After January 25th, with the landslide victory of the radical-left SYRIZA over the right-wing New Democracy, we have in Greece the first (and only) left-wing government ever elected in a European Union member state. This alone is already a major development, not only for Greece and its crisis-ridden society, but also for a Europe struggling with numerous problems and impasses and for its peoples anxiously searching for alternatives to the dominant neoliberal model. But many have found it difficult to celebrate SYRIZA’s victory as a ‘victory of the left’, since SYRIZA immediately formed a coalition government with the small populist right-wing party Independent Greeks (ANEL), raising many questions and worries among leftist voters and various commentators in Greece and abroad. As is usually the case, things are much more complicated than they may seem.
First things first. Who are ANEL?
To put in a nutshell, ANEL are a right-wing anti-austerity party, stemming from what in Greece is called the ‘popular right’, which was part of New Democracy (ND) until the crisis and has articulated in its discourse elements of Keynesianism and state-interventionism in the economy, as well as strong doses of patriotism, nationalism and commitment to religion. ANEL were created by a former MP of ND, Panos Kammenos, on February 2012, and it achieved impressive results in the elections of May and June 2012 running on an anti-austerity ticket, calling for the annulment of the memorandum agreement and articulating a fierce discourse against the ‘troika’ and its party collaborators in Greece (ND and PASOK). Although much has already been said about this party, I believe we have to be very clear and careful about their character. They are indeed right-wing and nationalist, and in some sense even ultra-conservative, but by no means are they extremist or outright racist/xenophobic. Nevertheless, ANEL do indeed contain some very worrying xenophobic, racist and sometimes conspiracy-mongering elements that need to be seriously taken into account. Last but not least, ANEL are not part of the old corrupt clientelistic establishment as they are a new party and have not yet participated in any government.
Where there any alternative coalition partners?
If we are clear about what ANEL are, let’s move on to why SYRIZA chose to form a government with them and not with some other party. A very simple answer would be that there was practically no other choice that would make any sense at the current moment. To begin with, for the past few years SYRIZA has been constantly calling on the Greek Communist Party (KKE) –the only parliamentarian political force to its left– to collaborate with it, but the KKE has steadily rejected any form of coalition or cooperation with SYRIZA, holding a firm purist (‘orthodox Marxist’/vanguardist/Stalinist) stance, because it regards SYRIZA as part of the ‘EU/NATO establishment’ (calling it reformist, ‘not really leftist’, ‘class traitors’, and so on). KKE, in its public discourse over the last two to three years has actually been more hostile toward SYRIZA than toward any other party. So a coalition with the KKE was already practically ruled out.
Now, SYRIZA has declared that it would never collaborate with any party of the old ‘establishment’, meaning PASOK and ND, because they are held responsible for the downfall of Greece and the disastrous policies that have been followed since the crisis broke out in 2009. And, of course, the neo-Nazis of the Golden Dawn were out of the question.
The only other possible alternative for SYRIZA would have been a coalition the new centrist-liberal party ‘The River’ (To Potami), which is a peculiar mediagenic post-political formation grouped around a popular journalist, Stavros Theodorakis, who has very close ties to the media establishment and to the old political system in Greece. This would be a very problematic and indeed contradictory choice, because ‘The River’ has an outright neoliberal economic agenda and supports the continuation of austerity in Greece, which is exactly what SYRIZA opposes on every level. It even has members like Miranda Xafa, a former executive of the IMF that was actively involved in the disastrous austerity (‘stability’) programmes in Latin America during the 1980s and 1990s, or MPs like Stathis Theocharis, a former public revenues general secretary in the Samaras government and a prominent supporter of the austerity/memorandum agenda. Also, even though ‘The River’ tries to present itself as a pro-rights progressive party, it has expressed some alarming views. Regarding the issue of immigration, for example, in one of his speeches in neighborhoods across Athens Stavros Theodorakis has maintained, among other things, (1) that every immigrant who wants to stay in Greece should speak the Greek language and accept European values, (2) that if an immigrant loses her job she should be sent back to her country, and (3) that local authorities should establish rules about how many immigrants are allowed to stay in every neighborhood and then in collaboration with state authorities should check how many of them are actually living in every area and under which conditions (such views were downplayed by almost all the media in Greece, except maybe the media of the left). Last, but not least, it should be clear that we are talking about an overwhelmingly leader-centric political party with hardly any democratic organisation and absolutely no membership. It is characteristic that its leader is its only member. Regarding its agenda (the party doesn’t have a programme yet), in a bid to differentiate itself from the established parties, it rallies for the end of corruption and clientelism, and it calls for the formation of a ‘government of the aristoi’ (a government of the ‘best’) that would offer simple, pragmatist and realistic technocratic solutions to the problems that Greece is facing, based on their expertise and ‘common sense’.
The priority of SYRIZA’s economic programme to end austerity
Now, it is clear that SYRIZA’s first and most urgent priority today is the implementation of its economic programme (part of the so-called ‘programme of Thessaloniki’), including negotiations for a serious reduction in debt and a series of radical reforms in the taxation system. Other crucial measures on its checklist are the reinvigoration of a generous welfare state with universal access, labour reforms in favour of the working classes and the prosecution of corruption at every level. ANEL have accepted every bit of that economic programme, which, if implemented, would be a huge development in favour of the poor and struggling middle classes in Greece and could be the spark for an anti-austerity wave throughout Europe (this is a big if and an even bigger could). That is exactly why SYRIZA formed a coalition government with ANEL. Now, various commentators have expressed concern that the coalition with the ANEL could slow down or even render impossible necessary reforms of the level of human rights, immigration policy and the separation of church and state. But if one judges from the composition of the government that was recently formed, we can speculate that SYRIZA is going to pursue its progressive agenda on those levels anyway. To give just a quick example, Tasia Christodoulopoulou, the newly appointed minister of Immigration Policy, declared upon being appointed that the government would draft a law to grant citizenship to immigrant children born or raised in Greece, something that has been severely opposed by ANEL in the past. For now, it seems quite probable that SYRIZA will also pursue other reforms that are already on its programme, such as establishing civil partnerships for same-sex couples and separating the church from the state. It will be very interesting to see how ANEL reacts if such bills are brought to parliament. One probable scenario would be that even if ANEL opposes such propositions for reforms, SYRIZA could then try to pass them through the parliament with votes from ‘The River’ or maybe PASOK. But wouldn’t that mean an immediate breach within the government coalition? And with what consequences? It is very early to even try to answer such questions.
For anyone who knows the history of SYRIZA and the views that it has publicly expressed and supported during the last decade, it is clear that they did not suddenly turn right-wing or conservative. What happened is that they assessed a set of alternatives and chose collaboration with ANEL as the best one. One can, of course, endlessly discuss if this was indeed the best alternative or not. In any case SYRIZA consists of people with a long history of struggles for human rights and in favour of all kinds of minorities (ethnic, gender, religious or otherwise), people who have actively participated in all sorts of democratic social movements, and it’s certain that most of them are not happy that they have to co-exist with Kammenos and the ANEL party.
Right now, what SYRIZA claims to be attempting is to put a halt to the humanitarian crisis in Greece and to turn the tables in favour of the underdog and the seriously hit middle class (this means the vast majority of the Greek population) through a generous redistribution of wealth. In this direction, one of the first measures of the newly appointed government, as announced, will be to raise the minimum wage from 580 euros to 751 euros, seeking to boost consumption and reverse downward social mobility. The next immediate steps will entail a generous improvement of public health, education and social insurance. It will also try to reverse privatisation of key assets (e.g. the public power corporation), put bailed-out banks under public control, attack tax-evasion and make big money pay its share, and finally put up a serious fight with corruption on every level. ANEL, for now, seem to be supporting this agenda.
A high-stakes game
Apart from the apparent consensus on the immediate economic programme, it is obviously a rather uneasy symbiosis involving many contradictions and sensitive balances to be held. Nevertheless, we should not underestimate the fact that SYRIZA is the hegemonic partner here (36,34% of the vote vs. 4,75%) and could easily force its agenda on ANEL. Another crucial fact that we need to keep in mind is that this is the first time since the restoration of democracy in Greece in 1974 that the country will be run by some other parties and not PASOK or ND, which have been rotating in power since that time. This, by itself, might generate further popular support for the SYRIZA/ANEL government, within an electorate that is severely disappointed by the old twopartyism of PASOK and ND.
It’s going to be a very bumpy road ahead, and no one can be sure if this government is going to make it. With the whole old party establishment held in disdain and crumbling, if this left alternative fails, one could fear for the worst, since many of the outraged and violently impoverished lower social strata might turn to the neo-Nazis of the Golden Dawn or some other anti-democratic authoritarian ‘alternative’ on the Right/extreme Right. It’s a high-stakes game that is already on and much will depend on: (1) social mobilizations in Greece, which could put pressure on SYRIZA to implement its programme and to move steadily towards a progressive, social and radical-democratic agenda, and (2) on what happens in the rest of Europe, including the possible rise of other radical-left forces to power (mainly Podemos in Spain), but also the embrace of anti-austerity policies by mainstream centre-left parties/governments (e.g. Renzi in Italy), which could push for a broader front against austerity and neoliberal deregulation across Europe. The game has just begun…
Giorgos Katsambekis is a PhD candidate in Political Science at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki and a doctoral researcher at the POPULISMUS project. He is the co-editor of the collective volume Radical Democracy and Collective Movements Today. The Biopolitics of the Multitude versus the Hegemony of the People (Ashgate: 2014).