Since November 2021, the Greek Prime Minister and the British Museum had discussions behind the scenes on the potential return of at least some of the Parthenon Marbles, a collection of ancient treasures that once decorated Athens’ famous pillared temple.
The collection, which includes statues of Greek gods and carved friezes, was imported from Greece in the early 1800s by Lord Elgin, a British aristocrat. Since then, they have been in the London Museum.
Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis has met several times with George Osborne, former Chancellor of the Exchequer and now President of the British Museum. The relationship between Mitsotakis and Osborne has been widely seen as one of the reasons the negotiations have progressed to this point. .
But on Sunday, Greece holds elections and negotiations have been postponed until the outcome of the vote is clear.
Mitsotakis told reporters last week that if re-elected, he would “regain the momentum and build on the progress we have made” in discussions.
If he doesn’t win, how will the future of the marbles be affected?
How does the election take place?
Earlier this year, Mitsotakis and his New Democracy party were on their way to re-election, according to Nick Malkoutzis, editor-in-chief of the Greek political site. MacroPolis.
But on March 1, a head-on collision between a freight train and a passenger service killed at least 57 people and injured many others. After the disaster, the deadliest ever experienced on the Greek railway network, tens of thousands of demonstrators took to the streets to protest against the lack of investment by successive governments in railway safety.
After initially blaming the accident on “tragic human error”, Mitsotakis asked the Greek people for forgiveness for chronic failures.
Following the tragedy, New Democracy lost several percentage points in opinion polls, Malkoutzis said. The party now looks set to win around 36 percent of the vote on Sunday, likely dashing its hopes of a total victory, which would have been difficult even before the crash.
Malkoutzis said that a second round of voting would most likely be necessary. In this case, according to Greek law, the electoral rules change and the Prime Minister hopes to obtain a majority. But, Malkoutzis said, “low turnout or changes in voting patterns” could still make a coalition government necessary.
What if Mitsotakis was forced to join a coalition?
If New Democracy does indeed need the help of another party to govern, Malkoutzis said the most likely partner would be a center-left alliance called Pasok-Kinal.
Nikos Orfanos, theater director and cultural spokesperson for Pasok-Kinal, said in a telephone interview that the return of the marbles was vital because the artifacts were part of Greece’s national identity.
But, he added, “an issue of such national importance, with national aspects, should not be the subject of secret diplomacy.” Orfanos said any deal would have to be discussed with the Greek Parliament, adding that a prime minister should not simply present “a take-it-or-leave-it deal” to lawmakers without them having a say.
What if another party won?
The main opposition party in Greece is the left-wing Syriza, led by Alexis Tsipras, who was prime minister from 2015 to 2019. Syriza should come second this weekend, with polls suggest he will get about 29 percent of the vote.
A surprise Syriza victory could complicate negotiations with the British Museum. The party has long opposed discussions over the marbles, saying the British government should return the collection immediately.
Sia Anagnostopoulou, the party’s culture spokeswoman, said by email in January that the sculptures should be “returned, reunited and exhibited in their entirety” in Athens. Her party would not accept any part of the collection being returned on loan, she added – one of the options under discussion.
When Syriza was last in power, the party focused on collaboration with the United Nations to try to pressure Britain into returning the marbles.
What is the position of the British Museum?
Pressure is growing on the British Museum to deal with the many disputed artifacts in its collection. In recent years, some major Western museums have begun to return large-scale articles. In December, German museums began returning a collection of priceless objects Benin bronzes in Nigeria.
Some fragments of the Parthenon held in other countries were already on their way to Greece. In March, three pieces of the 2,500 year old Parthenon which were part of the Vatican collections have been returned to the Acropolis Museum in Athens. And this month it emerged that Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum was in talks with the Acropolis Museum over a loan deal for two additional fragments of the Parthenon.
Nikos Dendias, the Greek Minister of Foreign Affairs, said at a press conference that the Austrian talks were “of vital importance” and would help “create momentum which we could use in our discussions in London” over the British Museum funds.
The British Museum says on its website that it is in talks with Greece on a new “Parthenon partnership” in which objects could be shared or loaned between the two countries. But its managers regularly emphasize that the museum cannot permanently return objects to Greece, even if it wanted to, because British law prohibits him from deleting items from his collection.
Few British politicians are lining up to change this law. In March, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak told reporters, “The UK has cared for the Elgin Marbles for generations. “The British Museum’s collection is protected by law, he said, adding: “We have no intention of changing it.”