27 Jan 2015

Will Syriza’s Greece go the same way as Chile under Allende?

As I write, Alexis Tsipras is doling out ministerial roles. I’m told he plans to reduce the number of ministries in Greece by half, folding small ones into big ones. And he looks set to create a new centre of economic power with energy, infrastructure and environmental policy rolled into a kind of super-ministry of sustainability.

Syriza sources said last night it is likely the ultra-conservative ANEL party, their coalition partner, will get the defence ministry – not shipping, as previously thought.

The ministry that controls the police is to be absorbed into something more akin to Britain’s Home Office.

And behind these apparently boring administrative moves lies a dramatic problem. How does the left take over a state whose armed forces and police are configured to suppress the left.

Dimitris Dalakoglou, who runs an ESRC-funded centre for studying urban politics in Athens, tells me: “Syriza’s members have been on demonstrations with social movement activists during the past years. Those demonstrations were attacked by the police.

“Now they have to run the police, and the army – whose officer schools traditionally include political education against leftism.”


The most obvious problem for whoever Tsipras (pictured above) appoints as interior minister is the special riot police squad Delta. I’ve reported before allegations that members of this squad hurled racist abuse at arrested protesters, beat them, and took pictures of them on personal mobile phones. The squad was set up after the riots of 2008, and is not a historic part of the Greek public order apparatus.

Many of Syriza’s members want Delta to be shut down (there is a perfectly functioning, and large “ordinary” riot police unit armed with tear gas). We’ll see.

As to the wider problem of police accountability, when I described the Macpherson reforms to the Metropolitan police to a senior Syriza member last night, he said: “We could not do that”.

That’s an insight into the dilemma of this untested far-left party. It has come to power to do two things, essentially: re-set the Greek debt dynamics and force the so-called “oligarchs” to do basic things like pay taxes or own licenses for the TV channels they operate.

It does not want a clash with the executive branches of the state, and its likely interior minister telephoned both the police and army chiefs on election night to tell them: “We trust you.”

But in private conversations, Syriza’s policymakers do fear what one of them described to me as becoming “the post-modern Allende” – Allende, being the Chilean president overthrown and killed by General Pinochet in 1973.

On top of the issue of reforming the state, this is a traumatised society. As Mr Dalakoglou, an anthropologist at Sussex University, puts it, five years of austerity, migration on a scale not seen since the 1950s and deep dislocation in ordinary life, have traumatised people. They don’t trust any politicians. And while there is a lot of hope now – even among some right-wing voters – the challenge is how do you run a traumatised society?

This is what lies behind the general lack of euphoria among Syriza’s leaders and activists, despite the flag-waving of the past 24 hours. They know there is a huge challenge ahead, quite separate from the issue of eurozone membership and the banks.

I’ll be updating via Twitter on the composition of Greek government and ministry changes. And on air at 1900.

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