2015 is shaping up to be one of those years for Greece. As it continues to plummet from one crisis to the next, the country finds itself, once again, in the international spotlight as the snap election on January 25 rekindles concerns over its relationship with the rest of Europe. SYRIZA (Coalition of the Radical Left), a party that before the debt crisis earned no more than 5% of the vote, has just swept the election with 36.3%, placing its leader, Alexis Tsipras, in the position of Prime Minister. But while most of the international commentary focuses on the 41-year-old’s fiery rhetoric and the possible shifts in policy planned by his new government, the real danger lies not in what he might do, but in what he might not be able to.
The just-formed coalition government, an unlikely marriage of convenience with the nationalist Independent Greeks, a party with which SYRIZA agrees on precious little other than their common opposition to austerity policies, runs a high risk of fracturing under the pressure of the decisions it will have to make in the coming months, making new elections necessary very soon. While this is nothing new for Greece, where, for the past two decades, early elections have been the norm rather than the exception, Tsipras’ attempt to govern will be marked by unique challenges, linked to the history of the Greek political left, and SYRIZA’s implausibly meteoric rise.
Since the re-establishment of democracy in 1974, Greek politics have been dominated by two parties: New Democracy (ND), situated on the center-right, and the Panhellenic Socialist Movement (PASOK) on the center-left. These two parties have alternated in power for three decades, forming majority governments, as they each consistently gained close to or over 40% of the vote, with no need to cooperate, either with each other or with any of the other political parties. The decision to vote for one of the smaller parties was therefore decoupled from any chance that the party would have a say in policy, and became a gesture of protest, or an attempt to ensure that a particular social agenda, either conservative or progressive, had a voice in parliament.
Having been outlawed during the rule of the military junta, parties on the far left of the political spectrum have always held an air of revolutionary romanticism in Greece, combined with an underdog, anti-establishment attitude. At the same time, they experienced constant infighting, as the narrow share of the votes left available by ND and PASOK forced coalitions between wildly differing ideologies. In order to pass the 3% threshold that allows entry into parliament, civil libertarians, social progressives, greens and hardline communists have, in more than one occasion, found themselves inside the same political unit. SYRIZA is but the latest iteration of such a disjointed coalition.
After the fall of the Soviet Union caused the Communist Party of Greece (KKE) to eject all but the most diehard communist elements from its ranks in the early 1990s, coalitions with essentially the same limited political base formed, fractured and reformed a number of times. All of these efforts revolved around the largest and most powerful of these small groups, Synaspismos (Coalition of the Left), which served as their core. In 2004, Synaspismos signed an agreement with the Renewing Communist Ecological Left (AKOA), the Internationalist Worker’s Left (DEA) and other smaller leftist and communist groups, forming SYRIZA. The group managed to gain entry into parliament the same year with 3.3% of the vote, and moved to earn 5% in 2007 and 4.6% in 2009.
And then came the crisis, causing the Greek economy to contract by 25% between 2009 and today, handily beating the record set by the Great Depression of the 1930s and throwing the country’s political system into utter disarray. The succession of multi-party coalitions created under the pressure of the crisis were predictably chaotic in their attempts to guide the country out of its predicament, leading to a fundamental reordering of the political landscape during the 2012 national elections.
PASOK, which had won the 2009 election based on a program promising further increases in government spending, received the brunt of the public’s outrage, dropping from 44% to 12%. Disillusioned voters moved in one of two directions. Some chose to protest by voting for a slew of smaller parties that had never entered into parliament, resulting in the otherwise inexplicable rise of an Athenian street gang named Golden Dawn to national prominence. Most of them voted for SYRIZA, which was propelled from 4.6% to 26.9% and was only narrowly defeated by ND.
Tsipras, suddenly finding himself the leader of the main opposition party, was faced with the monumental task of transforming SYRIZA’s contrarian agenda into a substantive governing proposal, consistent with his new, much broader and more mainstream political base, while also trying to maintain cohesion within his coalition. Hyperbolic proclamations about unilateral debt write-offs and the possibility that Greece could be better off outside the European Union begun to be phased out, replaced by somewhat more plausible, if equally blusterous, lines about a tougher stance in debt negotiations, or the spearheading of a pan-European policy shift in coordination with sister organisations around Europe.
Which brings us to today, with victorious Tsipras set to be sworn in as Prime Minister of a tenuous anti-austerity coalition government, created together with the right-wing Independent Greeks. Both parties having acted as junior coalition partners since the start of the crisis, right-wing LAOS and left-wing DIMAR, have paid a heavy political price for their involvement, losing more than half of their electoral strength in subsequent elections. This will undoubtedly weight on the mind of Independent Greeks, exacerbating tensions as two parties with diametrically opposed ideologies try to govern together.
More importantly, while in 2013 he moved to consolidate his power by successfully transforming SYRIZA from a coalition to a unitary party, Tsipras remains constantly challenged and undermined from within his own ranks. The Left Platform, a hardline bloc that controls more than thirty percent of the party’s central governing body, and its leader, Panagiotis Lafazanis, have been vocally opposed to any attempt to court the political center, seeing it as a betrayal to the party’s founding ideals, or otherwise put, “becoming PASOK”.
It is unclear what the future holds for Greece. With its economy barely showing signs of recovery, political deadlock could jeopardise what little progress has been achieved in the past six years. What is more, the possible implications move beyond its own borders, as the European Union as a whole remains in the throes of a recession, and is faced with tough political questions regarding its very nature. Alexis Tsipras could be the monkey wrench in the gears that causes the entire apparatus to collapse. Or he could possibly mark the beginning of a shift towards a different approach to the problems plaguing Europe. Time will tell. But there’s another possibility. That, once in power, he will be able to complete his transformation, from a firebrand of the far left to the most comforting thing of all: just another politician.
By Andreas Kechagias
Picture 1: Thierry Ehrmann, licensed under CC BY 2.0
Picture 2: Sheila, licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0
Picture 3: Jan Wellmann, licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0