“I want to talk about the future…you were the future, once,” the leader of Britain’s Conservative Party David Cameron told then Prime Minister Tony Blair in their first parliamentary clash four years ago.
The same could have been said of Alexis Tsipras, the leader of Synaspismos, the largest party in the Coalition of the Radical Left (SYRIZA) ahead of Monday’s televised election debate.
When he was elected in February 2008 at the unusually young age of 33 (the average age of the other four main party leaders was 57), Tsipras represented the future and a break with a past that required politicians’ hairlines to recede before their careers could advance.
He also instilled hope that a dynamic third party could emerge to break the New Democracy-PASOK stronghold and put different issues, or at least alternative takes on existing topics, on the agenda.
The wind of optimism that swept across the barren plains of the Greek political landscape was evident in the opinion polls that followed. A month after Tsipras was voted in, support for SYRIZA had soared from around 5 percent in the September 2007 general election to 17 percent, mostly at the expense of an anemic PASOK.
However, Tsipras and his party handled their newfound popularity with immaturity and support for the leftists now stands at 4 percent – just above the threshold for entering Parliament.
The most obvious reason for the party’s demise is its equivocal stance on last December’s riots. Tsipras failed to draw a distinction between what was legitimate protest and downright thuggery. His attempt to refocus attention on Greece’s disaffected youth and the crumbling education system while Athens was burning exposed his lack of experience. His insistence on, in his own words, “taking the struggle to the schools” betrayed his naivety and irresponsibility.
Since then, his leadership has been beset by difficulties, not least a dramatic falling out with Alekos Alavanos, his predecessor. The pair have drifted apart on their vision for the party, whose poor showing in the June European elections led to a very public row between the two. Voters will never trust a party when the people running it don’t trust each other.
As a result, a coalition that seemed to have found its niche as the voice of conscience on social and economic issues has been replaced by a faction that flits about without any real purpose or clarity.
Instead of competing with ND and PASOK or even the Communist Party (KKE) on a national level, Tsipras and SYRIZA chose to focus on issues of narrow interest, such as the vehement opposition to the construction of a shopping mall in Votanikos. SYRIZA’s campaign brought plenty of headlines but it effectively turned a national party into nothing more than a residents’ association.
Yet, even at the tail end of this campaign, Tsipras seems to be rediscovering his momentum and may rescue his leadership. With Alavanos deciding to step aside completely, the party now has the chance to settle on the direction it wants to take. Tsipras certainly appeared unburdened in the leaders’ debate on Monday. He gave a relaxed and assured performance that had many commentators declaring him the winner.
The challenge Tsipras must meet now is to clearly position his party on the political landscape. If he needs any encouragement, he should look to the success of Die Linke, the anti-capitalist, pro-social justice party that is set to make a major impact on next week’s general election in Germany. Die Linke has been polling at about 14 percent and its radical approach has given voters a real alternative to the center-left Social Democrats (SPD), a junior partner in the “grand coalition” government.
“The success of Die Linke is a reflection of the programmatic and personnel weakness of the SPD,” Jens Bastian a senior research fellow at the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy (ELIAMEP) told Athens Plus. “The Social Democrats are too closely associated with the grand coalition of Chancellor Merkel. They have not succeeded in providing an independent, left-of-center profile for a social democratic alternative.
“Instead, many voters who would be inclined to vote for SPD, now say that they rather prefer the original, rank-and-file social democratic perspective. SYRIZA can and should position itself as the programmatic alternative to PASOK.”
Apart from being a vessel for disgruntled PASOK supporters, SYRIZA has to also position itself in relation to KKE as well. One of Die Linke’s successes has been attracting ex-communists from eastern Germany. With KKE likely to poll around 8 percent in Greece, SYRIZA should be looking to draw support from the communists.
SYRIZA also has to find an issue on which it will hold a much stronger position than the other parties. Die Linke, for instance, is the only German party strongly opposing the country’s presence in Afghanistan.
However, opposing things cannot be the only thing that defines SYRIZA. It also needs to open up to the possibility of cooperating with PASOK. Tsipras can no longer play the role of the insolent teenager who says “no” to everything.
“Die Linke has strategically placed the SPD in a bind because it is offering collaboration if the mathematics allow for it and the policies provide it,” says Bastian. “So far, it is the SPD that is refusing.
“In Greece, SYRIZA rather gives me the impression that cooperation with PASOK in parliament is out of the question. Why limit your options? Challenge your competitor.”
First though, Tsipras has to challenge himself. The election result on October 4 is likely to be a blow to him and SYRIZA but his appearance in Monday’s debate and its knock-on effect gives cause for the leftists to look forward, not back. It’s now up to Tsipras whether he lurks in the shadows of the past or strides into the future.
This commentary was written by Nick Malkoutzis and first appeared in Athens Plus on September 25, 2009