The Center Left primaries in Greece, concluded in 19th of November 2017, were an inflection point in the development of the diaspora Greeks as a distinct political constituency.  The issue of e-voting became the major dividing line between the contestants. E-voting referred to whether or not voters in the Center Left primaries would have the ability to vote via electronic means and as such it became conflated with the diaspora’s ability to vote in such numbers that it could have a meaningful impact on the result of the Center Left primaries.  The vigorous contestation of the e-voting issue contrasts with the little-contested tradition, pre-crisis, of national parties mobilizing the diaspora vote through financing the air flights of voters to Greece: a practice that limited, due to the expenses involved and the hassle factor, the diaspora’s participation in national elections, while compelling diaspora voters, in exchange for a free ticket to Greece, to identify visibly with a particular party. This article will assess the factors that brought us to this point.

Greece’s  crisis and the construction of the diaspora as a distinct political constituency

The exodus of approximately half a million Greeks due to Greece’s economic crisis catalyzed the Greek diaspora as a distinct political constituency. This development pushed to the forefront the issue of the diaspora’s participation in Greek politics. 

We can identify three elements in the construction of the diaspora as a distinct political constituency. Firstly, the issue of involuntary political disenfranchisement, as immigration for the majority of the latest wave of immigrants was compelled by financial distress. As a result, so the argument went, hundreds of thousands of Greek citizens became unable to take part in the process of democratic contestation - the same process that would create the institutional and economic conditions that might, in turn, facilitate their return[1].  Secondly, the perception that the Greek economy, if it is to become fiscally sustainable, would need  the taxes and social insurance contributions of this cohort, as Greece, due to its aging population, could not withstand the decline in its economically active citizens.  Thirdly, the notion that this cohort, due to its employment in economically advanced destination countries, is indispensable to the modernization of the Greek economy.    

The actors involved in the creation of this discrete political constituency are twofold.  Firstly, civic initiatives, mostly from the new diaspora, have undertaken highly visible polling exercises that substantiate the demand as much for electoral participation as to establish the conditions necessary that would reengage the diaspora with Greece. Secondly, Greek political parties, where the center right ND has tabled the most ambitious draft legislation for the diaspora’s participation in national elections, the centrist POTAMI vigorously advocates the diaspora vote, and the center left PASOK comes a close third. SYRIZA, a leftist party which has been the majority partner in Greece’s ruling coalition since January 2015, has promoted policies designed to facilitate the diaspora’s economic and scientific engagement with the homeland but has not endorsed the diaspora vote.  In particular, ND has contrasted its own validation of the diaspora’s presumed virtues of entrepreneurship and meritocracy with Syriza’s strategy of identifying, rhetorically and through its fiscal policy, with the immobile segment of the Greek population: pensioners and civil servants[2].

The Center Left primaries

The diaspora vote first acquired its post-crisis prominence in the ND primaries in the fall of 2015. These ended in a race between interim leader Vangelis Meimarakis and underdog candidate Kyriakos Mitsotakis. Greeks abroad had the opportunity to vote in designated poll stations. The fact that Mitsotakis got most of their votes was perceived as evidence of his appeal to the diaspora as against Meimarakis’ perceived narrower appeal to an inward looking cohort, reflecting his lack of international experience and machine politics profile[3].    

The diaspora vote in the ND primaries acquired its greatest resonance after the contest was concluded, but it dominated the Center Left primaries via the e-vote controversy and put down a clear marker, from the very beginning, between PASOK leader Fofi Genimata and the non-PASOK contenders, Mayor of Athens George Kaminis, and POTAMI party leader Stavros Theodorakis.  While the stated objections of Genimata’s team related to the unreliability of the e-vote, rejecting it also supported her winning strategy of mobilizing, through her access to the PASOK party machine, the aging party membership.  Kaminis’ and Theodorakis’ chances of emerging victorious on the other hand rested on a primary process that would maximize the participation of the non-traditional PASOK voter, with whom they had greater purchase due to their atypical political trajectories. The e-vote, in this calculus, was seen as an effective get-out-the-vote device for the youth and diaspora voter. 

In the end, e-voting did not prevail, due to Genimata’s insistence, and she won by a convincing margin.  The Genimata majority, mostly traditional PASOK supporters from the countryside and lower income neighbourhoods of Greece’s cities, put in stark relief the limited participation of the young and the diaspora. Only one in ten of the voters was below the age of 34 and 40 % were ages 65 and above. This median voter profile raised the biggest question mark over Genimata’s capacity to expand the Center Left’s electoral appeal. Thus the e-vote controversy cast its shadow, through its ‘what if’ quality, over the aftermath of the primaries[4].


In conclusion:

  • Party primaries in Greece, in the age of crisis-driven mass migration, have catalyzed the diaspora as a political constituency, with contestants defining themselves through their ability and willingness to represent the diaspora.

  • This intra-party contest spills over to the equivalent inter-party contest, the battle there being fought over draft legislation on national election reform.

  • The willingness of party primary organisers and contestants to experiment with voting processes incorporating the diaspora, or to advocate globally advanced   methods of doing so, such as the e-vote, prepares the ground for the day in which the Greek state would be able to organize, transnationally, national elections. 



[1] For example, during the Center Left primaries, a group of elite diaspora Greeks signed a letter, which received wide publicity and which explicitly identified diaspora participation in electoral processes as the only lever to create the conditions for return, in effect a ‘give us a voice to reverse exit’ argument, see Kathimerini, 48 Greeks from abroad demand vote from a distance, 21st September 2017.

[2] The most recent episode in this party positioning with regard to the diaspora vote took place after PM Tsipras’ visit to the US when ND threw down the gauntlet to the government, asking why, since the PM had so effusively praised the Greek-American diaspora, the government had rejected ND’s draft law facilitating the diaspora’s participation in national elections, see, K.Mitsotakis: it is imperative that Greeks abroad are given the right to vote, 24th of October 2017.  A related issue was addressed in a survey by the Brain Gain initiative, which highlighted the lack of appeal of the civil service to the new wave of immigrants, in contrast with PM Alexis Tsipras’ invitation to the new immigrants to return to Greece through civil service appointments. By doing so it highlighted, if implicitly, the political conflation made by Kyriakos Mitsotakis of the diaspora with the values of private initiative and enterprise. 

[3] As an example in the London polling station Mitsotakis received 48.27 % to Meimarakis’ 7.83  % of the vote.

[4] The chair of the Independent Commission, that oversaw and managed the primaries, Professor Nicos Alivizatos, in his report on the Committee’s work, noted that participation would have been greater if the e-vote had been adopted, and thus the diaspora role had been mostly symbolic, with only 23 polling stations set up worldwide, see Review of the Independent Commission / July – December 201, pp.17-18.