Progressive Futures

Greece is pointing the way to our future – again

8 May 2019

SYRIZA is heading for three spectacular election defeats in the coming months. Is this the beginning of the end of populism throughout Europe?

Thimios Tzallas

In the Greek elections of 2009, SYRIZA gained 4.6% of the vote. In 2015 it became the country’s ruling party and its leader Alexis Tsipras an international figure of the radical left. Their sweeping victory wiped out the centre-left PASOK party that had hitherto been a major force in Greek and European politics, and the rise of Syriza was seen by many as a global epidemic that was threatening Europe’s centre-left parties with extinction.

Greece was the first country in the European Union where the populists assumed power and posed existential questions about the future of the European venture from a position of strength, with Podemos, Brexit, and Salvini, all coming on the scene after SYRIZA.

“To understand Europe’s future, you need to look closely at what is happening in Athens. For the past 200 years, Greece has been at the forefront of Europe’s evolution”, and according to historian Mark Mazower, provided ‘democracy’s cradle’ for the rest of the world. In the early 20th century and during the country’s war against the Ottoman Empire, Greece was the symbol of the emancipation of nation-states from the chains of empires. Immediately after World War II, the civil war between the communists and the pro-West Greek government became an emblematic symbol of the cold war that ensued. Greece provided the first test of, and main motivation for, the Truman doctrine, the interventionist policy of the USA in Europe and the idea of European countries providing a bulwark against communism. Thirty years later, the advent of democracy in Greece after the fall of the military dictatorship (1967-1974) and the prompt accession of the country into the EEC in 1981 was a first indication of the strong democratic currents that eventually prevailed in eastern Europe, and of the efforts that followed to expand the EU into countries not necessarily in the image and likeness of its six founding members.

If Mazower is right, on May 26 we must once again turn to Greece for a glimpse of Europe’s future. On that day the first round of the local and regional elections as well as elections for the European Parliament will take place. Holding elections on Sunday is an inviolable rule in deeply Christian Orthodox Greece. This can be taken as a remnant of the concern that unpredictable political confrontations should be held on days of sacred truce, in a country where political violence was commonplace throughout much of the past century, and where places of exile for leftists were a reality as recently as the mid-1970s.

The predictions are that SYRIZA will suffer defeat in both contests. On the last Sunday of May, Greece will once again send a message about the future of Europe, while the country itself might be returning to its electoral past. There are some who believe that SYRIZA’s decisive defeat will mark the beginning of the lingering end of populism throughout Europe and a return to normality, to the “good old days of politics”.

The small big party

The rise of Alexis Tsipras is an emblematic success story for the hard left, but also provides a perfect case study of how a small party remains small even when it assumes power.

SYRIZA has not been able to develop strong bonds with local communities and has failed to become a dominant centre-left party and to create powerful regional structures with thousands of members and with candidates in every part of the country in the way that PASOK had managed over previous decades,

In Athens, where the office of mayor has traditionally been an important first step for anyone hoping to become prime minister, SYRIZA’s candidate, Nasos Iliopoulos, scores no more than 10% in public opinion polls, as against 37% for Kostas Bakoyannis, the candidate of the traditional centre-right party of New Democracy and nephew of its leader, Kyriakos Mitsotakis. Iliopoulos is not even second but third, behind the independent Pavlos Geroulanos, a former PASOK member, whose campaign is based on a pragmatic Tony Blair-like platform of ‘what matters is what works’.

And it is not just Athens. In Thessaloniki, where until recently the local elections were comfortably won by Yannis Boutaris, a liberal leftist who has often been critical of SYRIZA, the ruling party’s candidate, Catherine Notopoulou, stands second last in the polls, with single-digit scores. Even in cities with a strong leftist tradition, such as Ioannina near the border with Albania, where SYRIZA obtained 4 out of 5 seats in the last parliamentary elections in September 2015,the party’s hopeful, Lazaros Natsis, has been overtaken by two other centre-left candidates. In many Greek cities SYRIZA remains the small party from 2009 that polled only 4.6% of the votes, and far from the unexpected momentum that catapulted it to power on the national level during the deepest years of the crisis.

SYRIZA are expected to lose the local elections, and will also struggle in the elections for the European Parliament.The polls indicate that it will score between 9-10% less than the centre-right New Democracy party. New Democracy appears to enjoy a similar advantage for the national parliamentary elections that are scheduled to take place in October. Tsipras has no reason to call a vote any earlier. His great gamble of presenting his party as a responsible force that managed to lead the country out of the Troika bailout programmes, while forging important international treaties (including with respect to the controversial naming of Greece’s neighbour in the north, ‘The Republic of Northern Macedonia’), and finally evolving into the major centre-left bloc in the country, has ultimately failed. The people view SYRIZA’s transformation with distrust, or even indifference. Tsipras was not elected prime minister to lead Greece out of the financial crisis or to conclude bold international treaties.His success was due to his anger. The sedate version of his discourse does not interest the electorate. Even his overtures to PASOK, until recently his avowed enemy, have failed. Notably, these advances were made mainly to former PASOK members who are largely unknown to the public or whose political careers ended ingloriously some 20 or 30 years ago.

The Green Sun

Certainly, the Movement for Change (KINAL), PASOK’s current incarnation, is taking no part in any dialogue with SYRIZA. It is steadily holding third in the polls, and, most importantly, the people view it, not SYRIZA, as the main centre-left platform. Its leader, Fofi Gennimata, is the second most popular politician in Greece after the leader of the opposition (while Tsipras trails even the leader of the Communist Party).

The politicians who stayed the course with PASOK even through the difficult days when the party became a synonym for betrayal and austerity, are enjoying the first signs of their political resurgence. The green sun, the emblematic symbol of the party that was hastily abandoned along with the former appellation in the days of rage, is beginning to rise again. “Let us use our symbols again!” Andreas Loverdos, a leading member of KINAL and a prominent minister of the governments that had to implement the creditors» austerity programs declared recently.

A historical cycle seems to be closing in a spectacular way in Greece. If Mazower is right, Greece may have found the antidote for “Pasokification” – that is, the killer virus that has afflicted the centre-left throughout much of Europe. This recover is embodied by those who stayed the course with PASOK, who defended realistic policies during the financial crisis and did not succumb to the sirens of populism, and who are now making a gradual comeback, and may once again take responsibility for Greece’s future.