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Political lessons from Syriza to European Progressives

By Arnaud Castaignet, Board Member, Open Diplomacy

· Europe

Second article of a series published after the study trip organised by the Open Diplomacy Institute in Greece on 28th April - 1st May 2017.

Hope begins today”. That was the message the current Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras sent to the Greek people when his Coalition of the Radical Left party (Syriza) won the national elections on January 25, 2015. Two years and a half later, this optimism has largely dissipated. Conservative opposition (the “New Democracy” party) is leading in the polls, economic figures are positive but remain unsatisfactory, and the common belief is that Syriza has actually pursued past policies with drastic austerity measures and additional tax increases.

A new type of radical party aiming at opening a new chapter in Greece’s politics

Syriza was symptomatic in 2015 of a revolt against the Europe of austerity and corporate power, and was rooted in Greece's society. In Greece, the frontier between the people and the ruling elite has paved the way for an uprising, as defined by the Argentinian-born post-Marxist academic Ernesto Laclau. Indeed, Syriza built its political coalition in the way prescribed by Laclau1, by “binding together different demands by focusing on their opposition to a common enemy”. The Troika2 and its austerity diktat quickly became the symbol of all that has gone wrong in Greece in the last 70 years: corrupt and disastrous political, economic and media elites, a history of state repression and the absence of national sovereignty. Alexis Tsipras succeeded in creating a new type of radical party aiming at turning the page of corruption and dynastic politics, kicking off economic growth while redistributing this growth in a fairer way and transforming liberal democratic institutions into vehicles for the expression of popular demands.

Tsipras' government had to handle a historical responsibility in the most crucial period for Europe, to take the country out of the crisis and bring the society back on its feet. But the negotiations with the EU on bailout programmes have mostly been the only topic on the agenda in the last 3 years. Consequently, Tsipras might now be described as another obedient Greek Prime Minister to the euromasters, signing a new bailout agreement in June 2017 and enforcing bigger doses of the same medicine that had put the Greek economy in coma. Even though Syriza's economic programme has been almost totally constrained by European institutions, Greek government has tried to implement less spectacular measures which may have positively impacted Greeks’ daily life.

Alexis Tsipras, then President of the Parliamentary group of Syriza, 2012. Wikimedia Commons.

New demands require a different type of political frontiers

A source from Syriza acknowledged in late April 2017 the party's move towards more centrist and less radical policies. He also added that the founding principle of their programme was to support the vulnerable groups and the low-income households, which is why they gradually implemented free transports for the unemployed, free access to electricity and to water for vulnerable households and abolition of entry fees in hospitals between February 2015 and February 2016, among other things.

Myrto Tsakatika, Senior Lecturer at the University of Glasgow,3 admits these successes but believes it should be relativized: "The Syriza government has had minor successes, taking forward its plan for poverty alleviation, spreading out the burdens via more progressive taxation and stepping up efforts to collect taxes and combat tax evasion. It has improved access to healthcare for the most vulnerable. It has also implemented progressive legislation such as that involving the recognition of same-sex partnerships. It has begun to promote the development of the social economy sector and aims to target structural funding toward poorer regions and the generation of youth employment. Yet, the Greek economy is recovering at a very slow pace and foreign direct investment remains scant".

However, economy is not the only driver of change in the society. The evolution of capitalism and the dominance of financial capital are at the origin of a multiplicity of new demands. These demands require the establishment of a different type of frontier. A representative from Syriza expressed the need for the party to renew its vocabulary and mentions as an example their use of the “patriotism” concept for progressive ends. Indeed, the left is often smeared by its opponents for being unpatriotic, even though there is nothing more patriotic than wanting your own country to get rid of injustice. This idea is not new for Syriza – the party has been defending national sovereignty against the neocolonial policies4 of the Troika since 2010 and the first bailout agreement – but the cultural battle is still an ongoing process.

Behind Syriza's rise, there is also the broader question of democracy. As British writer Owen Jones says5, "Greece's fight" was "for democracy in Europe". But there was a huge and popular demand to put an end to cronyism, corruption, immunity of the powerful elites and implement democratic reforms in Greece. An active member of Syriza explains they have started to de-politicize the public administration, increase the transparency of its system of promotion and evaluation, and launch an effort to investigate tax-evasion and money-laundering connected to politicians. However, this couldn't be enough to avoid the disappointment of many Greeks who have voted for Syriza.

The opposition shouldn't claim victory too quickly

The latest polls show the main opposition party New Democracy is ahead of the governing party by 7 to 10 points. Several representatives of New Democracy seem to be preparing themselves for getting back to power. Their vision of Syriza echoes the opinion of many denigrators of Greece's current government, declaring that Syriza has killed the left-wing by implementing all the economic policies they used to denounce. In their view, Syriza was the biggest challenge to the "There Is No Alternative" doctrine, and Tsipras' party has demonstrated there is actually no alternative to neoliberal hegemony. Many members of New Democracy foresee the complete disappearance of the left-wing in the near future.

Greek Parliament, Syntagma square. Source: Open Diplomacy Institute, April 2017.

Several authors have already warned about the risk of not having any political opposition. Carl Schmitt6 bases his conceptual realm of state sovereignty and autonomy upon the distinction between friend and enemy. To bring its people in a clear direction, to gather it, to allow it to define itself as a community, it is mandatory to designate an "other" to which one opposes. For him, "the political" is about antagonism. More recently, the Belgian scholar Chantal Mouffe7 strongly criticized consensus in politics and described its consequences: "Either the people lose their interest in politics thats why there is so much abstention – or the people tend to vote for right-wing populist parties, as we currently witness in a lot of countries. Those populist parties at least pretend to offer an alternative".

Could Syriza really disappear, and have they already lost the next legislative election on or before 20 October 2019? As noted by the Dutch political scientist Cas Mudde8, "the majority of people has lost hope in SYRIZA as a radical force, but blame the Troika in general". This could pave the way to the emergence of other progressive forces in Europe, challenging neoliberal and conservative policies. According to the authors of The Great Regression9 (Eva Illouz, Donatella Della Porta, Arjun Appadurai, Zlavoj Zizek, among others), "it is evident that Greece is not the European Union’s burden to bear but rather part of its salvation. Syriza has proposed an alternative to European financial metastasis by reclaiming fiscal sovereignty, battening down the markets, focusing on democratisation, and seeking continent-wide social solidarity.". Despite mixed results and strong criticism from former Greek and European allies, Alexis Tsipras and his comrades remain the symbols of the democratic fight for political and economic alternatives in Europe. However, these years at the government have transformed Syriza from a far left party to a mainstream and more central one in Greece's political landscape. At the same time, its influence within the European Parliament has dramatically increased, leading to the creation of a “Progressive Caucus” in the European Parliament in September 2016. This Progressive Caucus is composed of three political groups – the leftist GUE-NGL, the Socialists and Democrats (S&D) and the Greens – European Free Alliance (Greens/EFA). Considering Greece's political landscape and Syriza's political influence at the European Parliament, it is hard to imagine a disappearance of the party. Considering Greece's democratic history, it is more likely that Greek politics will remain closely followed everywhere in Europe.

Greece uprising in 2011. First day of the people's protest against IMF. Wikimedia commons.

Lessons to European Progressives

To conclude, progressives all over Europe could learn the following lessons from Syriza's experience:

  • The ‘moral advantage’ is a short-lived advantage which cannot ultimately supersede effective alternative policy solutions. Any government heralded by a wave of hope should be able to deliver and implement an effective change in daily lives of its citizens.
  • The democratic deficit should be addressed. Globalisation, rise of inequalities, economic insecurity, desertification of the countryside, job losses in the industry, automation, cultural insecurity... Many phenomena fuel the feeling of disempowerment that citizens experience. The traditional political offer fails to cope with citizens' expectations, despite the fact that the willingness to renew participation in democratic life has never been so important. Movements such as Podemos (Spain), La France Insoumise (France), Momentum (UK), may be called "populists", are all attempts to respond to the feeling of abandonment notably experienced by youth and working classes in the advanced countries, whatever the limits these movements can have.
  • Challenges are transnational, so solutions have to be transnational too. In this regard, the creation of the “Progressive Caucus” was an important step to formulate an alternative for a European Union in crisis. However, discussions must not remain at an institutional level. Next developments should be the creation of pan-European movements with a common agenda, programme and vision of European solidarity, which will allow making the connection between social movements, progressive activists, liberal democratic institutions and parliamentary politics.

1 LACLAU Ernesto, On Populist Reason, Verso, 2005, 276 pages.

2 The European Commission, European Central Bank (ECB) and International Monetary Fund (IMF).

3 TSAKATIKA Myrto, "Assessing Syriza’s two years in power: How successful has the party been in office?", EUROPP – European Politics and Policy, academic blog run by the London School of Economics and Political Science, January 26, 2017, accessed June 2, 2017 :

http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/europpblog/2017/01/26/syriza-two-years-in-power/

4 See for example KARNITSCHNIG Matthew, "Why Greece is Germany’s ‘de facto colony’", Politico, 16 June 2017, accessed 25 July 2017 http://www.politico.eu/article/why-greece-is-germanys-de-facto-colony/

5 JONES Owen, "Greece’s fight is for democracy in Europe. That’s why we must support it", The Guardian, July 6, 2015, accessed June 2, 2017: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/jul/06/greece-democracy-europe-eu

6 SCHMITT Carl, The Concept of the Political", University of Chicago Press, 1927, 105 pages.

7 MOUFFE Chantal, "The democratic paradox", Chantal Mouffe, Verso, 2000.

8 MUDDE Cas, "SYRIZA: The Failure of the populist promise", Palgrave Macmillan, 2016, 98 pages.

9 The Great Regression, collective, Polity, 2017, 220 pages.

Caption of the photo above: <!-- @page { margin: 2cm } P { margin-bottom: 0.21cm } -->Demonstration in Syntagma square, 2013, Athanasios Lazarou, Flickr.

The opinions and interpretations expressed in the publications are exclusively the responsibility of their authors, in respect of the Open Diplomacy Institute’ statutes (article 3) and charter of values.

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