Comment by George Souvlis on the elections in Greece
Last week Greek citizens were called to cast their votes, for European, regional and local elections. They proved a disaster for the forces of the Left and a victory for the neoliberal right, following a tendency that became clear on a Paneuropean level. In a way, Greece returned to 'European normality' after four and a half years since the Syriza-ANEL coalition.
This tendency will come full circle with the National elections, announced for July 7th Syriza lost to the neoliberal Party of New Democracy by a difference of 9,35 percentage points in the European elections. A difference that suggests New Democracy's uncontested victory in the forthcoming national elections. Similar results were also witnessed on the regional and local levels. The question that arises thus, is why did Syriza, once appearing to represent the hope of Greek people, lose so dramatically to New Democracy?
A short answer to is in fact a complicated question could be that the party in office failed to substantially differentiate itself from what preceded it both in terms of politics and rhetoric. Since its reelection in 2015, Syriza continued to implement the same set of neoliberal policies as dictated by the Troika (European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund) –not much differently to what the neoliberal governments did since the beginning of the austerity era in the country. As such the initial declarations and promises of Syriza to provide a relief to the austerity-stricken subaltern classes were exposed as illusions, as the space for maneuvers was proven to be limited, if not existing at all, for a country depending on the neoliberal European Union.
Following this line of argumentation, it could be argued that the causes of Syriza's recent defeat are structural stemming from the party's political decision to disrespect the will of the Greek people that voted against austerity on the referendum of July 5th, 2015 by signing a new memorandum the days after. Yet this would be quite a limited explanation of Syriza's failure. Notwithstanding the importance of the third memorandum, I would argue that the unwillingness of the party to confront and reform the institutions of the Greek state and proceed to changes that were irrelevant to the fiscal and tax policies dictated by Troika. For example, both the police and the church remained unaffected from Syriza's governance. The promised democratization of the Greek police was never realized, and all the far-right elements integral to the force remained within its ranks. This necessary step could, perhaps, had avoided the murder of LGBTQ seropositive activist Zak Kostopoulos, who was brutally beaten to death by a group of violent men and police officers that ran to their assistance. Τhe police officers were charged with inflicting fatal bodily harm on him after the lynch mob attacked him. Τheir case however, remains open since their future within the ranks of the police is yet to be decided. Moreover, the secularization of the state, another promise made by Syriza, has not been introduced yet. State and church are still a unified entity in Greece, hence Syriza followed the same symbiotic relationship with the country's key institution of Orthodoxy.
Last but not least, the recent attempt of the government to update and change the national Penal Code did not have in its scope the simple recognition that sex without consent is rape. This was a last minute addition and a response to the pressures of civic and feminist groups that mobilized intensely, and succeeded in pushing for a change in the definition of rape by making clear that physical violence is not required for the crime to be considered rape.
Tackling those promised agendas and taking other steps in that direction would secure the party an anti-mainstream identity, and could in fact bring a significant advantage in the electoral but also ideological struggle against New Democracy, one of the key pillars of the political bipartisanship during the post-Junta era.
The period after 2010 has proven that in order for new parties -be it from the left or the right side of the extreme centre- to survive, they need to retain a certain degree of an anti-establishment identity once in power. Hence the question is what kind of policies are implemented after a new party is elected and whether those policies differ substantially from those of the extreme centre. To this end, it is clear that Syriza failed to pass the test of remaining an anti-establishment party once in power. Syriza’s main justification for its shortcomings has been the structural limitations imposed by the Troika. This, however, fails to recognize that if had Syriza attempted and succeeded in promoting these institutional reforms, it would had created a sense of political belonging and trust for those progressive people that voted it to government in 2015, avoiding as a result this dramatic defeat.
In addition, Syriza's explanation-excuse over the electoral costs of the Prespa agreement should also be challenged, as the party seems to have lost in all regions in the country, including urban centers, where the issue had no salience.
Syriza's anti-establishment identity was further weakened by the party's disconnection from social and anti-austerity movements that emerged after 2010. Ever since its foundation in 2004 and to the defeat of July 2015, Syriza acted more as a party of movements rather than a typical top-down Leninist leftwing party . It was a party that was shaped and reshaped by social movements. The dialectical relationship it had developed to social movements, provided Syriza with a unique, open-ended political physiognomy unlike the rest of the left-wing parties in the country and can, to a certain extent, accounts for the party’s electoral rise from 2012 and onwards. At that time, the party realized that it was necessary to open itself to the needs of society and, in particular, the struggles that emerged during this period, stretching from the free pass toll movement to Indignados. When the party split in two in August 2015 subsequently adopting a neoliberal agenda, it alienated social movements that could not longer perceive it as a party that could promote and advance their political demands. As such, Syriza was transformed into a bureaucratic machine that mainly focused to managing the crisis through the ministries it occupied.
The neoliberal policies orchestrated with the far-right nationalist party ANEL and other members of the old political establishment further alienated crucial sections of the society that saw in Syriza a principled party; a belief that soon affected rest of the left-wing parties that were considered equally amoral and self-interested political formations. In this sense, the defeat of Syriza was not limited to itself but spread to the rest of the left-wing parties that were standing to its left.
These effects were crystallized in the recent elections, in which the two main parties of the extra-parliamentarian left, Antarsya and Popular Unity, scored as low as a combined 1.2% in the European elections, marking a considerable decrease compared to the last national elections of September 2015 were they gained 3,72% of the vote. Syriza’s trajectory is not the only cause for this outcome, however. One should also consider the ways that both Antarsya and Popular Unity decided to act after the elections of 2015. Sectarianism and unwillingness to collaborate in any possible common front was one of the main limitations for both sides of the left spectrum. More precisely, in the recent local and regional elections different factions within the party of Antarsya endorsed different candidates in different parts of the country, giving the impression of several parties and not of a unified coalition. These decisions reflect the different political orientations encountered within the ranks of the party, with regards to what is to be done both both in terms of tactics and strategy. Popular Unity, on the other hand, continued mimicking Syriza, repeating many of the mistakes that led to the latter's political defeat. Since its formation, Popular Unity put leader-centered politics forward and developed collaborations with minor political parties of different political origins, adopted a nationalist rhetoric -especially as exemplified through the issue of North Macedonia and attempted to instrumentalize the struggles of the social movements in which involved in. The internal functioning of the party was more than problematic, as the absence of democratic decision making processesled to several splits since its very formation. In other words, both coalitions had serious internal issues; a problem that was only aggravated by the lack of any short-term or long-term strategic perspective on how to move forward from the neo-liberalization and bureaucratization of Syriza.
The two positive developments of these elections were the significant decrease of Golden Dawn's influence and the almost 3% that Varoufakis' MeRa25 achieved. Internal fights inside the Nazist party and its 4-year court case can explain the decrease of its electorate. Varoufakis' initiative, on the other hand, succeeded in gathering significant support in the European elections, especially if one considers it was the party's launch in the ballots. MeRa25 mainly attracted the people who were disappointed from the performance of the other left-wing parties, by developing instead a clear-cut program and discourse during its electoral campaign targeting the existing political establishment of the country. As long as this initiative however, remains centered around the figure of Varoufakis and is unwilling to develop any social alliances with existing forces on the ground, it is doomed to fail. This is the key challenge that Varoufakis and his party must deal with in the upcoming months. Varoufakis, thus, has been given an opportunity, albeit fragile, to transform his party exactly due to the inability of the rest of the political forces to express any discourse that can attract the country's progressive audience.
Summing up, the Greek Left seems to confront the same issues as the rest of the left in Europe· they are challenged by similar inner party crises paired with a lack of short-term perspectives on what is to be done on the national and local level while seeming unable to be transformed to key players of the political arena in a context where the extreme centre is under dissolution and the nationalist right gains momentum. Syriza's and Podemos' defeat has become a political paradigm on what is not to be done. The peaceful road to socialism as a strategy has collapsed on their heads, and as while such illusions are losing their market, the Left can finally start building the new.
* I would like to thank Rosa Burc and Stella Christou for their useful comments both in terms of form and content.