Alexis Tsipras, Nanni Moretti and the future of the Greek Left
In the opening scene of his comedy film Caro Diario (1993), Nanni Moretti goes for a ride with his Vespa on the outskirts of Rome. At some point, he stops at a traffic light and he informs the unsuspecting driver of a red cabriolet that he does not believe in majorities. Even in a fairer and more decent society, he will always find himself agreeing with a minority.
To my mind, this ingenious cinematic moment has always been the best metaphor for the fate of the radical democratic left in Greece—always finding itself in a minority. As a young supporter of Synaspismos and later SYRIZA, I never thought that a party which was struggling to reach the threshold for parliamentary representation would become a leading political force in my lifetime.
And yet, Alexis Tsipras became the first leftist Prime Minister in one of the most turbulent periods since Greece’s democratic transition in 1974. His start was promising. Before becoming the only head of a Greek government in history that did not take a religious oath, he paid his respects to the heroes of the Second World War Greek Resistance in the Athens neighbourhood of Kesariani, where 200 Greek leftists were executed by the Nazi occupiers on May 1 1944, underlining the long historical trajectory of this ever-present and politically active minority of the Greek political landscape.
The symbolic start, however, was marred by a series of tactical errors, omissions and blunders. He chose as coalition partner a populist right-wing party that excelled in conspiracy theories, Independent Greeks (ANEL). His government was woefully underprepared in the negotiations with the troika of international lenders. As a result, instead of renegotiating Greece’s debt and the related austerity obligations, he signed a third package of severe austerity measures after capital controls were imposed. He made this kolotoumba (somersault) after organising a referendum in one week, asking the people to reject the bailout package. The Greek electorate overwhelmingly supported him, only for Tsipras to accept more severe measures some days later to avoid the very real danger of Greece having to default within the eurozone and/or having to withdraw from the EU as a whole.
Despite this turbulent start, he did manage to stabilise public finances and leave the economy in a much safer place. His biggest achievement, however, was the signing of the Prespes Agreement. Despite the scorn he received, he persevered and delivered on the declared objective of all the Greek governments for the last 20 years for a 'compound' name with a geographical qualifier. The then leader of the opposition, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, passionately opposed the settlement, paying lip service to the Greek nationalist fervour at the time, only to support the agreement after his election to the government. Similarly, Tsipras’s government extended the right for civil partnership to same-sex partners and changed the law on gender identity, while the ‘liberal’ Mitsotakis was warning that extra-terrestrials might urge young Greeks to change their gender.
After his 2019 electoral defeat, Tsipras, as leader of the main opposition, failed to convince people that he had an effective alternative plan and that his leadership team was a government in waiting. While Mitsotakis managed to convince Greek centrists that he is a liberal and the right-wingers that he leads a ‘law and order’ government, Tsipras’s flip-flopping over issues such as the fence in Evros or Golden Dawn voters made the leftists question his commitment and the centrists doubt his competence. As a result, he suffered two crushing defeats against a government that has been (allegedly) engaged in wiretapping and pushbacks and whose politics are deeply corrosive for Greek democracy and the rule of law. Of course, he is not the only one to be blamed for those defeats. The Greek mainstream media, heavily populated by people with close ties to the old elites, never forgave him for challenging the political establishment.
In Aprile, a 1998 film by Nanni Moretti, the main character watches the debate between the Italian political leaders. At some moment, incredulous at watching Silvio Berlusconi attacking Italian democracy without any response from the leader of the Italian Left, Massimo D’Alema, Moretti starts shouting at the tv. ‘D’Alema di una cosa di sinistra’ (D’Alema say something left wing).
The new SYRIZA leadership team has some big shoes to fill. However, they need to avoid the aforementioned flip-flopping if they want the party to survive. They need to listen to Moretti and say something left wing. But what exactly? To my mind, they need to build their project on three issues.
First, they need to become the biggest, loudest and most effective supporters of rule of law and human rights. With 3 extreme right-wing parties in Parliament and a government with a questionable record (see above), civil liberties in Greece might be under attack over the years to come. This might sound like the centrist dad’s vision of the left. But it is within the tradition of the leftist civil rights movements to defend those liberal values. Especially in Greece, that has always been part of the identity of this political segment.
Second, they need to build an economic programme focusing on reducing the rampant inequalities of Greek society. The handing of vouchers (to which the current government has excelled) is not a solution. A progressive and fair tax system should be at the centre of that discussion. Such discussion cannot satisfy everyone and would entail some painful choices. But phenomena such as the ostracization of former Labour Minister Giorgos Katrougalos for expressing a view that is well within the logic of progressive tax politics should be avoided at all costs.
Finally, SYRIZA should remember its relationship with the movements of political ecology and build an alternative green agenda focusing on combatting climate change. This would entail a painful discussion about decarbonisation, alternative sources of energy, sustainable development of our islands and mainland and the debunking of the myths concerning the extraction of oil and gas from the Aegean.
Despite the painful experience of watching D’Alema in the debate, on 21 April 1996, the centre-left coalition ‘L’ Ullivo’ won the election and Moretti goes out on his Vespa to celebrate the win and the birth of his son Pietro. The same happy ending is not by any means certain for SYRIZA. But even if they do not succeed, they can always try to be a minority helping the building of a fairer and more decent society.
Nikos Skoutaris is an Associate Professor in EU Law at the University of East Anglia. Follow him in twitter.