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Historical Observations: The Greek Election of November 1920

October 31, 2021

The death of young King Alexander in October 1920 raised the issue of succession to the Greek throne but the choice came down to his two brothers, Princes George or Paul. Eleftherios Venizelos offered the throne to Paul who declined it, which became a major issue in the Greek election.

The British weren’t so confident of a Venizelist triumph. Sir Eyre Crowe of the Foreign Office stated that Venizelos was aware of the problems confronting Greece. Venizelos spent more time on external issues rather than focussing his attention on establishing Greek administration both in the old and new Greek territories. Lord Curzon, the foreign secretary, regarded the Greeks to be incompetent and corrupt and stated that “I gather from all the indications that the Greeks would now be only too willing to exchange for the ex-King [Constantine].” The British Minister in Athens, Lord Granville mentioned that the peace conference proved favorable to Greece at a time when Venizelos held a huge majority in parliament. However, he had been informed that there was growing opposition to Venizelos in Greece.

Nikolaos Politis, the Greek Foreign Minister, had earlier informed Venizelos that once the Treaty of Sevres was ratified that provisional voting lists for Thrace and Smyrna be prepared to register all Greeks and Moslems who wished to be Greek citizens. The Greeks in Thrace and Smyrna viewed Venizelos as their hero and liberator.

Another measure was allowing the army to vote in the elections, which caused divisions within its ranks in Asia Minor. Prolonged mobilization and hardships saw many soldiers wishing to return to their homes. Even before the election campaign, representatives of the opposition political parties addressed soldiers at the front with some turning against Venizelos. For a time, the Greek High Command feared a breakdown in discipline.

A ‘United Opposition’ was established in March 1920 to defeat Venizelos. They weren’t interested in factional disputes but would enter the election united with agreed parliamentary candidates. The attempted assassination of Venizelos on August 12 in Paris by two disgruntled Royalist officers sent shock waves to Athens. Venizelists went on a rampage destroying the offices of opposition newspapers. Things got worse. The assassination of Ion Dragoumis, one of the heroes of the Macedonian struggle, by security forces in Athens was viewed as an unforgivable crime by the Royalists.

The ‘United Opposition’ campaigned on two issues – ‘the Venizelist tyranny’ and the return of King Constantine. They wanted to convince the major powers of their support of Greece’s national claims and maintaining the Treaty of Sevres. The British and French regarded them as Germanophile ‘traitors’ to the allied cause. They wanted to continue Venizelos’ policy in Asia Minor.

Some of the Royalist politicians returned to Greece in October to contest the election. When Venizelos offered the throne to Prince Paul, Dimitrios Gounaris argued that Constantine was the legitimate king of Greece. They campaigned for the restoration of civil liberties that had been trampled under the ‘Venizelist tyranny.’

Election day came. The Venizelists expected a sweeping victory but the second secretary of the British Legation in Athens, RS Hudson predicted a Venizelos loss. Lord Granville visited the Minister of Finance and Acting Foreign Minister, Negroponte as election results came in. The latter stated that the election wasn’t going well with the former thinking it was a joke. Later that evening, Granville attended a small party when he was told the news of the election result with disbelief.

The Venizelist organization was slack, thinking that election victory would be theirs. They offered the electorate the Treaty of Sevres as compensation for disappointment and hardship at home but over-confidence and poor campaigning sealed their fate. The Royalists were well-organized and resorted to every political trick to win office.

The ‘United Opposition’ won 260 seats compared to the Liberal party’s 110 seats in the Greek chamber. Venizelos’s Liberal Party won seats in Epirus, Thrace (52 deputies including 20 Turks), and in the islands of Lesvos and Chios. The Venizelists paid dearly in Greek Macedonia for the effects of the war. Merchants and contractors in Salonika profited from allied armies during the First World War whereas the great majority of the peasantry had been subjected to requisition and forced mobilization by Giorgios Kondylis and as well as the usual government neglect. Jewish and Muslim voters in Greek Macedonia voted overwhelmingly for the ‘United Opposition.’

Venizelos handed his resignation to the Regent, Admiral Koundouriotis, whom the Royalists didn’t recognize. They forced him to resign and appointed Queen Olga, the wife of assassinated King George I, as regent in his place until the staging of a plebiscite that would ask voters whether they wanted to restore Constantine to the Greek throne.

Venizelos accepted the result without complaint. Even the army vote from the front wouldn’t change the election result. Many friends of Venizelos urged him to remain in politics until parliament met. Venizelos told Granville that his remaining in Greece could incite violence and departed from Piraeus into self-imposed exile to Paris.

Venizelos attributed his defeat to having having asked too much of the Greek people and the prolonged mobilization caused revulsion against him. He told Granville to inform the British government that the Greek people couldn’t be blamed for voting for the Royalists. Granville thought the overriding factors in Venizelos’s defeat were his prolonged absence from the country and his lieutenants and followers behaving badly against his opponents.

When Venizelos arrived in Nice, he believed that the Treaty of Sevres had to be preserved at all costs. He preferred the recognition of Prince George rather than Constantine in whose promised he “had no confidence.’ He hoped Constantine would abdicate. Venizelos understood British and French opposition to Constantine but if the latter insisted on his return to Greece then his recognition must be conditional on him fulfilling the provisions of the Treaty of Sevres. The French proposal entailing the annulment of the treaty was something that Venizelos considered not such a good idea. Venizelos feared the return of Constantine might trigger separatist movements in some parts of Greece.

In the plebiscite staged on December 4, 1920, Greeks overwhelmingly voted for Constantine’s return with Venizelists abstaining.

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