Reflections on the rise of Syriza

The significance of Sunday’s Greek elections may not be in economic policy, but rather what it says about wider changes in Europe politically.

comment1Greece is yet again the centre of attention in European political and economic discussion, and again seems to be something of focal point for a much wider crisis. On Sunday, Greece will hold a general election for the third time in three years. Polls indicate that the likely winner will be the insurgent left-wing party Syriza. But nothing is certain. The currently governing centre-right New Democracy party is only a few points behind. But the probability of a Syriza victory was enough to provoke some initial panic in financial markets and among European leaders.

In reality, the likelihood of anything immediately momentous, good or bad, coming from a Syriza victory seems very slim. The situation in the Eurozone as a whole is much less precarious than it was during the two Greek elections in the summer of 2012, when Syriza first rose to prominence.  More importantly, Syriza itself has made very clear at this stage that it does not want Greece to leave the Eurozone but rather wants to renegotiate its “Memorandum of Understanding” with the Troika and to re-open the question of Greek debt through a European debt conference. This is obviously something which many others in Europe, and most notably Germany, are going to oppose very vigorously. But it is the stuff of geopolitical negotiation, not economic and financial chaos.

Potential allies

While Greece is likely have an extremely hard time getting a better deal from Europe given its fairly weak bargaining position, it is worth bearing in mind that it does have a lot of potential allies as well. Re-opening the terms imposed on Greece could of course be potentially beneficial to other peripheral countries such as Ireland – and indeed Michael Noonan and Joan Burton have welcomed Syriza’s proposal for a European debt conference. It also calls for more expansionary fiscal policy in Europe, which would suit the interests of France and Italy. Both these countries are currently struggling with poorly performing economies under the strictures of the European Fiscal Compact. Deflation is also becoming a major European-wide problem, which purely monetary measures such as coming “quantitative easing” by the European Central Bank may not be enough to solve.

Wider changes in Europe

But the true significance of Syriza’s success may not be in the European economy and economic policy, but rather what it says about wider changes in Europe politically. With the peculiar exception of Cyprus, the rise of Syriza has made Greece the first European country since the end of the Cold War whose major force on the political left has not come from the social-democratic mainstream associated with the Party of European Socialists. The traditional social-democratic party in Greece, Panhellenic Socialist Movement (Pasok), has collapsed in just five years . Once among the most powerful social-democratic parties in Europe, its credibility was utterly destroyed by its collusion in austerity and its association with the cronyism that contributed to the Greek crisis and that has helped to make its distributional effects so unfair.

It is not just Greece that is seeing a resurgence of the harder left however. Ireland will almost certainly follow Greece to some extent next year. The Labour Party will cease to be the largest (allegedly) leftist party in the Dáil for the first time in the history of the Irish state. Most interestingly of all, perhaps, is Podemos in Spain. Podemos is a new party  which arose from Spain’s Occupy-style Indignados movement and has come seemingly out of nowhere in the last year to lead in the polls. While these developments are still most marked in Europe’s crisis-weary periphery, they are not limited to it. In the Netherlands, the Socialist Party polls ahead of the Labour Party these days. You could even draw parallels with events in Scotland, where the once-dominant Labour Party seems in danger of being overwhelmed by the Scottish National Party in the post-independence referendum atmosphere there.

None of this would be necessarily ground-breaking if it were not part of a much wider and more powerful phenomenon of the disintegrating legitimacy of established parties of all kinds in Europe and the rise of anti-establishment parties of both right and left. “Grand coalitions” between centre-left and centre-right seem to be becoming the norm and the only way for traditional parties to secure a majority. A grand coalition is effectively in place in the European Parliament, as well as in the governments of Germany, Ireland, Greece, Italy, the Netherlands, Austria, Finland and now, informally, in Sweden.  If Marine Le Pen gets into the second round of the French presidential election in 2017, as currently seems very likely, the Socialist Party will then probably have to unite with conservative UMP to defeat her.

This reflects a long-term trend in European politics, best described by the late Irish political scientist Peter Mair in his last book Ruling The Void, in which the declining loyalty of voters to traditional parties has coincided with “hollowing out” of those parties. The internal and external political culture of centre-right and centre-left parties has become emaciated and they have become increasingly ideologically indistinguishable from one another.  It is an absurd and damaging paradox that as popular attitudes in the last few decades have become more anti-hierarchical, political parties have become increasingly centralised and controlled from the top down. This trend has accelerated with the economic crisis, and has come to have a much more dangerous quality as populist right-wing parties have become the most common expression of  voters’ disenfranchisement in many countries. It is now pretty much unavoidable to conclude that the true division in European politics is no longer between the traditional parties of right and left but is between an embattled centre and various forms of populist right and populist left.

Challenge to centre-left parties

While the centre-right are also being affected by this, it is the established centre-left parties who have been undermined the most. These grand coalitions are almost always agreed largely on the terms of a continuing neo-liberal consensus among Europe’s elites. Historic contradictions within centre-left parties – between their radical or at least reforming pretensions and their much more conservative actual instincts, between a voter base that includes the most disenfranchised and disadvantaged and an internal culture that is quite the opposite – may well be becoming unbearable. They are in danger of suffering a similar fate as many of Europe’s liberal parties a century ago – coming to serve as an adjunct to their historical opponents on the right in defence of the status quo, and consequently becoming increasingly irrelevant to the needs of the dissatisfied parts of society that they were once associated with.

This is what makes the rise of parties like Syriza and Podemos so potentially significant. That is not to say that they have all the answers. It is fairly impossible at this stage to describe Syriza as anything other than a social democratic party, at least in the sense of what social democracy was assumed to mean twenty or thirty years ago. In fact, Syriza’s programme is substantially less radical than Pasok’s was when it first came to power in the 1980s. Podemos has also recently moderated its economic programme. Both parties may already be social democratic to a fault in being unable to tackle the basic problem that has confronted social democrats in the past – namely the limits which a capitalist economy imposes on possibilities for political action. But they are at least driven partly by organic connection with grassroots dissatisfaction, a libertarian impulse and a suspicion towards Europe’s established political and economic consensus. A genuinely effective future European left needs to have these characteristics at its heart, or it will not be effective, and can hardly  be described as “leftist” at all.