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Greek election: Young voters turn backs on major parties

May 19, 2023

Young Greek voters feel politicians have lost touch with everyday realities and are turning their backs on the major parties. This could have a major impact on the outcome of Sunday's election.

Greek PM Kyriakos Mitsotakis is seen on a display video wall at the campaign kiosk of the "New Democracy" party, Athens, Greece, May 6, 2023
The election on May 21 is expected to be a close contest between the ruling conservative Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis (pictured) and the left-wing Syriza allianceImage: ANGELOS TZORTZINIS/AFP

The man who has just left Petros Xylourgidis' pet shop in the northern Greek city of Thessaloniki paid €4.50 ($4.85) for the cat toy he bought. "Deduct the purchase price and all the taxes and I'm left with maybe 50 cents at best. The state earns more on it than I do," said the 36-year-old owner.

Xylourgidis has nothing against taxes, but from what he can see in his day-to-day life, that money is not being invested for the good of the people. Health, education, infrastructure — funds is tight right across the board.

Considering the political landscape in Greece, Xylourgidis doesn't see any candidate worth voting for. So, when Greece goes to the polls to elect a new parliament on May 21, he will be staying home.

Petros Xylourgidis stands in a doorway, holding a cat
Petros Xylourgidis from Thessaloniki won't be voting in the election on May 21; he has lost faith in Greece's political institutionsImage: Florian Schmitz/DW

"No matter which government is in power, nothing really changes. They make big speeches, but nothing happens. They told us: It's time to end austerity [during the financial crisis — Editor's note]. Nothing happened. They told us: It's time to get rid of the property tax system. Again, nothing happened," he told DW.

Xylourgidis feels voting no longer has anything to do with supporting an alternative for the future and is rather all about penalizing the ruling party.

Anger at the powers that be

As far as Xylourgidis is concerned, the people steering the country are career politicians who know nothing about the everyday realities of people's lives. 

"They shout about justice. But where is the justice? It makes me so angry! All of the recent scandals, and nothing happens. I'm angry about the way the people in power handle important matters, and first and foremost look after No. 1," he said.

He is also angry at the people who keep supporting and voting for the same politicians every time. While the powerful dodge taxes and feather their own nests, he said, people like him struggle to make ends meet.

Yanis Varoufakis at a MeRA25 election campaign event, Nea Smyrni, Greece, April 20, 2023
MeRA25, founded by the left-wing former Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis (pictured here), is expected to get around 4% of the vote on May 21Image: Giorgos Kontarinis/Eurokinissi/ANE Edition/IMAGO

Xylourgidis believes no politician is willing to assume responsibility for what is happening right under their noses. "The government gets the secret services to spy on the opposition and no one is willing to take the blame. It's as if something were to go wrong in my shop, but I refused to take responsibility for it," he said. "At the end of the day, it's still my shop!"

Smaller parties the alternative?

While the ruling conservative New Democracy party of Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis and the leftist Syriza alliance of former PM Alexis Tsipras battle it out for the young vote, many young people are turning to smaller parties in the race.

One of these is MeRA25, founded by the left-wing former Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis. MeRA25 passed the 3% threshold in the 2019 parliamentary election and has had nine deputies in parliament ever since. Opinion polls currently put MeRA25 at about 4%, which is slightly higher than the 3.4% it got four years ago. In the 17–29 age group, it's even polling at 8.6%.

On one of the last weekends before the election, 24-year-old law student Giorgos Panagopoulos volunteered at a MeRA25 campaign stand in Gazi, a hip district in Athens.

Giorgos Panagopoulos
Athens student Giorgos Panagopoulos is a volunteer for the leftist party MeRA25. In his opinion, not voting in the election is not an optionImage: Florian Schmitz/DW

For Panagopoulos, boycotting the election in protest at the current situation is not an option. "You have to support political institutions and processes; it's the only way to strengthen democracy and for young people to at least partially make themselves heard," he said.

Panagopoulos has little good to say about Prime Minister Mitsotakis. Like many other young people, he is critical of things like the escalating police violence against demonstrators, or the mass wiretaps that saw the government come under considerable pressure last summer — in particular from abroad.

He is convinced that an alliance of smaller parties like MeRA25 could shake up the political landscape and put issues that matter to young people on the agenda. "Our biggest problem is the lack of prospects. We get a good education, but after that, the only option for many is to emigrate in search of work," he said.

Accountability and transparency needed: analyst

While financial worries are common to voters in all age groups, other issues such as financial and political corruption are top of the agenda for young people, said Nick Malkoutzis, co-founder of MacroPolis, an independent political analysis institute in Greece.

According to Malkoutzis, today's young people are calling for greater accountability and transparency, and they're disappointed by the politicians at the helm. "Young people have very little faith in the major parties and mainstream politics," he said. "This pushes them toward the outer fringes of the political system."

Nick Malkoutzis
Political analyst Nick Malkoutzis thinks major political parties should stop just paying lip service to issues that are important to young votersImage: Florian Schmitz/DW

Malkoutzis is not at all surprised that young voters are turning to parties like the left-wing MeRA25 after the serious train crash near Larissa, in which 57 people — many of whom were young — lost their lives. However, extreme right-wing parties have also gained ground.

No general shift to the right

There is, however, no evidence of a general shift to the right among young voters, said Loukia Kotronaki of the School of Political Science at Panteion University in Athens. During the protests that followed the train crash on February 28, she conducted a nationwide study of the political attitudes of young people between the ages of 17 and 34. The results painted a picture of a young generation with democratic impetus, but with no faith in the system and growing mistrust in the institutions of state.

According to the study, 75.4% of those surveyed mistrust the current government and 88.5% the political parties. Generally speaking, those surveyed identified more with the left than with conservative or right-wing values, Kotronaki told DW. She also explained that the results showed that while people in this age group do indeed support democratic institutions, they don't agree with the way they are being run.

"Nevertheless, most young people still intend to vote," she said, even if they don't expect much to come of it. "Just because they take part, doesn't mean they are giving their stamp of approval."

The survey also showed that many young people feel that the only way to improve the situation is through individual effort. Kotronaki feels this is a critical finding, because it highlights a fundamental resignation regarding official and collective political paths.

This article was originally published in German.

Portrait of a man with brown hair and a beard
Florian Schmitz Reporter with a focus on Greece