In an historic landmark, last night Syriza became the first radical left party to be elected in a pre-enlargement EU member state*, but what led to this result beyond the ballots? Novara Wire editor Craig McVegas writes from Athens.
1. The crisis continues to provide the backdrop.
Greece has undoubtedly been hit harder than any other EU state since the Eurozone crisis began.
40% of the country is in poverty, unemployment is up to 25% and the country has been wracked by austerity. Although the austerity policies originated with the Troika (the EU Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund), the axe-wielders have been conservative New Democracy and social-democratic PASOK.
New Democracy has enjoyed a fairly consistent and sizeable level of support, but swathes are desperate to see an end to the drudgery of austerity and the bleak realities of life within what has been a sustained crisis. For millions, Syriza has come to represent a meaningful alternative.
2. Pasokification has blown the left open.
Only three years ago PASOK held 160 seats in parliament. Now they are sitting on just 13. PASOK’s handling of the debt crisis has been seen as ineptitude at best and betrayal at worst, peaking when the party entered a national coalition government with rivals New Democracy.
While PASOK’s left wing filtered out into Syriza, the rump began haemorrhaging support and has been in freefall since. At the beginning of 2015, even leader George Papandreou decided to cut his losses and run under another banner.
The crisis of PASOK has cleared the way for Syriza, which has defined itself against austerity, against New Democracy, and by extension against PASOK.
3. Policies and principles.
Even with Greek’s specific social and economic context, the rise of Syriza was never going to be a sure thing simply by virtue of it being a left party. The historic flag bearer of the left wing in Greece has been the Stalinist and ultra-sectarian KKE (Communist Party of Greece), and while they continue to benefit from a staunch core of voters their support has actually declined since the crisis began.
Syriza’s appeal lies in that it emphasises the need to look forward rather than backward. Many milestones in Syriza’s relatively short history have been unprecedented. This works in its favour because detractors are left clutching at straws, and given the party’s recent positive track record people are frankly prepared to have a roll of the dice.
First and foremost Syriza stands against the unmanageable conditions of the bailout and for raising the living standards of those in poverty. But its proposed reforms run deeper into the fabric of Greek political culture. Syriza also wants to clean up corruption in the civil service, devolve power and incorporate greater direct democracy into legislative processes.
4. The support is mass and diverse.
Syriza is a coalition of a diverse range of parties and campaign groups, from grassroots feminist networks to eco-socialists. Speaking to Syriza supporters at the campaign base in Athens, I was told that just in that room there were trade unionists, student radicals, trans* activists and environmentalists.
Beyond the membership, support continues to bridge demographics. Old and young alike are turning out for Syriza, and many are breaking their family’s traditional party identification. Even anarchists turned out to vote. “Many of us will vote on Sunday,” I was told by one anarchist in Exarchia Square. “Just… not officially.” When I asked how this would sit with an anti-electoral perspective I was told: “The situation here is extraordinary. Certain articles of faith will have to be bent. But nothing will change in terms of our own activities.”
5. The party structure is unusually democratic.
The coalition seems less concerned with sticking to the terrain of a lowest common denominator ‘common ground’, instead choosing to emphasise its pluralism. “It is not so much that Syriza participates in all these groups or tries to take them over, but the groups that participate in Syriza,” one supporter told me.
A prevailing concern among radicals has been that for all the hype and hope, there’s little to say Tsipras won’t renege on his promises and leave Syriza’s voters alienated and disempowered. What happens if he doesn’t come good? “Then he is no longer leader,” I was told, categorically. “Syriza controls Tsipras, not the other way around. His decisions are shaped by the party, they have to be put to a vote. People struggle to understand this, the idea of a democratic party culture. Syriza is not a top-down party, and Tsipras is only leader as long as we say he is.”
Turning the tide across Europe?
It’s incredibly difficult to predict what will happen next with any genuine degree of certainty. We’ve seen these scenarios unfold with other left parties, but for a variety of reasons Syriza is quite unlike other parties. However, we cannot lose sight of the specificities surrounding Greece at the moment. Numerous times over the weekend people remarked along the lines of “this is not a model”, “you cannot take a carbon copy” or “Syriza developed alongside a certain situation, you can’t replicate it”.
Groups ranging from Podemos in Spain and Die Linke in Germany to the Left Bloc in Portugal and even Left Unity in Britain will all be looking closely to discover Syriza’s secret, to see how they too can rise to government. I suspect the actual answer is not about copying a particular patchwork of policies or a semi-horizontal structure, but rather in a complex convergence of variables relating to prolonged crisis and the decline of formerly strong social democratic parties.
The problem is that just as Syriza’s story is not one which can easily be re-enacted, if it doesn’t find an ally in Europe soon it could well become isolated and divided, vindicating the austerity-mongers it has rallied against.
*This section was amended on 26 January. Cyprus joined the EU in the 2004 enlargement and in 2008 AKEL (Progressive Party of Working People) was elected as the senior coalition partner.