As Greek politics again is shrouded in crisis, Marina Prentoulis’ piece in the new issue of CHARTIST is a timely reminder of what real austerity opposition looks like.
The rise and fall of the ‘People’s’ parties in Greece
Ideological labels are outdated. We hear that time and again, yet their usefulness in pinning down the political character of a party for broad constituencies never went out of fashion. However, these labels seem to distract from the transformative processes parties go through in order to respond to particular historical contingencies. One of the most fundamental transformations has to do with the relationship between party and social base. Or put another way, with the ability of the party to retain participatory structures keeping it attuned with the demands of the ‘people’ while simultaneously seeking electoral victory. Greece is a good example of how decisive these processes are in making or breaking parties.
After the financial crisis of 2007-8, it became apparent that neoliberal socio-economic policies would persist despite the overwhelming evidence across Europe of their destructive effects. The rise of new political actors, resisting the imposed austerity measures and the lending agreements especially in southern Europe, has led to a reconfiguration of the political spectrum. To use the old, outdated ideological labels, the rise of the extreme right on the one hand and the left on the other, have created a big stir. Not only because they both enter the political scene as serious contenders after years of being marginalised but also because they force the established players to leave the comfortable middle ground of their electoral battles. This reconfiguration is not irrelevant for the new players either: they need to transform in order to take over power while simultaneously retaining their increasing appeal to the people. In this context, it may be useful to follow more closely how the economic crisis in Greece and the subsequent lending agreements caused the collapse of PASOK, the social-democratic party which shaped Greek politics for over two decades and the rise of SYRIZA, the coalition of the radical left, now leading the official opposition in Greece.
The period following the end of the Greek dictatorship (1967-1974) was marked by the ideological and (from 1981) the electoral, leadership of PASOK which exhibited the characteristics of other socialist, social-democratic and labour parties in Europe: it represented the ‘people’, the middle and lower social classes. It had a broad organisational base and was in line with the European developments of social-democracy. During this period the widespread demand for social and political change had to be expressed by a party which on the one hand, would have foundations in the aspirations of the Greek people and on the other would produce a convincing programme for the transformation and democratisation of the state. PASOK managed to achieve both objectives by creating the organisational structures of a mass party rooted in the socio-political movement of the time, and by giving content and shaping the forthcoming ‘Change’. In the years to follow this change was anchored around modernisation and Europeanisation, processes that take a particular form within the Greek context and deserve examination in their own right.
With the election of PASOK to government in 1981 the emphasis progressively shifted away from the social base towards the management of the state and electoral results. Twenty years later, fully immersed in the electoral battle and incorporated within the state mechanism, PASOK was willing to form alliances and followed policies that bore little relationship with the demands of its own social base. The grassroots of the party for example had little say in the formulation of policies and the nomination of electoral candidates. This lack of participatory structures leading to the marginalisation of the party’s membership played a decisive role in the demise of the party.
The sudden announcement of Prime Minister George Papandreou (PASOK) in 2010 that Greece, unable to repay its debts, would be subjected to the lending mechanisms of ‘Troika’ (European Commission, European Central Bank and IMF) made it obvious that the party had lost control of the state and touch with the people. What followed was a generalised crisis of political representation embodied in the protest movement of ‘Aganaktismenoi’ (Indignants). The social diversity of the movement is a testament to the generalised anger against the decisions of the political establishment but also a rejection of the predicament that the people would have no input in democratic politics apart from voting on versions of the same during elections. It comes as no surprise that by the 2012 General election PASOK has lost most of its electoral support, becoming the third party (12%) with New Democracy (Conservatives) first (29%).
The rise of SYRIZA to second position (26%) was however what shook the Greek political terrain. In 2009 SYRIZA, a coalition of radical left organisations had an electoral vote of just 4%. Its spectacular rise to the official opposition showed how deep was the need for a party that would position itself against the political elites of the country on the one hand and Troika on the other. The unholy alliance between New Democracy and PASOK in order to form a pro-memoranda, pro-austerity coalition government did nothing but reinforce SYRIZA as the hegemonic force within society. The demands of the people, as they had been expressed in the indignant movement, resonated with SYRIZA’s programme and a transformative process started broadening and opening the organisational base of SYRIZA to diverse social groups.
This process was symbolically inaugurated with the addition of the acronym EKM (United Social Front) to the party’s name. At the same time however a second transformative process was necessary. This process would change SYRIZA from a coalition (within which the diverse organisations retained autonomy) to a unified governing party. In May 2012 SYRIZA submitted to the Supreme Court the application transforming it to a single party. This decision was driven by the Greek electoral law offering the bonus of fifty seats to the party coming first in the national elections, and it asserted SYRIZA’s belief that it was only a matter of time until it could claim the government. The proposal of self-dissolution created intense tensions within the party and at the founding conference (10-14 July 2013) a compromise was achieved giving ‘reasonable’ time to the organisations to dissolve or to cease their public presence. Instead, party members were encouraged to form or join internal tendencies, promoting collective positions within the party and expressing them publicly as long as they specified that they did not represent the official position of the party. The participatory potential of SYRIZA lays in these two transformations: the opening up of the party to a wider social base and the ability of the new members’ organisations to be more inclusive and active than the previous left organisations that composed SYRIZA.
Link the party
Only time will show if these processes will link the party with a grassroots base and if and how popular participation will remain the true force behind a future electoral victory. And this time is approaching fast for SYRIZA. When these lines were written the imminent election for the Greek President brought the possibility of a General election within striking distance. If New Democracy and PASOK fail to secure the 180 votes within parliament for their presidential candidate as predictions suggest, SYRIZA will enter the electoral showdown ahead in the polls. A potential victory however, is not necessarily synonymous with social and ideological leadership. This will depend on the participatory structures and the social movement that will support SYRIZA after a victorious election.
This article appears in the years first issue of CHARTIST. Click on subscribe above to receive six copies a year and our occasional pamphlets.