Syriza wins but at what price?

Marina Prentoulis surveys the uncertain terrain left by Syriza’s second election triumph

2015 has been a difficult year for Greece, still the country is far from coming out of the woods. Two general elections, a referendum plus a long and painful negotiation between the Syriza coalition government, the European institutions and the IMF, have ended with yet another austerity programme and without a clear solution for the unsustainable Greek debt problem. After the first election on January 25th, Syriza (Coalition of the Radical Left) had high hopes that after five years of unbearable austerity and a huge increase of the Greek debt, convincing the Eurozone leaders that a different path was rational and desirable, would be possible. On July 13th after seven long months of negotiations, it became clear to the whole of Europe that the neoliberal logic had become the modus operandi for both the EU and the Eurozone. The European leaders were determined to crush every voice of resistance, even if that meant the destruction of the European project as such. The defeat of the Syriza coalition government at the negotiating table was interpreted by domestic and foreign commentators as the beginning of the end for Syriza. The opinion polls before September 20th, predicted a very close result between Syriza and New Democracy (conservatives). Some polls even showed a government led by New Democracy. The outcome of the election was very different and once again the weakness of ‘scientific’ polling to predict the results in a new political environment, shaped by the financial crisis of 2008 and the catastrophic effects of austerity policies, became evident. Some similarities can be drawn here between the Greek electoral results and the unprecedented support for Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour party.

In both cases the domestic and international media cannot come to terms with the shift to what for them is a resurgence of ‘left’, ‘socialist’ politics. In the case of Corbyn, the old mantra of trying to win the ‘centre’ ground with neoliberal-friendly policies seemed obsolete in the face of his overwhelming leadership vote. In the case of Syriza it seems that despite the government not being able to implement its original anti-austerity programme, Syriza still commands important political capital. Neither the social-democratic PASOK nor the right-wing New Democracy, both of which had never argued against austerity, could for the time being at least, regain their electoral power. PASOK, despite a small increase of 1.1%, has virtually collapsed while New Democracy, despite an attempt to consolidate its power and present itself as a ‘centrist’ party, still did not manage to close the significant gap of 7.5% separating it from Syriza. Of course it would be wrong to over exaggerate the electoral victory of September 20th. Taking into account that electoral registration is automatic and voting is mandatory in Greece, the turnout has been quite low. This can be attributed partly to the understandable fatigue generated by the repeated call to the polls and partly to the disappointment of the Greek public with electoral politics. According to sources, 800,000 additional voters abstained (compared to the January election). After the 62% referendum ‘no’ vote to the Institutions’ (ECB, EC and IMF) tough austerity terms, it became evident that the ruling establishment would over-ride the wishes of the Greek people for a more humane socio-economic agreement. The blunt refusal to recognise the anti-austerity mandate of the Greek government highlighted the democratic deficit in the Eurozone. The broken relationship between electoral politics and citizens will not be mended easily and will haunt the future of Greek politics.

The victory of Syriza for a second term, begs some further examination. The snap election of September took place amidst a significant demobilization of the Syriza activists. The left tendency of Syriza formed a new party, Popular Unity (LAE). Some of the most prominent figures of Popular Unity, had associated themselves with Grexit as the only viable alternative to the neoliberal dictatorship of the Eurozone with a return to the national currency. Currently this clearly does not reflect the mandate of the Greek voters. Other activists and officials of the party, disappointed with what has been perceived as a shift of Syriza to the centre-left and the lack of democratic procedures within the party, decided to stay outside party politics. The internal turmoil and the bailout agreement led many commentators to predict victory for Syriza as unlikely, as well as a weakening of their right-wing government partners, Independent Greeks (ANEL). Yet none of these predictions came true. Syriza won with 35.5% of the vote, ANEL although it suffered a decline of 1.1% compared to January, still gained 10 seats in parliament and once again formed a coalition with Syriza. As for the newly formed Popular Unity, it failed to pass the 3% threshold in order to enter parliament. The discordance between left activists and a large part of the electorate is not an uncommon phenomenon. Three factors are at play here with the Greek electorate. Firstly, the implementation by the government of policies targeting the humanitarian crisis in Greece, like food vouchers, restoration of electricity connections in primary residences and rent allowances for the most vulnerable in society. Secondly, the negotiations themselves (despite their outcome) changed the subservient position of the previous Greek governments vis-a-vis the EU and gave back to the Greek people some dignity and national pride. Finally, the media and right wing underestimated the hostility of a significant part of the electorate to the old political establishment. The last point played a key role in the Syriza rhetoric during the second electoral campaign. Although there are good reasons for a leftish anxiety and disappointment as the January anti-austerity discourse has been replaced with an emphasis on changing of the ‘old’ political establishment there is still hope on the horizon. Old evils, from clientilism to corruption still dominate the Greek state.

Despite scepticism on how feasible it is for SYRIZA to change these structures, any development in these areas will be an unquestionable victory and will have a great impact on Greek society. Furthermore, there is still the issue of the Greek debt and it is common knowledge that if the EU partners do not offer some form of relief, it will increase from the current 180% to 200% of GDP in the next few years. Finally, when it comes to the imposed austerity measures, the possibility of replacing measures targeting the most vulnerable strata of society with others that do not contribute to the humanitarian crisis, is still open. All is not lost and without being over-optimistic, we can still hope.

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