6 Reflections on the Re-election of Syriza

by Markos Vogiatzoglou

23 September 2015

Another round of voting is over in Greece – and this time, there are few reasons to celebrate. Actually, just one: amidst (and despite) the refugee crisis, the xenophobic right-wing party New Democracy failed to profit and suffered yet another electoral defeat.

But that’s where the good news ends. Let’s take a look at the facts: of the 300 MPs, 267 support the austerity measures the new bailout loan will bring. Of those not in support, 19 are from the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn and the rest are from the toothless Communist party (KKE). Theoretically speaking, the Greek PM Alexis Tsipras now has an almost endless pool of support to draw from in order to enforce his tough austerity programme. Here are six thoughts on Syriza’s re-election:

1. Syriza’s internal politics were devastated by July’s capitulation.

At first glance, Tsipras’s victory seems miraculous. His decision to call snap elections was understandable – his crew estimated that the more austerity is implemented, the more Syriza’s electoral base will wane. But even if the timing was the best he could hope for, Tsipras had considerable obstacles to overcome.

In the aftermath of July’s capitulation, Syriza became a shadow of the party that had claimed victory just seven months prior. Its electoral programme was torn to pieces. The party’s general secretary, almost half its central committee, and several ministers and MPs – including many prominent figures – had resigned. Syriza Youth had dissolved. The rank-and-file organizations were inactive due to mass resignations and disappointment. The lack of volunteers was such that for the first time, the whole electoral campaign was undertaken by paid professionals.

2. Syriza’s strategy is now to coalesce around Tsipras.

Facing this grim situation, the remaining Syriza officials wisely decided to cluster the electoral campaign around the party’s strongest card: its leader. In a total reversal of Syriza’s previous rhetoric, the campaign messages contained no concrete promises to voters. Rather, they focused on a full-scale confrontation of ‘the new versus the old’ – the ‘new’, as expected, was represented by Tsipras; the ‘old’ being everyone else.

To understand why this strategy worked, it’s important to remember Tsipras is no longer just a young, charismatic leftist. The media persona he has created is shining with honesty, sincerity and modesty. Amicable in personal terms, he is considered a problem-solver who avoids unnecessary tensions. He has cultivated the ability to address the public in a simple and direct way; and having crushed all his internal and external rivals during his quick rise to fame, he’s earned many people’s respect as a cunning and skilled politician.

3. ‘New Syriza’ has pulled ahead of its dissidents.

The success of Syriza’s strategy was further highlighted by the failure of the party’s dissidents to present an alternative option. Many among those who abandoned Syriza chose to abstain from the electoral race. However several others – including almost 30 MPs such as anti-Nazi resistance hero Manolis Glezos, parliament speaker Zoe Konstantopoulou and former minister Panagiotis Lafazanis – formed Popular Unity, an impromptu party which claimed to represent the July referendum’s OXI (No) vote and proposed Greece’s exit from the Eurozone as the only viable alternative to austerity.

Surprisingly, Popular Unity suffered a humiliating defeat. It did not even manage to reach the 3% threshold required to gain legislative seats and was, therefore, left out of the new parliament.

4. Popular Unity failed for some practical reasons…

Some of the explanations for this dramatic result are self-evident. Popular Unity had fewer than two weeks to prepare its programme and electoral lists. Decisions were taken top-down, leaving no space for democratic deliberation. Lafazanis, the party’s leader, is an experienced, old-school politician who lacks the charisma and oratory skills of Tsipras – and perfectly matched Syriza’s ‘new versus old’ mantra.

5. …but also because it misread the shifting political situation.

Yet Popular Unity’s gravest shortcoming was its inability to interpret the paradigmatic change that occurred in Greek society during the hectic days of July 2015 – when the proud OXI of the Greek citizens was broken on the Eurogroup’s wheel.

Since 2010, when the public debt crisis exploded in Greece, the country’s political life had been organised around the pro-Memorandum (bailout programme) / anti-Memorandum axis. When Tsipras was seen to be forced to his knees by his European partners, the dilemma over which platform he had been elected on suddenly became irrelevant. His all-new Syriza maintains its anti-austerity rhetoric, whilst actually implementing tough austerity measures: ironically, it has been transformed into a party that is both pro- and anti-Memorandum.

This is where the triumph of the Troika lies – it’s not just the vote numbers: the institutions managed to render the anti-austerity camp’s political vocabulary outdated and useless.

6. The new bailout programme is geared to fail, and possibilities remain.

So, is the situation that desperate? Maybe. But let’s note down a couple points for future reference. First, the grassroots movements. Although tired after five years of fruitless struggle, they still feature an impressive diversity (from barricade-loving anarchists to volunteer-based community clinics) and strength in specific fields, which might allow them to re-enter the main stage when the new austerity measures start being implemented.

Second, many mid- and high-ranking former Syriza officials (the most obvious example being Yanis Varoufakis) were smart enough to hide away during this electoral campaign, and are currently waiting for the right time to resurface.

Last but not least, it is highly improbable the new bailout programme will succeed where the others have failed, as their logic is exactly the same. If and when it fails, not only will Syriza’s contradictions implode, but the ensuing social contention will produce new analytical categories and dilemmas to work upon. The question is whether the not-so-silent protagonist of the (pardon the cliché) Greek drama – the Greek people – still have the courage and creativity to make something useful out of them.

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