There have been three electoral surprises in this region in the past month. The collapse of Syriza, the main opposition party in Greece, led to the likelihood of the one-party government of New Democracy returning to power; in Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s entry into his third decade of power has dismayed those who looked for a return to democracy; and the harassment of ethnic Greek minorities in southern Albania caused a big international diplomatic incident.
The introduction of proportional representation in Greece was expected to boost the chances of smaller parties. In practice, it seems to have done the opposite. In the first round, on May 21st, New Democracy (ND) took 40 per cent of the vote (on a 61 per cent voter turnout) – five seats short of an overall majority – but 20 points in advance of lame-duck opposition Syriza, which governed 2015-2019. The only other winners were the Communist Party and the far-right “Greek Solution”, both of which almost doubled their number of MPs.
In the second round, on June 25th, with different electoral rules, ND is almost certain to achieve a majority, thus pushing all opposition parties farther from the political centre, where prime minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, favours executive government.
The same could be said of Turkey, where opinion polls put the opposition candidate, pro-democracy Kemal Kilicdaroglu, slightly in advance of Erdogan. This didn’t translate into hard votes, however. While the EU worries about Erdogan’s abuse of human rights, Greece is concerned that Erdogan’s slight margin of victory (52 per cent to 47 per cent) will lead to further harassment on two fronts: the refugee crisis and the promulgation of the “Blue Homeland” in which Turkey seeks repossession of Greece’s most eastern islands.
In May, the French newspaper Le Monde published a Turkish map alleging that the islands of Chios, Ikaria, Samos and Rhodes were, in fact, part of Turkey. The map was rapidly withdrawn after diplomatic scurries but the principal of regaining those islands, as well as interfering further in the affairs of Cyprus, remains on Erdogan’s expansionist agenda of creating a new Ottoman hegemony.
Meanwhile, local elections in Albania highlighted the ambivalent and vulnerable situation of the very large ethnic Greek minority in the south of the country – an area which Greek nationalists call “northern Epirus” and which was part of the Greek state until the second World War. Two days before the municipal elections, a Greek mayoral candidate was arrested on trumped-up charges. Despite topping the poll in his city of Himare, Dionysios Alfred Beleri remains in prison.
This comes on top of victimisation of the largely Orthodox Christian population (including demolition of Greek churches) in an area that includes the cities of Girokastro, Himare and Sarander (whose very name is a Greek word, referring to the “Forty Saints” whom the city celebrates – and which I see every day from the north coast of Corfu, where I live).
The Albanian situation may seem, by comparison, to be small potatoes. But, Mitsotakis has made it clear that Albania’s candidacy to join the EU depends, as far as Greece is concerned, on the guaranteed recognition of the Greeks in Albania.
The condition of Greek-Albanians is painfully portrayed in Sotiris Dimitriou’s May Your Name Be Blessed (1993, translated by Leo Marshall in 2000). His story refers to their transborder lives during and after the second World War but it has resonances today.
The irony of all these situations is that in the Balkans, as Kapka Kassabova has demonstrated in her books Border (2017) and To the Lake (2020), languages, cultures, identities, ethnicities and faiths are no respecters of borders. Elections – whether local or national – may reflect political and economic realities but they do not necessarily allow reflection on hidden agendas or submerged hopes and fears.
Greece resisted for 25 years the naming of its northern neighbour The Republic of North Macedonia because of nationalist anxiety about historical legacies, language and ethnicities. Mitsotakis opposed the name because it suited his nationalist stance. In power, he was obliged to welcome it.
Ironically, now in Thrace in northeast Greece, he has to deal with a Muslim minority that is constantly in conflict with the central government regarding its status – encouraged by the nationalist aspirations of Erdogan to think of themselves as Turkish, rather than Greek, citizens.
Mitsotakis seems to have won re-election, despite taking responsibility for the appalling train crash in February with loss of at least 57 lives (caused by neglect of the rail infrastructure), and the scandal over wiretapping of his political opponents.
Now, he has to face the increasing split between rich and poor, the need to reverse the brain-drain, widespread graft and the lack of foresight in the country’s biggest industry, tourism – none of which featured in his election manifesto.