For SYRIZA and Tsipras, youth is not enough to unseat Greece’s ‘aged powers’

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

Alexis Tsipras told delegates at SYRIZA’s founding congress on Wednesday that it is time for the leftists to rid Greece of its “aged powers,” namely New Democracy and PASOK. But to do so, SYRIZA can’t rely just on being younger than them.

SYRIZA was founded as the Coalition of the Radical Left in 2004 thanks to a cooperation between several leftist parties, most notably Synaspismos. As is to be expected of youth, SYRIZA spent its formative years not really knowing what it wanted to be – a sounding board for leftist intellectuals, a springboard for political activists or a launch pad for the left to come to power. SYRIZA members had this existential question answered for them last summer thanks to the party’s impressive showing in the June elections, when it garnered almost 27 percent of the vote and won 72 seats in Parliament.

Since then Tsipras, just 38, has been on a mission to mould SYRIZA into a party of government rather than a collection of leftist factions happy with life on the opposition benches. The conference is due to end with almost all the factions voting themselves into oblivion and SYRIZA becoming a single unit. Over the last year, though, Tsipras’s has been far from a steady hand at the helm. He was veered from an anti-austerity platform last summer to the attempt at reconciliation with Greece’s lenders and center ground voters earlier this year. He toned down his rhetoric after the elections, then ramped it up as Cyprus was being bailed out, before settling for a holding pattern ahead of this week’s congress.

There have been times when his strategy has paid off and opinion polls showed SYRIZA edging ahead, but these bursts from the pack containing the “oldies” have always been short-lived. Tsipras and his party have failed to turn Greek society’s undoubted dissatisfaction into any great advantage. A Public Issue survey published on Wednesday night showed SYRIZA still neck-and-neck with New Democracy, with support for the two parties running at 28.5 percent for the conservatives and 27.5 percent for the leftists. Tsipras has been unable to outpace Samaras in the popularity stakes as well. The prime minister has a positive rating of 39 percent, against 36 for the SYRIZA chief. Since last June’s elections, Tsipras’s popularity has been up and down, reaching a peak of 44 percent March and May but also falling to a low of 36 percent in April and this month. He has not yet gained voters’ lasting trust.

Perhaps most worryingly of all for Tsipras, though, the survey underlines that SYRIZA has failed so far to convince the Greek public it can address the country’s problems more effectively than the government. Only 16 percent of respondents this month said they were satisfied with the coalition’s approach. A government which inspires such feeble confidence in its people should be easy prey for an opposition on the rise. That’s unless voters have even less faith in the alternative choice. The Public Issue poll indicates that just 14 percent of Greeks believe SYRIZA is tackling issues in the right way.

It would, however, be churlish to expect SYRIZA and Tsipras to have become the finished article in just 12 months. It is worth remembering that he led the party to a showing of just 4.6 percent in the national elections less than four years ago. Tsipras and his party have traveled a long way in the last few years but it is not clear that SYRIZA’s younger legs will help carry it over the finish line.

SYRIZA appears to have hit a ceiling in terms of the support it can gain by opposing the EU-IMF memorandum. It now needs to balance its opposition to the bailout with policies that will convince center ground voters it won’t make Greece’s terrible situation even worse, that it deserves a chance to govern. The party jumped the gun in March when it celebrated the Cypriot Parliament’s decision to reject a bailout deal, only for Nicosia to accept an equally painful option in even worse circumstances a few days later.

Repeated talk of forming a southern European alliance has yielded few results. The sad truth is that the only time the periphery has flexed any muscle was at an EU summit just over a year ago when Italy’s Mario Monti, backed by Spain, convinced Angela Merkel to allow direct bank recapitalization and relax bailout conditions. Since then, Germany and its eurozone allies have gradually been undoing everything that was agreed that night.

Last month, Tsipras presented a set of proposals on welfare measures that was truly admirable. It included plans to write off the debt owed by families who live below the poverty line and giving families who have no breadwinner a moratorium from taxes. He declined, though, to say how much this would cost and where he would find the money from. By presenting proposals that are not costed at this stage of the crisis, SYRIZA does nothing to convince voters it is serious about governing.

One of the other suggestions put forward by Tsipras was to create a housing program along the lines of Minha Casa, Minha Vida (My Home, My Life) launched by former Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva in 2009. It is perplexing that SYRIZA would consider this an appropriate use of taxpayers’ money at the moment, given that the home ownership rate in Greece is one of the highest in the world at more than 80 percent and there are more than 400,000 unsold properties.

Nevertheless, Tsipras’s focus on the social impact of the crisis is refreshing – it is an aspect that is often overlooked or brushed aside in the rush to meet fiscal targets. The obsession with goals, the focus on numbers and the never-ending cycle of projections often obscure the people lingering in the background of all this, the ones who bear the impact when the numbers are crunched. Greece needs someone to think of them, to act and legislate on their behalf.

SYRIZA is correct to pursue the issue of corruption between the public and private sector, which the government repeatedly dismisses in favour of focusing attention exclusively on graft within the civil service. The leftists are also right to highlight the government’s hypocrisy over its handling of the public administration, underlining that New Democracy and PASOK must accept their share of the blame for destroying it from within.

Recently, Tsipras suggested Greece could save 25 billion euros by asking the troika for a four-year moratorium on interest repayments and a debt reduction. It may be a wholly unattainable goal but given Greece’s appalling economic situation, an earnest discussion over how its lenders can help lift it out of the mire has to begin.

None of this, though, is enough. To move on to the next stage of its political development, SYRIZA has to start being defined by what it stands for rather than what it stands against. It must overcome the tendency to talk to itself, so prevalent in the Greek left, and communicate with a wider section of society. It has to provide a vision of Greece’s future that consists of more than playing hardball with its lenders. It needs credible policies on reshaping the economy and the public administration, and a clear commitment to ditching the compromised, clientelistic practices of the past, to which the left was no stranger. It is no longer good enough for each criticism of SYRIZA and its leader to be rebuffed by the claim that they are not as bad as the politicians and parties that have been running the country for the last few decades. This cannot be the response of a party that is truly committed to being different, to wanting to shake up established practices. Greece needs better than this. The time to truly judge Tsipras and his party will be in the coming months, when we will found out if the “aged powers” have really had their day because a smarter, fairer and more capable – not just younger – alternative is ready to take over.

Nick Malkoutzis

2 responses to “For SYRIZA and Tsipras, youth is not enough to unseat Greece’s ‘aged powers’

  1. I would be interested in a discussion whether SYRIZA/Tsipras can accomplish more for Greece in government or in opposition. The trouble with such populist parties/movements is that once they are in government and carry responsibility, they lose the steam which they could have when they did not carry responsibility. So nothing really gets accomplished.

    In opposition, they can – if they do it right – literally ‘drive the government ahead of them’. SYRIZA has not done that todate because they have, in my opinion, chosen the wrong issues. If an opposition wants to drive the government ahead of itself, it shouldn’t focus on issues where the country is divided (like memorandum; like Euro-membership; like building anti-North alliances; etc.). Instead, the opposition should focus on issues on which they can expect much agreement throughout the country.

    One such issue could be ‘to clean the Augean stables’ of Greece (in politics, business, society, etc.). I would guess that a clear majority of Greeks could be rallied around that cause.

    Obviously, that would require SYRIZA to have credibility in such an effort. I cannot judge that. Obviously, if people felt that SYRIZA is just as Augean as everybody else, it wouldn’t work. But if SYRIZA could establish a track record for itself that they really mean to clean the stables, even if it hurts some of their followers, it might work.

    A government will always have trouble with the cleaning out of the stables because it normally depends on some of those stables for its existence. A government has something to lose.

    An opposition does not have much to lose but a lot to gain. If SYRIZA really meant it and started to expose, possibly once a week, a new case of ‘Augean stables’, they might earn credibility (as long as they don’t stop before the doors of their own friends). And that way they would put the government under tremendous pressure to perform.

  2. richard bourke

    It’s very welcome to see some coverage on what Syriza’s policies and prospects are.. And agreed, there big plus is that they might be seen as “clean hands” to clean out the “augean stables”. (Cue lots of coverage about Tsipras = Hercules).

    One quibble, on the lasting effects of the concessions that Monti wrung out of Merkel on 29th June 2012. It’s quite true that Germany has been against direct bank support from the ESM, and has put qualifications around it, such as not for “legacy problems”. But it still actually is in there. And with a somewhat fleshed out bank resolution mechanism and gradually clearer banking regulation too.

    What was agreed there was important. Monti is a real loss. He was the only one who could out-argue Merkel.

    But she had to put the brakes on, for domestic political reasons. The german parliament was voting on the ESM the day after the summit. That it would pass was never in doubt, as Merkel had negotiated parliamentary support for it with SPD and Greens up-front – the Financial Transaction Tax was the big item she conceded.

    A material change to the ESM Treaty, just after that painstaking negotiation? I was expecting her to lose her coalition. But she just calmly told her parliamentary parties that Direct Bank Support was something that could be and would be negotiated over long and hard. So she “only” had 45 MPs in her own coalition voting against the ESM.

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