The Greek Left Had One Chance and Blew It

For Alexis Tsipras, the centre could not hold.

by Yannis-Orestis Papadimitriou

4 July 2023

A white man with a white shirt and short black hair looks downcast in profile
Alexis Tsipras, who resigned after 15 years as leader of Greece’s leftwing party Syriza on Thursday, prepares to vote at a polling station during the general election, May 2023. Elias Marcou/Reuters

When Alexis Tsipras announced his resignation as leader of the Greek leftist party Syriza on Thursday, following a devastating loss in the general election, the media was flooded with memories of this 15-year tenure. Tsipras’ decision, taken with little to no input from his party, was painted as the “end of an era”, a phrase that came to be used in almost every media headline. In truth, it was the miserable end of a long, slow period of decline.

An imploded left; neoliberal steamroller Kyriakos Mitsotakis re-elected in a landslide; the far right in parliament – no one expected that this would be the political landscape only eight years after voters chose Syriza to lead the country. Then again, no one expected that Tsipras, known to the public since his early thirties first and foremost for his unmatchable charisma, would end up a centrist talking head, someone who resembled the very political class he was elected to overthrow.

The anti-memorandum wave.

The story is well-known by now: after the governing centre-left Panhellenic Socialist Movement (Pasok) was punished in the 2012 elections for signing a bailout agreement (known as the “memorandum”) with the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the European Central Bank and the EU to counter its debt crisis, resulting in harsh austerity and the kind of overnight GDP drop usually only seen during wartime, Tsipras and his new party Syriza jumped into the political arena to ride the “anti-memorandum” wave.

Founded in 2004, Syriza was the evolution of Synaspismos, a moderate left party born after a coalition between the Greek Communist party and others broke down in 1991. In 2004, Synaspismos’ politics began to shift to the left and it reached out to smaller parties to form a new coalition – the Coalition of the Radical Left, or Syriza, was born. Party insider Alexis Tsipras took over leadership as a promising young cadre in 2007. Despite his evident charisma, few could imagine that a party polling at 3-4% on each election could end up governing Greece in just over a decade.

Demanding an end to IMF-enforced austerity and its accompanying tsunami of privatisation, Syriza began a meteoric rise to power, first winning 27% of the vote in the elections of 2012, then 36% in January 2015, making it Greece’s self-proclaimed “first government of the left”.

A pointless referendum.

After attempting to negotiate new terms with its intransigent creditors, Syriza put their terms to a referendum. 61.3% of Greeks voted against them – but the next day, Tsipras agreed to them anyway.

Although it wouldn’t become apparent until later, Syriza had shot itself in both feet. Leading a government that implemented austerity meant that it needed a new contract with voters who’d voted for the exact opposite. It also meant the party was forced to reshape its image to one of good managers who would implement these unjust reforms reluctantly, but efficiently.

Realistically, this new mission demanded a new party, one that would pivot to the centre and cement itself in the space voided by Pasok’s collapse. Instead, Syriza simply mimicked Pasok, forgetting that Syriza was a fundamentally different party and that Pasok’s strategy had led to its obliteration.

Following its signing of the bailout agreement, Syriza’s rhetoric changed from addressing “the people” to addressing a vaguely-defined set of centrist, democratic voters. This change might have been relatively insignificant, had it not caught the attention of Mitsotakis and his conservative New Democracy party.

A fight for the “middle class”.

Aided by a sympathetic media, New Democracy did its best to discredit Syriza as managers by presenting them as incompetent and untrustworthy. It also reintroduced a political category into public discourse that had been largely forgotten during the debt crisis: the middle class. The party used the term to refer to pretty much everyone affected by Syriza’s immense tax increases, which had been mandated by the bailout agreement.

Meanwhile, the refugee crisis and the attempt to resolve the Macedonia naming dispute fertilised the ground for a hard-right opposition, ready to be harvested by New Democracy, which has a long history of absorbing the far-right. Even after the nationalist protests against the agreement with North Macedonia began to turn violent, New Democracy did not retract its support for the protests.

After 2016 and with more intensity in 2018-19, while the discourse on the Greek “middle class” was pushing the terms of economic debate rightwards, xenophobia and nationalism were doing the same for social issues. Syriza’s response, supported by former Pasok cadres who now had Alexis Tsipras’ ear, was to rhetorically validate rightwing “middle class” anxieties about the breakdown of law and order and spiralling immigration.

This strategy seemed to be pursued unilaterally by the party leadership; it certainly coincided with a communication breakdown within Syriza after 2016. Tsipras had a long tradition of imposing his will on party democracy, but after incorporating more and more of the centre-left with its tendency towards cults of personality, his party seemed to become a kind of monarchy – leading to more and more infighting and directionlessness.

Nor was this simply an ideological dispute – it certainly wasn’t evidence of pluralism as Tsipras and others would claim. Personal agendas became unmoored from party strategy, while Syriza politicians were becoming completely inconsistent in public appearances. Every position and its opposite could be heard about any issue on any particular day. All were drowned out by Mitsotakis, who in this time had acquired dystopian levels of control over Greek media.

In New Democracy, Mitsotakis had built a political, cultural and media behemoth that was backed by an unprecedented agreement among Greece’s oligarchs. He was also helped by the EU giving the green light to member states to loosen fiscal restrictions during Covid-19, allowing him to bankroll an army of supporters using public funds. Against this, Syriza appeared contradictory, disorganised and, worse yet, fundamentally complicit with Mitsotakis: the party voted yes to 45% of the bills that New Democracy brought to parliament.

The price was not only Syriza’s electoral devastation – 17% versus New Democracy’s 40% in the recent elections – but the evisceration of everything that stands left of the centre-right. The elections were the biggest electoral victory of the Greek right and far-right in the last four decades.

Even after his resignation, Tsipras’ cult of personality remains strong within Syriza, with many hinting he might return as the party’s saviour, or even build his own party over which he will rule absolute. Few in Greece are willing to admit the destruction his pivot to the centre caused, even fewer are able to propose a way out of this mess.

Yannis-Orestis Papadimitriou is a member of the investigative journalism outfit The Manifold and host of The Archipelago podcast on Movement Radio.

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