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Syriza is down but not out. Now it must fight Greece’s march to the right

The party of government, New Democracy, is no modernising force. Greece needs a strong left opposition, writes Marina Prentoulis.

Article originally published in The Guardian. Marina Prentoulis is a member of Syriza and of Another Europe’s national committee.

Winning 31.5% of the vote is not exactly the political annihilation that many had predicted for Syriza. Yes, the party suffered a defeat in Sunday’s election, but the results showed that it is here to stay as a strong centre-left force.

Critics, many from the left, blame the outgoing Syriza-led coalition government for accepting catastrophic EU- and IMF-driven austerity policies. For them, the former leftwing firebrands failed to do sufficient battle with the neoliberal forces in Brussels and Washington and this is why Greek voters punished the party. A crucial feature of this narrative is its very conscious omission of any reference to the September 2015 election. It was called by Syriza after it abandoned its radical left programme, and “betrayed” (according to some) the results of a referendum in which the Greek people rejected austerity and signed up to acceptance of the bailout conditions. Syriza won 36.3% of the vote in that election. Losing 5% since then does not represent a massive rejection, but it is a major setback.

What Syriza attempted to do within the parameters of the situation it inherited was to protect some of the most vulnerable people in society. Among other things, it gave citizenship to second-generation migrants, and brought back within the Greek national health service the 1 million people who had been excluded by the previous government because they were uninsured – it did its best to act in defence of a social vision for Greece. It was also one of the few parties that upheld such a vision within Europe.

Implementing the EU/IMF memorandum, however, meant that a big part of the taxation burden ended up on the shoulders of the lower-middle class and middle class, and many of these voters subsequently felt alienated. It is not accidental that the new prime minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, while on camera talking to a shop-owner a few weeks ago, hinted that tax evasion checks and controls on businesses implemented under the Syriza government would come to an end on his watch. One wonders how this will go down with Greece’s EU partners who previously rejected the Greek government’s economic proposals for a fairer distribution of the costs of the memorandum. After all, Greece may be out of the memorandum as of August 2018, but it still remains under supervision.

There are of course many other contributing factors to this defeat. The devastating pictures after the Mati wildfires in 2018, which claimed the lives of almost 100 people, were confirmation that the criminal ineffectiveness of the Greek state still continued under Syriza. The agreement with North Macedonia – one of the great recent Greek victories – came at a cost: it enabled the far right to advance its nationalist discourse in parts of Greece. The uncomfortable coalition with the rightwing, nationalist Anel, even after its dissolution, continues to associate Syriza with political figures that most left-leaning supporters of the party find distasteful. Despite all of its sins, however, Sunday’s election proves that Syriza is a strong force in Greek politics.

Meanwhile, much of the media is trying to present prime minister Mitsotakis (son of a previous prime minister Konstantinos Mitsotakis, and a member of a family that has dominated Greek politics for generations) as a moderate-moderniser. This picture fully misses the crucial point that New Democracy has in fact shifted to the right. In Greece (as is happening across Europe, including Britain) the traditional party of the right has adopted, and made mainstream, the discourse of the far right.

During the election campaign, New Democracy advanced two different lines of argument in an intertwined offensive. The first was the neoliberal modernising argument about growth and investment, through tax relief to businesses, further privatisations (including in healthcare) and all those things that after the 2008 crisis brought hundreds of thousands of Greeks and other Europeans to their knees. The second strand echoes the Trump/Johnson discourse, attacking every minority and mocking anyone in need. Greece has never been the natural home of a “liberal” or moderate right, but given what the country went through after 2010, it is shocking to witness the brutality of these reinforced attacks on social values.

One reason for celebration, of course, is the exclusion of fascist Golden Dawn from the Greek parliament (it failed to pass the 3% threshold), a huge victory for anti-fascist activists. But this feel-good mood is immediately spoiled if one realises that at least part of the far-right vote transferred to New Democracy. This is why a strong opposition will be crucial for democracy in Greece.

9th July 2019