Has SYRIZA's moment gone?

Agora Contributor: Nick Malkoutzis
Photo by Myrto Papadopoulos [www.myrtopapadopoulos.com]
Photo by Myrto Papadopoulos [www.myrtopapadopoulos.com]

In June 2012, SYRIZA came within 171,000 votes of winning Greece’s national elections as part of an improbable but meteoric rise from raggle-taggle band of dreamy leftists to Europe’s premier anti-austerity crusaders. At the time it seemed that, even in electoral defeat, SYRIZA and its young leader Alexis Tsipras were laying a cornerstone for something much bigger. But events since then, especially over the last couple of weeks, suggest that we may have already seen SYRIZA’s finest moment.

After leading SYRIZA from a modest 4.6 percent in October 2009 to an impressive 26.9 percent in the second of the 2012 polls, Tsipras faced a choice: SYRIZA could try to open up to a wider audience by refining its message or it could remain faithful to its radical roots. The problem is that Tsipras tried to do both and in the process proved poet John Lydgate's adage, later tweaked by Abraham Lincoln, that “you can never please all of the people all of time” correct.

At times during the last couple of years Tsipras has shown considerable skill in appealing to voters that are not part of the party’s traditional support base. He has also been prepared to bring SYRIZA out of its introspective, domestic shell and make contact with the key global players such as German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble. He has not shied away from clarifying the party’s positions on an international stage either, most notably when he spoke about SYRIZA’s commitment to the euro at the University of Texas.

Each of these moments has had a part to play in bringing SYRIZA closer to its goal of becoming a party of government. Each has contributed towards it building credibility among voters and eurozone decision makers. However, they have all been lost in the fog of the party’s own confusion about where it is heading. It is as if SYRIZA and Tsipras are burdened with guilt for any move to make their party more mainstream.

Almost 24 months on since the last election, SYRIZA’s grand idea is still unclear. As Greece’s bailout agreement nears its end SYRIZA MPs still tie themselves up in knots trying to explain what the party’s position on the EU-IMF memorandum is. With Greece’s partners preparing to discuss some form of debt relief, SYRIZA has yet to forge ties with a notable eurozone ally that backs its demand for a large haircut.

Tsipras and his party try to make up for their inability or unwillingness to flesh out their policies with pointless bombast that appears to be driven by a need to pander to SYRIZA’s left wing. This was best summed up by the recent bungled attempt to submit a censure motion during the debate on a multi-bill of reforms. The party not only failed to highlight the seriousness of some of the legislation in the package - including a law allowing the bank recapitalisation fund to sell its shares in lenders for less than Greek taxpayers paid for them - it overshadowed it with amateur grandstanding.

That SYRIZA was in a muddle over its policies in 2012 was understandable. It was also to be expected that the party had a lack of personnel with the gravitas to tackle the dilemmas of governance. Two years on, though, excuses are wearing thin.

SYRIZA continues to display a worrying immaturity that raises questions about whether it is actually capable of being effective in opposition, let alone government. Since June 2012, the party has fallen into every pothole or trap it comes across. Like a moth to a flame, it has been repeatedly drawn into a government-driven debate about extremism without finding a way to rise above the so-called “strategy of tension.” It has shunned without fail any opportunity to test the government’s resolve, opting to submit a censure motion to Parliament last November - when little was at stake - rather than in June 2013, when Democratic Left (DIMAR) walked out of the coalition over the closure of public broadcaster ERT.

These weaknesses have been in evidence over the past couple of weeks. SYRIZA was presented with a prime opportunity to put pressure on the government and Prime Minister Antonis Samaras after cabinet secretary Takis Baltakos was forced to resign over his secret contacts with Golden Dawn. With the crucial May elections in sight this was political manna from heaven but it was lost on SYRIZA. Instead of using it to demand an inquiry into whether the prime minister’s advisers were running Greece according to their nationalist agenda rather than the national interest, the leftists called for the resignation of Public Order Minister Nikos Dendias and Justice Minister Haralambos Athanasiou – the two people that in many voters’ eyes have been resolute since the judicial probe into the Neo-Nazi party began.

Then came Greece’s return to the markets. There were many points on which SYRIZA could have challenged the government’s decision to issue a bond now, such as the questionable claim that it would save Greece money through lower T-Bill yields or over the lack of clarity regarding what the coalition would do with the money it raised from the markets. Instead, SYRIZA chose to focus on the 4.95 percent yield. It argued that this was much higher than the interest rates of around 1.5 percent Greece pays on its bailout the loans - the same loans it has spent the last few years complaining about and describing as daylight robbery.

Tsipras has spent much of the last couple of weeks travelling Europe in his capacity as the European Left’s candidate for president of the European Commission. Clearly, this was not the best use of his time and with SYRIZA faltering in the final stretch and so much to take care of at home, there must be questions about whether it was wise for Tsipras to take up his role. He has already proved there are other ways for SYRIZA to establish itself on the international stage.

Events on Sunday provided further confirmation that the only thing consistent about SYRIZA is its unerring knack for undoing itself. With six weeks left to go until the European Parliament elections its Left Platform presented to the party’s central committee a plan for exiting the euro. The leader of SYRIZA’s left-wing faction and brainchild of the scheme, MP Panayiotis Lafazanis, insisted that the party must not lose its radical nature. He may as well have been arguing that SYRIZA should never be anything more than a party of opposition. There is no doubt that Greece has suffered from not having a mature debate about its euro membership but trying to get one going less than two months before elections, in the wake of a return to bond markets and with eurozone partners pledging to discuss debt relief after the summer is a sure-fire vote loser.

A recent Public Issue poll put SYRIZA 3 percentage points ahead of New Democracy for the May 25 European Parliament elections but most other surveys indicate the gap is much smaller. Given Greece’s dire economic situation, sky-high unemployment and reservations about the coalition, an opposition party worth its salt should have been preparing for a landslide victory in May. Unless there are dramatic developments in the next few weeks (and not discounting New Democracy’s tendency for self-inflicted wounds) it doesn’t look like SYRIZA will get one. By eking out a victory it will simply draw attention to the absence of enough Greeks who are prepared to trust Tsipras and his team to run the country. In these circumstances SYRIZA will not have the right to claim there is irresistible momentum in its favour and it will lack the political legitimacy to push for national elections. This may give the coalition parties enough time to get their acts together and the economy to start showing its first genuine signs of recovery. By the time the next elections are held, SYRIZA’s best shot at clinching power could be long gone.

4 Comment(s)

  • Posted by: Barney Spender

    Interesting piece Nick which I am afraid comes as no surprise.

    Tsipras baulked at the chance of power when it was there; he has always come across as more style than substance. Astonishing to find there is still nothing concrete in the Syriza agenda.

    This must be a great let down for the Greek people who so desperately need a velvet revolution to remove the cankerous political preferment system which has taken the country downhill over the last 30-40 years.

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  • Posted by: M. Wenzl

    Nick, you imply that the coalition parties will get their acts together but is this realistic? PASOK are exhausted; I doubt they'll have the stomach (or foolhardiness) to continue with ND, given how many votes they've lost. Dimar are a similar story. So ultimately, if ND were to form another coalition, who could they team up with? Surely the Independent Greeks are a total no-go.

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  • Posted by: Nick Malkoutzis

    "Pleasing" was the original phrase that Lincoln then adapted to "fooling". I've adjusted the sentence to reflect this. Thanks for pointing it out.

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  • Posted by: Klaus Kastner

    Not that it really matters, but I think Lincoln's adage was about 'fooling' (instead of 'pleasing') people. Something like 'you can fool all of the people some of the time; some of the people all of the time; but not all of the people all of the time'.

    In SYRIZA's case, 'fooling' might be even more appropriate than 'pleasing'...

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