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SYRIZA and the Greek Left

“A historic moment!” These were the first words uttered by many at 7 pm on January 25, when the first exit polls were announced on Greek television. SYRIZA was going to be the winner of the 2015 elections.

For the first time in Greek political history a left-wing party was about to climb to power. Despite the fact that the Greek Left had played a significant part in this history, it had always remained out of power (or — in some instances — had been forcibly kept out) … until a week ago.

The Greek Left had been illegal for most of its contemporary history, from the establishment of the Greek Communist Party (KKE) in 1918 up until 1974. However, despite this ban, KKE was always active, keeping its organizational cadres operating abroad, while at the same time building links and coalitions inside Greece. It was the major organizing force behind the national resistance against the Nazi occupation of 1941-44 and, after the end of the Civil War in 1949, its members participated in the establishment of the United Democratic Left (EDA), a party which became the major opposition in 1958.

In 1968, the outlawed KKE split and two major divisions were formed: on the one hand there was the KKE, which retained its tight organizational and ideological relations with USSR; on the other, the euro-communist Greek Communist Party of the Interior (KKE-Esoterikou). Since 1974, when all left-wing parties were legalized, KKE and KKE-esoterikou and its heirs have represented two major different ideological trajectories within the Greek Left. Both have gained parliamentary representation in almost every election, and their share of the vote has never fallen below 7.5 percent. The two parties formed a stable third pole of a dominantly bi-partisan political system, in which the centre-socialist PASOK and the right-wing NEA DIMOKRATIA (ND hereafter) parties rotated in power for 41 years (1974-2015) … until a week ago.

SYRIZA, which formed the first left-wing government of Greece on 26 January 2015, was established in 2004 as a umbrella coalition between the heirs of KKE-esoterikou (that is, the party Synaspismos) and several radical left extra-parliamentary parties or groups: a multi-vocal alliance of euro-communists, Trotskyists, Movementists, Democratic Socialists, Maoists and Green leftists. Jumping from a mere 4.6 percent in the 2009 elections to 26.9 percent in June 2012, the coalition became the major opposition two years before finally reaching the 36.34 percent of the vote that brought it to power.

Having argued the above, one needs to add an important note: this sudden rise in SYRIZA’s voting rates and its climb to power does not mean that Greek society turned ‘leftist’ overnight. The vicious and ill-planned austerity programme forced upon Greek society by the EU troika and the IMF as a remedy for the 2009 debt crisis, a programme implemented by PASOK and ND, stands as a key-point for understanding this change.

In the past, a significant majority of the Greek population had structured their life’s planning upon cliental relations with PASOK and ND. In addition, since the 1990s a significant exposure to private debt and consumerism was encouraged by the illusion of high growth rates. The political system seemed to be quite stable despite the significant problems in the conduct of the administration of state, the inherent inequalities this caused, and the levels of corruption. This stability led gradually to the annulment of any ideological differences between PASOK and ND. These two parties gradually converged along the lines of a neoliberal agenda that became their vehicle for keeping up the growth that was, in turn, feeding this system. In the end, the only significant difference between the two parties was their different cliental networks and a customary family vote.

Facing the collapse of the Greek economy, and in the face of the extreme recession that the austerity plan brought to the country (as opposed to any revival of the economy), these parties ended up in a coalition that had nothing more to offer to their client-voters than an illusion of security. Following the total electoral collapse of PASOK in the 2012 elections, and alarmed by the leak of votes to the Left on the one hand and the extreme Right on the other, ND resorted to instigating panic and fear in an effort to stop the leak and regain their traditional voters. “Bankruptcy, bank-run, shortages in medical supplies, even shortage in toilet paper (sic) in case SYRIZA would come to power,” were among the threats addressed to the 2015 voters through posters, television spots and debates. Even a ghost of anti-communism, long forgotten in Greece, made its appearance in the discourse of many ND members.

Having kept my voting rights at my family’s village on the Greek periphery, on the island of Kefalonia, where politics are reflected in face-to-face interaction (by contrast to the impersonal urban centres), it was easier to grasp this change at the micro-level on election day. It was possible, therefore, to predict that a significant victory for SYRIZA was on its way. Traditional voters of the two establishment parties were openly announcing their vote for SYRIZA, sharing their thoughts about this shift. My 80-year-old neighbor, Mr Kostas, for example, argued that we have nothing to expect anymore from the political system, but at the same time there is nothing left to be afraid of … we are bankrupt … let’s hope that they can bring a change.

In fact, what did go bankrupt during these elections was fear itself. People felt they had had enough of the fear-rhetoric of the conservative, neo-liberal, failed ND government and they chose a different path. They decided to give the Greek Left its historic opportunity.

A few days earlier and few kilometres away, at the central pre-electoral meeting of SYRIZA in Athens, Alexis Tsipras, the party’s 40-year-old president, was making a reference in his speech to the large number of representatives from European left-wing parties who were physically present. He then invited Pablo Iglesias, from the Spanish PODEMOS, to the podium. It seemed that it was not only the Greek Left that was seeing this as a moment of historical opportunity.

At the end of Tsipras’ speech at this pre-electoral meeting, a promise for hope, for change, was uttered against the sweeping campaign of fear. A 60-year-old couple were standing in front of me; they tightly hugged, then looked at each other, sharing a silent smile, a silent meaningful gaze and, then, tears. If one looked around while the few thousands gathered slowly dispersed, it was possible indeed to see this picture multiplied: moist eyes and incipient smiles.

Was this indeed the central political meeting of what was going to be the new government? With no hailing of the name of the “leader” obsessively repeated? With no masses of thousands organized and carefully positioned by party members to appear on TV screens as millions? With no flags provided by the party to every single person there and no paid buses to carry the hordes of political fans? This was what a mass-party pre-electoral campaign meeting looked like in Greece, we all knew. What? Just hugs and silent incipient tears between smiles?

For those familiar with Greek politics, this little vignette was the first sign of a significant change to come. For the first time in Greece there was a party in power whose voters did not hail its leader as their god; for the first time in Greece, a political party in power with no links to traditional political families named Papandreou or Karamanlis; for the first time in Greece, a political party in power through the votes of people who knew they could not benefit from their vote in terms of exchange; for the first time in Greece, a party in power whose members and traditional left-wing voters were yesterday happy to witness this historical change but are today thinking, ready to be critical, ready to apply pressure for the promised hope to be turned into reality, the hope that had brought tears to their eyes … Signs of a historic change.

From their very first days in office, SYRIZA seems to have taken this responsibility of hope quite seriously. The new ministerial cabinet has been widely celebrated as a radical break from tradition, bringing Marxist economists, academics and philosophers into power. In only three days, the first decisions and actions taken have magnified the hope. Tsipras and the vast majority of the cabinet became the first government ministers in Greek history not to take a religious oath during the inauguration ceremony; instead, they took a political one, to “their dignity and honour.” This decision broke with a 180-year-old tradition that reflected the pathological interdependence between the Greek state and the Greek Orthodox Church (one of the significant distortions of the Greek political system too wide and complex to be analyzed here).

The first governmental decisions and decrees announced included the cessation of privatization plans for significant public enterprises (like electricity production and ports), and the granting of citizenship to the children of immigrant parents residing legally in Greece. Many elements of the failed austerity programme, which had especially hit the low-waged, were reversed. Demands of the Left that could formerly only be posed as a critique were now becoming decisions … a historic change.

All of those who recognize in SYRIZA’s victory the seeds of hope for a new left-wing politics would have felt great relief had a larger majority been achieved on the night of January 25. If SYRIZA had secured only two more parliamentary seats, it would not have been necessary to collaborate with any other political party in order to form a government (albeit with a quite precarious majority of seats in the parliament). However, the rigid refusal of the Greek Communist Party (KKE) to support or collaborate with SYRIZA under any circumstances, left no other alternative but to seek a coalition with a non-left parliamentary group.

From day one, this was a good reminder of all the challenges that holding power brings: the challenges of negotiations, of difficult-to-keep balance, even of compromise. SYRIZA, from among the limited choices for a governmental ally, chose the populist centre-right wing ANEL (Independent Greeks). This was a decision that initially deeply worried its left-wing base and brought disappointment.

ANEL is indeed a populist centre-right-wing party, with some of its members having expressed quite harsh anti-Semitic and anti-immigrant sentiments. Its electoral power stands on three main pillars: 1. The fact that that ANEL are the only party of the centre-right with a clear-cut anti-austerity agenda, which attracted many of the disenchanted right-wingers who would not vote for Syriza for ideological reasons but were not so radicalized as to vote for the fascist Golden Dawn; 2. The personal appeal of ANEL’s president, the young ex-ND MP Panos Kammenos, and 3. ANEL’s anti-immigration rhetoric, which is a stable attraction for the mainstream conservative right-wing Greek voter. It is a bizarre — at the very least — alliance and a significant challenge for SYRIZA indeed.

However, one needs to remember that the challenges ahead will not only be faced inside the government or inside the country. The hardest to deal with will arise at the negotiation table with a neo-liberal EU, with the conservative German Christian Democrats and with the IMF. The last is unlikely to take kindly to SYRIZA’s firm decision to refuse their suggested austerity remedy and try out a left-wing policy plan, a plan for revitalizing the economy, reshaping the public administration, and establishing an operational and fair tax-collection system that goes in the exact opposite direction to what has been tried out so far. The mini-collapse of the Greek stock market on Wednesday and the threat of Standard & Poor’s to cut Greece’s credit ratings are signs that these challenges are going to be multiplied and that global capital markets will not let a left-wing plan be tried out without significant systemic resistance.

Seen in this light, SYRIZA’s decision to collaborate with ANEL seems to make sense in terms of sitting at the negotiation table with the back-up of a strong parliamentary majority that will secure its firm stance. Moreover, the initial fears that such a coalition would automatically water down SYRIZA’s immigration and rights-oriented policies seem to have been refuted, at least for the time being. The announcement that citizenship would be granted to second-generation immigrant children (a red flag for most right-wingers) appears to be good proof of this.

What the trade-off between SYRIZA and ANEL does seem to have affected, though, is foreign policy. The appointment of Kammenos as the minister of defense and of Nikos Kontzias (a left-wing nationalist IR professor) as the minister of foreign affairs reflects the danger of a complete surrender of the internationalist core of SYRIZA’s positions to a group of nationalist hardliners. This is a worrying challenge, with possible effects in the region, Greek-Turkish relations are likely to be the first sensitive realm to be affected.

Still, closing here with a reference to a point made above: Against the background of the significant challenges lying ahead of the first left-wing government in Greek history, SYRIZA’s own critical voices — in the parliament but also outside of the parliament, in forums, in the workplace, in neighborhoods, expressed in newspaper columns, in articles, in blogs — will be its most significant force. These critical voices, this self-critique, will be the precondition for securing that the left-wing, internationalist, sensitive-to-the-needs-of-the-powerless perspective will be and will remain the party’s hegemonic way to see and act upon the world. This will be a hegemony that will need to be claimed and fought for continuously, in the party, in the government, in society.

This is and will be the biggest challenge for the Greek Left.

Leonidas Karakatsanis