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“There is much less hope today” – The first year of the SYRIZA government

Despite the intensification of the crisis, the prolonged period of uncertainty, and the number of key politicians leaving the party, Greece's SYRIZA government is still in place, with an untarnished majority. We spoke with political scientist Giorgos Katsambekis about the radical left’s year in power... their mistakes, victories and opportunities.
Syriza rally Athens

Kettős Mérce: More than a year has passed since SYRIZA was elected to government in January 2015. This last year was full of false hopes and crushed dreams. Is there anyone in the country who still believe that Tsipras and SYRIZA can bring an end to austerity? Or that they can at least improve the lives of Greek people to some degree?

Giorgos Katsambekis: The first year of SYRIZA in power was an emotional roller coaster for most people in Greece, and definitely not only for the voters of SYRIZA. The Radical Left’s overwhelming victory in the election of January 2015 marked a genuine turning point in the country’s recent history and it sparked hope among many that another way out of the crisis – one that would not involve harsh austerity and that would benefit the ‘have-nots’ against the ‘haves’ – was now within reach. The first month of the SYRIZA administration and the initial attempts of the party to reverse a series of unpopular neoliberal policies, articulating at the same time a defiant and often fierce discourse against the monitoring institutions of Greece’s bailout programme, restored – be it symbolically – the hurt dignity and pride of the Greek people, who up until then were used to their government passively accepting and implementing the dictates of the ‘troika’ (the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund). But it did not only symbolically restore the dignity and pride of the people. It did something much more important: it revived, in a sense, the notion of democratic representation. As a result, the rates of acceptance for SYRIZA at this first phase were impressively high. And this was not only demonstrated in the relevant opinion polls. It was also evident in the unprecedented rallies of mid-February outside the Greek parliament, where protesters demonstrated en masse under the slogan ‘breath of dignity’, supporting the SYRIZA-ANEL government’s efforts to put an end to austerity.

studied Political Science at Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, where he also received his doctorate in 2015. He recently co-edited the collective volume Radical Democracy and Collective Movements Today. The Biopolitics of the Multitude versus the Hegemony of the People (Ashgate, 2014).

This feeling of collective empowerment and pride, and a sense that deep radical changes were not as unthinkable as we might have thought before, lasted until the 20th of February, when SYRIZA was forced to accept a 4-month extension to the bailout programme that was signed by the previous administration. This was the first defeat for the party and a sign that its strategy of ‘aggressive’ negotiations might not work. Even worse, this first defeat showed that SYRIZA lacked a truly radical and viable alternative strategy/programme that could safely guide the country in the event of a break with the Eurozone, or even the European Union (EU) itself. Still, the government managed to present this transitory agreement to the public as a necessary compromise, a temporary strategic retreat that would buy the much-needed time for the intense negotiations to bear fruit. Thus, despite this first retreat, SYRIZA did not lose popular support.

The frequent remarks by top European officials that ‘elections change nothing’, along with their overall hostile behaviour towards the newly elected SYRIZA-ANEL government, will be registered in history as one of Europe’s most undemocratic and rather shameful moments.

What followed was a perfect example of what a ‘dialogue of the deaf’ looks like at the highest level of international politics. From Eurogroup to Eurogroup and from Summit to Summit, Greece’s representatives arrived full of optimism, ready to work towards what they called a ‘mutually beneficial agreement’, only to return to Greece empty handed. The country’s European partners, and especially the most dominant one among them, Germany, were not willing to give SYRIZA even an inch of ground, fearing that the slightest retreat concerning the implementation of austerity in one country would spark a chain reaction that could spread throughout the ‘undisciplined’ European periphery. Not surprisingly, they kept rejecting all of Greece’s new proposals aiming at a loosening of austerity, without any meaningful exchange and constructive debate. While at the same time they leaked to the press nasty comments on Greece’s new finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis, focusing much more on his supposedly arrogant persona and much less on his policy suggestions. In this context, a lot of time was wasted as the Greek economy was drained of liquidity and the people were losing their patience.

KM: And this has led to the referendum last summer…

Yes, we are almost there. As the 4-month extension expired and the situation was becoming critical, Tsipras made a move that under circumstances could have proven a real game changer. After he was handed a ‘take it or leave it’ proposal on yet another programme in late June, Tsipras decided to call for a referendum, letting the people decide whether his government should accept the harsh measures comprising this ‘final’ proposal or not. The rejection of the conditions to a new bailout was voiced in a clear and loud ‘NO’, backed by 61% of the voters. This was SYRIZA’s second major electoral victory in less than six months. But this was something more. Even with the banks closed, under capital controls, and with the mainstream media wholeheartedly supporting the ‘YES’ campaign, the majority of voters chose to reject the proposed agreement, showing that after five years of pain and impoverishment they were not willing to accept further austerity. And given the overwhelming result, one could even say that, at that point, the majority of the people in Greece might have been ready to support radical solutions, seriously flirting with the possibility of a Grexit.

But the government’s response, articulated by Tsipras himself and a small group around him, was to translate this ‘NO’ into a ‘YES’ and to pursue an agreement with Greece’s partners immediately. The agreement was soon reached, with SYRIZA signing the third ‘Memorandum’, marking the second and most decisive defeat regarding negotiations, which also resulted in a major split of the party, with around a third of its cadres leaving it. Despite the split (that led to the formation of Popular Unity, a party left of SYRIZA under the former Energy Minister Panagiotis Lafazanis), Tsipras quickly moved on to pass the new ‘Memorandum’ through parliament. He soon afterwards resigned, paving the way for a new snap election in September 2015.

KM: Tsipras has won again in this election. But why did voters still support him?

The eight months that passed until the new election felt more like eight years and the political landscape was dramatically changed. SYRIZA won again over its main rival, the conservative New Democracy (ND) party, suffering only minor losses, but this third electoral victory in such a short period of time had nothing of the euphoria and enthusiasm of January 2015 or the defiance of July 2015. The people now were not voting for radical change, nor was ‘hope’ the moving force behind their vote. What motivated the vote for SYRIZA was rather an impulse for renewal, as the traditional parties of post-authoritarian Greece, PASOK (the Panhellenic Socialist Movement) and ND, were utterly discredited and in deep crisis, still trying to configure their leadership problems. SYRIZA had also erased ‘hope’ from its campaign to focus more on political renewal and anti-corruption slogans. The difficult road ahead for SYRIZA was – and still is – to implement a new austerity programme, despite its pivotal promise against that.

We need the above framework in order to start talking about ‘false promises’ and ‘broken dreams’, or about the prospects of ending austerity. First of all, I would prefer to talk about broken promises. The promises of SYRIZA were not necessarily ‘false’, but the party had to, or chose to, break them in the course of events. And this also had to do with the brutal reaction of Greece’s European partners and their unwillingness to seriously discuss any alternative to or loosening of austerity. I cannot speculate on whether there are still people in Greece who believe that Tsipras and SYRIZA can put an end austerity. However there is much less hope today in radical or revolutionary solutions against austerity than there was a year ago. Also, there is a significant part of the population that could compromise with a ‘fairer’, socially more just implementation of the new programme. Moreover, many are expecting SYRIZA to keep its promise and tackle corruption that has reigned supreme in Greece throughout its post-authoritarian history. Lastly, there are genuine hopes among progressive, not necessarily leftist, citizens that SYRIZA is going to push forward a progressive rights agenda (and this is one of the only fields where SYRIZA has indeed already made progress). Nevertheless, it is probable that positive expectations will soon fade as the results of the new austerity programme will start affecting broader sectors of society (we already see the first dynamic reactions against planned reforms on agricultural policy, the public-insurance system and taxation).

KM: Do you think Tsipras is the one to blame for the controversial bailout agreement this summer?

I don’t feel comfortable with pointing fingers at anyone, so I don’t have a straightforward answer to this question. At least not in terms of ascribing blame to anybody specific. It is much more important for me to try to understand the multiplicity of factors (and actors) that led to this agreement. In a nutshell: I think that SYRIZA – for a series of reasons – had miscalculated the severity of the (mainly external) pressure that it would be under when it is in government. Its aspirations that Greece’s European partners would be open to an immediate loosening of austerity and ready to negotiate a new agreement with Greece, starting from a new basis, were clearly unrealistic. On the other hand, nobody expected that Greece’s European partners would appear so brutal, even vindictive, openly threatening the country with bankruptcy and international isolation. The frequent remarks by top European officials, including Wolfgang Schäuble, Germany’s Federal Minister of Finance, that ‘elections change nothing’, along with their overall hostile behaviour towards the newly elected SYRIZA-ANEL government, will be registered in history as one of Europe’s most undemocratic and rather shameful moments.

Under SYRIZA, the refugee crisis has been described by the government as a major international challenge and a chance for Greece and Europe to show their solidarity to those fleeing the terror of warzones, persecution or extreme poverty.

In this context, before putting the blame on anybody, one should try to realize the immense pressure that was put on the Greek government and Tsipras himself in July 2015, as the country was heading towards bankruptcy and a forced Grexit; nothing less than a complete economic collapse. The Greek government, after having played all its cards, decided that it could not risk rejecting the new bailout agreement and thus it chose to bend its knee and comply. So, if there is one thing that we could blame Tsipras and SYRIZA for it is that they seemed desperately unprepared for such a critical moment. A moment where the break with austerity could also mean breaking away from the Eurozone, or even the EU itself. Of course, this would be possible only if a viable, well-planned and realistic alternative existed. An alternative that the majority of the people would be ready to rally around.

Let me add here a brief comment on why such an alternative did not exist, or at least it wasn’t prioritised by SYRIZA in the end. To answer this question we need to take a step back and have a quick look at how internal democracy and horizontal participatory practices have evolved within SYRIZA since the party’s breakthrough in 2012.

We know that SYRIZA’s breakthrough would have been impossible without its well established relationship and interaction with a series of social movements, social spaces and collectivities. SYRIZA, from 2004 onwards, and especially after the global economic crisis started affecting Greece in 2007-2008, exhibited characteristics of a pluralist and open party-movement, being active in a plurality of social struggles, interacting or even connecting them, drawing lessons from them, renewing itself through them, etc. (let me remind you here that SYRIZA was founded as a broad coalition of parties and political groups and only became a unified party in the summer of 2013). However, as it developed its impressive dynamic and as it started taking the possibility of seizing power seriously, it did not move towards deepening and institutionalising its relationship with grassroots movements and the political parties and groups that comprised it. Quite the contrary, it steadily moved towards establishing a more centralised model, in which the party leadership became more powerful, autonomous and in the end one would even stay detached from the social base of the party. Thus, when SYRIZA started developing an alternative programme, in late 2014, this was not articulated from the bottom up, from participatory processes involving the consultation of citizen’s assemblies or committees, but it came straight from the top of the party hierarchy. What is even worse, after SYRIZA took power, and when things got really heated and the negotiation with Greece’s partners was reaching a critical point, the emergency ‘back-up plan’ was authored by a very small group under Varoufakis, behind closed doors. Maybe things would have been much different if SYRIZA’s alternative programme was created and legitimized through broad democratic and participatory processes, open to the party base and to every concerned citizen.

To put it in other words: if the people felt that they played a more active role in articulating an alternative, wouldn’t they be much more willing to support it until the end? (And motivating thus a much more confident and consistent stance of the Greek government against its ‘creditors’.)

KM: What do you think can count as the most important achievements of the last year?

Well, the first major achievement for SYRIZA is that, despite the intensification of the crisis and the prolonged period of uncertainty and the major split from the party, its government is still in place with a rather unhurt majority (though I’m not sure for how long). Of course, it is now that the party is going to start feeling the burn from applying the harsh measures dictated by the third ‘Memorandum’. On the level of applied politics we should mention the significant achievements regarding human and minority rights. The most prominent reforms entail (1) the citizenship law that grants citizenship to second generation immigrants, and (2) the recognition of civil partnership for same-sex couples. Both reforms represent significant steps of progress in a society that has traditionally exhibited rather conservative values. (To be fair, the PASOK of George Papandreou had also passed a progressive law in 2010, granting citizenship to second generation immigrants, which was scrapped very soon after by Antonis Samaras’ government).

Another achievement is the way SYRIZA shifted the public discourse regarding the dramatically increasing influx of refugees and immigrants last year. Under the previous administration, incoming refugees and immigrants were portrayed as threatening ‘invaders’ in a quasi-war-like situation, something that fuelled racist and xenophobic reactions. Under SYRIZA, the refugee crisis has been described by the government as a major international challenge and a chance for Greece and Europe to show their solidarity to those fleeing the terror of warzones, persecution or extreme poverty. This is an important development in a country that has been facing the rise of a neo-Nazi extremist political party like the Golden Dawn, along with widespread xenophobia.

KM: If we put aside the issues of same-sex couples and refugees, and only focus on the economic issues, do you think that the current SYRIZA government is better than a PASOK government would have been? In the end Papandreou tried to do something similar to what Tsipras was doing. He tried to hold an election, failed, and a new austerity package followed…

It is really hard to answer this question, since we would have to build solely on a series of hypotheses, not concrete facts. Suggesting that PASOK might have done this and that and not something else would be pure speculation and thus not particularly useful. After all, PASOK eventually chose to co-govern with the right-wing ND, under a very conservative Prime Minister, Antonis Samaras. But to give you just a glimpse of what such a hypothetical comparison might look like, take for starters what happened with the announced referendum of 2011. George Papandreou announced it, but he wasn’t bold enough to go through with it. He was first publicly ridiculed at the Cannes Summit by Merkel and Sarkozy, and right afterwards he called it off. Tsipras, on the other hand, for good or for bad, was bold enough to go on and hold this referendum, despite the immense pressures and threats by top European officials.

Also, let me remind you that the Finance Minister of PASOK who was responsible for the negotiations that got Greece into the first bailout programme, Giorgos Papakonstantinou, was recently found guilty of tampering with the notorious ‘Lagarde List’ of suspected tax evaders. More specifically, the judges found him guilty of removing the names of three of his relatives from the list that contained many wealthy and super wealthy Greeks with accounts in Swiss banks. This is just to mention the long legacy of corruption of PASOK. On the other hand, even among the critics of SYRIZA, it would be hard to find somebody that would accuse the party of a bad record on corruption.

To sum it up, I cannot say if today’s SYRIZA government is better or worse than a PASOK government would have been. What I can say for sure is that it is quite different. The crucial months that we have ahead, which are going to be rather rough due to the implementation of further austerity, are going to show if there is indeed another way to deal with budgetary cuts and restrictive fiscal policy (that’s what the government is maintaining today), or if SYRIZA is going to be one of the same (something that many in the opposition, left and right, are suggesting). So, after a year or so, and after we have seen the first concrete results of SYRIZA’s policies, as well as the way that the party will handle the inevitable social reactions, we will be in a better position to proceed with comparisons like the one you are suggesting here.

KM: You have mentioned the ‘take it or leave it’ deal of last summer. Many commentators said at that time that Greece would have been better off if they had taken that deal, as it would have given Greece the maximum it could expect, and way more than what it received in the end. What do you think of this opinion?

As I already implied, I don’t find it very useful to work with ‘what ifs’. Speculation is ‘sexy’, I get it, and it leaves much room for reflection and debate, but it inevitably lacks a concrete basis. In order to critically assess the decision that the Greek government took back in June 2015 to not accept the ‘final’ proposal of the institutions, we have to take into account the position of the government at that specific time and the specific analysis of the situation that they did. To make a long story short, I believe that what the Greek government thought then, is that this deal was unacceptable, since it would mean that SYRIZA backed down on every single aspect of the negotiations, making it impossible for the party to deliver on its programme.

Now, regarding the referendum, there are two main hypotheses on what Tsipras was trying to do. The first one, which is the official one, is that with a clear ‘NO’ Greece would return to the table of negotiations with a very strong card: the will of the people, expressed in a democratic and direct way. If this was indeed the government’s analysis, then it proved unrealistic, since we know now that Greece’s partners reacted even more aggressively. The second hypothesis is that Tsipras was expecting the ‘YES’ vote to prevail. In this case, he could appear as a democratic leader that chose to implement the will of the people, even while disagreeing with it. If this was the case – which I doubt very much – then it clearly backfired.

So, would it be better if the government had accepted the deal of June 2015? As things stand today, and taking into account the losses that the Greek economy has suffered due to the capital controls and the prolonged uncertainty, one is keen to answer yes. On the other hand, it must seem obvious that the government wasn’t aiming for a worse deal. What is for sure is that its major mistake was to appear unprepared and reluctant to stand firmly behind the ‘NO’ vote of the majority of the people.

KM: Insiders and commentators assume that Varoufakis’ solution to the conflict with the troika would have involved leaving the Eurozone. Do you think that would have been a better scenario for Greece? And what do ordinary Greeks think? Do they still feel that leaving the Eurozone would be a catastrophe?

Let me begin with the seemingly easy part of your question. According to a very recent survey, around half of the Greeks (47.4%) believe that the country’s participation in the Eurozone is to blame for the economic crisis. Nevertheless, there is a clear majority that prefers to stick with the euro (65.3%) and not go back to the drachma (for which only a 28.5% expresses positive feelings). So, even if there are today lots of Greeks who regret the country’s participation in the Eurozone, the majority among them prefers to keep things this way and not to try to go back to the national currency.

Today’s EU seems unable to incorporate any kind of popular-democratic dissent, unable to invent new tools of democratic accountability and participatory governance, constantly creating rules and norms that are supposedly beyond contestation.

And it seems that we have this paradox: almost half of the Greeks feel that adopting the euro has been a catastrophe, but a clear majority among them thinks that it might be even worse leaving it now. Maybe this also explains the going back and forth, as well as the controversial moves of the first Tsipras government up until its decision to sign a third Memorandum. The fact that they could not imagine a better future outside the Eurozone led them to back down on almost every aspect of the negotiation.

Now regarding the specificities of Varoufakis’ so-called ‘Plan X’, I’m not sure that it necessarily involved leaving the Eurozone. As the man himself has stressed, it mostly had to do with defaulting on 27 billion euros in Greek government bonds that were held by the ECB and with the temporary adoption of a ‘parallel currency’. He described these moves rather as part of a very aggressive negotiation strategy and not as a decisive break with the Eurozone. Now, would that have been a better scenario? I’m not sure. After all, I’m not an economist and it is not easy for me to have an informed opinion on the subject. What I do know, however, as a political scientist, is that politics is all about alternatives, and a ‘parallel’ currency (IOUs) or a national one (be it the drachma or something else) would both probably open up a whole new world of alternatives and unexplored possibilities for the country. For bad or for good, there aren’t too many alternatives within the current constraints of the Eurozone and under the rule of non-democratically checked bodies with quasi-executive powers, like the so-called Eurogroup.

KM: What do you think, was there sufficient international or European support for SYRIZA? On the one hand, left-leaning Europeans were very enthusiastic, and the cause of SYRIZA was supported by people like Paul Krugman or Jeffrey Sachs. On the other hand, SYRIZA couldn’t really manage to find allies in Europe.

I think that especially at first there was an impressive wave of international and European support for SYRIZA. At least this is what we saw on many levels of the global public sphere (from social media to mass media, etc.). But this picture was rather misleading. There were indeed movements in European countries that started to mobilise, hoping to put pressure on European leaders for accepting parts of SYRIZA’s programme. And the support to SYRIZA by emblematic international intellectuals was impressive too. But the actual support that SYRIZA found on the top political level, of governments, was utterly disappointing. Apart from some practically harmless public statements by Renzi, Hollande and Obama, there was nothing that could actually help the new government in its difficult – almost impossible – task to even slightly turn the tides of European austerity. Nobody seemed willing, or able, to question the dominant position of Germany, which imposed a hard line against SYRIZA.

Maybe the timing was unfortunate back then, since one can imagine a more positive stance by European governments if SYRIZA’s ascendance to power came about today. Greece might have Portugal on its side and quite probably Spain. But this is a very big ‘if’. Moreover, SYRIZA’s strategy itself felt rather rushed, sloppy and improvised. Sure, they did a great job in creating awareness and generating a fruitful discussion around the problematic administration of the Greek crisis by the European elites and the often non-democratic workings of the European Union itself. But it soon appeared that there was not much preparation from SYRIZA’s side to make this strategy work in the long run, and maybe this is why it backfired. SYRIZA appeared as the one to point the finger to almost everyone else, criticizing other countries and democratically elected governments for not being democratic enough to respect the Greek mandate. The response for most of Greece’s European partners was easy: they pitted their democratic mandate against the one of SYRIZA. So for quite a while, until France came to the rescue, SYRIZA seemed like a very solitary force when traveling to Brussels for negotiations.

KM: During their first year in power the SYRIZA leadership only spoke about Greece and about the needs of the Greek people, they didn’t seem to have a real European vision, or an idea of a fairer and more equitable Europe (at least that’s what we saw from the outside). The Eastern member states found that really problematic, especially Eurozone members like Slovakia and Estonia who still have a smaller GDP per capita than Greece (and therefore feel that it would be unfair to expect from them to bail out a richer country). Do you think this kind of criticism is justified?

This is not necessarily accurate. First of all, SYRIZA did in fact speak a lot about the European people and the need to address the various problems within Europe in a collective way, emphasizing collaboration and solidarity among member states. Moreover, SYRIZA, as a party, has its roots in the Eurocommunist tradition, that in Greece has always been overwhelmingly pro-European. So, if you have a careful look at SYRIZA’s discourse during its first year in power, you will indeed find calls for a fairer and more equitable Europe. Something that, naturally, was highlighted even more during the party’s campaign for the European election of 2014. On the other hand, the problem with SYRIZA was that its official statements regarding our common future as Europeans remained rather underdeveloped, sounding more and more like empty slogans. In other words, there was no concrete vision behind the anti-austerity slogan, no viable alternative that could rally people around it and create momentum on a pan-European level. Let me remind you that in the beginning SYRIZA started by saying (through the lips of Varoufakis) ‘We do not want your money. Just let us find our own steps and implement our own programme’. Of course, they ended up asking for more money and it was only natural that poorer countries with conservative governments would react. If SYRIZA had had a programme that could work outside the restraints of the ‘Memoranda’, without the need of new loans, and they had been bold enough to go with it until the end, such reactions from countries like Slovakia might have not arisen.

So we return again to the lack of a viable progressive programme, a consistent counter-hegemonic strategy for today’s radical Left. To be fair, this is not just a problem of SYRIZA, which is a very young party in a peripheral country of Europe, but a more general and persistent problem of today’s European and global radical Left; quite probably the most pivotal one. Despite the continuous crises of the neoliberal capitalist model, leftists of all shades seem unable to articulate a truly radical alternative vision that could seriously challenge the neoliberal hegemony. Moreover, we need to stress that today’s Europe all the more proves a very hostile environment for progressive alternatives to flourish. Today’s EU seems unable to incorporate any kind of popular-democratic dissent, unable to invent new tools of democratic accountability and participatory governance, constantly creating rules and norms that are supposedly beyond contestation. So the problems, the mistakes and impasses of SYRIZA within today’s Europe have also something much more important to tell us about the state of the EU itself in today’s world, about the prospects of the EU becoming a more open, pluralistic and democratic space, or becoming a closed and ‘protected’ sphere of technocratic administration, a fertile ground for positions in favour of national isolationism to gain ground. If we add to this picture the latest alarming conservative reactions within Europe regarding the refugee crisis, one cannot be very optimistic. And Greece is once again in the spotlight.


Featured photo by Ben Folley (cc)


is a member of Kettős Mérce, a left-wing activist collective devoted to Hungarian and international politics, with a special focus on issues related to equality, solidarity, social rights and disenfranchised people.