Last man standing

Agora Contributor: Nick Malkoutzis
Photo by Can Esenbel []
Photo by Can Esenbel []

Until a few days ago the only thing connecting SYRIZA and Texas was the lone star on their flags. 

But, suddenly, the US’s second-largest state seems to have provided a defining moment for Greece’s second-largest party. SYRIZA leader Alexis Tsipras chose a speech at the University of Texas in Austin on November 4 to put minds outside of Greece at ease with regard to his party’s plans should it come to power after the next general elections.

Tsipras’s admission that it would now be too messy and painful to extricate Greece from its euro mess and return to the drachma indicated that SYRIZA’s view on the subject has evolved since the party shot to prominence early last year. It is the most unambiguous description of SYRIZA’s current position on the issue.

That’s not to say that the leftists are absolutely united on the matter. There may be as many as a third of SYRIZA members who are highly sceptical about remaining in the single currency. They appear to believe Greece will only solve its economic problems by leaving the eurozone.

Nevertheless, with his November 4 speech, Tsipras drew a line in the Texas sand. Austin is known for having an alternative cultural scene, characterised by the “Keep Austin Weird” campaign. It was in this very city that the SYRIZA leader attempted to tell the world that his party may be a little different but that ultimately on the key issue its position is not that weird at all.

Of course, this makes one wonder why in the same week as his Texas speech Tsipras chose to submit a censure motion against the government and to talk about the Greek people “tearing up the memorandum” during the ensuing debate. It seems perplexing that Tsipras should be happy to reduce his watershed moment at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs to cheap joke in Parliament. “I went there to learn how to duel at El Paso,” he said in response to a jibe from PASOK leader Evangelos Venizelos, who tried to demean Tsipras’s trip by suggesting he went to the US to be instructed by the Americans.

In fact, Texas was mentioned more times in Greek Parliament on Sunday than during a John Ford western. Unfortunately, the level of debate was more suited to Blazing Saddles than The Searchers.

Why Tsipras should choose to undermine himself in this way can only be explained by the fact that he does not believe SYRIZA is ready to shackle itself to reality in the way governing parties or parties preparing to govern have to. The leftists, a party of less than 5 percent four years ago, still want to enjoy the abandon of being in opposition.

A move to get his party to unite behind his statement in Texas entails substantial risk for Tsipras. Senior MPs such as Panayiotis Lafazanis and Manolis Glezos have already expressed doubts about both continued membership of the euro and having a top-down, structured decision making process in the party. Pulling everyone together on this issue, and others, is much like trying to nail jelly to the wall.

It was only this summer that SYRIZA became a party rather than a collection of factions. It will need more time if it is going to mature. Time, however, is in short supply. The more aggressive SYRIZA becomes in opposition, the shorter this period becomes for the government, which often gives the impression it is living on borrowed time. A poor showing in the May European Parliament elections, for instance, could precipitate the coalition’s downfall. The onus is on SYRIZA to strike a balance between castigating the government, often justifiably, and evolving its own positions on crucial issues. So far, there has been too little of the latter.

Tsipras’s performance during the weekend’s parliamentary debate was well below what the circumstances demanded. He might point to the pettiness of his rivals but a would-be prime minister has to start showing at some point that he is a cut above the rest. While SYRIZA has made steps to define itself beyond Greece’s borders, within the country it still remains too reliant on put-downs and one-liners. Its attempts to inspire mass demonstrations have failed. While there are many things to rally against in Greece, the tired format of street protest that SYRIZA, among others, subscribes to is leading to a dead-end. The sacked employees of ERT showed that more creative forms of protest can grab people's attention and make them think about the issues. Yet, the abiding memory of SYRIZA's part in this protest will be MP Zoe Constantopoulou being pinned against the building's front gates during a melee with police.

At the point which Greece has reached, SYRIZA cannot find the answers that it or the country needs only on the street. Simply relying on a growing number of Greeks becoming disenchanted with their lot and increasingly fed up with the government’s austerity policies cannot be SYRIZA’s single strategy for coming to power. It will, for instance, have to explain to Greek voters that the European Union’s “fiscal compact” and “six pack” means that there can be no promise of an expansionary fiscal policy from any Greek government for many years to come.

A failure to address this very quickly will only set SYRIZA up for a very big fall if it comes to power after the next elections. You can't prepare yourself for governing by simply watching others fall away. After Texas, Tsipras should be aware that being the last man in town standing can be a relief but it also leaves you in an awfully lonely place.

3 Comment(s)

  • Posted by: Chris Murphy

    So if he and his party aren't actually anti-euro, then what is the point of SYRIZA?

    Will they be able to change the memorandum without the threat of withdrawal? No. Will they be more competent/less incompetent that the current coaltion? I severely doubt it.

    On top of this is the drasic swing to the far right should SYRIZA form a government which fails.

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  • Posted by: Nick Malkoutzis, Macropolis

    Mickael, thank you for correcting my mistake. Clearly, there is no "Keep Houston Weird" campaign so it is not a question of not looking things up but simply a slip of the mind when writing the article. I have fixed it now.

    On your other point, I disagree with what you say. First of all, I have never (neither in this piece or previous ones) suggested that Tsipras is anti-euro. You are right that some people claimed this or tried to cultivate this idea but I never subscribed to this practice. However, this does not mean that he has always been 100% clear on what his position is. There have been comments in the past, such as "the euro is not a fetish", that have created doubt about exactly what SYRIZA intends to do if it comes to power.

    I do not begrudge anyone arguing for a euro exit. In fact, it is a debate we have not had properly in Greece. But at some point a party that wants to govern needs to define its position in as clear terms as possible. I believe Tsipras tried to do that in Austin.

    He now faces a challenge to convince the entirety of his party that any ideas of quitting the euro should be abandoned because of the complications involved, as he set out in Texas.

    The fact that there are about 30% of party members who are sceptical about remaining in the euro means there is some work for him to do.

    As for sitting back and accepting things, I don't agree that this is what we should do or what I have suggested. However, if we accept that we will remain in the euro because the other option is worse then we have to accept that comes with some restrictions. Unless we find a away to change these limitations, we have to find ways to survive and progress within them.

    For SYRIZA it would be incredibly damaging to suggest that there can be a drastic change in economic policy when Greece's circumstances mean this cannot be. That doesn't limit them from explaining what they would do differently within these restrictions. However, we have not heard enough

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  • Posted by: Mickael Nevradakis

    It's AUSTIN, Texas and the University of Texas at AUSTIN and "Keep AUSTIN Weird," not Houston!!! Surely as a journalist you could have double-checked and confirmed this.

    Beyond that, I find the pro-EU and pro-Euro tint of your piece very troubling, as if we should just sit back and accept that certain things are the way they are and that the quicker we "get with the program," the better. It's ludicrous to say that Syriza's position regarding the Euro has changed when it was clear, even prior to the 2012 elections, that Tsipras was "pro-Euro." Yes, not everyone in his party/coalition agrees, but Tsipras has repeated his position on the issue many times. The media in Greece though, including eKathimerini, did a great job of painting last year's elections as a "Euro (ND) vs. Drachma (Syriza)" dilemma, effectively terrorizing (and misinforming) the public and the voters. I see that unfortunately, not much has changed between then and now, at least as far as the media is concerned...

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