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SYRIZA’s Long Demise

SYRIZA, once the great hope of the left, was defeated last weekend after four years imposing austerity on those it promised to fight for.

In January 2015, SYRIZA formed the first radical left government in Greek history, winning an election on an anti-austerity manifesto and forming a coalition with the Independent Greeks on the basis of challenging the Troika. Hopes were high for this breakthrough after years of cuts imposed by creditors on the countries of the European south—and the Greek ‘experiment’ attracted huge attention across the world in its first six months.

Even after SYRIZA’s radical aspirations faded—most specifically when they overturned the result of the 2015 referendum to impose a new austerity memorandum—they managed to win that September’s election. But abstention grew rapidly (SYRIZA won 300,000 fewer votes than it had in January) and the SYRIZA that survived its battle with the European authorities was not the same as the one which had won power only six months earlier.

Understandably, abandoning the meaning of the referendum discouraged the party’s supporters. Its impact on society, however, was deeper. It established a widespread sense that the economy is a technical question with predetermined outcomes, that it requires political continuity and that it offers a low degree of accountability. This is the terrain established by the European Union’s neoliberal treaties, which are designed to separate the economy and politics.

This straitjacket over time demobilised a huge and passionate movement with anti-political sentiments which had been in the driving seat of political developments in Greece. Hope gave way to chagrin in a short period of time. How this happened—and how the leadership of SYRIZA, using the cover of the left, managed to push this through—deserves careful study.

Withering Party

One of the most important aspects of SYRIZA’s failure was the transformation of the party from one oriented towards the movements, with democratic structures, political diversity and a real capacity to represent the Greek working-class to one which was excessively top-down, insufficiently democratic, subsumed by the state and oriented towards national responsibility rather than radical politics.

The elevation of Alexis Tsipras to a position of supreme authority in SYRIZA was crucial to the demobilisation of the party, project and movement. This process had been underway before SYRIZA gained power, when left and radical groups were sidelined and the decision-making process streamlined. In this ‘new’ SYRIZA, the leader rather than the platform became the unifying force. 

Whereas previously the party’s democratically elected bodies had significant power after the rise of Tsipras this was gradually taken from their hands. Instead, policy was decided in unofficial meetings with party officials who were close to Tsipras and his comrades. This has progressed to such an extent, these days, that the Political Secretariat of the party often invites Tsipras to explain on what basis he took a particular decision. This would have been completely impossible in the SYRIZA that existed before 2015.

Since 2015, SYRIZA as a party was subsumed into the state—something which is all-the-more remarkable when you consider that the New Left tendencies which guided the party’s development for so long attempted to prevent this. One of the statutes of SYRIZA’s constitution says that, if “SYRIZA ever participates in the governance of the country, it shall maintain its organisational and political autonomy opposite of the State and the Government.” 

Party officials who hold a paid public position (including MPs and ministers, governing bodies of public sector organisations or members of state bodies) should not be able to occupy more than 25% of any of SYRIZA’s internal bodies. During SYRIZA’s period in government, this statute was completely ignored — and at one stage, 104 out of 151 members of the party’s Central Committee occupied a governmental or state position.

In this way, SYRIZA transformed itself from a movement-party to what Katz and Mair would call a cartel-party, which ceases to represent its constituency and instead uses the resources of the state to maintain its position. This is often the case with former mass parties which have governed for a pronounced period of time—but for SYRIZA, a party which struggled to reach 5% not even a decade ago, to achieve it so rapidly was a remarkable transition.

In 2015 Alexis Tsipras called for the movements to remain on the streets and hold the government accountable—but by severing the link between the movements and the party, shutting down the party’s internal decision-making and then allowing SYRIZA to become effectively a part of the state, he prevented this from being a possibility.

Disappearing Base

After abandoning the spirit of the oxi vote in September 2015’s election, SYRIZA’s vote declined by around 300,000 — mostly disillusioned working-class voters. But more important even than this was the fact its numbers were replenished by a drift of centre-left voters to its ranks. 

This brought about a pivotal change in the base of the voters SYRIZA was accountable to. Given that SYRIZA had abandoned a large part of its leftist identity, it was no longer important to prove its radical and anti-establishment credentials. On the contrary, the party and its leader were eager to formulate a new centre-left, if not outright centrist profile, as a necessary condition to calm Brussels and build coalitions with European leaders who would help water down some of the harsh impositions of the latest austerity memorandum. 

Moreover, the domestic markets had to be satisfied so that Tsipras could stabilise his position within the political system. This led the party to provide political shelter to former PASOK and New Democracy MPs and ministers on the basis of a new “progressive social and political contract”.

As Jon Trickett wrote in Tribune a few months ago, “the essential condition for a system of government to be sustained in the democratic era is the presence of widespread consent to the existing political, social and economic arrangements. It is clear that this condition is breaking down all around us.” Rather than break with a system in which consent was breaking down, SYRIZA became another party within that system — and, ultimately, when the left makes that decision the right will gain.

In the end, SYRIZA in power, having accepted the austerity memorandum, ditched its programme and deradicalised its party, could provide few answers to the deep social crisis Greece faced. This is not to say that nothing was achieved, which would be spiteful, but rather that what was achieved was totally insufficient. A number of positive measures that helped public health and education could not hide the fact that there was no significant redistribution of wealth. The restoration of collective bargaining and the decline in unemployment could not hide the fact that one-third of employees were paid less than 400 euros per month.

There was a slight increase in the minimum wage, political rights were extended for migrant kids, and LGBT rights were enhanced. But the tax free allowance was decreased, with significant impacts particularly for lower-income young people. Public spending declined markedly in line with the European Union’s demands. The debt-to-GDP ratio, meanwhile, remains at a staggering 181% — up from 176% in 2015.

Public spending continued to decline after SYRIZA’s election, in line with Troika austerity demands.

Everything SYRIZA achieved in its four-and-a-half years could have been done by a socially progressive centrist government. It would be wrong, too, to suggest that this failure has its roots only in the abrupt about-turn of the memorandum. In truth, the strategy of a “national interest government” proved to be disastrous for a left-wing party in government. The decisions taken even before SYRIZA won in January 2015 — to focus on only the poorest and jettison class politics for a ‘national’ line that suggested alliances with domestic business interests — sowed seeds for disaster. 

The period of government has seen a considerable shift in the social interests SYRIZA represents. This could be seen rhetorically, too, as Tsipras gradually limited his public references to the radical left, the working-class and the need to make the rich pay their share. In place of this, he spoke increasingly about the “national duty,” the need for a progressive bloc as the only way to challenge the right and the necessity of an economic programme that would benefit all the parts of the Greek society. 

As a result, SYRIZA became accountable to right-wing ideological schemes rather than to working people. The rich mosaic of social movements and solidarity groups out of which it emerged as a national political party was left behind. Few of them followed SYRIZA to the recent elections. 

A Failure of Ideas

When SYRIZA was evacuated of democracy and turned into a vehicle for its leadership, left critique effectively ceased inside and outside the party. This created a cemetery of theoretical silence. Faced a scenario of giving consent to Juncker’s austerity proposal or Grexit, the party should have engaged in a broad theoretical, technical and political debate that would come up with a number of alternative plans able to deal with the pressures imposed by the EU. That never happened. 

Tsipras argued that his reforms would make the party a more sophisticated machine for power. In fact, they narrowed its politics until it was one dimensional. The belief that the struggle against the European Union doesn’t need any sort of plan B, C or D has been long defeated. So, too, the simplistic alternatives occasionally thrown up against this – like “no more sacrifices for the euro”. Left government in a globalised capitalist world, much less as a state approaching collapse under the weight of its debt crisis, demands much more than this.

In the end, a party which so much radical promise fell back on clearly discredited ideas—like the belief that a ‘competent’ leadership could overcome political obstacles by strength of willpower alone. It was content to play the role of peacekeeper and intermediary between those who demand more and those who do not want to give it to them.

In this election, SYRIZA lost. New Democracy won over half a million votes more than 2015 (votes coming from Golden Dawn and other centrist parties) while SYRIZA lost the same amount of votes to its left and to abstention. In other words, it is not that the Conservatives succeeded in building a newly emboldened right-wing movement. On the contrary, SYRIZA failed to inspire the majority of the voters it got just a few years ago. 

Greece has started a new historical cycle. SYRIZA is well-positioned in the political landscape, despite the defeat it suffered. It is now the main voice of the centre-left electorate and it will be expected to open the party to these layers of society. On the other hand the radical left has suffered a defeat. Anticapitalist forces fared poorly in the election, its voters uninspired by the ‘left melancholia’ which followed the 2015 capitulation. Some have migrated to Varoufakis’ new project—but its promises of “reasonable disobedience” offer few prospects for hope.

The narrative that prevails in the public sphere, for so long leaning to the left, now tilts to the right. With the European economy far from stable, the radical left is in need of a new, politically viable strategy for working-class politics. If it fails to build one, the energies that created the Greek Spring will be channelled into a new bipolar political system and the prospects of real change will dissipate for another generation at least.