How Syriza Lost the Left

How Syriza Lost the Left

The Greek Coalition of the Radical Left is likely facing a major defeat in this Sunday’s election.

U.S Secretary of State Michael Pompeo, Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras (Flickr/U.S. Embassy)

General elections in Greece this Sunday will pit Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and Syriza, or the Coalition of the Radical Left, against Kyriakos Mitsotakis and center-right New Democracy party. Some see this as a litmus test for the left around the world. Most people here are predicting an utter rout for Syriza.

The far right galloped ahead during the European Parliament elections on May 26. Neo-Nazi Golden Dawn, along with Elliniki Lisi (Greek Solution), LAOS (Popular Orthodox Alarm), ANEL (Independent Greeks, Syriza’s erstwhile right-wing partner in government), Eleutheri Patrida (Free Homeland), and Nea Deksia (New Right), plus half a dozen other nationalist and ultra-conservative parties, captured 19 percent of the vote. Add to this the 33.1 percent New Democracy garnered (compared to Syriza’s 23.8 percent), and the proportion of the electorate expected to vote for the center and far right on July 7 is as high as 52 percent, which would be the highest returns for the right since the Second World War, mirroring the current rightward slide in many parts of the world.

In the current moment, it is sometimes hard to remember the elation with which many on the left greeted Syriza’s victory back in January 2015, with 36 percent of the vote. The right reacted with horror. I remember the students at the prep school in Athens where I worked fretting that Tsipras (“Che Guevara,” as they called the young prime minister then) would “take our homes from us.” Shortly after Syriza’s victory, however, I bet a conservative colleague a souvlaki that Greece’s “radical leftists” were not what their name suggested. I wagered that Syriza would keep the country in the European Union and submit to the austerity measures pushed by the troika (the European Commission, European Central Bank, and International Monetary Fund). I hoped I would lose the bet. Unfortunately, I won.

There were many things progressive people found endearing about Syriza and its leaders. The party vowed to support grassroots initiatives that had sprung up since 2010, when the troika put the screws on Greece: soup kitchens, supermarket baskets where people donated canned food, and Craigslist posts offering all manner of goods and services free of charge. Syriza ministers were praised for their laid-back dress code, and for refusing to travel first class or accept limos, chauffeurs, bodyguards, and other perks. Many expected a permanent continuation of free public transportation. Marxists were calling on Syriza to extend capital controls with the goal of nationalizing banks and corporations, and hoped the government would support workers’ control of hospitals and enterprises, especially in the accounting departments, in order to avoid further capital flight from the country.

In July 2015, Alexis Tsipras pulled a fast one on his political opponents (and the people who voted for him) when he called a snap referendum on new austerity measures the troika wanted to impose on Greece. A lot of people thought this was a sign Tsipras had not sold out: he was going to the people and would not cross any of the red lines his government had set for itself. German Chancellor Angela Merkel admitted during her “victory tour” of Athens in January 2019 that Tsipras’s sudden move had scared the living daylights out of her. Grexit and the sundering of the European Union by a domino of exits by countries like Portugal, Spain, and Italy seemed a short step away. New Democracy condemned the “irresponsile brinksmanship” and “Bolshevism” of Syriza, which was irresponsibly passing the buck to the Greek people.

The referendum took place on July 5, 2015, under dire conditions. Banks were closed for lack of funds, after the troika cut off the country’s money supply. Many believed the European Union would be torn apart over little Greece. When 61 percent of Greek voters said no to the troika’s austerity measures, it appeared disaster had finally struck. A few days later, however, Tsipras surprised everyone again. He caved in to Greece’s overlords in the north, went against the popular mandate he had just received, and signed a loan agreement that was even harsher than the measures voters had just rejected. Naturally, the anger among those who voted “no” in the referendum was molten. Tsipras then called new elections, which he won in September 2015. By re-electing him, according to the mainstream media narrative, the Greek people gave their consent to his capitulation to the troika. But the September elections set a record for the lowest turnout in a postwar Greek election; only half of registered voters came to the polls. As only a few prescient observers at the time of the July referendum realized, the snap vote on austerity was aimed not at securing a better deal for Greece, but at keeping Syriza united and Tsipras in power.

It is hard to overstate how crushing these developments were for people with high expectations for Syriza. Many had hoped the new government in Athens would infect Europe with a democratic ethos that would wipe away the unfair trade relations between southern Europe and the stronger powers in Berlin, Brussels, and Paris. They imagined a government acting dynamically, drawing support away from neo-Nazis and sharpening the left. Instead, the third memorandum agreement signed in July 2015 cost the Greek people as much as €200 billion. Poverty, unemployment, crime, mental illness, and suicide all skyrocketed. They remain at high levels today. The land where democracy was born is now subject to intervention by foreign powers to a degree it hasn’t been since 1829, when it gained its independence from the Ottoman Empire. Syriza has caved on strategic issues dealing with debt payments, austerity, and privatizations, selling off—on the cheap—ports, airports, seashores, railways, power stations, water and gas companies, cultural and archaeological sites, theaters, goldmines, and other profitable enterprises. Worse, after flattening people under a raft of new taxes, Syriza stood by when banks seized their homes.

“With a left like Syriza, who needs a right?” a friend remarked to me the other day. In Greece, only conservatives and right-wingers call Alexis Tsipras a “socialist.” Though admired in the West, Greece’s forty-four-year-old premier is held in low esteem here. When he submitted to the troika in 2015, many likened him to the early Christians who went naively to the lions; others called him a “traitor” and “Judas Iscariot.” That is probably unfair. It is true, however, that Greece’s “radical” prime minister took the path of least resistance, adopting the mentality of the shock doctrine: there is no alternative. He interpreted the choice he had to make as one between sudden death and slow death. He chose the latter.

 

If the Coalition of the Radical Left lost the support of many who voted for it in 2015, it gained the silent support of conservatives. That is not surprising. Why vote for New Democracy when Syriza has done such a good job of implementing austerity measures? Tsipras has the support of the banks, the European Union, the European Commission, and the IMF. Major business interests declared their support for Tsipras before the European elections. Indeed, the Syriza government has been very good to big business. In February, for instance, Tsipras gave an extremely generous tax break to Greece’s roughly 500 shipping companies. Not surprisingly, about half of the country’s twenty-odd tsakia (literally, “fireplaces”: a euphemism for the most powerful families) were openly backing Syriza. The party became respectable. Syriza, rather than representing the little guy, was exposed as a middle-class movement keen on returning their supporters to the status and security they lost as a result of the worldwide slump that began in 2008. Tsipras’s Syriza wanted capitalism with a human face, and it was to that (unrealizable) end that the party surrendered to the troika.

In Syriza’s telling, the party was the victim of German-led bullying. It bargained valiantly with the troika and managed to keep Greece in the European Union and eurozone. But of the two left strategies Syriza could have followed—to try to change Europe from within, or to save Greece via a well-formulated Plan B, or Grexit—it chose neither.

Instead, in four quick years Tsipras has masterfully molded his image into that of a reasonable conformist. Like so many others in the Syriza leadership, he comes from a wealthy family. His father Pavlos was a civil engineer who landed highly lucrative government contracts during the military dictatorship of 1967–1973. Tsipras’s father donated generous sums to the Greek Orthodox Church. Some disgruntled Syriza voters have suggested in the media that this explains why the government has not targeted the preferential tax treatment of an institution with billions of euros in real estate and other assets.

There is compelling logic for big business leaders and other conservatives to prefer a Syriza government to one headed by New Democracy. If re-elected, Tsipras and Syriza will go on implementing austerity measures and privatizing the public sector. In this crisis-ravaged country, no one doubts that harsh measures against an unwilling population are best implemented by self-proclaimed socialists. A victory on July 7 by Kyriakos Mitsotakis and his neoliberals will trigger loud and sustained reaction from anarchists, who will turn up the heat on the police in Athens and other cities. Major forces outside Europe also have reason to support Syriza. Tsipras’s government spent close to $2.5 billion on F-16 fighters from the United States, built close relations with the Netanyahu government in Israel, and lifted the country’s veto of NATO expansion in the Balkans.

If Syriza looks likely to falter, as it did in the European elections, it isn’t because of conservative opposition but because left-leaning voters may choose not to vote at all. They increasingly see no difference between Syriza and New Democracy.

In an effort to attract voters in the last elections, Syriza passed legislation lightening the burden of austerity measures on the average family. It allowed tax debtors (the majority of the country) to schedule arrears payments in as many as 120 installments. The government also offered tax rebates and promises of higher wages. But all these moves—band-aids on a gaping wound—backfired, and Syriza’s popularity fell further.

These failures have been made worse by the crass arrogance displayed by some of Syriza’s leadership. On the last day parliament met before it was dissolved for the elections, amendments and new laws were passed so that friends and relatives of high-ranking Syriza members, including Nikos Voutsis, the speaker of the parliament, could be hired by the public sector or transferred to higher-paying jobs there. This is not the sort of behavior one expects from radical socialists. The public outcry was so great that Tsipras was compelled to step in and put an end to the nonsense. He made matters worse for his campaign by publicly apologizing for nepotism in his cabinet. In Greek politics the words “I’m sorry” have as salutary an effect as three gallons of bleach poured into a gas tank.

 

The anarchists I have spoken to in Athens are calling for voter abstention on July 7. They repeat the refrain that if elections could change anything, they would be illegal. Others counter that if abstention changed anything, it would be illegal. (The anarchists reply that, at least nominally, voter participation is in fact mandatory in Greece.) Depending on where one stands on the political spectrum, representative democracy has the vice, or virtue, of barely needing us, the people, at all. Even with high rates of abstention, the system reproduces itself. This is why some anarchist groups in Athens are calling for “active” abstention. They plan to gather outside polling stations on election day to make noise and try to get their message across.

Meanwhile, what is left of the left in Greece dreads the possibility of a Syriza victory. The best thing for the country, they say, would be Syriza’s total dissolution and disappearance from the political scene. People in the KKE (Communist Party) and Antarsya (the acronym, spelling “rebellion,” for a conglomeration of Marxists, anarchists, and left-wing populists) are looking for a resounding defeat of Syriza on July 7. Many are convinced that the Coalition of the Radical Left will soon pass into the dustbin of history, where it belongs for being socialist in words but capitalist in deeds. Let this be a warning, they say, to anti-establishment movements around the world that have faith in people like Jeremy Corbyn in Britain, Pablo Iglesias in in Spain, Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in the United States, and even Jean-Luc Mélenchon in France. Because none of them call for the transfer of the means of production to the people, according to these voices, they are not true socialists and the system need not fear them. These are isolated voices, however. If the KKE and Antarsya do relatively well in the elections, this will be because they are seen as buffers against the far right and neo-Nazis.

Democracy as we practice it did not originate in Greece; ask anyone in Athens and they will tell you. Inspired by Roman systems of government, modern democracy is a continuation of the feudal tradition whereby kings and queens selected representatives from the estates to advise them. It has very little to do with the amesi dimokratia, or direct democracy, that was born in ancient Greece. Today, this elite tendency appears to define the situation in Greece. Working-class voters are now twice as likely not to vote as other voters, and a great majority of the country’s non-Greek population (one in ten people in Greece) do not have the right to vote. Decisions concerning the lives of over half the people who live in Greece are made without their participation at all.

 

Any doubts I had that Greece’s “First Time Left” government, as Syriza calls itself, would fall from power were dispelled a little less than a year ago. July 23, 2018 was the worst day in my life. Tragically, it was the last day in the lives of more than 100 people in the towns of Mati and Rafina, located some thirty kilometers northeast of Athens. My family and I have lived in Rafina since 2007. A few hundred meters from my house, on Dimokratias (Democracy) Street, thirty-six cars were caught in an inferno. People scrambled out of their vehicles and ran headlong from the flames toward the sea. But there was no escape. In a nearby property, twenty-six bodies were found charred and huddled in a circle, with children’s remains in the middle—macabre evidence that the parents had tried to sacrifice themselves and save the kids. A little further away was the body of a young woman who jumped off a cliff and died on the sea rocks below.

Words cannot describe the terrible things we all lived through—children, adults, the elderly. I was alone at home that awful evening. I had just finished laying concrete edging around our wooden house when my daughter Anastasia called me from the café in Rafina where she works as a waitress. “Dad,” she asked, “have you seen the sky?” “No,” I said, and looked up at the biggest cloud of smoke I have ever seen. It took up half the sky. Dropping everything, I jumped on my motorcycle and rode down to the end of my street to see where the fire was. I turned onto a dirt road, and, rounding the first bend, slammed on the brakes. About fifty meters away, a fifteen-meter-high wall of fire was racing toward me. I spun around and—honking the horn and shouting at the top of my lungs—warned people of the danger. I ditched the bike and ran home for Rosa, our dog. We left the house with the fire right behind us. On Democracy Street, I bumped into my daughter, who had come running from work. Red embers flew all around us. The street was full of people sobbing and shouting, moving down the hill.

In a supermarket parking lot by the port I met my wife Julia, who was returning from work in Athens, and my son Nikiforos, who had been at a friend’s house when the fire forced them out. Tears in our eyes, we hugged each other, certain we had lost the house to the fire and would have to start from scratch. My daughter returned to work and the rest of us walked over to the beach. The sun had fallen; the twilight was orange and surreal as the fire crackled audibly in the distance. To the left and right of us, families sat on the sand with soot-smeared faces, crying for the homes and loved ones they had lost. I learned the next day from my daughter that many of the patrons at the café were residents of Mati. When they learned their town was burning, most drove there to try and save their homes. About an hour later, Anastasia told me that only half of these people returned to the café. The rest were dead.

What does this all have to do with Syriza? Everything. During the deadly fire, the fire service was nonexistent. No helicopters or Canadair water-bombers arrived. This fire-prone country has just ten, mostly old, fixed-wing firefighting aircraft and thirteen helicopters; by contrast, it has some 235 fighter aircraft, including Lockheed F-16 Fighting Falcons—the planes purchased by the Syriza government amid general austerity—Dassault Mirage 2000s, and McDonnell-Douglas F-4 Phantoms. The same applies to the coast guard, which did not act. Hundreds of people tried to save themselves by running into the stormy sea, where a dozen drowned only a few hundred meters up the Attica coastline from a coast guard station. As for the police, they displayed criminal negligence and stupidity, failing to warn people of the danger. Instead of ordering drivers to get out of the area, they permitted them to seek alternative routes, leading dozens directly into the path of fire.

Later that evening, Tsipras and a handful of cabinet members staged a pathetic show in the operations room of the fire service. They had pretended there were no dead until that moment, and they lied awkwardly about the severity of the problem. But the coup de grâce for Tsipras came in May, when a photograph taken a few weeks after the fires in Mati and Rafina was leaked to the press. It showed him relaxing in the Ionian Sea on the deck of a shipping magnate’s luxury yacht, smoking a cigar.

There are two things all governments must do to remain in power: provide security for their citizens and an economy that offers jobs and opportunities. Syriza has done neither.


Evel Economakis received his PhD in Russian history from Columbia University. He has taught at universities in North America, Europe, and Russia.  He currently lives with his family in Greece, where he teaches history at Ionios Lyceum in Athens.


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