Syriza: a European party par excellence

Syriza's 2015 election poster: "Hope is coming". Photo: www.syriza.gr

Conceptualizing Europe as an economic union rather than a specific political culture misses the point of what really holds us together. While economic agendas may disagree and conflict, the European Union is safeguarded as long as its central political values of democracy and freedom are shared throughout the continent. It is for this reason that Syriza, the winner of Greece’s Sunday elections, can be called a pro-Europe party par excellence.

Two and a half years ago the leftist Syriza rose from its traditional four percent share of votes to become the second largest party in the Greek Parliament. Then, even its sympathizers considered this as fireworks, a momentary breakthrough due to a high number of protest votes. But the ability of Syriza in attracting 1,3 million new voters in 2012 – mainly from the disappointed Pasok voters – and quickly multiplying them, was confirmed by its large electoral success on the weekend. Syriza broke a four-decade long interchangeable government of ND and Pasok and, as a result, became the first left-wing party to ever form a government in Greece.

Greece’s new parliament

A constitutional conundrum last month led the country to face yet another early election. The Parliament needed a supermajority to replace the President of the Republic. But, unlike the last two presidential votes, where majority parties had proposed conciliatory figures originating from the opposition party, this time the choice was a right-wing candidate backed by the right-wing coalition. The failure to reach outside the government coalition made fresh elections the only alternative.

Of course, Syriza was determined to go to the polls, not least because its popularity had been soaring. When elections were announced to be held on 25 January, it reached an agreement with the Green Party, and attempted to do the same with its 2010 splinter party Demar. Syriza’s central message was to end the vicious circle of austerity economics that had caused a humanitarian crisis without yielding any growth.

Syriza argued in its election campaign that the only result of the austerity measures was a lower GDP, oversized old debts and unsustainable new ones. By focusing its campaign on hope, it countered the ‘fear and agony’ strategy of its Old Guard rivals. Angry and disappointed citizens were also most likely to support Syriza, although many of them chose to abstain. Even without their vote, Syriza ended up sweeping the elections as the polls rightly predicted.

Despite its ineffective policies, ND did also fairly well compared to 2012. Apart from a few MPs who left the caucus in the middle of its governmental term, the party seems to have absorbed voters from others: the shrinking coalition partner Pasok, the ailing Independent Greeks and the criminalized Golden Dawn. Nevertheless, ND was continuously placed behind Syriza in the polls. Regrettably, its election strategy was negative, focused on portraying Syriza as irresponsible, populist, dishonest and above all anti-EU, rather than explaining its own austerity program.

In addition to Syriza and ND, five more parties entered the Greek Parliament. Among them is the newcomer To Potami (‘the River’), a social liberal, centre-left, pro-EU party. It is led by a 52-year old former TV journalist and has many recruits who “do not have a political past”, which is code for established interests and political corruption. In the European Parliament, To Potami has joined the Socialist group, but its identity remains rather generalist, inviting voters who want new representatives, yet do not share Syriza’s “radical” leftist agenda or the old-fashioned, pro-military nationalist rhetoric of the Independent Greeks.

Parties other than Syriza seem to have lost part of their dynamic. Pasok has fallen from 12,3 % in 2012 to a meager 4,5 % after losing several members to Kideso (Movement of Democratic Socialists), a splinter party formed less than a month ago by the former prime minister George Papandreou. The Golden Dawn fell back to its 2012 popularity, declining from 2012–13 when it doubled its support. This was before a series of criminal accusations brought most of its members to jail pending trial.

The Independent Greeks fared better than most polls had predicted, allowing Syriza to choose between two potential coalition partners (Independent Greeks and To Potami). Finally, the Communist Party presents no special dynamic and seems to have lost voters by the realistic possibility of a left-wing Syriza government.

A Syriza-led coalition government

By the close of counting yesterday, Syriza had fallen 2 seats out of 300 short of a governmental majority, which meant that it needed a coalition partner. It was informally allied with the Independent Greeks party since last elections, so it was not a surprise that the two announced their collaboration today.

However, the choice of the Independent Greeks over the other interested candidate, To Potami, carries a very important message. To Potami is not only a social liberal party that would help Syriza push forward its cultural reforms and modernize the state, it also represents a break from the old clientelist mentality and uses a more pro-EU and non-nationalist language. The Independent Greeks, on the other hand, is a socially conservative, nationalist and anti-elite party that only shares with Syriza its opposition to the bailout agreement.

In fact, the two coalition partners are almost concrete opposites when it comes to socio-cultural values. For example, while Syriza is the number one advocate of a clear separation between the Church and the State, the Independent Greeks talk instead about Christian Orthodoxy running through “the Greek blood”. Yet, its leader Kammenos seems predisposed very positively towards Syriza’s Tsipras and did not object his breakthrough decision to take a civil oath instead of the traditional religious oath yesterday. Besides, the existence of an alternative, potential coalition partner (To Potami) grants negotiating flexibility to Syriza.

Eurosceptic, populist and radical?

Alongside its leftist economics, Syriza and its 40-year old leader Tsipras, the second youngest prime minister in Greek history, bring an air of revolutionary change comparable to Obama’s victory in 2008. Both Tsipras and Obama symbolize the ascendance to power of the poor and unprivileged masses, impersonated by a representative of a segment of the population disempowered for decades and damned as incapable to rule: Afro-Americans in the United States and the youth in Greece.

This symbolic revolution comes along with a concrete political dream: reforming the inhuman US health system for Obama and putting a halt to the EU-imposed austerity economics for Tsipras. Regardless of the end result, they both must be credited for their humane ”Robin Hood” intentions.

In addition to a profound change of economic policy, the Greek society needs a profound liberalization of social values. Syriza and To Potami both represent this change. By far the most pro-diversity party, Syriza speaks in favor of equality – whether it is gender equality, a secular state that respects migrant identities, respect for different cultures and religions, ethnic minorities, people with different sexual orientation, the young and so on.

After all, the respect of difference and the acceptance of “the other” are the cornerstones of the democratic tradition that Europe holds so dear. It was precisely these values – tolerance, freedom and diversity – that brought European leaders and thousands of Europeans to the streets of Paris just few weeks ago.

These democratic values and social rights Syriza purports to protect in the name of “the people”. This is often mistaken for populist language. Syriza’s conception of “the people” is democratic and egalitarian, and as such diametrically opposed to the authoritarian and populist idea of the people as a passive, anonymous and easy-to-manipulate mass. In this sense, it was high time an emphasis was placed on “the people”, understood as the source of political authorization and the beneficiaries of socio-economic reforms.

Syriza’s concept of “the people” is much closer to the European democratic tradition than the rhetorical alternatives used by the other parties. In particular, ND tends to appeal to “the nation”, Pasok to “the fatherland”, Golden Dawn to “the Greeks”, while the Independent Greeks to all of them. These concepts contain dividing lines that tend to be reinforced in times of economic pressure. An appeal to “citizens” (in plural) and European citizens, in particular, would be a better denominator of how common we are in our diversity.

Just like Syriza is neither anti-EU nor populist, it is also not dangerously radical as often portrayed. This is a party whose supporters range from the fringes of social liberalism and the civil rights movement to the full-blown statism of its Left Platform. It has developed as a coalition of parties to an ever-growing coalition of coalitions, which showcases not only its tolerance of political diversity but also a committed preparedness to compromise and collaborate.

Therefore, describing Syriza as a stubborn and immature actor is far from reality and does not do justice to Tsipras’ outstanding ability to maintain balance and harmony within the most pluralistic party Greece has seen in decades. The profusion of Syriza’s message of democracy, equality and social rights, as well as its party culture of tolerance, diversity and compromise, can only further the substance of European political culture and its unity.

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