists were not allowed to operate, the left continued its presence under the banner of United Democratic Left (EDA) and participated in the elections. In 1967, a group of colonels took over the reins of the government because, among other reasons, they were alarmed by the electoral accomplishments of the Centre Union party led by George Papandreou. In the seven-year regime of the junta, all political parties ceased their operations. The main target of the colonels were the communists, therefore leftist groups were once again heavily repressed.
With the transition to democracy under the auspices of the veteran right-wing leader, Constantine Karamanlis, a new era for Greek politics and the left began. The 1975 constitution guaranteed individual freedoms and all political parties, including the communists were allowed to run in the elections. By this time, however, the leftist movement had split into various fractions. Most notably in 1968, the moderates within the Communist Party splintered to establish the Communist Party Interior. In 1987, this party also split into the Greek Left (EAR) and the party which later turned into the Renewing Communist Ecological Left. In 1989, the EAR and the KKE formed the alliance Synaspismos (meaning Coalition) and ran in the elections together. After the elections, Synaspismos formed a coalition government with the centre-right ND, marking a historical turning point in the reconciliation of the left and right in Greek politics. In a highly significant act, the government burned police files that had been gathered against Greek communists since the Civil War. Although the KKE ran in the following elections independent of other radical left parties, the Synaspsimos continued as a separate group and, until merging into SYRIZA in 2004, received on average 3.74 percent of the votes. From 1993 to 2012, the KKE got votes ranging from 5 to 8 percent, each time surpassing the 3 percent national threshold and winning seats in parliament.
Although the radical left formed an important component of the Greek parliament after each legislative election, in the period following the 1974 transition, it was the centre-left party, PASOK that made its mark on Greek politics. From its first electoral victory in 1981 to its demise in the 2012 elections, PASOK ruled Greece as a single party government for a total of 22 years. Except for the 1989 coalition, power alternated between the ND and PASOK, with the former ruling for eight years. Clearly, the centre-left was the leading political force of the past three and a half decades. When combined with the votes of the radical left, there is no doubt that leftist currents in general have been more dominant than the right in recent Greek political history.
In comparison with Turkey, the history of Greek left demonstrates two significant characteristics. First, the supremacy of the left-wing in Greek elections has not existed in the Turkish case. In both countries leftists were heavily repressed especially during the Cold War years. However, in Greece, after each episode of repression, the left managed to arise from its ashes and continue to gain the support of a significant percentage of the voters. In Turkey, arguably the most electorally successful period for the left was the 1960s and 1970s, when the Cumhuriyet Halk Partisi (Republican People’s Party) (CHP) moved to the left of centre under the leadership of Bülent Ecevit. Although the party has continued its claim over the center-left, during the leadership of Deniz Baykal in the 1990s and 2000s it supported the Kemalist status-quo, appearing conservative and seeming to have an ideological affinity with the military. This outlook distanced the CHP from the lower classes and labour. Regardless of the relative electoral success of the left, Turkey has been governed mostly by rightist parties since the 1980 coup. In the 1990s, various centre-left parties participated in coalition governments as junior partners and, between 1999 and 2002, Ecevit’s Demokrat Sol Partisi (Democratic Left Party) (DSP) became the leader of a three-party coalition. However, the majority of Turkish citizens vote for the rightist parties and, since 2002, the conservative right has controlled the government.
This pre-eminence of the right in Turkish politics is partially the legacy of the 1980 coup. Turkish politics still have not come to terms with its repressive past, and the left –let alone the radical left– does not have the same clout as it has in Greece. This is the second important difference between Greece and Turkey affecting the potential of the left. The 1970s and 1980s were a period of reconciliation for Greek politics and society. Following the colonels’ junta, the centre-right detached itself from the repressive military and accepted the communists as a legitimate force in Greek politics. It is true that the extreme right also continued its presence and increased its force following the economic crisis as shown by the vote share of the Golden Dawn in the recent elections. But, the attitude of the major parties toward the military clearly changed, contributing to the radical left’s position as a respected force even among those who have never voted for it.
The Rise of SYRIZA
SYRIZA was born out of a coalition of forces in 2004, with Synaspismos as its biggest component. Following its increase of votes from a mere 4.6 percent in the 2009 elections to 26.9 percent in June 2012, the coalition became a formal party. This sudden jump of around 22 percent in just three years and another 10 percent leap in the three years after can only be explained by developments in Greek politics following the 2009 crisis.
The economic crisis erupted in Greece when the newly elected PASOK government announced that the previous government’s estimates of public debt and budget deficit were incorrect. The correct numbers turned out to be much higher than the requirements of the EU allowed. The markets reacted to this revelation in a way that hindered Greek government to refinance its debt, thus pushing the country to the verge of bankruptcy. The only way out for the PASOK government and the subsequent technocratic cabinet seemed agreeing to bailout deals with the Troika (European Commission, European Central Bank and the IMF) worth 240 billion Euros. The Memoranda of Understanding signed with the Troika brought with them strict fiscal measures that could be sustained through austerity measures, such as cuts in pensions and wages, layoffs in the public sector, privatisations and tax increases.
With these austerity measures in the period between 2008 and 2014, the Greek economy shrank annually 4.4 percent on average. Unemployment increased to more than 27 percent and more than half of those below the age of 25 being jobless. The nominal wages for an average worker fell by 14 percent. The government significantly reduced pension payments and laid off thousands of public workers following a promise to downsize its labour force by 150,000 jobs. These measures had drastic effects on the living standards of all Greeks and pushed some below the poverty line. According to the Eurofound’s European Quality of Life Survey conducted between September 2011 and February 2012, 85 percent of the respondents’ financial situation was worse than the previous year and 22 percent of Greeks had “great difficulty in making ends meet.”
The reply of the majority of the Greeks to the crisis and the ensuing deterioration of their economic wellbeing were to punish the party that they saw responsible for the crisis. PASOK had ruled for the majority of the post-1980 period and if government books had gone out of control this was also the responsibility of the party. Indeed, for many Greeks, the habit of reckless government spending and accumulation of debt for the purposes of receiving votes from privileged interest groups was first initiated under Andreas Papandreou’s first terms in office in the 1980s. Moreover, the bubble had erupted and the first bailout agreement was signed during the PASOK government when George Papandreou Jr. was in charge. Combined with the fact that the party now could not distribute patronage to voters anymore, its electoral fortunes dwindled to 12 percent in the June 2012 elections. The biggest party of the 2012 elections ND formed a coalition government with PASOK and together they continued with the austerity measures. With splits within the party leadership just a few weeks before the elections, PASOK won only 4 percent in 2015.
The vacuum that was created in the centre-left with PASOK’s demise seems to have been filled by SYRIZA. Given that voting for the left has been the inclination of the majority of the Greek voters, it was not unexpected that another leftist party would rise to the occasion. At first glance SYRIZA and current PASOK seems to be very different in their ideologies. But, as many observers have argued, the former resembles the PASOK of the 1980s in its approach to government spending, populism and anti-Westernism. The charisma, demeanour, and even the tone of voice of SYRIZA’s leader Alexis Tsipras has been likened to the first leader of PASOK, Andreas Papandreou. In this sense, SYRIZA might just be the new-PASOK.
The second major reaction of Greek citizens to the crisis and the austerity measures was to engage in protests and demonstrations. Between 2010 and 2014, on average 14 different protests took place in Greece every day, accompanied by strikes, work stoppages, civil disobedience movements and occasional violent acts of terrorism. In the summer of 2011, the peaceful Greek “outraged movement” occupied Syntagma square, with the participation of a total of 2 million individuals. The movement continued for several months until it was repressed by the police.
SYRIZA embraced the anti-austerity and anti-government movements even though they emerged almost spontaneously without any party affiliation. Strategically, the party was able to use the movements to its advantage and ride on the protest wave by forging links with the grassroots. SYRIZA’s stance contrasted with the Communist Party and other radical leftists, which did not welcome movements that were not organised by them. SYRIZA’s decision to support all protest movements, including ones organised by other parties, made it the natural representative of a diverse set of groups and the only force that could speak for the struggling people. This explains why SYRIZA became the party that could fill the vacuum after the crisis more than the other parties of the left.
SYRIZA’s rise to power in the past six years contrasts with contemporary circumstances in Turkey. According to 2014 data of the Turkish Statistical Institute, unemployment rate is around 11 percent and the growth rate (for the first nine months) is around 2.8 percent. Key indicators such as these suggest that the economic situation is worse than it was a couple of years ago. It is in fact notable that in terms of GDP per capita, Turkey is much poorer than Greece, even after the crisis. According to World Bank data, the GDP per capita for Greece in 2013 was $21,956 while it was $10,972 for Turkey. In other words, in absolute terms, the economic situation is not necessarily better in Turkey than it is in Greece. But, when it comes to voter behavior, trends matter more. In the Turkish context, the majority of citizens do not necessarily perceive a relative depreciation of their living standards similar to Greeks. Voters in Turkey choose parties taking into account various issues, including the course of the economy. It should be remembered that the AK Party came to power for the first time following the 2001 economic crisis, ironically similar to SYRIZA. Given the state of the economy today, it might lose votes in the upcoming elections, but its electoral fortunes do not seem likely to be dramatically overturned. Even if such an event happens, Turkish political history indicates that it would be another rightist party that would replace it, rather than a leftist one.
Finally, the grassroots protest movements that emerged in Greece following the crisis rest on a historical tradition that legitimises contentious politics. The Gezi protests in the summer of 2013, involving more than 3 million people all over the country showed the potential of similar movements in Turkey. However, a notable difference between the Greek and Turkish movements was that in the latter case no party was associated directly with the Gezi protests. Although the opposition parties gave their support, the type of strategic link that SYRIZA could make with the grassroots movements in Greece was absent in the Turkish case. Thus, in the short run, the protests did not (or could not) translate into major electoral changes.
As this brief analysis of the Greek left and SYRIZA’s achievements shows, for historical and contemporary reasons, it does not seem likely that a similar leftist victory is possible in the Turkish context. But, what is “victory”? If it only means doing better in the next elections, then the HDP may very well pass the 10 percent threshold and enter the parliament as a party, starting a new era in Turkish politics. HDP’s claim to the left would prosper to the extent that it can overcome its image as the party representing only the Kurdish minority in Turkey, and establish itself solidly as the party of all oppressed and disadvantaged groups. This in itself might be an important achievement for the future of the left in Turkey. As for SYRIZA, only its policies in office will tell if it will be able to renew its mandate in the future elections. Indeed, the prospects of SYRIZA in Greece are as uncertain as the future of the left in Turkey. For now, what is certain is that the hope the Greek elections generated in Turkey, without prudent assessments, is more like wishful thinking than reality.
Associate Professor Yaprak Gürsoy, Department of International Relations, İstanbul Bilgi University
Please cite this publication as follows:
Gürsoy, Y. (May, 2015), “The Context of the 2015 Greek Elections: Can There Be a Similar Leftist Victory in Turkey?”, Vol. IV, Issue 5, pp.53-62, Centre for Policy and Research on Turkey (ResearchTurkey), London, Research Turkey. (http://researchturkey.org/?p=8891)
*Associate Professor Doctor, Istanbul Bilgi University, Department of International Relations. The author would like to thank Hasret Dikici-Bilgin and Ömer Turan for their comments on the earlier drafts of the article.
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