Greek elections are no victory for the left, as Tsipras opens the door to austerity

Should we be cheering Syriza’s recent electoral success? Leandros Fischer responds to six key questions about the election, arguing that Syriza has promised things it can’t deliver – demoralising many of its supporters while the Nazis continue to grow.  

Photo - Joana,
Photo – Joana,

1. Why did Syriza get 35 percent of the votes, despite the fact that Alexis Tsipras has agreed to the third and most brutal round of cuts?

You have to be clear about one thing from the start: Syriza was able to win the votes of only 19.5 percent of the potential electorate. For 45 percent of people to abstain from voting isn’t typical, and you have to understand it as a political signal. That abstention expresses a growing antipolitical mood in Greece following Alexis Tsipras’ dramatic U-turn towards austerity straight after the successful referendum on 5 July, where a majority of the Greek people rejected the cuts package proposed by the country’s creditors.

Compare the figures: turnout for the referendum was 62.5 percent, while in the January elections it was 63.6 percent. Now at first sight, these figures don’t show too big a difference from the current turnout of 56.6 percent. But you have to bear in mind that the referendum in the summer took place less than a week after it was announced. Elections in Greece are always a complicated business. Greek voters living abroad are excluded unless they can pay for overpriced flights home, and the political views of Greeks who have emigrated in recent years are more to the left. Also, Greeks very often have to travel in parliamentary elections to the regions they come from inside the country so as to vote there. The expenses involved can be significant, and this puts unemployed people and those on low incomes at a disadvantage. Taking these factors into account, the lower recent turnout is even more striking when compared to that for the referendum as well as the previous parliamentary elections.

Syriza lost around 300,000 votes. Half of these voters went over to Popular Unity, the other half stayed at home. Syriza was able to maintain some momentum by absorbing voters from parties of the centre, above all Potami (“the river”) a neoliberal party which suffered a sharp drop in support. Yet the majority of Syriza’s votes came from workers. Many of them decided to vote for the party at the last minute, gritting their teeth as they did so, fearing the return of the conservatives of New Democracy.

Nevertheless, even winning short of 20 percent of the electorate has meant a success for Tsipras’ political line. The answer to the question “why?” involves many factors. In the first place, there was a dissonance between the actual policies of Syriza on the one hand and Tsipras’ rhetoric on the other. Despite the fact that even more brutal austerity is coming with winter, Alexis Tsipras spoke like a radical. Yet the differences in what he had to say compared with the previous election were clear. There were fewer rhetorical condemnations of austerity, cuts and privatisation. Now it was “the old political system” which was condemned, as embodied in Syriza’s main rival, New Democracy.

Tsipras’ campaign fell back on a long tradition of populist politics in Greece. The language  of the campaign, its playbook, as well as the way Tsipras presented himself, brought back strong memories of the historic Pasok leader Andreas Papandreou in the 1980s. Rather than the real issues or political parties, at the forefront of the campaign were emotions and Tsipras as an individual. This is something we mustn’t lose sight of. After all, Papandreou came to power in 1981 with even more radical promises than those of Tsipras – withdrawal from the EU and NATO, as well as nationalisation of key industrial and business concerns. While none of this actually happened, Papandreou was at least able to set in motion a process of capitalist modernisation, which bestowed on the Greek people a welfare state which hadn’t previously existed. This was a period of modest social advancement. Yet a similar development, in the current context of global economic crisis, is no longer possible for Syriza. Tspiras rules over a country in which the working class is impoverished and the middle classes have been decimated.

Apart from all this, Greeks are weary of elections, of which there have been three this year already. In the absence of big social protests, this has often in recent years led to pressure towards political stability. It’s also very likely that many current Syriza voters took an extremely critical view of Tsipras’ capitulation to the Eurogroup, but still voted him in as Prime Minister to avoid either a return of the New Democrats to power, or a grand coalition between them and Syriza.

Finally, there are aspects of the situation which you could describe in a psychological way. The cognitive dissonance between Syriza’s current policies and people’s earlier expectations of Tsipras is so difficult to overcome that it can often lead to an actual denial of reality. Considering the religious traits which came to characterise the hopes of many Greeks – that they would be able to liberate themselves from the straitjacket of austerity inside the Eurozone simply because they had better arguments – it’s an aspect of the situation that can’t be easily dismissed.

But whatever the exact reasons for Syriza’s victory, one thing is clear. Tspiras’ narrative – that we fought as best we could, but had to back down in the end so as to save the country – has for the moment paid off.

2. What were the key elements of Syriza’s election programme, and how feasible is it that they will be implemented, considering the cuts forced on the government?

The most important part of Syriza’s programme in these elections is based primarily on stressing the alleged room for manoeuvre that exists inside the troika’s cuts package, so making the implementation of social policies possible. By and large, such aims are unrealistic. The core of the cuts package, to which Greece has committed itself, is the development of a surplus, which will help to pay off the debts – debts which, according to the IMF, are not at a sustainable level. The situation in Greek society is at present catastrophic – pensions and wages are being cut even further, while schools and colleges are facing a difficult academic year. As long as Greece is forced to pay back its debts and prevented from running a deficit, the country will be in no position to recover – let alone to deliver social policies to its people. The creditors have neither forgotten nor forgiven the various measures taken by the first Syriza government – a halt to privatisation, the re-employment of staff made redundant from public services or the reopening of the public broadcaster ERT. The third cuts package explicitly forbids “unilateral measures” – that is, practically any measure not in ideological harmony with the worldview of European institutions saturated with neoliberalism.

Another element in Tsipras’ election campaign was the fight against corruption and “entanglement” (diaploki) between politicians, shipowners and other big business, which is notorious in Greece. Syriza has here perhaps, in theory, more room for manoeuvre to implement measures which, in any case, are really a matter of bourgeois modernisation. In fact, the reported sale of the Port of Piraeus and fourteen regional airports to the German company Fraport, as well as the selling-off of other public property at ludicrous prices, point to the fact that the conditions for the growth of corruption are improving rather than getting worse. For their part, Syriza – and in particular Yannis Dragasakis, one of the party’s leading economists and a social liberal – have in the last three years built up close relationships with employers’ organisations. The establishment of personal contacts between big capital and Syriza members, of the sort that existed in the Pasok era, is a reality which is slowly becoming apparent.

3. Why did Popular Unity not succeed?

The failure of Popular Unity is the really big disappointment in this election. They have failed in their most important aim, that of giving a political home to the 62 percent who voted OXI. There are several reasons for this. First we need to consider the objective factors. On the day of the election, Popular Unity was just twenty-eight days old. The young left-wing alliance still has no party apparatus. In polls as many as 30 percent of Greeks stated that they really didn’t know what Popular Unity stood for. Considered from this point of view, Popular Unity’s result of 2.8 percent is a heroic achievement. All the same, Popular Unity’s expectations were considerably higher, in the light of Tspiras’ about-turn after 5 July. It’s also striking that Popular Unity didn’t make any gains based on their best-known figures. Even the involvement in the alliance of the famous resistance fighter Manolis Glezos, and of Zoe Konstantopoulou, the charismatic former speaker of the Greek parliament, as well as Yanis Varoufakis’ statement that he was voting for Popular Unity, weren’t able to change that.

Presumably the failure to put across a detailed and complex plan B for exit from the euro, in the context of an extremely short election campaign, must bear a large part of the blame for these poor results. But certainly the greatest weakness of Popular Unity was that it developed no relationship with the large numbers of people alienated from politics. In general, Popular Unity was regarded as an incarnation of the lost honour of an earlier and more left-wing Syriza. But this is exactly the problem: it wasn’t seen as something new, but as a better interpretation of the situation facing the left yesterday. Tsipras’ dramatic change of direction is therefore indirectly responsible for the poor results of Popular Unity – Syriza’s U-turn caused a wide political disenchantment, which made it impossible for many, above all young people, to recognise the strategic effectiveness of a Popular Unity vote “since it’s not going to change anything.”

4. How did the rest of the radical left do?

The KKE, the Greek Community Party, enters the new parliament with a slightly increased 5.5 percent of the vote. In this election the KKE had undoubtedly got nothing to lose. Their attacks on Syriza made them able to figure as a pole of attraction for those disappointed with Tsipras’ politics. In this way the Communists have returned to their consistent election results from the period before the crisis, one of relative social peace, when the KKE’s share of the vote always varied between five and nine percent. A combination of constant polemic against Syriza and a refusal to build common fronts outside parliament with other parts of the left has set clear limits on the future appeal which the KKE can expect to have for those disappointed with Syriza. The KKE’s fixation during the election campaign with attacking People’s Unity was particularly striking – presumably because the ideological profile of the KKE is much closer to Popular Unity than to Syriza. The importance of the KKE shouldn’t be underestimated. Despite their sectarian politics towards all of the rest of the left, they have a strong base in workplaces and could play an important role in mobilisations in the coming period.

The radical left alliance Antarsya gained a slightly higher share of the vote at 0.85 percent, but weren’t able to outstrip their result in May 2012, their highest ever at 1.19 percent. Antarsya is explicitly oriented on the movement, and the organisation has above all a base in the universities, so its fortunes are closely tied up with the state of the social movements. As an electoral alternative, however, they have so far not been able to achieve any  significant breakthrough. Antarsya has also been weakened by two groups leaving its alliance to affiliate themselves to Popular Unity.

5. Golden Dawn is now the third-biggest party in parliament. How acute is the danger from fascism in the coming period?

Without a doubt the results for the Nazis are alarming. Their declining share of the vote in the big cities reflects an ongoing transformation of their electoral support, which was already becoming apparent in January. Unlike the 2012 elections, the Nazis aren’t gathering about them a classic fascist protest vote made up of unemployed people and impoverished petit bourgeois – instead, their big successes are in rural and traditionally conservative areas. You have to understand this as a partial success for the antifascist movement in Greece. Golden Dawn has certainly profited from the erosion of the conservative New Democrats’ party apparatus, and have, unfortunately, established themselves as a fixture of the party system in the current crisis situation. The forthcoming cuts, to be imposed by the new Syriza-ANEL government, could give a major impetus to a renewed Nazi offensive – especially combined with the absence of a left perspective regarding the dead end of the agreed cuts package – a dead end which, unfortunately, Syriza is now supporting.

6. What does the future look like for Syriza?

Syriza has become a quite different party compared with what it was in January. Hundreds of elected officials and members of party staff, all across Greece, as well as most of the related youth organisation have left the party in the course of Tsipras’ acceptance of the logic of neoliberalism. Some have joined Popular Unity, many more have completely withdrawn from politics. Syriza’s renewed coalition with the “Independent Greeks” also represents an interesting development. In the last elections, Tsipras tried to avoid a coalition by gaining an absolute majority – this time he explicitly set it up with ANEL, who were nervous about entering government again. The increased influence of this party in the new government can only mean negative developments in the areas of social rights, immigration and defence policy.

The loss of left intellectuals and  activists means that Syriza will in future have to rely on the same system of patronage between the elite and their clients which form the backbone of the former Pasok structures. A similar electoral collapse to the one which overcame Pasok at the start of the euro crisis can’t be ruled out. The current parliamentary majority could prove extremely wobbly when it comes to implementing the cuts. Syriza will never be able to imitate the experience of the New Democrats, who have clearly been weakened by the crisis, but who nevertheless have been able to maintain a stable share of the vote of around 30 percent, though this was about ten percent higher in the period before the crisis. The conservatives represent those parts of the population which have been least affected by the crisis. And their system of values has much more in common with those at the centre of power. Despite the euphoria of the election victory, Tsipras risks making his party, and himself, superfluous in future.

The most important challenge currently facing the Greek left is to work out the basis on which broad alliances can be brought together against the coming austerity measures. It is clear, that the majority of Greeks reject austerity. But a large part of that majority voted for Syriza in the hope that they would finally be successful in freeing their country from the shackles of imposed cuts. However, all the signs are that the opposite is the case. Alexis Tsipras’ triumph will be short-lived. Saying this isn’t in any way a matter of radical left fantasy. Quite the opposite – there is an enormous danger in the results of disappointment with what describes itself as a left-wing government, in a country where the third-largest party in the parliament are Nazis. Instead of ignoring those dangers, the left in Germany should be taking part in a Europe-wide process of self-criticism, developing new strategies against the anti-democratic EU institutions.

Leandros Fischer is a socialist based in Germany. A version of this article in German has been published on the site


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