The many transformations of Syriza

By Ioan­nis Vlas­taris and Kon­stan­ti­nos Kosta­gian­nis.

Some his­to­ry: From one coali­tion to another

The for­ma­tion of Syriza (Coali­tion of Rad­i­cal Left) as a uni­tary par­ty is a recent devel­op­ment. Its Found­ing Con­gress only took place in July 2013. Syriza, how­ev­er, exist­ed as an elec­toral alliance for almost a decade before it became a par­ty. It is as an elec­toral alliance that Syriza sky­rock­et­ed in the two rounds of elec­tions that took place in 2012 and assumed the role of lead­ing oppo­si­tion in the Greek par­lia­ment.[1] When first estab­lished as an elec­toral alliance in 2004, Syriza was an attempt to bring togeth­er the left-of-social democ­ra­cy SYN (Coali­tion of Left, Move­ments, and Ecol­o­gy) and var­i­ous small­er par­ties and organ­i­sa­tions of the rad­i­cal left. SYN was undoubt­ed­ly the major par­ty [2] in this alliance, and was itself the rem­nant of an ear­li­er short-lived coali­tion between KKE (Com­mu­nist Par­ty) and the Euro­com­mu­nist EAR (Greek Left).

After the with­draw­al of KKE in 1991, SYN con­tin­ued to par­tic­i­pate in nation­al elec­tions. Its results, how­ev­er, revolved around the thresh­old of 3% and in the elec­tion of 1993 it failed to enter par­lia­ment. The for­ma­tion of Syriza in 2004 did not imme­di­ate­ly lead to a rad­i­cal improve­ment in elec­toral per­for­mance. Indeed in the elec­tion of 2009, just before the out­break of the debt cri­sis, Syriza secured only 4.6% of the vote. Between the elec­tions of 2009 and those of 2012 there were two devel­op­ments that affect­ed Syriza’s com­po­si­tion. The social demo­c­ra­t­ic wing of SYN left the par­ty in 2010 to form DIMAR (demo­c­ra­t­ic left) and in 2012 EM (Uni­tary Front), a splin­ter group of PASOK, joined Syriza.

Rad­i­cal Left and the dilem­mas of Integration

Syriza belongs to the emerg­ing par­ty fam­i­ly of the rad­i­cal left. Par­ties of the rad­i­cal left look for­ward to a “root and branch” change [3] of the polit­i­cal and eco­nom­ic sys­tem and seek to occu­py the field between social democ­ra­cy and extreme left. Con­se­quent­ly, Syriza dis­plays a num­ber of char­ac­ter­is­tics that form its rad­i­cal left ide­o­log­i­cal and pro­gram­mat­ic pro­file: it advo­cates a reju­ve­na­tion of democ­ra­cy through the strength­en­ing of social move­ments, pro­motes cul­tur­al lib­er­al­ism, adopts a strong crit­i­cal atti­tude towards neolib­er­al­ism and finan­cial glob­al­iza­tion, sup­ports wider state inter­ven­tion in the econ­o­my (Key­ne­sian­ism), and, last but not least, takes a clear “eur­o­crit­i­cal” (or “soft euroscep­ti­cal”) stance.[4]

The party’s posi­tion on the process of Euro­pean inte­gra­tion is indeed of great impor­tance for both its ide­o­log­i­cal ori­en­ta­tion and its strate­gic polit­i­cal choic­es. The ris­ing impor­tance of the EU cre­at­ed a new “cleav­age” with­in the rad­i­cal left.[5] Crit­i­cism towards EU poli­cies has become a sub­stan­tial part of rad­i­cal left’s dis­tinct iden­ti­ty. As a result, how­ev­er, rad­i­cal left par­ties have been divid­ed between those that reject the Euro­pean inte­gra­tion on prin­ci­ple and those (like Syriza) that seek anoth­er path towards it. The for­ma­tion of a party’s iden­ti­ty is a dynam­ic process, sub­ject to a vari­ety of influ­ences. Whilst in the ear­ly 1990s SYN (Syriza’s major con­stituent par­ty) declared its ‘Euro­peanism’ and vot­ed for the rat­i­fi­ca­tion of the Maas­tricht Treaty, its out­look changed as it grad­u­al­ly embraced more Euroscep­tic posi­tions.[6] Last July’s agree­ment between the Syriza-led gov­ern­ment and Greece’s cred­i­tors might have alle­vi­at­ed fears of a Grex­it but it entailed the accep­tance of poli­cies that sharply con­trast­ed with the party’s ide­ol­o­gy and led to a split of the party.

Kin­dred by Choice: Syriza’s Euro­pean allies

Syriza com­pris­es of sev­er­al orga­ni­za­tions of the left rang­ing from social democ­ra­cy to Trot­sky­ism and Mao­ism. Giv­en the lim­it­ed amount of space avail­able here we will focus sole­ly on the con­nec­tion of the most impor­tant con­stituent part of Syriza, i.e. SYN, to the Euro­pean con­text. As men­tioned above, SYN was orig­i­nal­ly formed as an alliance between KKE and EAR. This alliance could be seen as an attempt to re-com­bine the forces of the tra­di­tion­al­ist KKE with the Euro­com­mu­nist ele­ments that split from it in 1968.[7] After the with­draw­al of KKE in 1991, what remained of SYN had a stronger Euro­com­mu­nist iden­ti­ty, oper­at­ing in a catch-all frame­work which also attempt­ed to incor­po­rate parts of the new left, polit­i­cal ecol­o­gy, fem­i­nism and oth­ers. SYN, and lat­er Syriza, main­tained close rela­tions to par­ties of sim­i­lar ori­en­ta­tion around Europe such as the Por­tuguese Left Bloc, the French Com­mu­nist Par­ty, and the Ger­man PDS (lat­er on ‘die Linke’). SYN was a found­ing mem­ber of the Par­ty of Euro­pean Left (EL) and indeed played an impor­tant role in the ini­tia­tives for its for­ma­tion. Alex­is Tsipras was EL’s nom­i­nee for the pres­i­den­cy of the Euro­pean Com­mis­sion in 2014.

“Peo­ple” ver­sus “Estab­lish­ment”

Syriza tried to adopt a typ­i­cal mass par­ty orga­ni­za­tion­al struc­ture, based on a net­work of grass­roots orga­ni­za­tions. Accord­ing to its statute, it seeks to cre­ate an open frame­work that pro­motes wide polit­i­cal par­tic­i­pa­tion. Addi­tion­al­ly, as a rad­i­cal left par­ty, Syriza pro­motes polit­i­cal par­tic­i­pa­tion not only through par­ty orga­ni­za­tions, but also through a rich array of social orga­ni­za­tions and move­ments. It is dif­fi­cult to eval­u­ate how suc­cess­ful such endeav­ours have been. There are cer­tain­ly those, like for­mer chief eco­nom­ic advis­er G. Mil­ios, who claim that post-2012 inter­nal democ­ra­cy in the par­ty has been steadi­ly reced­ing in favour of more auton­o­my for the leadership.

Between 2010 and 2014, anti-aus­ter­i­ty social mobi­liza­tion through par­tic­i­pa­tion to social move­ments (such as “The Indig­nants”) was wide­spread in Greece and Syriza sought to assume respon­si­bil­i­ty for their polit­i­cal rep­re­sen­ta­tion. The par­ty tried to be rec­og­nized as the polit­i­cal link between these move­ments and the gov­ern­ment, since it believed it could make anti-aus­ter­i­ty social mobi­liza­tion polit­i­cal­ly effec­tive. This ini­tia­tive became one of the most impor­tant parts of Syriza’s strat­e­gy towards its 2015 elec­toral vic­to­ry.[8]

Pur­su­ing this strat­e­gy, Syriza adopt­ed a pop­ulist dis­course. Whilst the nar­ra­tive of “peo­ple ver­sus estab­lish­ment” became cen­tral [9], appeals to oth­er polit­i­cal and social sub­jects (class­es etc.) eclipsed. Along with this dis­cur­sive choice, the pro­mo­tion of Alex­is Tsipras’ charis­mat­ic per­son­al­i­ty became cru­cial for the party’s endeav­ours to con­struct the image of a cred­i­ble polit­i­cal pow­er with strong and deter­mined lead­er­ship. Syriza was anx­ious to show that, in con­trast to oth­er protest par­ties of the left, it was both capa­ble and will­ing to come to power.

A future for Syriza?

Since the out­burst of the debt cri­sis, Greece’s polit­i­cal sys­tem has been marked by suc­ces­sive bouts of insta­bil­i­ty. Gior­gos Papandreou’s (PASOK) gov­ern­ment, which had for­mal­ly request­ed the inter­na­tion­al bailout for Greece in April 2010, resigned in 2011, to be replaced by a coali­tion gov­ern­ment (PASOK, New Democ­ra­cy, and LAOS) led by the for­mer banker and Euro­pean Cen­tral Bank vice pres­i­dent Loukas Papademos. Dur­ing his term of office the sec­ond bailout was final­ized (Feb­ru­ary 2012) and then elec­tions were called for May and then, again, June as no gov­ern­ment could be formed after the first elections.

The earth­quake elec­tions of 2012 rad­i­cal­ly altered the par­ty sys­tem in Greece.[10] The dom­i­nant char­ac­ter­is­tics of the debate before the elec­tions were: a pro­found dis­sat­is­fac­tion with cor­rup­tion and polit­i­cal elites that hith­er­to ran the coun­try, and con­tro­ver­sy over the bailout.[11] In the wake of the elec­tion of Jan­u­ary 2015 the social demo­c­ra­t­ic PASOK had lost close to 90% of its 2009 vot­ers in absolute num­bers.[12] It was Syriza – a polit­i­cal space that PASOK vot­ers felt more com­fort­able with despite its rad­i­cal rhetoric [13]- that cap­i­talised most from this collapse.

Syriza, as sug­gest­ed by some com­men­ta­tors already after the Euro­pean Par­lia­ment elec­tions of 2014 [14], seems to have suc­cess­ful­ly estab­lished itself as the dom­i­nant cen­tre-left par­ty. Its suc­cess in main­tain­ing that posi­tion, how­ev­er, is far from assured. Hav­ing failed in its nego­ti­a­tions with Greece’s cred­i­tors, Syriza’s main goal should now be no less than the dis­man­tling of clien­telism and cor­rup­tion that con­sti­tute the dual chron­ic malaise of the Greek polit­i­cal sys­tem. It faces after all, a demon­stra­bly less for­giv­ing elec­torate which in Sep­tem­ber 2015, and amidst an unprece­dent­ed absten­tion rate of 44%, only returned Syriza to gov­ern­ment as “the less­er of many evils”.

Dr. Kon­stan­ti­nos Kosta­gian­nis is a lec­tur­er in Inter­na­tion­al Rela­tions at Maas­tricht Uni­ver­si­ty. Ioan­nis Vlas­taris has worked as a researcher at Insti­tute of Inter­na­tion­al Rela­tions of Pan­teion Uni­ver­si­ty and present­ly pur­sues a degree in Polit­i­cal Sci­ence and His­to­ry in Athens.


The views and opin­ions expressed in this arti­cle are those of the authors.

[1] The dif­fer­ence between a par­ty and an elec­toral alliance is not neg­li­gi­ble. Accord­ing to the cur­rent elec­toral law (3626/08) the par­ty that comes first in a nation­al elec­tion is enti­tled to a bonus of 50 (out of 300) seats. In the case of an elec­toral alliance between sev­er­al par­ties (like Syriza until 2013), how­ev­er, the per­cent­age they achieved has to be divid­ed by the num­ber of par­ties com­pris­ing that alliance. This makes it extreme­ly unlike­ly that an elec­toral alliance would receive the bonus even if it came first in the elec­tions. More dis­cus­sion on this here (in Greek).

[2] Accord­ing to Tsakati­ka and Eleft­he­ri­ou, SYN account­ed for “at least 80 per cent of its [Syriza’s] cadres, activists and vot­ers”. Tsakati­ka, Myr­to, and Costas Eleft­he­ri­ou. “The Rad­i­cal Left’s turn towards civ­il soci­ety in Greece: one strat­e­gy, two paths.” South Euro­pean Soci­ety and Pol­i­tics 18.1 (2013): 81–99.

[3] March, Luke, and Cas Mud­de. “What’s left of the rad­i­cal left? The Euro­pean rad­i­cal left after 1989: Decline and muta­tion.” Com­par­a­tive Euro­pean Pol­i­tics 3.1 (2005): 23–49.

[4] Char­alam­bous, Gior­gos. “All the shades of red: exam­in­ing the rad­i­cal left’s Euroscep­ti­cism.” Con­tem­po­rary Pol­i­tics 17.3 (2011): 299–320; Μοσχονάς, Γεράσιμος. “Ριζοσπαστική Αριστερά: ο μετακομμουνιστικός χώρος σε αναζήτηση ταυτότητας”, Διεθνής και Ευρωπαϊκή Πολιτική, τ. 15, (Απρίλιος 2007): 233–242. Moschonas, Geras­si­mos. “Rad­i­cal Left: the post-com­mu­nist space in search for iden­ti­ty” (in Greek).

[5] Moschonas, Geras­si­mos. “The Euro­pean Union and the Dilem­mas of the Rad­i­cal Left: Some Pre­lim­i­nary Thoughts.” Trans­form! (2011).

[6] Ver­ney, Susan­nah. “An excep­tion­al case? Par­ty and pop­u­lar Euroscep­ti­cism in Greece, 1959–2009.” South Euro­pean Soci­ety and Pol­i­tics 16.01 (2011): 51–79.

[7] This was not the first attempt. Euro­com­mu­nist KKEint (the pre­de­ces­sor to EAR) and the tra­di­tion­al­ist KKE­ext also par­tic­i­pat­ed joint­ly in the first elec­tions after the fall of the dic­ta­tor­ship in 1974. For a gen­er­al dis­cus­sion of the first steps of Greek Euro­com­mu­nism before the estab­lish­ment of SYN see: Kapetanyan­nis, Basil. “The Mak­ing of Greek Euro­com­mu­nism.” The Polit­i­cal Quar­ter­ly 50.4 (1979): 445–460; also: Μπαλαμπανίδης, Γιάννης. Ευρωκομμουνισμός : Από την κομμουνιστική στη ριζοσπαστική ευρωπαϊκή Αριστερά. Πόλις (2015). Bal­a­ban­i­dis, Gian­nis. Euro­com­mu­nism: From com­mu­nist to rad­i­cal Euro­pean left. (In Greek).

[8] Spourdalakis, Michalis. “Left strat­e­gy in the Greek caul­dron: Explain­ing Syriza’s suc­cess.” Social­ist Reg­is­ter 49 (2013): 107.

[9] Stavrakakis, Yan­nis, and Gior­gos Kat­sam­bekis. “Left-wing pop­ulism in the Euro­pean periph­ery: the case of SYRIZA.” Jour­nal of polit­i­cal ide­olo­gies 19.2 (2014): 119–142.

[10] Teper­oglou, Eftichia, and Emmanouil Tsat­sa­nis. “Dealign­ment, de-legit­i­ma­tion and the implo­sion of the two-par­ty sys­tem in Greece: the earth­quake elec­tion of 6 May 2012.” Jour­nal of Elec­tions, Pub­lic Opin­ion & Par­ties 24.2 (2014): 222–242

[11] Dinas, Elias, and Lam­pri­ni Rori. “The 2012 Greek par­lia­men­tary elec­tions: Fear and loathing in the polls.” West Euro­pean Pol­i­tics 36.1 (2013): 270–282.

[12] Tsir­bas, Yan­nis. “The Jan­u­ary 2015 Par­lia­men­tary Elec­tion in Greece: Gov­ern­ment Change, Par­tial Pun­ish­ment and Hes­i­tant Sta­bil­i­sa­tion.” South Euro­pean Soci­ety and Pol­i­tics (2015): 1–22.

[13] Βούλγαρης, Γιάννης. Η μεταπολιτευτική Ελλάδα 1974–2009. Πόλις (2013): 331. Voul­garis, Gian­nis. Greece of Metapo­litef­si 1974–2009 (In Greek).

[14] Teper­oglou, Eftichia, Emmanouil Tsat­sa­nis, and Elias Nico­la­copou­los. “Habit­u­at­ing to the new nor­mal in a post-earth­quake par­ty sys­tem: the 2014 Euro­pean elec­tion in Greece.” South Euro­pean Soci­ety and Pol­i­tics 20.3 (2015): 333–355.

Pic­ture: Thier­ry Ehrmann, Syriza logo, Cre­ative Com­mons via Flickr

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