Kassalekis goes from blank canvas to empty vessel, blowing open progressive space

Agora Contributor: Nick Malkoutzis
Image: https://www.syriza.gr/
Image: https://www.syriza.gr/

When Stefanos Kasselakis - a young, Miami-based entrepreneur with virtually no political experience - was elected leader of left-wing SYRIZA at the end of September, it was a shock. The way that the party has unravelled since then has been less surprising.

The attributes that proved to be Kasselakis’s strengths in beating the odds to get elected – his freshness and ideological flexibility – have quickly become his weaknesses as leader of a party that headed two coalition governments between 2015 and 2019.

There are many elements that contributed to Kasselakis beating the other candidates, most notably former labour minister and leadership favourite Efi Achtsioglou. Probably the most dominant factor was that Kasselakis acted as a blank canvas onto which SYRIZA supporters, embittered by heavy defeats in four European Parliament and national elections since 2019, could project whatever they wanted. What many saw in September was someone who could beat Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, whose centre-right government seems to have a vice-like grip on power no matter its shortcomings – as was confirmed by its comfortable victory in this summer’s elections.

However, in the weeks since the SYRIZA leadership vote, the blank canvas has become an empty vessel. More than two months into his leadership, it is still not clear what Kasselakis believes in, what policies he favours and what direction he wants the party to take. He has filled this void with non-stop public, social media and mainstream media appearances which have been heavy in terms of visibility but light in substance. This has made Kasselakis both ubiquitous and non-existent.

The absence of political orientation and a core set of policies have fuelled concerns that he is either an opportunist, who took advantage of a singular moment in SYRIZA’s history to grab control of the party with the help of some cadres who sensed a vacuum after the previous leader Alexis Tsipras resigned, or that his political beliefs are rooted, if anywhere, to the right of the political spectrum.

These fears were compounded when Kasselakis spoke in October at the annual conference of the Hellenic Federation of Enterprises (SEV) and told Greek industrialists that his party would no longer “demonise capital, but sees it as a useful tool for prosperity.” He also failed to make the usual demands a SYRIZA leader voices at such events, for workers to be given better pay and conditions. This gave licence to opponents and sceptics within the party to start openly attacking the 35-year-old, making SYRIZA seem a party that was deeply divided after losing the totemic Tsipras, whose political instincts and charisma managed to put a lid on any internal feuding. Kasselakis responded in what many saw as a heavy-handed manner by trying to throw the dissenters out of SYRIZA. This, in turn, brought about a rupture with the left-wing “Umbrella” faction of the party and then the more moderate “6+6” faction.

Eleven MPs, including Achtsioglou and others who served as ministers in Alexis Tsipras’s government, have now left SYRIZA to form a parliamentary group called New Left. Their aim is to establish themselves as a genuine leftist alternative to their former party and to participate in next year’s European Parliament elections. An opinion poll conducted by GPO recently indicated that support for the New Left stands at 2.5% compared to 9.8% for SYRIZA.

What the survey also shows is that PASOK, Greece’s social democratic party, has overtaken SYRIZA in second place. According to GPO, 12.1% of respondents said they would vote for the centre-left party. It is the first time in more than 10 years that PASOK’s popularity, which was heavily damaged during Greece’s debt crisis, is higher than SYRIZA’s.

Kasselakis is trying to play down these developments by arguing that his party is just experiencing temporary turbulence that will be overcome once he brings in new faces and is able to start unveiling his ideas, forming something resembling a manifesto. He insists that SYRIZA can still win next year’s European Parliament elections but this is not a view shared by anyone outside of his immediate circle. The leftists seem to be on an irreversible slide to the fringes of Greek politics, where the party existed until Greece’s economic crisis erupted in 2009.

SYRIZA gained just under 18% of the vote in the June general election, compared to 40.5% for Mitsotakis’s New Democracy. Four years earlier, SYRIZA had gained 31.5%, meaning during just one term in opposition, support for the leftists dropped almost 14 percentage points. Kasselakis inherited a party that fed off a crisis that no longer exists, was held together by a leader that has gone and relied on a loose association of factions that has fallen apart. Rebuilding SYRIZA requires a clear political vision, a concerted communications strategy, able personnel and the skill to take on more powerful opponents. Currently, Kasselakis appears to have none of this and is unlikely to have much time to rectify the situation.

If he is unable to turn the recent trend around and at least score a better result in the European Parliament elections of 2024 than SYRIZA achieved in this year’s national vote, his position could be under threat. But developments outside of SYRIZA could determine his fate as well. PASOK now has an opportunity to re-establish itself as a real contender after spending much of the last decade in the political wilderness. There are, though, still doubts about whether the centre-left party can make substantial gains under the leadership of former MEP Nikos Androulakis, who many see as lacking the necessary charisma and clout to propel the party forward and help it capitalise fully on SYRIZA’s demise.

Kasselakis also faces a threat from his former colleagues who formed the New Left. If their popularity grows, those who remained in SYRIZA may start questioning whether they are on the right side of the divide. Should support for PASOK and New Left edge up over the coming months, this will also spark a discussion about whether there is scope for cooperation between them to form an enhanced progressive grouping to take on Mitsotakis and New Democracy.

Perhaps the biggest mistake progressives in Greece could make at the moment is to get caught up in the drama surrounding SYRIZA’s fracturing and the entertainment provided by Kasselakis as a political oddity. The bitter fact for those on the left of the Greek political spectrum is that centre-right New Democracy has a huge lead over them, leaving a great deal of ground to cover in little time. If Kasselakis cannot halt SYRIZA’s slide, as seems the case at the moment, PASOK and others must find a way to turn that to their advantage.

*This article was originally published in German on the International Politics & Society (IPS) online magazine published by the Friedrich Ebert Foundation.

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