26 Jan 2015

What Syriza says about Europe’s political past – and future

Syriza’s victory in the Greek elections offers Europe the rare prospect of a left-wing government. Does Europe’s post-war history of radical administrations offer any lessons for Alexis Tsipras?

Socialist banner (getty Images)

“After decades on the defensive, the left is staging a comeback – not just in Greece but in Europe and Latin America as well,” says Nikos Samanidis, a founder member of the Coalition of the Radical Left, to give Syriza its full name.

And in the run-up to the weekend’s vote, party leader Alexis Tsipras pledged a programme of renationalisation, public spending and increased salaries, as well as rattling sabres in the direction of the markets, which he says will have to “dance to the tune” of the new government.

So far, perhaps, so predictable. What self-respecting left-of-centre administration does not promise to improve the lot of working people or to inconvenience the very rich?

The difference in 2015 is that excessive borrowing turned Greece into an EU basket case when the downturn hit. With the country straightjacketed into a life of austerity by the terms of its subsequent bailout, it has now decided it sees no future in economic self-denial.

Can Greece’s new rulers force the country into a severe left turn while remaining within the eurozone and, indeed, within the EU? And what signposts do post-war European politics offer for the future success of the new Syriza administration?

Left-wing principles

Less than three years ago, in 2012, Francois Hollande, leader of the Socialist party, became the seventh president of France’s fifth republic. At the time, Channel 4 News Foreign Correspondent Jonathan Rugman reported the assertion of Thomas Hollande, the president’s son, that his father was “a traditional socialist”.

True to his left-wing principles, Hollande promised before the vote to drag France out of the economic doldrums by imposing a 75 per cent tax hike on those earning more than 1m euros a year. As president, he tried to introduce the proposal in a modified form, but failed.

Hollande also committed himself to lowering the qualifying age for a state pension to 60 – at a time when many economists were arguing that later retirement was essential if the ballooning national debt was to be reduced. True to his word, he moved soon after his election to cut the retirement age to 60 for people who had been in work since the age of 18. As of now, however, the retirement age remains 62 years.

And although the French president has received a boost in poll ratings since the Charlie Hebdo shootings, his underlying popularity may still be low. Halfway into his five-year term, in November 2014, a YouGov poll gave him a 12 per cent approval rating. Reports at the time said he had hit “a new low”.

President Francois Mitterrand (Getty Images)

Francois Mitterrand at the Elysee palace, May 1981 (Getty Images)

Radically neo-liberal

31 years earlier, France’s first post-war socialist administration, under Francois Mitterrand, promised an even more radical programme of reforms, a “break with capitalism”. In the process the new government nationalised 11 large industrial conglomerates and most of France’s private banks. “The euphoria was extraordinary,” Geoff Eley, professor of contemporary history at Michigan University, told Channel 4 News. “Finally the left had captured the presidency.”

One year later, in 1982 – seven years after the death of General Franco and four years after the approval of a new, democratic Spanish constitution – Felipe Gonzalez became prime minister of Spain in a resounding victory for the Spanish Socialist Workers’ party that echoed the French vote.

Both Mitterrand and Gonzalez were politically astute enough to modify their anti-establishment rhetoric with a pragmatic approach to the realities of government, ensuring that they both held on to power for 14 years – although in Geoff Eley’s view they had betrayed their electorate.

“Two years after Mitterrand was elected, it was all over. The government accepted economic and social policies that were tantamount to Thatcherism. And in Spain the political success of Gonzalez saw him doing the same thing.

“France and Spain in the 1980s are very comparable. You had supposed socialists who became radically neo-liberal in terms of what they were prepared to see in their societies.”

Two-party collapse

But where the Syriza phenomenon is significant, and where it differs from previous high-profile socialist administrations across Europe, is that the party has not grown out of the politics dominating the continent since the war.

“Syriza is a dramatic instance of the collapse of traditional two-party formations,” says Geoff Eley. “What’s happened in spectacular fashion in Greece is that, in a very dramatic way, the country’s traditional political groupings have been completely undermined.

“You have this incohate movement that has a much less clear relationship to social constituencies.”

So the new government in Greece may in fact be more significant in what it says about Europe’s political future than in relation to its past.

“The Greek result is incredibly important, not just for the direct, bilateral relationship between the Greek government and the EU. Its effect in Spain, which has a general election later this year, will be enormous because there’s an equivalent relationship there, too, with the previous system of politics.

“Spain is also marking out a space on the other side of that political system. I can’t see how the victory of Syriza cannot provide momentum in Spain.”