Syriza Defeated, but Tsipras’s Takeover of the Centre-Left Rumbles On

by Yannis-Orestis Papadimitriou

9 July 2019

Syriza was voted out of government on Sunday, despite attempts to revive its appeal among Greek voters following an unexpected and crushing European election defeat at the hands of New Democracy, led by Kyriakos Mitsotakis, which paved the way for a snap general election.

Throughout June, Alexis Tsipras, the prime minister who shifted from anti-establishment left populist enfant terrible to centrist superhero, held daily meetings with his team, planning and coordinating an urgent electoral strategy in the brief time he had left. This team featured his close associates: Syriza strategists, some of them former ministers, alongside some of the upcoming party faithful who are supposed to lead the next phase. Then again, it also featured former Pasok minister Nikos Bistis, a man who epitomises the liquidity of the Greek centre-left.

First a Communist party member before joining the anti-Soviet Communist party of the Interior in the 1980s, Bistis later joined Synaspismos, the predecessor to Syriza. Despite Synaspismos’s participation in the 1989 coalition government with conservative New Democracy, Bistis crossed the floor to join Pasok. When Pasok collapsed at the beginning of the Greek crisis, he joined Dimar, the right wing of Synaspismos, which had left Syriza in protest at Tsipras’s leadership. He subsequently took part in various attempts at rejuvenating the collapsed centre-left with a platform that kept moving rightwards – all of them failing. When Dimar tanked, he became one of the most prominent figures in ‘Bridges’, an initiative of former Pasok members now allied with Tsipras.

Bistis’s trajectory encapsulates the conflicts that have filled the void left by Pasok’s collapse. Assisted by the harsh austerity imposed by Greece’s creditors, it led to a series of political transformations that have not yet been finalised in any way. In the first years of the crisis, a pro-austerity New Democracy-led political coalition tried to move the centre rightwards by branding an insurgent Syriza as extremists while normalising an increasingly far-right discourse and set of policies. Around the same time, Syriza began absorbing disgruntled Pasok voters while in opposition and has kept doing so ever since – especially since Tsipras’s capitulation to the creditors’ demands after the 2015 referendum forced him to tone down his leftist self-branding.

Political tensions have escalated following the Prespes agreement, the solution for the decades-long North Macedonia naming dispute, on which New Democracy built its most successful and intense opposition strategy against Syriza. The agreement prompted fierce protests, supported by ND party cadres, in which neo-nazis torched an anarchist squat, assaulted journalists, clashed with police and shouted slogans such as “a knife to the heart of every antifa” – a reference to the murder of the antifascist rapper Pavlos Fyssas by Golden Dawn members in 2013. Far-right sentiments were also partially responsible for the murder of Petrit Zilfe, an Albanian worker in Corfu, by a Greek nationalist following a disagreement over the Macedonian question.

ND’s extremism in opposing the Prespes agreement may have been the single most destabilising move against Syriza. While Pasok might not have been as vocal in support of the protests, it did join forces with ND in opposing the agreement in parliament. This opened a window for Tsipras onto a section of the centre-left that had originally stood against him as a populist anti-austerity warrior, but were gradually changing their minds, alienated by their party’s stance on the Macedonian issue.

Tsipras seized the moment. Assisted by the Bridges initiative and the Party of European Socialists, who seem willing – at least partially – to include Syriza in their ranks, Tsipras moved for a hostile takeover of the Greek centre-left. Prominent figures in the centre-left were offered ministries, Tsipras attended talks organised by Greek and European Socialists and Syriza was rebranded as a ‘progressive alliance’ first for the European and then for the national elections. In the week leading up to polling day, Tsipras characterised his party’s ideology as “centre-left” not once but twice, and in his concession speech he again described his future strategy as an attempt to strengthen a progressive alliance.

His strategy seems plausible as far as the numbers are concerned. Tsipras’s party might have lost the elections but it still received 31.5% of the votes. The problem is this percentage comes with a handful of contradictions. Many analysts have proposed that this was more of an ‘anti-right’ vote as a means of combatting Mitsotakis’s hardline neoliberalism, rather than a vote of approval for Tsipras. The European Socialists’ support might give him an opening at an EU level, but they are on a downward spiral themselves. Then there is a tendency that has been common in every attempt to rejuvenate the Greek centre-left over the past decade: it has always resulted in defeat.

Worse yet, the result of the European elections demonstrated clearly that Syriza had alienated its electoral base. After a long and very confrontational process of neutralising the party in favour of his leadership, the defeat Tsipras suffered in the European elections was the first time he realised that the concentration of power in his hands comes at a price. He now needs a party to rebuild his social base, but his only margin is towards that unpopular faction of the centre-left which has been consistently rejected by Greek voters over the last decade.

Tsipras’s choice to rebrand himself as a solo strongman owes less to the wave of popular media-savvy figures like Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, and more to Andreas Papandreou’s strategy in the 1980s – indeed it is just one chapter of many that Tsipras has chosen to adopt from the old Pasok playbook. Having tilted Pasok to the right, and plagued by one of the worst scandals in modern Greek political history, Papandreou answered questions over his leadership by doubling down on his strict approach. The apparatus was there: a close team of associates who would decide on strategy without ever including the party, quite similar to the one Tsipras has had in place since Syriza’s original ascent to becoming the main opposition party in 2012. Papandreou’s strategy was summed up in an infamous quote by one of his party ‘generals’, who addressed ‘mutineers’ saying: “If it wasn’t for Andreas, not even the doorman in your own building would know who you are.”

Such strongmanship has been a mainstay of centrist politics in Greece ever since. But Papandreou led a huge clientelist state and a real mass party with a solid social standing. Pasok was firmly rooted in unions, communities and the civil service, so it couldn’t ever be neutralised – it could only have the direct line with its leadership mediated. Syriza, on the other hand, is a very small party of only 28,000 members. And being a leftist party instead of a centrist one, its social appeal is directly pegged to its grassroots activity. Unfortunately, Tsipras’s contempt for his own party showed leftists the door in 2015, and they were the only ones who might have been able to kick off a grassroots campaign. In a recent study, electoral analyst Yannis Mavris likened Syriza in its present state to a “cartel party” which, due to its political strategy and small number of members, was pretty much instantly absorbed into the state apparatus when it reached government. According to Mavris, Syriza “lacks even an elementary party structure, having only the ‘shell’ in place”.

Tsipras’s hubris against Syriza has led him to an impasse and his return to parliament in a few years can only happen if his well-documented charisma can outlast Mitsotakis’s honeymoon period, while also drawing attention away from his newfound centrist partners. As for the radical left he once claimed to represent, it has been unable to recover ever since. Post-Syriza leftist parties have been unable to build themselves from the ground up, with the exception of Yanis Varoufakis’s new MeRA25 party, which scraped into parliament with a small percentage after doing away with any semblance of a radical leftist profile, choosing to advocate for a “responsible disobedience” instead.

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