How Syriza Came to Power

Alexis Tsipras dared to read the crisis as an opportunity to beat the two-party system.

Syriza, the radical left coalition, came to power on January 25 with 36.3 percent of the vote. It rules in coalition with the right-wing Independent Greeks, with which it shares a populist, anti-austerity agenda. It is Greece’s first predominantly left-wing government, and claims to be the vanguard of a Europe-wide revolution against austerity.

Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras’ central election promise is simple: to restore Greek sovereignty and growth. To do this, he wants to redirect the country’s sliver of surplus wealth from overseas creditors to the poor and battered middle class. And to achieve that, he has to negotiate a new treaty with Greece’s creditors—the European Central Bank, the European Commission and the International Monetary Fund.

Five years of government spending cuts mandated by Greece’s creditors balanced the budget in 2013 for the first time in decades. The fact that the Greek state now lives within tax revenues weakens the argument for further borrowing, whose sole purpose is to pay off older debt.

Syriza argues that austerity has done its job and cannot be a prescription for the growth Greece now needs in order to pay off its EUR 321bn debt (175 percent of GDP). On the contrary, it has deepened a recession that claimed a quarter of the Greek economy and produced unemployment of 25 percent—something the IMF revealed in a controversial paper in 2013.

“The biggest loan in human history was given on condition that incomes would shrink, and from these shrinking incomes debts both old and new would have to be repaid,” said incoming Finance Minister Yianis Varoufakis on his first day on the job. “It didn’t take an economist to see that… we’d repeatedly fail to graduate from this process.”

Tsipras wants to provide food and electricity to dispossessed households; extend healthcare to those who have lost their coverage—an estimated quarter of the population; and restore pensions that have been reduced. He insists that he does not aim to recreate deficits to fund this.

But Greece remains precariously perched. Tax revenues fell sharply in late 2014, producing a smaller- than-forecast primary surplus of EUR 1.8bn.

“I think that the government faces a very difficult task because Greece has funding needs of more than EUR 20bn this year,” says Miranda Xafa, Greece’s former representative to the IMF. “Syriza has chosen the path of confrontation that could lead to an accident which would take the form of a default on the payment of the external debt. And the next step would be social unrest, capital flight and eventually Grexit,” she says using an abbreviated term for ‘Greek exit from the eurozone.’

Humble Beginnings

Syriza was founded as an electoral alliance between the Moscow-oriented Greek Communist Party (KKE) and the Eurocentric communists of the Greek left. As the Coalition of the Left and of Progress (Synaspismos), they took an impressive 13 percent of the vote in June 1989.

The fall of Communism the following year split them between Stalinists and reformists. The former retreated to the KKE. The reformists turned Synaspismos into a political party. Throughout the 1990s, both groups fought for political survival in low, single-digit figures.

It was not until 2006, when party leader Alekos Alavanos campaigned against higher education reform that Synaspismos, now renamed Syriza, really saw a chance of appealing to an audience outside the traditional left. It soared to 17 percent approval ratings in some opinion polls, yet still scored only five percent of the vote in the 2007 election.

“The party’s gains in 2007 may not have been great, but Syriza was already beginning to exert an influence on the more radical wing of Pasok, which saw their party’s stagnation and dead end,” says former Syriza leader Alekos Alavanos.

In 2008, he passed on the leadership to the 30-year-old Alexis Tsipras, a civil engineering graduate who had already shown a talent for politics. As a member of the Communist Youth and president of his school’s student body in 1991, he had led school sit-ins in protest against the conservative government’s education reforms, helping to defeat them.

“[Tsipras] understood that people wanted a change of political personnel, a new generation. He had been [party] Secretary for Youth which means he was more charismatic than the other candidates,” says Alavanos.

Meteoric Rise, Ideological Drift

Under Tsipras, Syriza dared to read the crisis as an opportunity to beat the two-party system.

Socialist Prime Minister George Papandreou signed onto Greece’s first EUR 100bn facilitation loan in May 2010. By November 2011 he had resigned, after reaching an impasse with creditors over a slew of austerity measures. An interim technocratic government was installed under former central banker Loukas Papademos. Its job was to force austerity measures through parliament, negotiate the EUR 100bn discount of Greek debt in private hands, sign onto a second EUR 140bn loan and declare elections.

Under pressure from European leaders, conservative New Democracy leader Antonis Samaras—a bailout denouncer—joined the socialists in supporting the Papademos government.

The May 2012 elections were a political earthquake. New Democracy had suffered by abandoning its anti-bailout stance; but the socialists had fallen from 44 percent of the popular vote in 2009 to just 13.18 percent. They had been replaced as the leading center-left force by Syriza, which rebounded from the brink of political extinction to claim 16.78 percent, quadrupling its 2009 vote.

Greece’s two-party system was over: with some 45 percent of the vote going to anti-bailout parties, Greece had produced a hung parliament and could not govern itself. In vain, Samaras and new socialist leader Evangelos Venizelos tried to convince Tsipras to join them in a pro-bailout coalition. The week-long wooing of Tsipras only cemented his status as the new political force to be reckoned with.

In a rematch the following month, Greeks voted their fear of default only marginally above their loathing of austerity. New Democracy came out ahead with 29.66 percent of the vote, but Syriza leapt forward by ten points to become the main opposition party.

The tectonic shift was now complete. New Democracy had replaced the socialists as the principal Europeanist party, and Syriza had replaced New Democracy as the principal bailout denouncers.

Why Syriza?

“Syriza, did a very clever thing in 2012,” says Alavanos. “It was the only party that talked about an alternative government. The Greeks were looking for an alternative.” Alavanos says the Greek Communist Party (KKE) could have stepped into the breach, “but the KKE doesn’t do politics; it just wants to protect its ideological base.”

Less explicable to Alavanos is why the rightwing Popular Orthodox Congress (LAOS) didn’t occupy that space. “It had more votes than Syriza in 2009. It could have a populist, right-wing, anti-capitalist rhetoric, and it could combine this with an anti-immigration policy, which the left cannot do. It could be a [Marine] Le Pen phenomenon.” LAOS instead joined the coalition backing the austerity government of Papademos, and Greek voters voted it out of parliament.

Syriza had come a long way not merely by becoming the people’s voice against austerity; what gave it its edge is that it distinguished between pro-euro and pro-austerity politics. An overwhelming majority of Greeks supported Greece’s remaining within the eurozone but not the austerity imposed by the creditors.

In May 2012, Syriza vowed never to jeopardize Greece’s eurozone membership. Between the May and June elections it took another step towards the political center: the party did not oppose the bailout loans that keep Greece afloat, it said, merely the austerity memoranda that accompany them. In dropping the threat of a unilateral default, Syriza crossed the line from pure bailout denunciator to bailout renegotiator, seizing New Democracy’s more nuanced electoral platform.

This shift was emphasized in this year’s election. “We belong to the European family and we are going to find a solution together,” said Syriza’s chief economist Yiannis Milios. “No one wants to destroy the other. We will not default. We will cooperate.”

Syriza has replaced the threat of unilateral default with political correctness. “You’re worried that if a Syriza government comes along… the almighty Germans or whoever else will chop off our head, stick it on a pike and carry it around saying, ‘here’s what happens to people who vote for Syriza’,” Deputy Prime Minister Yiannis Dragasakis recently told a panel of fellow economists. “Does anyone believe that such a Europe has any kind of future?”

Nuance and Omission

Syriza’s rise to a potential ruling party had other, far-reaching effects on its message after 2012. A civil disobedience movement called “den plirono” (“I won’t pay”) had burgeoned during the crisis, as many Greeks started driving through motorway toll posts without paying. The campaign opposed extraordinary taxes levied during the crisis and even utility bills.

Syriza actively encouraged it. When financial fraud inspectors arrested a restaurateur on the island of Hydra for failing to issue receipts in August 2012, Syriza MPs applauded the local population for besieging them in the local police precinct. Theodoros Dritsas, now Minister of the Merchant Marine, deplored the police “display of authoritarianism.”

In early November, however, Syriza held a party congress to consolidate its positions and muffle many of its more extreme voices. It quickly dropped its exhortations for civil disobedience, espousing by November 22“fair and proportional” toll charges “with discounts for frequent users.” This change in stance helped the conservative government create a EUR 2.9bn primary surplus in 2013, but displeased many on the party’s left fringe.

“The point of the 2012 congress was to turn a collection of components into a party and [Tsipras] succeeded in that,” says Vasilis Karasmanis, a philosophy professor and political observer at the Athens Polytechnic. “The components are an anachronism.”

The party’s rise to power also led it to quietly drop its opposition to a 50-seat bonus the current electoral law awards to the first party in the 300-seat legislature. (The remaining 250 seats are awarded on a proportional basis to the parties that clear a three percent threshold.) The measure is designed to strengthen the chances of a government being formed, but while Syriza was a fringe party it demanded proportional representation across the board—a traditional leftwing mantra.

Syriza’s argument was that the bonus has helped propagate the two-party system, enabling the socialists and conservatives to rule Greece alternately for the last 40 years. Syriza Euro-MP Manolis Glezos, embarrassed the party last October, when he repeated the traditional party position: “We will try to persuade the Greek people to elect us without the bonus. But if we win with the bonus, as we’ve said before, we will immediately abolish this electoral law and declare repeat elections, which will be a simple battle without deceit.” Karasmanis calls Syriza’s silent acceptance of the 50 seat bonus now “an ideological about-turn of the first order.”

Although it kept its 2012 manifesto for this election, Syriza de-emphasized major commitments. It stopped talking about nationalizing the banking system and handing it over to co-operatives, where it would be re-purposed to deliver liquidity to small and medium-sized enterprises. (Interviewed shortly before the election, Milios said “the banks are stable nowadays. They have passed the stress tests of Black Rock and the European Central Bank. They belong to the European system of banks and they are being overlooked by the ECB.”)

Syriza also stopped talking about taxing the rich at 75 percent, up from the current 45 percent, fearing capital flight. It moved towards the middle class and stopped talking about raising taxes on businesses: more than 90 percent of employment in Greece comes from some 400,000 small and medium-sized enterprises. Gone, too, is talk of renationalizing any privatized state companies.

Syriza, in short, has transitioned to a more center-left position and taken over the socialist party’s voter base. It is ideologically palatable to the Greek mainstream. But voters are waiting to see whether it wins its three big gambles: to reach a new testament with creditors within the European family; to achieve growth and create jobs; and to spend up to EUR 11bn a year on a social safety net.

John Psaropoulos

John Psaropoulos is an independent journalist based in Athens. He has covered Greece and southeast Europe since the fall of communism. He writes and broadcasts regularly for Al Jazeera International and The Weekly Standard. He has written for publications including The American Scholar, The Daily Beast, the Times Literary Supplement and The Washington Post. His personal blog is thenewathenian.com.

Share this on social media

Support Aspen Institute

The support of our corporate partners, individual members and donors is critical to sustaining our work. We encourage you to join us at our roundtable discussions, forums, symposia, and special event dinners.

Current issue - 01/2020

Heart of Europe on the Periphery

Illiberal backsliding is getting stronger in Visegrad countries recently. Central Europe suffers from a complex of inferiority, they say. Is it a legitimate feeling? Discover the heart of Europe and its pounding chambers on the periphery.

Download PDF