david meets goliath in the greek election


Alexander Kazamias


The party which is tipped to win the Greek elections of 25 January, Alexis Tsipras’s SYRIZA, in contrast to the Spanish Podemos, is not a recent creation of the crisis-trounced European South. Its history goes back to the split within the Greek communist movement after the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia and its politics have followed a distinct trajectory since the fall of the Colonels’ Dictatorship in Greece in 1974. Whether as Communist Party of the Interior (1968-87) or under the names Greek Left (1987-91) and Coalition of the Left and Progress (1991-2004), SYRIZA has been the archetypal voice of marginality in Greek politics. Its support in parliamentary elections prior to 2012 ranged from 1.3 to 5 percent, while its politics blended an anti-systemic critique with a radical modernizing vision. Today, this once obscure force is set to thrash the two-party system which ruled Greece over the past four decades on a joint share of the vote of 80 percent. In electoral terms, this is a story of David and Goliath.

There can be little doubt that the double calamity of economic crisis and cruel austerity has played a key part in bringing about this outcome. However, to think of SYRIZA’s impending victory as a mechanical response to the socio-economic ills of depression would be simplistic and naïve. To begin with, since the outbreak of the crisis in 2008-9 Greece has had three national elections which produced declining, but clear majorities for the two mainstream parties, the conservative New Democracy (ND) and the socialist PASOK. This happened because, even in times of crisis, politics always retains a relative autonomy from economics, which means that voters can still exercise a choice for either conventional or radical government solutions in the context of the political process. Second, SYRIZA is clearly not the only non-mainstream, anti-austerity Greek party. On the left, there is the traditionally larger Communist Party (KKE), the anti-capitalist ANTARSYA and the Greens, while on the right we have the Independent Greeks and the fascist Golden Dawn. Of those, only SYRIZA has seen its support soar from 4.6 to 27 percent between 2009 and 2012, while none of the other parties has ever exceeded 7 percent (with the sole exception of the Independent Greeks who received a fleeting 10.6 percent in May 2012). In other words, if the economic crisis and a strong anti-austerity message were the main ingredients of SYRIZA’s meteoric rise since 2012, then why did the other anti-austerity parties fail to achieve any comparable gains under the same conditions?

A crucial part of the answer to this question is that already before the eruption of the crisis, SYRIZA had started to challenge Greece’s traditional two-party system. For almost a year after PASOK’s second consecutive electoral defeat in 2007, opinion polls began to show an unprecedented rise in SYRIZA’s popularity to as much as 18 percent, a performance never matched by any other small party since 1977. Although the causes of what the media at the time called ‘the Spring of SYRIZA’ remain largely unexplored, any attempt to analyse the party’s present electoral upsurge must go back to the decisive breakthrough of those pre-crisis days. What is however clear is that around 2007 a major representation deficit began to grow across the Greek centre-left, partly because many voters had grown disenchanted with PASOK’s embracement of a neoliberal agenda and partly because after 19 years in power from 1981 to 2004, PASOK was also losing control over its state clientelistic networks which played a major role in consolidating its unity and support. Indeed, many opinion polls in 2006-7 showed the emergence of a bizarre trend whereby nearly half of PASOK’s supporters were still willing to vote for their party despite the fact that they had ceased to see it as offering the best choice for government. For many of these alienated voters, after PASOK’s defeat in 2007, SYRIZA began to emerge as a more authentic alternative.  

Another key factor during that time was SYRIZA’s growing ability to project itself as a party of action in a wasteland of political immobilism initiated by the ND governments of Costas Karamanlis (2004-09) and continued with PASOK under George Papandreou (2009-11). A foretaste of this radical dynamism came when Tsipras deployed direct action tactics in 2006, including sit-ins in ‘private beaches’ to expose the constitutionally dubious practice whereby the state allows private firms to charge for access to Greece’s seashores. A more spectacular example was SYRIZA’s ability in 2007 to combine street action and parliamentary tactics to break the cross-party consensus between ND and PASOK over amending the Constitution to enable the establishment of private universities. With such effective moves, SYRIZA began to restore public faith in the agential power of political parties. As a result, when it adopted the controversial position of unilaterally revoking the infamous ‘Memoranda’ linked to the IMF-EU-ECB Troika bailouts, Tsipras’s opponents did not dismiss his position as unserious or rhetorical as they might have done if other parties had adopted it. Because of its record as an action-oriented party, SYRIZA was consistently attacked by opponents for wanting to take Greece on a collision course with the EU or, as the leader of PASOK has recently stated, for putting forward a policy that ‘will lead to rupture, to a new explosion’, referring to the notorious ‘Grexit’ from the Eurozone. Meanwhile, however, this line of criticism has inadvertently confirmed SYRIZA’s image as the antithesis of immobilism, or what a PASOK minister once privately called ‘my ballerina method’, meaning the tactics of rotating endlessly around the same spot whilst letting others make the moves.        

Perhaps the most arresting moment in the biblical tale of David and Goliath is when King Saul offers his powerful armour, but David rejects it in favour of his own unconventional weapons: a sling and five stones. One of the morals of this story is that the underdog cannot defeat the powerful if they confront them with the same tools. Similarly, the spectacular rise of SYRIZA from obscurity to prominence could not have come about if the party had relied on the traditional instruments of Greek party politics, such as clientelism, deals with the media oligarchs and willingness to cover up the swampland of corruption. Furthermore, when ND was led by the nephew of a former prime minister and PASOK by the son and grandson of two former prime ministers, SYRIZA elected a 33-year old civil engineer from an ordinary background as its leader. This was its eloquent alternative to the patrimonial leadership and rife nepotism which typify mainstream politics in Greece.   

Besides the domestic setting, the Greek election appears as a David and Goliath battle also from the perspective of European politics. Yet, while the Philistine giant of the Greek two-party system has been struck and is about to fall on 25 January, the outcome of the contest with the pro-austerity European powers is still far from conclusive. Although SYRIZA is wisely keeping its cards close to its chest, its munitions in this confrontation are by no means insignificant. In a television interview on 1 December, Tsipras hinted that he intends to use a mixed strategy combining tough negotiation tactics in the European Council with radical street politics across Europe. ‘The only way out is that of a tough negotiation with a strategy, a plan, and with the people as a dominant player in the game. For us, mobilizations, strikes, protests are not a threat. They are a supportive factor, as long as they happen not only in Greece, but also in Europe’, he said. Tsipras also has good reason to believe that one of the Troika members, the ECB under Mario Draghi, will show greater sympathy to his demands, while some senior party economists, like Costas Lapavitsas, stress that the IMF has also recommended recently a partial write off of the Greek debt. Most importantly, however, Tsipras is counting on the strength of his moral case and the solid domestic support that this will offer him vis-à-vis the short-termism of financial markets and the effects of their nervousness on the governments of Paris and Berlin. Put plainly, his strategy seems to rely on using ‘people power’ to engineer volatility across the money markets as a means of pressuring EU governments into revising the Greek bailout agreement.

Whether this strategy will work or not remains to be seen. Meanwhile, the Greek election is set to generate new tensions across the EU, not only around its economy and the mechanisms of the Eurozone, but also around the politics and power modalities that govern the relationship between its core and southern states. Despite what SYRIZA’s opponents declare, this is neither a contest between defenders and opponents of the Euro nor between the EU itself and a future nationalist government in a disgruntled member-state. What is at stake in the Greek election are two conflicting choices about what would ensure a more sustainable future for the Eurozone and, through it, a more stable and unified Europe. So far, the powerful core states have been enforcing toxic austerity programmes with disastrous socio-economic effects. Now the beleaguered underdogs from the European south are showing that they had enough and are beginning to rise up demanding more viable alternatives. Their obvious drawback is their weakness; but their foremost asset is their capacity to carry out their struggle to the very end because, after five years of devastation, they have nothing left to lose.     


  ΧΡΟΝΟΣ 21 (01.2015)