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The winds are changing: a new left populism for Europe

The unprecedented presence of international media, solidarity delegations and representatives of socialist and leftish parties in Athens signalled that Syriza’s triumph was something more than just another electoral victory. 

Alexis Tsipras and Pablo Iglesias. Demotix/Czuko Williams. Some rights reserved.

A spectre is haunting Europe: the spectre of populism. This time it is not the far right populism of Haider, Le Pen and Farage, but a new left populism challenging not just the parties of the right but also the social-democratic parties and the traditional parties on the left.

While the victory of Syriza has turned everybody’s attention to Greece these days, the new radical populist left is on the rise elsewhere as well, above all in Spain with local and national elections coming up in 2015. Even beyond the radical left, social-democrats have started to be more outspoken against European austerity and neoliberal policies.

It seems that the policies they had supported so far have brought them at odds with their own people and this realization starts slowly to sink in. Are we then witnessing the birth of a new populist discourse in Europe? Are the winds changing for the peoples of Europe?

The unprecedented presence of international media, solidarity delegations and representatives of socialist and leftish parties in Athens before and during the election signalled that Syriza’s triumph was something more than just another electoral victory. While trying to explain Syriza’s victory as a peculiarly Greek phenomenon, European elites fear that their peoples too could be contaminated by the Greek disease. For radical left parties and groups across Europe, the victory was a signal of hope.

Three days before the election, on 22 January, a big Syriza rally in Athens was addressed not only by the leader, Alexis Tsipras, but also by the leader of the Spanish Podemos party, Pablo Iglesias. Both represent a new discourse putting democracy, participation and the rights of the people at the centre of their rhetoric.

They speak neither in the name of invisible market forces nor in the name of particular classes. They do not claim to represent only particular groups – the unemployed, students, workers, women, and so on – instead they speak in the name of the people. This is what makes them populist, and this is what infuriates other parties, both right and left.

Time and again, Syriza and Podemos are accused of being populist. Here ‘populist’ is used in the pejorative sense: as irresponsible pandering to the irrational masses. For the parties of the right as well as the social-democrats, the left-wing populists promise the people the impossible: that the people, and not the market, could be in charge.

For the old parties on the traditional left, the populist talk of the people obscures what really matters: class struggle. For them the claim is pure nonsense: class enemies cannot, and should not, be united under the banner of a united people. For the mainstream parties, the claim to speak for the people is preposterous. And yet, the right wing, the social-democrats and the traditional left, all lose voters to these new players.

And populist they are, these new players. They are the political forces that in Greece and Spain draw a dividing line between the people and the system. Thereby they create an antagonistic frontier: you are either with us (part of the people) or you are against us (part of ‘the caste’ in Spain, those serving the ‘Troika’ in Greece).

The antagonistic frontier is constantly repeated in every political confrontation in both Greece and Spain, and it cuts across the borders of the two countries. It is no coincidence that the conservative Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras rallied his Spanish counterpart Mariano Rajoy in support of his electoral campaign. And Pablo Iglesias has not been slow to announce that Rajoy is next.

What we have in the national contexts of Greece and Spain, then, is the construction of an antagonistic frontier dividing the people from the system. It is what the right wing populist parties have been doing for decades, but it is now done from the left. Syriza and Podemos have managed to put together a chain of equivalence of a wide variety of interests and identities: from old Trotskyists to disaffected voters in the middle, from old workers to students, and so on.

Two things unite these different groups. First of all, they are united by their common opposition to the system. They may be so for different reasons, but they are all opposed to the system or some aspect of it – political corruption, neoliberal austerity policies, and so forth. They are also united by some hope that ‘things could be different’, a hope that is often crystallised in the identification with a young and charismatic leader (think of Tsipras or Iglesias). These are the key ingredients in a (left) populist movement: the antagonistic frontier between the system and the people, the articulation of a chain of equivalence (a broad front), and the role of the leader in galvanising the hope that things could be different.

What the Greek elections showed is that what is happening is not restricted to Greece or Spain or any other individual European nation-state. The Syriza win has ignited a spark of inspiration across Europe, and this is absolutely important if this sort of left populism is to be effective. On one level, any ‘people’s government’ in one country will need external popular support in order to withstand the attack of the old forces, either on a national or a transnational level. On another level, any real change at the level of European institutions will only be possible through a cross-national movement. It is one thing to make decisions about national debt in one country, but another to influence the structures within which those decisions are made.

European media and politicians descended on Greece during the elections. After the election result, the established European right has been quick to dismiss Syriza as hopeless dreamers. The European left, on the other hand, seems suddenly reinvigorated. And not just the usual suspects such as Podemos and Izquierda Unida in Spain, but also social-democrats – from Martin Schulz through Ken Livingstone to Peter Hain. They all want a share in Syriza’s success. That may be with their own national electoral interests in mind, but it is interesting how they all invoke Syriza’s anti-austerity stance.

The social-democratic parties occupy perhaps the most uncomfortable position in this process of articulating something new: some want to cross the line and regain something of their socialist principles and role as champions of the people’s cause. But it may already be too late. The new left populist discourse already has its own momentum and its own particular identity. The challenge is to move beyond particular national peoples and uniting all of them in a pan-European left populist movement.

About the authors

Marina Prentoulis is Senior Lecturer in Media and Politics at the University of East Anglia, UK. She is currently working on social movements in Europe.

Lasse Thomassen is Senior Lecturer in the School of Politics & International Relations at Queen Mary, University of London. He is the co-editor of Radical Democracy: Politics Between Abundance and Lack (2005) and the author of articles on, among other things, representation, radical democracy and post-structuralism.

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