international analysis and commentary

The Greek left on the rough path of Realpolitik


Syriza, the party of Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, has been remarkably flexible when it comes to putting ideas into practice since taking power after the September 2015 election. It is therefore unsurprising  that the same goes for its political allies across Europe. As soon as the political situation shifts, no-one is considered irreplaceable.

Let’s take Podemos first, the left-wing Spanish party that has been called a “twin” to Syriza. From this point of view, it appeared to be in their mutual interest that they together formed  a prospective southern front against the austerity economic policies of the European Union. Hence the appearance of Pablo Iglesias, Podemos leader and founder, standing alongside  Tsipras, shouting “Syriza Podemos – venceremos”, before the cheering crowd at rallies in Greece in 2015, and the participation of Tsipras in the Podemos opening conference.

Since both Syriza and Podemos have a tendency to opportunistically oscillate between radicalism and pragmatism, the association with each other rests on a mere evaluation of the current possible political gain. Lately, during his last visit to the EU Parliament, Tsipras snubbed a handshake with Iglesias, signaling a distancing after Podemos’ loss at the 2016 Spanish election. During the election campaign, Podemos, meanwhile, did not want anything to do with a Syriza that failed to offer an alternative and so swiftly adopted the “TINA narrative”. Equally, when Podemos lost any possibility to lead the Spanish government, Syriza preferred to burn incriminating photos of the “Syriza Podemos venceremos” era.

Once we scratch the surface of easy-to-swallow slogans, we are left with the flesh and bones of politics, namely the available ammunition to fight for what one stands for. It proved that neither of the two had the necessary gunpowder to support their claims, continent-wide but also nation-wide, as is the case for Syriza.

The same goes for the British Prime Minister candidate Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the Labour Party. He performed so well in the UK’s June general election that everyone wanted  a photo by his side. Tsipras was quick to welcome his astonishing performance as a victory of left-wing politics against neo-liberalism, even though it was the former minister of economy, Yanis Varoufakis, who advised Corbyn “in some capacity”. Even though their heartfelt congratulations seem to bring them together, appearances deceive again. Syriza has failed to distance itself from the smear campaign that the Greek media used to marginalize Varoufakis after his departure from the government. In effect, these former comrades are not on the same page anymore, so much so there is a tinge of bitter irony when Tsipras celebrates a victory over neo-liberalism, right before serving neo-liberalism in his own country.

All of this reflects the old maxim that victory has a thousand fathers, but defeat is an orphan.
Since both Syriza and Podemos lack the backbone of a coherent set of politics, it is only to be expected that their political friendship will follow the fate of their career.

Their initial political analysis relied on the assumption that the EU creditors would concede before the united forces of anti-austerity of the southern European countries. This never happened, making the plan more complicated.

There is an additional aspect to this nexus, which is seldom recognized: a certain degree of ageism. Tsipras and Iglesias were saluted as gifted young politicians (the former recently turned 43, while the latter is still in his late 30s), carrying the full package of the positive connotations of youth: what they lacked in experience, they would supplement  with enthusiasm, passion and immunity from corruption and old political habits. The last part, in particular, relied on the widespread notion and commonly shared opinion that “at least they are not corrupt”, and, in the case of Tsipras, this was deemed extremely important, since part of the Syriza narrative of why they would succeed where their predecessors failed so miserably was based on the fact that old-school politicians were vulnerable to blackmail on account of the numerous skeletons in the party’s closet.

It was yet again an argument that relied too much on emotion, rather than politics.

How this will play with the salted politicians of the English-speaking left, Corbyn and America’s Bernie Sanders, the latest idols of the continental left, we cannot know. It is, however, an interesting comparison to see what happens to progressive ideas when they face reality after lifelong marginalization.

The optimistic scenario would suggest that they were both on the right side of history, for a long time now, for example in supporting the anti-war movement or opposing the globalization trends. On a first impression, this seems to imply that on this front there is much more than media-garnished “youth” as a promise of high morals. Ultimately, one can never know. What we can do is perhaps ask the right questions: what is the political fuel that supports progressive claims? This would mean that in the long-run, we might have something more tangible to rely on than the smiling youths, who are sometimes so eager to compromise.

In that sense, unlike in countries where hope appears to be emerging for the left as a representation of the under-priviledged, Syriza is now diving into the same old way of running things. Political program is formed in Berlin, dictated to a powerless Greek government that has to pretend to negotiate, even though we know that having no bargaining tools whatsoever, this will only result in another capitulation eventually, which will be described as yet another honorable compromise.

Sad as it may be, Greece has had its chance and lost it. Unlike Podemos or the (new) Labour Party, Tsipras’s electoral mandate from the Greek people included the commitment to fight austerity policies. But such a chance was handed to a political party with so many severe internal contradictions regarding the available tools with which Greece would fight back in the event of a rupture with its creditors that it resulted in defeat. We cannot know how long it will take before these ideas get a second chance in Greece, but  it is not at all visible in the foreseeable future.