19 Sep 2015

Greek elections: do Syriza want to win?

Alexis Tsipras’ final election rally had the usual soundtrack and familiar props but a different cast. After more than a fifth of his MPs split to form a new left party, the inner core of party activists behind the stage were nervous. Would anybody more than the party faithful come?

Tsipras in July signed a third austerity memorandum with Greece’s lenders. Committed to massive privatisation, spending cuts and handing the Eurozone a veto over future legislation, a significant number of the party’s activists have quit.

Former Greek PM and leader of leftist Syriza party Tsipras greets supporters following a speech during the final campaign rally prior to Sunday's general elections on main Syntagma square in Athens

Some have joined Popular Unity, led by veteran Syriza leftwinger Panyotis Lafazanis. Others have just chosen to sit outside the official structures.

Though Tsipras has been mobbed on his election tour, and is even now neck and neck with the conservative party New Democracy, both on 31% in the last poll, its clear some of the magic has gone from the Syriza phenomenon.

The first far left government in modern Europe lasted just six months: bludgeoned into submision by the closure of its banking system, and plagued by tactical mistakes with a single source – Tsipras’ refusal to believe the Europeans would themselves refuse a compromise.

The crisis of June-July 2015 revealed two things we didn’t previously understand about the Euro: first that the major powers of Western Europe have less say in its running than Germany in alliance with Slovakia, Latvia, Finland and Estonia. Many people in those countries feel that the Eurozone could become a bottomless pit for profligate nations in the periphery. They would in turn argue that the Eurozone has transformed into a machine for creating jobs in Germany and destroying them across southern Europe, and for shrinking the Eurozone’s GDP. Still, the second revelation is that the majority of Greeks would rather have the Euro plus austerity than leave the single currency.

It was trapped inside these two new realities that Tsipras had to make a choice in July, and he chose first to sign the memorandum; second to impose tough party discipline on those who were trying to mobilise resistance to his strategy.

Though it was certain he would lose the hard left of his party, it was the imposition of discipline – and alleged negative briefing – that drove parts of his own support group in the party away: half of Syriza’s youth organistion left, together with charismatic parliamentary speaker Zoe Konstantopoulou.

Ms Konstantopoulou told me: “The conclusion that could be drawn from Tsipras’ decisions is that the left cannot do anything. Tsipras has grave responsibility making people believe that. The lesson of Greece is that you should never, ever stop struggling. There was a huge group of people across the world saying ‘This Is A Coup’.”

Ms Konstantopoulou is standing for the new Popular Unity party, which opposes the terms of the bailout, and told me she was looking forward to leaving the office of speaker which has “been like a prison”.

For the wider left – not just in Greece but across Europe – the task is to work out how to pursue an anti-austerity strategy within the Eurozone. Their answer is to democratise its institutions, placing the ECB under the control of, and subordinate to, governments and using the poverty and human rights principles written into the EU’s treaties to set limits to the austerity countries can be forced to do.

Most of the people who will lead that anti-austerity movement in Europe were on stage with Tsipras last night. Pablo Iglesias, leader of the Spanish Podemos party, gave a rousing speech; Grigor Gysi, veteran leader of the German Left Party was cheered wildly as he slammed Merkel – whose image in Greece remains unchanged by the recent refugee crisis. Ska Keller, figurehead of the Greens in the European parliament also made a speech. Sinn Fein sent greetings.

For Tsipras these gestures were critical. Many among the European left have been highly critical of his climbdown in June – and critical in detail of the way Syriza ran the government: too slow to attack the oligarchs, too ready to “play the game” of power, and with too few democratic checks on the decisions of Tsipras and his inner circle.

Tsipras has promised to do more, and faster, if he is given a new mandate. But if the polls are right it will be a different coalition. Even if Syriza becomes the largest party on Sunday night, the ebbing of support for its former right wing coalition partner ANEL means Tsipras would have to seek a coalition with pro-austerity parties of the centre: the rump of Pasok (the Greek Labour Party) and the Blairite group Potami.

Tsipras is struggling to win tomorrow not just because his own party has fractured but because the conservative ND party has installed a softer, more liberal leadership. All it will take for Syriza to lose is probably that its own supporters don’t bother voting (many Greeks have to travel to their place of origin to vote), or a few key Athenian middle class districts switch back to ND, as they did in June 2012.

One question always on the minds of Syriza watchers is: do they want to win. It’s never admitted publically but insiders say they tactically threw the election of 2012 because Tsipras thought they were not ready.

Last night I managed to catch a few brief words with Mr Tsipras as he came off stage, visibly exhilarated and surrounded by a rolling scrum of security guards and wellwishers. He said:

“I feel vindicated by this event.” I wondered for a moment what he was referring to and then George Kiritsis, the editor in chief of the party’s newspaper, got his cellphone out and showed me the top-shot of the rally.

It had been huge. Syriza’s voters had easily filled the square.


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