Can Greece's SYRIZA Change Europe's Economy?
The biggest threat to Greece's left-wing coalition is itself.
Dec 3, 2013
13 Min read time
The biggest threat to Greece's left-wing coalition is itself.
A SYRIZA rally in Athens in 2012. Photograph: Mehran Khalili
SYRIZA, a growing political party in Greece, is an acronym that stands for “Coalition of the Radical Left.” For Americans, the idea that a party on the radical left could gain power is unthinkable, and it was for Greeks, too—until very recently. But the harsh austerity measures that the European Union imposed on Greece after its economic collapse have created extreme conditions in Greece: six in ten young people are unemployed, wages and pensions have been cut, national income has fallen by one quarter.
Europe is currently caught in a negative feedback loop, from which the established political process is unable to escape. For three years now, an endless stream of spending cuts and tax hikes has dominated the Greek Parliament’s agenda. A SYRIZA win may be the jolt that Europe needs: a victory by a pro-European party committed to keeping the country both in the Eurozone and in the European Union, but a party that, importantly, because of its radical disposition, is prepared to open up the conversation at the level of the European Council so that, at long last, European leaders address the problems they have been ignoring over the past five years. Back in June, in a New York Times op-ed, James K. Galbraith and I alleged that “SYRIZA may be Europe’s best hope,” and six months later this still holds true.
Though SYRIZA has existed in some form since the early nineties, its popularity has exploded amidst the Euro Crisis, now polling somewhere between 20 and 30 percent. Since June, it has begun to take a lead in opinion polls, as the governing coalition’s promises of ‘Greek-covery’ are turning sour. Elections are not due until June 2016, but the present government has a wafer-thin majority that may dissolve after a likely electoral defeat in the May 2014 European Parliament elections. If a general election is called, SYRIZA could become the largest party in Greek Parliament.
The question then arises: what effect would such a victory have on SYRIZA itself? Can a radical party of the left maintain its cohesion in the face of neoliberal central bankers and their conservative counterparts in Germany, the Netherlands, Finland, France, and Spain? Under such circumstances, any government of the left would be short-lived. If European officials and political leaders anticipate the power SYRIZA might have, SYRIZA’s capacity to bargain, to forge new alliances, and to shatter the eerie silence in the European Union’s Brussels headquarters will be severely circumscribed.
A brief history of SYRIZA
SYRIZA’s history can be traced back to the Red Army’s invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, crushing the so-called Prague Spring. At the time, Greece was in its second year of a neo-fascist military dictatorship, and the Communist Party’s leaders were geographically divided: most were in the Eastern Bloc countries, but many languished in Greek prisons. Ideological division followed, as most of the imprisoned leaders opposed Soviet invasion of Prague, while those on the other side of the Iron Curtain toed Moscow’s hard line. By the time the Greek dictatorship collapsed in July 1974 and the Communist Party was legalized, the two groups had totally fallen out, and Greece acquired two communist parties: the anti-Soviet, pro-Europe Communist Party of the Interior, whose leaders were inside the country during the dictatorship, and the Communist Party, referred to by its counterpart as the Communist Party of the Exterior. SYRIZA is, roughly, the heir to the Communist Party of the Interior.
Of course, since the mid-seventies, the political landscape has changed completely. In 1981 the socialist party of Greece, PASOK, came to power, led by the charismatic Andreas Papandreou. Its platform was considerably to the left of any of Europe’s social democratic parties, advocating, among other things, Greece’s exit from the European Economic Community (EEC), from NATO, the removal of all U.S. military bases, a program of mass socialization of industry, and large increases in public spending. The two communist parties struggled to find ways of positioning themselves against PASOK, which threatened to usurp their monopoly on the Greek left.
By the late eighties, PASOK’s agenda became watered down. It abandoned the ideas of exiting NATO and the EEC, and only socialized companies that had already gone bankrupt in the wake of the global recession in the early 1980s. The Communist Party and the Communist Party of the Interior forged an alliance called Synaspismos (meaning ‘coalition’), hoping to benefit from PASOK’s fading popularity amongst left-wing Greeks. The general election in 1989 resulted in a hung Parliament, and the new Synaspismos party, which had risen to around 15 percent of the national vote, forged an opportunistic coalition with the right wing party, New Democracy, on the foundation of a shared antipathy toward PASOK and Andreas Papandreou.
This temporary alliance lasted only a few months, during which it set out to drag Papandreou through the courts on paper-thin evidence of embezzlement. Once acquitted, Papandreou made a comeback, and Synaspismos began to fade in the polls. Soon after that, the leaders of the Communist Party within Synaspismos decided to pull out of the coalition, causing yet another major split in the Communist Party, as many of its leading members chose to stay in Synaspismos.
One does not need to be left-wing to recognize the folly in the logic of forcing a bankrupt government to take out huge new loans.
The Communist Party, running separately, returned to an anti-European Union agenda. Secure in its dogmatic, Stalinist mantra, it fared better than Synaspismos, scoring an average of 5 percent of the national vote. In contrast, Synaspismos was engaged in perpetual introspection, attempting to broaden its appeal by becoming a loose confederation of groups spanning the whole gamut of the left, including disenchanted social democrats, and green, eco-activist, anti-racist groups. To pull such disparate, and often recalcitrant, groups together, Synaspismos became what I jokingly call 'Synaspismos Squared': although already a coalition of different factions (recall that synaspismos means coalition), Synaspismos entered into a coalition with groups that did not want to become part of Synaspismos, but sought a political alliance. Thus in 2004 Synaspismos turned into SYRIZA, ‘The Coalition of Radical Left.” The emphasis of the party is on the “radical,” providing the outsiders with a pretext for fusing themselves with Synaspismos. It is no great wonder that such introverted shenanigans appealed little to the electorate; from the mid-1990s until very, very recently, SYRIZA was barely staying afloat, polling between the minimum threshold (3 percent) for securing parliamentary representation and 5 percent. That is, until the Euro Crisis hit in 2010.
In the October 2009 elections SYRIZA won just over 5 percent of the popular vote, while the PASOK socialists of Mr. George Papandreou, Andreas’s son, won a crushing 44 percent of the vote, forming the government that was to oversee Greece’s implosion a few months later. A year after Greece’s bankruptcy, opinion polls reported that PASOK had tumbled to 10 percent, while SYRIZA was catapulted to almost 30 percent, vying for electoral victory. When the political system could no longer avert a general election, the May 2012 poll confirmed this popularity by propelling SYRIZA to second place, just behind the right-wing New Democracy. A second election followed a month later, in June 2012, with New Democracy securing 29.7 percent and SYRIZA 26.9 percent.
The economic crisis has continued unabated and likewise SYRIZA seems to have established a steady lead in the polls. What might a victory mean for Greece, for Europe, indeed for SYRIZA itself?
The threat to SYRIZA
SYRIZA supporters and activists are concerned that, like PASOK, an electoral victory may put them on the path of compromises that they are loath to make. Just as PASOK entered the government in 1981 with lofty left-wing pronouncements, which it quickly shed on its road to establishment-status, so SYRIZA’s leadership, under the extreme strains of negotiating Greece’s bankruptcy with Berlin, Frankfurt, and Brussels, may well discard SYRIZA’s radical agenda for social and economic change in Greece. It is a well-founded fear that SYRIZA’s leaders cannot afford to ignore.
Most Greek political parties, including the present ruling coalition between New Democracy and PASOK would agree that the terms and conditions of Greece’s so-called bailout programs are unfair and that the troika of lenders (the European Commission, the European Central Bank, and the International Monetary Fund) are imposing conditions on Greece that are permanently damaging the country’s social fabric and are impossible to fulfill. One does not need to be radical, or even left-wing, to recognize the folly in the logic of forcing a bankrupt government to take out huge new loans on the condition of savagely reducing national income (since this is unavoidable result of harsh austerity during a deep recession). Yet, the governing coalition is acting like a model prisoner, obeying the troika’s instructions while, on the side, pleading for a rationalization of the imposed policies, terms, and conditions.
SYRIZA’s position differs from this in two important ways. First, SYRIZA believes, I think correctly, that the only way of getting the European Union to treat Greece reasonably and raise the punitive austerity measures is to spearhead an immediate re-think of the ‘Greek Program’ through, first, the unilateral suspension of policies demanded by the troika, and, second, via the use, or threat of using, its veto power in the European Council.
Secondly, SYRIZA wants to combine this tough bargaining line with a radical agenda for social change in Greece, including a major shift in the tax base, the re-introduction of a decent minimum wage, and more funding for social security and public health provisions. Above all else, SYRIZA activists want a government that breaks away from the cozy relationship between political operators, big business, and European ‘technocrats’, which, based on the bailout funds, is building a new kleptocracy in the country.
In this context, SYRIZA activists’ greatest fear is that an accommodation in Europe, following an initially tough SYRIZA line, may be won at the expense of abandoning its radical domestic agenda. Such fears naturally feed into tension between the various groups that make up the SYRIZA confederacy, some of which have not fully accepted the leadership’s commitment to keeping Greece in Europe’s monetary union. While last summer SYRIZA members voted overwhelmingly to convert their loose coalition into a unitary political party, nevertheless SYRIZA’s leadership faces two tasks that many think of as contradictory. On the one hand, it must avoid turning SYRIZA into the sort of party its current supporters do not want to belong to; and, on the other hand, it must attract undecided voters in numbers sufficient to render the party not just electable but powerful enough to bargain with the European leaders effectively.
How SYRIZA Could Change Europe
If SYRIZA had taken the advice of several economists from the United States and Britain and advocated for Greece to exit the Eurozone, its leaders would have been able to unite all its factions under the soothing banners of autonomy, unilateral default, and a heroic exit from the web of neoliberal institutions and constraints that constitute the Eurozone. However, such a platform would maximize SYRIZA’s internal cohesion at the expense of rendering it unelectable. After all, a majority of Greeks understand that a Greek exit would bring unbearable costs for most. So, SYRIZA has chosen the difficult position of keeping Greece within the Eurozone while struggling to change the Eurozone’s fundamental incongruities from within. Can a small, poverty-stricken, bankrupt country stay within the Eurozone while opposing some of its basic tenets? Can a SYRIZA government fund the basic humanitarian projects that the left is determined to enact?
A SYRIZA government would have the right to veto all decisions in the European Council.
Continued membership of the Eurozone means that the government will have no capacity to create liquidity, in the absence of a central bank to back it up. SYRIZA activists claim that they will find the money by taxing the rich, but the rich have taken their euros to Switzerland, Frankfurt, London, and New York, while the middle class has gone bankrupt, no longer receiving income from vacant properties yet having to pay ever rising property taxes on them.
Meanwhile, a SYRIZA victory would place the Greek state’s finances and the banking system under greater strain from the European Union: Brussels, Frankfurt and Berlin are likely to retaliate by cutting off the Greek government’s access to some of its revenue, like the monies that the European Central Bank returns to the Greek government for super-profits it has shamefully earned through previous purchases of Greek government bonds, EU structural funds, etc. In the meantime, a victory might also cause a moderate bank run among depositors fearing an ECB suspension of liquidity provisions to the Greek banks.
While a SYRIZA government might successfully negotiate these financial pressures during its first weeks in power, it certainly will not be able to fund the programs it has been promising at the same time. How can it, at that point, not disappoint its activists, confirming their fears that SYRIZA will sell out, above and beyond the pale compromises? The only way forward for a SYRIZA government is to succeed in changing Europe’s economy. This is a tall order, but, I think, not impossible. Indeed, there is no alternative for SYRIZA or, indeed, for any other political party in Europe’s periphery that aspires to a stable social economy.
Europe has been in denial for five years now. During this period, debts, banking losses, unemployment, and gross imbalances have been accumulating while Europe’s leaders whistle in the wind. If London could use its veto power at the European Council level to shield the City’s bankers from regulation, surely Athens can, and ought to, do likewise in defense of its citizens. Invoking national interest clauses, a SYRIZA government would have the right to veto all decisions until Europe’s approach to the Greek program is re-examined. Such a move may loosen tongues and kickstart a debate that will, hopefully, lead to much-needed, rational, modest policy changes throughout Europe (e.g. those that Stuart Holland, James Galbraith and I have been advocating). These measures can, indeed, allow parties like SYRIZA to combine a pro-European line with domestic policies that defeat the old and new kleptocracies, grant working people a chance to breathe, and, last but not least, restore faith in democracy.
The leaders of Italy, France, and Spain perhaps do not yet feel desperate enough to break the wall of silence at the level of the European Council. But Greece is now so wretched and distraught that its government has a moral imperative to speak, even to act, out. In the current political scene, only a SYRIZA-led government could do that. This would give Portuguese, Spanish, Italian and, more importantly, French officials the opportunity to change the discourse surrounding Europe’s economic climate. But even if no one follows SYRIZA’s lead in Europe, a SYRIZA government would still have sufficient bargaining power, courtesy of its veto, not only to bring about life-saving changes to the “Greek Program” but also to force the European Union to re-think its systemic crisis and thereby bring about a radically different, systematic treatment.
• • •
SYRIZA may have the opportunity to transform Greece and change the course of European history, but this is a task that makes Odysseus’s journey look like a walk in the park. It will not be easy to take power while remaining faithful to its radical agenda and maintaining its cohesion on the ground. It remains to be seen whether SYRIZA’s leaders can pull off this miracle. I think they can, as long as they do not issue silly promises before the next election, and maintain a truly radical agenda aimed at changing Europe by steadfastly standing their ground, proposing to German, Spanish, Dutch citizens a European agenda that restores the dream of a shared European prosperity.
December 03, 2013
13 Min read time