The 25th January 2015 was a day of great excitement. Across every news channel, the sound of tens of thousands of Greeks shouting for a new government called out to the world. Alexis Tsipras, the young reformer, was on the verge of winning an absolute majority for his anti-austerity and anti-establishment SYRIZA party.
From then on, it seemed European politics was effectively turned on its head.
A brief history of the SYRIZA movement
2004 – 2012
I, like so many other European socialists, was optimistic at the victory of the ‘Coalition of the Radical Left’. Although the roots of this movement were based in left-wing populism, it seemed to me to be a movement of great substance. Its meteoric rise is testament to the ill feeling between the majority of Greeks and their ‘Troika’ creditors – EU, ECB and the IMF.
In 2004, SYRIZA formed as a relatively weak coalition of Greek movements, winning just 3.3% of the vote and a handful of seats at that year’s Hellenic Parliamentary election. Three years later, this time under the leadership of Alekos Alavanos, the party increased their share of the vote by 1.7% and took 14 seats. But still, party disorganisation capped the number of seats SYRIZA could realistically win. Soon however, things were about to change.
On 4th October 2009, the thirty five year old Alexis Tsipras took the party into their third successive legislative election and although the party actually lost votes, SYRIZA was undergoing a series of its own internal reforms.
Until this point, it is important to recognise that Greeks were not aware of the full extent of their country’s finances. On 20th October 2009, just days after the election, the finance minister George Papakonstantinou announced that debt was likely to reach 12.5% of GDP. Between October and December, Fitch, Standard and Poor’s and Moody’s each downgraded Greece’s credit rating – further worrying lenders and the ‘Troika’ in Berlin, Frankfurt and Brussels.
In 2010, the Greek government had to ‘swallow the medicine’ and introduce two separate austerity packages. As this still didn’t impress Berlin, a bailout package worth €110BN over a three year period was announced on one condition – that Greece should accept a third bailout package.
Together, these three austerity measures introduced much needed pension reform which increased the age of retirement from sixty to sixty five for women, a freeze in pensions, a rise in VAT from 19% to 21% and cuts of worker overtime. But perhaps the cruellest and most insensitive move was the decision to cut and cap monthly salaries by 10%. This universal measure was a direct attack on the Greek people. It was an attack upon fellow Europeans.
On 6th May 2012, Greeks went to the polls. All sides knew that SYRIZA would capitalise from the political turmoil of the last three years but by how much remained unanswered.
Antonis Samaras, leader of the New Democracy (ND) Party took office as Prime Minister for the first time, returning his party to power after five years in opposition. Winning over double SYRIZA’s number of seats, it appeared at first that Tsipras had failed to seize the moment. This conclusion however, is unfair. SYRIZA came second by just 2.1% of the vote and beat the now former party of government (PASOK) by a clear margin of 3.6%. The party which only a few years earlier was relatively unknown had become the main opposition force in the Hellenic Parliament. SYRIZA was now a direct threat to the establishment.
Tsipras told a crowd of supporters just days before that “Syriza can be the catalyst for great change.” I think even Tsipras himself failed to overestimate just what SYRIZA were catalyzing. This was a man that had just declared war. He had spoken the words few Greeks had dared to utter aloud. He wanted to fight the ‘Troika’. He wanted to question Greece’s creditors.
(Following the bailout deal under Alexis Tsipras)
Following the implementation of yet another round of austerity measures, (this time under Tsipras himself) SYRIZA’s Environment Minister, Panagiotis Lafazanis, resigned and attempted to form a new leftist party named ‘Popular Unity’. He was joined by just twenty five members. But this relatively small number was enough to push SYRIZA further into the influence of their junior Conservative coalition partner ‘Independent Greeks’ (ANEL) – further complicating an already bizarre multi-party relationship.
In the September election however, Popular Unity failed to gain the 3% of votes needed to gain any parliamentary representation, causing SYRIZA to lose just 0.8% of their January vote.
From the outset, SYRIZA has refused to play ‘the game’.
It proudly campaigns upon a populist left-wing platform and appeals to many different sections of Greek society. Unfortunately for the political establishment of Athens and Brussels, Tsipras alongside his characterful and methodical (now former) finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis successfully enticed business leaders and wealthy citizens to join their campaign, diversifying their party membership whilst broadening their electoral chances.
One problem however, is how SYRIZA can maintain their party image and selling point. A young and charismatic leader who addresses a sea of roaring supporters waving banners which call for the fall of establishment politics will not last forever – particularly when SYRIZA is the party of government. Instead of calling for the end of establishment politics, the party should make the compassion, understanding and sheer popularity of leftism the new establishment of Greek politics. Tsipras cannot afford to pretend he is still on the sidelines. Fighting an election as the ruling Prime Minister has historically, played as a disadvantage to Greek leaders. For Tsipras and his party however, he can play this to his advantage. For too long, SYRIZA have operated as a small scale party of opposition. Government (and particularly a coalition) is a good test for any party machine – especially if that party has never been in any form of government before.
The party has however, had one major success. Greek politics is relevant once more. Although Tsipras was forced to accept a new package of reforms – he put up a fight and successfully held his party together in the painful few days that followed.
It is too early to say whether Tsipras will be remembered as a successful Prime Minister or merely as a populist failure. On thing however is certain, his administration overcame the odds and certainly delivered a cultural change to Greek politics even if its financial promises have been less than successful. To that, they deserve our credit.