SYRIZA: A Cautionary Tale

To much fanfare internationally, Alexis Tsipras recently announced that austerity is 'officially' over in Greece. But far from a Greek tragedy, the story of SYRIZA is one of opportunism and political cowardice

August 21 marked the end of the “era of the memoranda” in Greece. Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, dressed in a plain white shirt, stood atop a hill on the island of Ithaca overlooking its harbor to announce an end to the austerity that has been imposed on the country over the last eight years. The background was probably chosen to provide the sense of a full circle; after all, it was very similar to the setting of Kastellorizo that former PM George Papandreou had chosen in 2010 to announce that Greece’s accumulated debt had forced him to seek financial assistance from the EU and the IMF, which came with a set of mandatory reforms the government was obliged to implement – the first of many more to follow.

These reforms were outlined in a “Memorandum of Understanding”. The term invaded public discourse and private conversations and was voted word of the year in the popular blog of linguist Nikos Sarantakos. “Memorandum” and its plural became code for harsh austerity, privatizations, massive lay-offs, the destruction of the welfare state, precarity, poverty, deregulation and oppression - all wrapped up in a complete restructuring of the Greek state and economy. Minimum wage was fixed at 495 euros, though many employers tended to hire unofficially, with even lower wages, no insurance, and in some cases, even refused to pay at all. Unemployment peaked at 27.9% in 2013 and at 20.6% is still the highest rate in Europe. Benefits and pensions were slashed, and workfare programs led to the unemployed being hired to full-time jobs with less pay than the legal limit allowed.

This all started with George Papandreou’s announcement in Kastellorizo in 2010. Behind him, the ships seemed ready to sail from the port. In Alexis Tsipras’ announcement, though, the ships were far behind. The background in his case was an idyllic island setting, an abstract end of nostos, the infamous term from Homer’s Odyssey, meaning the voyage back home. In case this symbolism of choosing Ithaca - the home that Ulysses returns to - as the place to make such an announcement was not clear enough, Tsipras also spoke of “Greece’s Odyssey since 2010”, “the Sirens of futility”, “the Lestrygonians and Cyclops” that stood against the effort of breaking away from austerity and denied becoming one of “the Lotus Eaters”.

Instead of evoking Homer’s great epic, though, Tsipras’ effort ended up much more similar to James Joyce’s Ulysses: Ithaca was a unique exercise in style, but there wasn’t much of a story behind it. After all, according to the decision that the Eurogroup - the council of eurozone Ministers of Finance - that arrived to in June, Greece will remain under strict supervision and is also obliged to move on with a new set of mandatory reforms. These include the privatization of its electricity company, its gas company, 24% of its water companies and a few remaining ports. It has been agreed that there can be no significant change in minimum wage and it’s still debated whether a new cut in pensions will be implemented. On top of that, if Greece fails to maintain a primary surplus of 3.5% - now achieved through almost impossible taxation - all measures of relief will be revoked.

This situation, by any reasonable standard, could hardly be seen as the end of austerity - the creditors’ projections for Greece returning to ‘normal’ extend all the way to 2060. But nearly everyone in Europe now knows that Alexis Tsipras, his government, his party and those in the country that were struck by austerity have few reasons for festivities. SYRIZA’s current agenda is ostensibly the result of defeat, but not all of the people that once formed the anti-austerity bloc have experienced it the same way. Ever since Tsipras’ government chose to sign up for further austerity, this bloc has roughly been split between those that occupied a privileged position, and those that are still going through the same turmoil as in 2011 or 2013.

The conventional story is simple: having signed the bailout agreement with the troika in 2010, the center-left PASOK collapsed. SYRIZA took on the anti-austerity agenda and occupied the space that opened. In 2015, Alexis Tsipras’ party won the elections and entered into negotiations with the country’s creditors. Backed into a corner and facing the prospect of massive capital flight, Alexis Tsipras brought the European Commission’s proposals for a new bailout agreement to a referendum. 62% voted against it. Despite that, he chose to give in to the creditors’ demands and signed up for more onerous austerity than the one initially proposed. Tsipras quit and was re-elected a month later, this time with a mandate to implement the measures he had agreed on.

For most people abroad, this was it: There was a coup against the Greek people’s will, the radical left SYRIZA was defeated but clung on to power, hoping to pursue whatever meagre progressive policies they could - to the best of their abilities - in an impossible situation. And it makes sense that this was a narrative that resonated with a wider European audience. At the same time that George Osborne was conducting a second coming of Thatcherism following the global financial crisis, the inspiring tale of a plucky European underdog fighting against austerity was both needed and welcomed. SYRIZA had become the vehicle for realising what years of intense demonstrations, clashes with the police, generalized oppression and popular mobilization in pretty much every corner of Greece were all directed towards. The political, economic and social conflicts that followed 2010 were immense, but despite their decisiveness, by 2014, they had lost their vigor. In Greece, SYRIZA was a way-out for those that had opposed austerity. It was also a clean-cut version of the anti-austerity struggle, that could be exported to other countries.

But this isn’t the entire story, and it wasn’t all that SYRIZA was. The collapsing PASOK vote that both the anti-austerity movement and SYRIZA successively absorbed wasn’t just a bloc composed of the recently poor - people who now found themselves entirely unrepresented in mainstream politics that hardline neo-liberals and a re-emerging far-right dominated (the lines between the two being often quite blurred). There were also groups with vested interests in the state’s operations, in ‘business as usual’. The vast majority of SYRIZA’s voters couldn’t even be fairly described as ‘left-leaning’: a significant constituency for SYRIZA was the political clientele that formed the backbone of the now discredited PASOK, as well as many supporters of former Prime Minister Kostas Karamanlis’ center-right faction in the conservative New Democracy, who had been ousted from the leadership by the far-right under Antonis Samaras.

Of course, it makes sense that a minority leftist party could only be voted into government by absorbing voters from other, more mainstream, parties. But instead of SYRIZA channeling this momentum into its anti-austerity agenda and building a consensus around it, its leading group seemed more inclined to embody their adversaries agendas as its own. More importantly, bigger and smaller systems of power were eager to move away from the two main parties and embrace SYRIZA, led by Tsipras since 2008, who had made it clear that he was more willing to get involved in mainstream politics than his predecessors.

This quickly became apparent in 2010. SYRIZA absorbed those MP’s of PASOK who voted against the austerity measures that Papandreou’s government brought forward as part of the first Memorandum. That same year was the first time that a major conflict within the party resulting from Tsipras’ choices became public. Τwo different candidates were supported by SYRIZA in the regional elections: one was an “anti-Memorandum” bill headed by a prominent member of PASOK, Alexis Mitropoulos, chosen by SYRIZA’s inner circle. The other was headed by Tsipras’ predecessor Alekos Alavanos, representing the left faction - the “traditional” voters of the party. At the same time anti-Memorandum unionists formerly attached to PASOK started flowing into SYRIZA’s ranks – even though a large part of SYRIZA’s centrists had left to form their own party, DIMAR, complaining that SYRIZA under Tsipras had moved too far to the left(!).

Then came a different expansion, even more unforeseen. The conservative party, New Democracy, had been embroiled in its own turmoil. Since taking back power from PASOK in 2004, center-right Prime Minister Kostas Karamanlis had been forced to resign and seek early elections twice: he won in 2007 but lost to PASOK in 2009. Although his time in office was riddled with scandals and public debt skyrocketed, leading to the crisis of 2010, what actually happened has been the subject of a long series of debates. There’s a widespread belief that Karamanlis was sabotaged by Greece’s oligarchs for attempting to fight them on certain issues. Others claim that this narrative is untrue and that Karamanlis is responsible for leading a corrupt government that caused a series of crises it failed to handle and mismanaged public funds as much as any other party – or maybe even more.

In any case, following 2009, Karamanlis’ faction withered inside New Democracy and Karamanlis himself chose to keep away from the public eye. Whether he was the victim of oligarchs or not, it was of little importance to the Greek left. He was still the Prime Minister who tried to privatize higher education and then answered with unprecedented police violence to students demonstrating against it (that would only escalate in the years that followed). Less than two years later, under his watch, 15-year old Alexandros Grigoropoulos would be shot and killed by a police officer in Exarchia, leading to one of the biggest riots in Greek history. He was also the leader of a government that privatized important assets under very questionable terms and stood in favor of “flexibility” in the job market.

He was, in other words, still a conservative Prime Minister. So one can only imagine how shocked members of SYRIZA must have been in 2011, when they saw Alexis Tsipras interviewed at a fringe, nationalistic and sometimes xenophobic pro-Karamanlis website, agreeing with the narrative that Karamanlis was brought down by ‘big money’.

Karamanlis’ actual relationship with SYRIZA and Tsipras is still one of the main accusations that present-day New Democracy supporters throw at their opponents in and out of the party. And there are many signs pointing to the existence of such a relationship: SYRIZA’s choice for President of the Republic in Prokopis Pavlopoulos, former Minister and close collaborator of Karamanlis; their choice for Minister of Justice in Dimitris Papangelopoulos, also a close collaborator and head of the Intelligence Service under Karamanlis; their choice for Deputy Minister of Police, Katerina Papakosta, in the latest (and first “post-Memorandum”) reshuffle, who was struck out of New Democracy; a list of prominent “Karamanlists” in Parliament or in the Institutions who have either directly or indirectly expressed a favorable sentiment towards SYRIZA; and most importantly, their firm attachment to Panos Kammenos’ ANEL, their governing coalition partner.

Although international media have largely focused on ANEL’s far-right leanings, they seem to have ignored that most of their members were considered “Karamanlists” before they split from New Democracy. Despite struggling to make it into Parliament in September 2015, Panos Kammenos’ party has played a disproportionately large role in Tsipras’ government. Not only in the number of Ministers they have or the tight grip that ANEL’s leader has had on the Ministry of Defence, but on how SYRIZA shapes its strategies in general. Kammenos has been the mediator with various new and old oligarchs that have either personally or through media they own, been supportive of Tsipras first in opposition and then in government. And rarely have these friendships not proved to be on a quid-pro-quo basis, using promises, state funds and policymaking as the glue that holds them together.

Popular discontent over austerity might have created a large pool of voters to get SYRIZA in office, but its government is mostly made of the 80s PASOK playbook, the late PASOK’s clientele, and the Karamanlis’ apparatus’ privileges and connections in the state and in international relations1, as well as businessmen and media that have shifted their allegiances away from the parties they used to support. This didn’t make for a peaceful co-existence with the traditional left inside the party. A few - mostly anonymous - blogs that were created when SYRIZA was in opposition, devoted to supporting Tsipras’ leadership in an aggressive manner and distributing online content with a somewhat questionable sense of journalistic ethos (to put it lightly), were later used for character assassinations against SYRIZA’s members that disagreed with how Tsipras was diluting the party whilst opening it up to former adversaries with less than pristine track records in business and politics.

Although they came to power under the banner of anti-austerity in January 2015, its present day form is the party that the small group surrounding Tsipras and his close colleagues were actually building while in opposition. The first “post-memorandum” reshuffle in August 28, meaning the first government to supposedly act outside the confines of the bailout agreements, now resembles a Grand Coalition or an “umbrella” party, similar to what New Labour under Tony Blair was. The cabinet is now made of a former “Karamanlist” Deputy Minister of Police who once compared migrants to cockroaches, a former PASOK member who was partially responsible for a hunt against HIV-positive sex workers and their public humiliation, the former leader of DIMAR who had left because Tsipras was judged to be too left wing, former officials with PASOK and New Democracy, former bankers, a few members of ANEL and some members of SYRIZA coming mostly from the ‘centrist’ (in fact, the right) wing of the party. The leftists of SYRIZA are next to nowhere in this strange gathering.

Suffice to say, the politics of this cabinet are anything but radical – or to the extent that they’re radical, they’re definitely not left. And this has become even more pressing now that a more permanent restructuring of the Greek social pyramid lies ahead. A few policies that have been announced or put forth, already show what is coming. Although there has been an unclear agreement with the creditors for a partial raise of the minimum wage on a national level, announced in a speech by the Prime Minister at Thessaloniki, with no further details, just glancing at how this went for Portugal, where the economy’s recovery has been stronger than Greece’s, does not leave much hope that this will be anything more than a symbolic raise. But the Ministry of Labor has a different plan. Minister Efi Achtsioglou and her deputy, Nasos Iliopoulos, have claimed that they can circumvent the creditors’ disagreement over minimum wage by bringing back collective bargaining, through which, every occupation could negotiate its own minimum wage.

The problem is that most of those who were directly affected by the slash of the minimum wage in 2011 are not unionized. And the futility of this plan was apparent in the fact that the first agreements for collective bargaining that the Ministry of Labor brought forward were in occupations that had little to do with the minimum wage: banks, shipping companies and travel agencies. All these sectors have been doing well. Banks have been recapitalized three times since 2010, shipping has never been affected by how the Greek economy is faring and booming tourism has become central to the government’s plan. AirBnb, which has generated immense housing problems in Athens and other major tourist destinations, recently revealed that the government had promised them complete deregulation of their activities. According to reports, Greece hosted 32 million tourists in 2018, who have brought with them immense stress on infrastructure, especially in electricity and water, and have left even many teachers and doctors without a house available to rent.

It’s not the first time that the Greek economy has turned to tourism to make up for lost ground. The military junta of 1967-1974 was infamous for covering mismanagement, corruption and the encroachment of civil rights with a tourist bubble that kept a middle class happy. This time, though, the problems of overtourism seem coupled to, or at least compatible with, an overall strategy of recreating a middle class. And a large part of this new middle class of small-time capital, on whom SYRIZA is relying as voters, has now based its existence not on a modest redistribution as the one that took place in European economies after the Second World War, but on the supposedly temporary austerity measures: low wages, improper labor laws, casual employment and deregulation. The rest is formed by those that enjoy privileged access to state funds and public sector jobs (after SYRIZA’s government granted passage to more than just the regular clients), as well as employees on higher wages in the private sector.

The idea that cheap labor, deregulation and “investment”, in the form of large-scale investment plans untrammelled by any legal or social concerns, are what’s needed to leave the crisis behind was central to troika-mandated austerity. Now, the government has internalized it. SYRIZA’s Ministers have gone ahead with plans for fracking in the North of Greece and have actively facilitated Eldorado Gold - who they once opposed - in overcoming opposition to its gold mining operations in Chalkidiki. Media outlets friendly towards the government have waged war whenever a regulating authority or union has spoken against the questionable terms of an agreement with private interests. Unprofitable privatizations have been actively promoted and even justified by members of the government as necessary. The management of funds for refugees has been questioned, and their competence in safely administering and tending to arrivals even more so. Only a bill for prison reform in their first six months of government and another two bills regarding LGBT rights have had any positive social effect – and despite their merits, one can’t help but view the latest as bland pinkwashing.

When SYRIZA capitulated in the conflict of 2015, a “parallel program” was announced. This consisted of a set of measures that could be implemented without the creditors’ consent. To this day, nothing has been made of this program – already quite vague to begin with. In fact, in some cases, the result has been the exact opposite. Unions that represented not the workers but groups of special interests, instead of being “democratically restructured” have been granted powers they’d never seen before: such is the case in the Public Broadcasting Service (ERT). The war against big money’s control on politics, has been replaced with a long list of scandalous legislation in favor of the specific interests of businessmen. The restructuring of the Army has led to every asset of it transferred to a fund run by the Minister of Defense himself. The shake-out of the media establishment has given way to a series of efforts to exert control over it, with the creation of an array of pro-government media that do not adhere to any journalistic standards and are riddled with overworked and underpaid journalists. Tax reform, social security and digitalization have all had their moments in the sun, with the consequence of higher taxes for those already living below the poverty line, social security has become more expensive, pensions have been cut (with upcoming further cuts still under debate) and even the efforts to modernize the management of the state have raised a few eyebrows .

SYRIZA’s ideologues have tried to justify the government’s actions in proceeding with the worst version of “business as usual” by claiming that Greek society was just not ready for a radical shift. And that might be partially true, but it’s not what’s important – after all, creating a middle class of voters whose existence is based solely on the misery of a significant strata below them is radical enough. The fact is that SYRIZA came to power after PASOK had proven incapable of securing consent for the neoliberal dogma advocated by both major parties alike since Greece entered the euro. SYRIZA became the new host for these agendas and showed itself to be unable to shift them in a different direction, lacking the will, the means, the ideas and the base among the organised working class that would be necessary for such a thing. SYRIZA’s rise came at a time when everything was in great turmoil and the only thing that they chose to assimilate from that movement, was numbers. This had been pointed out by lots of party members who disagreed with Tsipras’ direction, but were unable - or in some cases, unwilling - to actively go against him and his close circle.

On the other hand, there was nothing to exercise pressure on SYRIZA. Thousands of former activists became civil servants overnight and grassroots organizing became largely extinct after 2015. In an interview in 2016, Tsipras referred to those that were opposed to his choices as “the left village”, whose politics did not matter to him. The head of his press office has carried out personal attacks through his column in the party newspaper against outspoken leftist critics of the government. And now, apart from the former left activists who have “gone home”, some of those that demonstrated against austerity have chosen the nationalistic way out, by trying to find a place in the demonstrations led by the far-right against Tsipras’ deal with FYROM’s Prime Minister, Zoran Zaev, over the Macedonian Question.

Vice-President of New Democracy, Adonis Georgiadis, once a member of the far-right LAOS, has ironically thanked Tsipras time and again for “killing the left”. And for the moment, he’s right. SYRIZA’s course has shifted the general tenor of Greek politics to the right and the choices they’re undertaking now portend a brutal restructuring of the Greek socioeconomic pyramid. But in a way, SYRIZA was also a case study of the left’s problems all-over Europe: the inability to organize people and to design a proper agenda beforehand, as well as a clear understanding of the strategies needed to implement them are common in and out of Greece. That’s probably why, in cases such as that of Jean-Luc Melenchon or Sara Wagenknecht, programmes appear every now and then that range from the conservative to the horrendous. SYRIZA was always known among the Greek left as the ones who were able to ‘do’ politics – but by the time everyone realized that this meant just a willingness to imitate mainstream politics, rather than occupy and shift it, it was too little and definitely too late. As some former members noted after the announcement in Ithaca, Ulysses was the only of his crew who made it through the journey.

  1. Karamanlis, for example, was on very good terms with Vladimir Putin and was also one of the four witnesses at the wedding of Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s daughter, Esra.