Greek elections – SYRIZA down but not out

Marina Prentoulis says the defeat of SYRIZA is bad news for Greece and Europe but the party remains a strong centre-left force

Kyriakos Mitsotakis ‘hit the ground running’. With almost 40% of the vote, the new Prime Minister (son of the Mitsotakis dynasty that has dominated Greek politics for decades) feels confident enough to leave no space for any social policy implemented by the Syriza government during their four years in power and after the end of the memorandum in August 2018.

After bringing under his direct control the secret services, the Public Service Broadcaster and Athens News agency, he brought prisons and migrant/refugee centres under the control of the police force. What was a matter of human rights, now becomes a matter of rights and a matter of repression. His anti-migrant policies went further: he scrapped the measures that allowed migrants and refugees to quickly obtain their NI, effectively making sure that seasonal workers remain uninsured and exploited in the Greek black market. No wonder that some political centres in Europe are quite anxious and wonder how on earth the Greeks managed to vote for those who are responsible for the crisis.  

In eurosceptic Britain, no such concerns have been expressed and the British ‘left’ fulfils its political role by rejoicing in bashing SYRIZA. Nevertheless, winning 31.5% of the vote is not exactly the political annihilation predicted for SYRIZA. On the contrary, the party proved that it is here to stay as a strong centre-left force, despite its defeat.

Critics, many from the left, blame the SYRIZA/ANEL government for the adoption of the EU/IMF memorandum, and for, in doing so, continuing with the catastrophic austerity policies. For them SYRIZA has not done battle with the neoliberal EU and this is why Greek voters punished SYRIZA at Sunday’s election. A crucial feature of this narrative is its very conscious omission of any reference to the September 2015 election. That election was called by SYRIZA after it had abandoned its programme, after it had “betrayed” (according to some) the referendum results, and after it had signed the memorandum. At that election SYRIZA got 36.3% of the vote. Losing 5% since then does not represent a massive rejection for a government operating within the limitations of the memorandum, though it is a major setback.

What SYRIZA attempted to do within the confines of the situation it inherited was to protect some of the most vulnerable in society. The SYRIZA/ANEL government – which, among other things, during its period in office gave citizenship to second-generation migrants, and brought back within the National Health Service the one million people who had been excluded by the previous government because they were uninsured – did its best to act as a defender of a social vision for Greece. It was also one of the few parties that upheld such a vision within Europe.

Implementing the memorandum, however, meant that a big part of the taxation burden ended up on the shoulders of the lower middle class/middle class, and many of these voters subsequently felt alienated. It is not accidental that the new Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, while on camera talking to a shop-owner a few weeks ago, ‘hinted’ that the tax evasion checks and controls on businesses implemented by the SYRIZA/ANEL government would come to an end on his watch. One wonders how this will go down with our EU partners who previously rejected SYRIZA’s economic proposals for a fairer distribution of the costs of the memorandum and especially taxation. After all, Greece may be out of the memorandum as of August 2018 but it still remains under supervision.

There are of course many other contributing factors to SYRIZA’s defeat. The devastating pictures after the Mati wildfires in 2018, which claimed the lives of almost a hundred people, were confirmation that the criminal ineffectiveness of the Greek state continued under the SYRIZA/ANEL government. The “Prespa Agreement” with North Macedonia, one of the great victories of the SYRIZA government, came at a cost: it enabled the far-right to advance its nationalistic discourse in parts of Greece. And the uncomfortable coalition with the right-wing, nationalist ANEL, even after its dissolution, continues to associate SYRIZA with political figures that most left-leaning supporters of the party find distasteful. Despite all of its sins however, Sunday’s election proves that SYRIZA has established itself as a strong force in Greek politics.

Meanwhile, the national and international media are trying to present Kyriakos Mitsotakis (son of the previous Prime Minister Konstadinos Mitsotakis) as a moderate-moderniser. This picture completely misses the crucial point that New Democracy has in fact shifted to the right. In Greece (as is happening across Europe, including Britain) the traditional party of the right has been adopting, and making mainstream, the discourses of the far-right. And it has been precisely figures on the far-right wing of the party – including politicians like Adonis Georgiadis (Minister of Health before the SYRIZA/ANEL government, and in that role responsible for having left millions of unemployed with no health cover) – who have been pivotal in assisting New Democracy and bringing it to power.

During the electoral campaign, New Democracy advanced two different lines of argumentation in an intertwined offensive. The first was the neoliberal modernising argument about growth and investment, through tax relief to businesses, further privatisations (including in health care) and all those things that after the 2008 crisis brought hundreds of thousands of Greeks and other Europeans to their knees. The second strand echoes the Trump/Johnson discourse, attacking every minority and mocking anyone in need. Greece has never been the natural home of a ‘liberal’ or moderate right, but after what the country went through after 2010, it is shocking to witness the brutality of these reinforced attacks on social values by the right/far right New Democracy. Their vision is the law of the jungle: we cannot all be equals, some are ‘naturally’ better, they will advance while the weak will die.

One reason for celebration of course, is the exclusion of the fascist Golden Dawn from the Greek Parliament (it did not pass the 3% threshold) – a huge victory for the anti-fascist activists who have tried for years to unmask the criminal organisation responsible for the murder of activist Pavlos Fyssas in 2013. This feel-good mood however is immediately spoiled if one realises that at least part of this vote has now been transferred to New Democracy. This is why a strong opposition will be crucial for democracy in Greece. 

A version of this article first appeared in The Guardian.

Marina Prentoulis

Dr Marina Prentoulis is a member of Syriza and Chartist Editorial Board. She is Senior Lecturer in Politics and Media, University of East Anglia, and Contemporary Political Theory Annual Prize winner for Political theory in the square: Protest, representation and subjectification.