The Challenges of Political Realignment
at a Time of Economic Crisis

By Costas Panayotakis, delivered at AKNY panel on “Syriza and the Strategic Challenges of the Greek Left,” Historical Materialism 2013 Conference, April 27, 2013, New York. See also the papers by Despina Lalaki and Iannis Delatolas.

Syriza’s meteoric rise from a small party with less than 5% of the vote to Greece’s largest opposition party with 27% of voters supporting it last June bears witness to the dramatic effects of Greece’s ongoing austerity program. This program has torn in the most brutal fashion the social contract that had emerged after the end of the military dictatorship in 1974. After three years of austerity the official unemployment rate has risen to over 27% and for young workers to 60%. The economy has shrunk by about 20% and counting, people’s incomes have gone down by up to 50%, labor rights have been liquidated and Greek governments increasingly rely on police violence and repression to quell popular protests.

This situation has predictably led to a realignment of social forces. The working class and popular strata that had for three decades cemented the political hegemony of the Greek socialist party (PASOK) abandoned that party in droves after it inaugurated the austerity program in 2010. Having won the 2009 election with 43% of the popular vote, the Greek socialists fell by the June 2012 election to third place with about 12% of the vote. Since then, the socialists have shrunk further and, according to recent polls, have fallen to fourth place, receiving support from about 8% of the electorate. Their collapse is so complete that they are now behind even the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party which until recently was an electoral non-entity receiving less than 0.5% of the vote.

Many of the supporters of the socialist party have shifted their support to other political parties, while others have dropped out of the political system altogether. It is safe to say, however, that the main beneficiary of the Greek socialists’ near disappearance has been Syriza, which has at this point become the main voice for the Greek workers and popular strata that until recently formed the electoral base of the Greek socialist party.

This realignment was confirmed by the social polarization that became evident in last June’s election. Syriza performed especially well among the groups that have suffered the most by the ongoing crisis, namely waged and salaried workers, the unemployed and even small business owners. In many working-class neighborhoods of Athens Syriza received close to 40% of the vote, with the conservatives winning overwhelmingly in affluent neighborhoods as well as in many rural areas. The June 2012 elections also confirmed a social polarization by age, with Syriza winning overwhelmingly among the younger voters and also coming first in every age group up to the age of 55-60, while the conservatives were strongest among older voters.

Syriza was able to benefit from the ongoing Greek crisis for a number of reasons that went beyond the alienating effect of the brutal austerity program on the socialist party’s traditional base. Syriza was present and active within the manifold protest movements that emerged once austerity was imposed. The other party of the left that could have functioned as the main representative of the anti-austerity sentiment was the Greek communist party (KKE), which, having in the past been the third largest party in Greece, had consistently been larger than Syriza. Unlike Syriza, however, the Greek communist party has often kept its distance from other streams of the left as well as from any protest movements that it does not control.

Secondly, after providing an analysis of the likely effects of the austerity program that proved much more accurate and prescient than the promises of the Greek socialists as well as of the Troika made up of the European Commission, the IMF and the European Central Bank, Syriza was able to establish itself as the most plausible alternative to the austerity bloc which, by late 2011, had come to encompass the conservatives as well. Syriza was able to do so by calling for a government that would rally all the political forces of the left around an anti-austerity platform. At a time when the ongoing social and economic catastrophe in Greece was leading to a decimation of the socialist and conservative parties that had long dominated the Greek political system, this seemed like a plausible and, indeed, compelling proposal to the growing segments of Greek society that wanted to reverse the austerity program and its disastrous effects. By contrast, other political forces within the Greek left were not as receptive to the idea of a government of the left. One party of the Greek left that had split from Syriza in the late 2000s decided after the 2012 election to join the austerity camp, while the communist party and another stream of the extra-parliamentary left were more inclined to dismiss Syriza as the latest incarnation of Greek social democracy.

In any case, the parties that critiqued Syriza from the left found their electoral basis deserting them in droves, with the Greek communists, for example, losing half of their electoral strength between May and June 2012 and scoring one of their worst electoral results in decades. This result has created some turmoil within the communist party, with many of its prominent members coming out against the party leadership line. And although the communist party’s leader has just stepped down, the party’s line still holds that Syriza is simply creating popular illusions regarding the possibility of managing capitalism in line with the needs of the devastated majority of Greek society. Thus, against what it describes as Syriza’s reformism, the communist party rejects the idea of a government of the left within capitalism, presenting itself as the only political force that truly fights for socialism. Other streams of the extra-parliamentary left in Greece, meanwhile, have differentiated themselves from Syriza by calling for Greece to default on its debt and exit the eurozone. In fact, a former leader of Syriza has recently founded a new political formation with the self-explanatory name ‘Plan B.’

While the rejection of a government of the left by the communists and the forces of the extra-parliamentary left has allowed Syriza to emerge as the main voice against austerity, this rejection also creates a problem for Syriza, insofar as it raises the question of whether Syriza could, whenever the next election is held, muster the necessary parliamentary and popular support to form an anti-austerity government. Although polls consistently show that Syriza has a very good chance of garnering more votes than any other party in any future election, its support is still not enough to give it a majority in parliament, let alone the kind of overwhelming popular support that would be necessary in the violent clash with European elites that a break with the current austerity policies would trigger.

This reality has given rise to debates within Syriza as to the kind of majority coalitions that the party should seek to build. In view of Syriza’s inability so far to rally other forces of the traditional left around the call for a left government, the majority within Syriza is trying to build a coalition that would also encompass left social democratic elements that have left the socialist party and even elements of the non-fascist anti-austerity right that gained parliamentary representation in the 2012 elections. A left minority within Syriza, by contrast, has argued against any attempt to win power through a turn towards the right. In this view, Syriza should redouble its effort to overcome the objections to an anti-austerity coalition of other political forces on the left, thus ensuring that the ideological profile of a future Syriza government will not be watered down through association with less radical elements.

Another debate between these two blocs within Syriza has to do with Greece’s continued participation in the Eurozone. The position of the majority within Syriza, and the party’s official position, is that a Syriza government should end austerity while staying within the Eurozone. This presupposes the formation of a broad anti-austerity front in the European South and beyond, which could force both a break with austerity and a comprehensive solution to the European crisis. Such a comprehensive solution would have to include both the renegotiation of debt throughout Europe and the transfer to the countries of the European periphery of the funds they need to revive investment and their economies.

Although the majority bloc within Syriza recognizes that this change in the European response to the crisis has risks and will not be easy to attain, it argues that such a change is feasible because European elites cannot afford to let the eurozone dissolve. In this view, a strategy similar to the one Syriza is proposing is the only way to ensure that the economic crisis in Europe will not continue to deepen, thus placing the very future of the eurozone and the European project into question.
The left opposition within Syriza, by contrast, is more willing to consider a Greek exit from the eurozone. While it goes along with the party’s official line of ending austerity within the eurozone, the left opposition also warns that, in the clash with European and global economic elites that repudiation of austerity might trigger, there is a possibility that Greece will have to exit the eurozone and that a plan for that eventuality has to be in place before Syriza assumes power.

This debate is taking place against the background of a Greek public that is largely supportive of Greece’s participation in the eurozone. At the same time, however, this support has started to soften in recent months, as the governing bloc continues to justify its devastating austerity policies as the necessary price that has to be paid, if Greece is to stay in the eurozone. Placing its bets on fear rather than hope, the governing bloc claims that an exit from the eurozone would lead to an economic catastrophe even worse than what is currently taking place and argues that this exit would be in the cards if Syriza were to be elected and attempt to fulfill its promises.

In this respect, the majority position within Syriza could be seen as partly aimed at overcoming the Greek public’s fears. At the same time, however, the real challenge for Syriza is not to win the next election but to be effective once it does so. This requires both an economic and political plan for all eventualities but also an honest communication with Greek citizens over the challenges and risks that a clash with European elites over austerity would entail.

One of the hopeful developments is that anti-austerity sentiment and movements are spreading and growing stronger throughout the European periphery. The recent Italian election has confirmed once again, for example, how quickly the social and political landscape can change in times of deep economic crisis. In this respect, Syriza’s premise that a victory of the left in Greece could catalyze similar developments elsewhere sounds less implausible today than it did as recently as a year ago.

All in all, the situation in Greece is bound to continue to deteriorate economically and socially, while also remaining politically volatile and unpredictable. There is universal expectation that the continued failures of the Greek austerity program will make it necessary for the current government to adopt a new round of harsh austerity measures in June. At the same time, it is not clear that a new round of austerity could actually pass parliament, since even many of the conservative deputies have said that they are not willing to vote for any additional austerity measures. If that’s true, the governing coalition may not last for much longer, thus leading to new elections in coming months.

Last June’s elections showed that the austerity bloc’s appeal to fear can be quite powerful. By the same token, however, the more the current policies are allowed to devastate even the segments of the population that were solidly middle class until recently, the less effective the claim becomes that, if Syriza won, people would lose even the little that they do have. Nonetheless, Syriza’s success will ultimately depend on its ability to forge a message that allays people’s fears to some extent without, however, sounding as a laundry list of too good to be true promises. This message, moreover, has to be clear and compelling enough to generate not just electoral support but also the kind of popular movements necessary to turn Syriza’s program into a reality. How successful Syriza is in forging and delivering this message will be one of the factors that will help determine how the current capitalist crisis in Greece, Europe and the world becomes resolved.

Continued: Despina Lalaki

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