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Is a socialist EU possible via left-wing populist parties such as Syriza, Podemos and the HDP?

Syriza still needs to build a strong hegemonic culture to include the non-leftist progressive movement and to expand the bloc beyond class politics to gain the consent of society at large.

Alexis Tsipras and Pabloe Iglesias at an election rally in Athens. Flickr/X-Andra. Some rights reserved.

Syriza, a union of ‘radical’ left parties, has achieved state power in Greece as a result of the failure of the market economy in a post-Fordist era. This in turn may open up a space for new opportunities to develop robust responses to the political predicament of EU liberal democracy, after the resounding failure of social democracy in a ‘post-politics’ era.

This political success is based on Syriza’s victory in the last general election of June 2012, inspiring the far-left or radical left parties in the EU with renewed hope. This democratic victory (with 36.5% of the vote) in the January 2015 election was enthusiastically welcomed by its Spanish radical counterpart, Podemos, along with Turkey’s radical democrat party Halkların Demokrasi Partisi (HDP), in Turkey’s capacity as a candidate country for the EU.

While both populism and its young charismatic leadership have played a vital role in Syriza’s triumph, it could be argued that populist left-wing parties are better able in general to fill the hegemonic gap created by the crisis of neoliberalism, as opposed to the extremist right-wing parties, and serve as an alternative and dynamic force for the ‘democratisation of democracy’. Economic austerity and the crisis of the old ‘politics’ (the post-democracy situation) have led to the ‘emergence’ of a new hegemonic power in the European public sphere that could move us beyond the parties of the central right and left.

The role of populism is crucial in a democratic system and here is not employed in a negative sense as it is, for example, when used with reference to right-wing parties, such as, historically those of Nazi Germany, Mussolini’s Italy and Franco’s Spain or contemporarily Le Pen in France, Berlusconi in Italy, Vlaams Belang in Belgium and the UKIP in Britain. Instead, in this emerging politics, populism is used as a tool by left-wing parties to radically transform the neoliberal system into a democratic one. This is done by articulating hegemonic power within an antagonistic interrelationship in the  Polanyian sense of rescuing the economy and society. Philosophers and institutions, such as Pierre-Andre Taguieff, Ernesto Laclau, Chantal Mouffe, Yannis Stavrakakis and the Populismus Institution (most of whose participants are from the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki) have led debates on this rescue in the academic and intellectual sphere.

It can be argued that Syriza’s leaders have developed their particular brand of populism along lines suggested by the ‘theoretical Kaaba’, the Essex School (based in the Department of Government at the University of Essex with the prominent theoretician Laclau) as is clearly stated by Essex Professor David Howard, who writes that 'the connections between Syriza and Laclau’s theory are easy to see […] But there is another link between Laclau and Syriza: their commitment to democracy, albeit in a more radical sense than that of our current neo-liberal settlements'.

Syriza’s achievement cannot be seen as a classical, orthodox revolution; on the contrary, it is a propulsive force with an optimism and antagonism within a new ‘politics’ (the politicisation of politics) that attempts to challenge the neoliberal hegemony that has already convinced many, including traditionalist leftists, that ‘there is no alternative’. For instance, the new finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis (an Essex PhD graduate) has refused to negotiate over the bailout conditions with the unelected ‘troika’ (the EU-IMF technocrats), thereby pushing EU neoliberal democracy away from the hegemony of the unelected to function in a fully democratic way, aiming to elevate the power of the people over that of an unrepresentative hegemony.

Syriza was, however, immediately criticised by its comrades for forming a coalition with the independent right-wing party, ANEL, which has a nationalist agenda on issues such as immigration, LGBTs, anti-semitism and Macedonia. At the same time, the Podemos leader, Pablo Iglesias warned Syriza not to become centralized (like PASOK) by embracing the classic structure of the state before radically transforming it, as political history is full of examples of peripheral political parties being absorbed into the central power.

Therefore, it seems that Syriza will still need to continue to promote and protect ‘other’ identities, such as ethnic and religious minorities, immigrants and the LBGT community and to promote their equal rights and include them in Greek society, despite the subverting nature of its coalition partner. In this way it will prove its commitment to its ‘idealistic’ politics and make further advances in the democratisation of democracy. 

Passive revolution

Syriza is indeed an alliance of radical leftist groups that can be described in terms of a Gramscian ‘historical bloc’; however, its cultural and moral leadership is not yet complete in the way Gramsci suggests is necessary. It still needs to build a strong hegemonic culture to include the non-leftist progressive movement and to expand the bloc beyond class politics to gain the consent of society at large. The new left-wing populist parties share opposition socialist, radical democratic aspirations (e.g. Indignados, Aganaktismenoi) for the European public sphere, that seek to move the EU into a radical and plural democratic project and agonistic plural democratic society.

Although Syriza has a strong relationship with these social movements, as a leftist party it still needs to mobilise the political ‘passion’ for a collective identity. Syriza has so far adopted this approach successfully on a broader European level, through creating ties with left-wing parties in Italy, Portugal, and particularly with the promising political party, Podemos, in Spain, as well as the Liberty and Solidarity Party (ÖDP) of Turkey.

With this in mind, Tsipras demonstratively included the Podemos leader, Pablo Iglesias, who was previously a lecturer in political science and who gained 8% of the vote in the recent European Parliament elections in his campaigning. In his last rally speech Tsipras stated that “we are turning a page in Europe”, while Iglesias claimed that “the wind of change is blowing through Europe”.

Such populist speeches are European and leftist version of Obama’s “Yes we can” speech. Moreover, for these left-wing populist parties, the struggle is for change not only in Greece, but in the whole of Europe - with the desire to become a voice of the people, representative and accountable. This is fundamentally, a desire to socially construct the 'radical democratic European citizen' as the political parties of the centre right and left (including the social democrats) have grown tired of the wide differences between the citizens of Europe.  Hence the slogan invoked by a young Syrizan woman sympathiser: 'Hope is in our hands'

So far, Syriza has shown that it can create an international solidarity in support of many international issues through collaboration with radical, socialist and national movements, such as the Latin American socialist movements, the Arab Spring’s Tunisian and Egyptian collective movements, Turkey’s Gezi reactional movement, the US occupy movements, the Palestinian national struggle, and the Kurdish national resistance against the so-called Islamic State (IS) in the Kobanê canton, Rojava, in the north of Syria.

According to the arguments of Chantal Mouffe - this synergy between the party and progressive civil society is a necessity, as the party itself is not an adequate mechanism for delivering a socialist strategy, and hence there is a strategic as well as a substantive necessity for international solidarity. In addition, democratic demands cannot be solely expressed through vertical party politics, as they need new forms of political organisation that can utilise vertical and horizontal forms of communication and decisionmaking.

The passion for radical democracy and Europe’s periphery

Progressive political party leaders such as Tsipras of Syriza, Iglesias of Podemos and Selahattin Demirtaş of the HDP, are young and educated and demand equity, justice and liberty. Demirtaş, as a HDP co-chair, was the first politician in Turkey to congratulate his ‘brother’ (not 'comrade') Tsipras via twitter ‘wishing him good luck on the way of liberty for the proletarian and oppressed people’. The HDP, the successor of the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), has been seen as a strong candidate that could occupy the role of Syriza in Turkey through promoting a radical democratic project for the political life of Turkey and perhaps that of the EU. However, despite many people’s desire that the HDP should resemble its European counterpart Syriza, it can be argued that the HDP is not directly comparable with Syriza (or Podemos) due to many social, political and economic differences. 

The crucial point here is that these progressive political agents, and their discourse of equality and liberty, are attempting to transform neoliberal democracy, as well as the capitalist hegemonic order, into a radical (perhaps agonistic) democracy through a strategic Gramscian 'war of position' so that ‘actual representation’ can take place. In developing their strategies, they have the option of employing a 'war of manoeuvre' (a frontal attack), and in this respect Syriza has shown their solidarity with the Kurdish national movement by sending a delegation to the Kobanê war zone.

The HDP is producing a new ‘politics’ in a post-political era in Turkey by creating a counter-hegemonic culture as a form of  ‘good sense’ that can go beyond ‘common sense’. In this respect, the discourses of Türkiyelileşme ( inviting people to become a citizen of Turkey, rather than an ethnic Turk) and Yeni Hayat (New Life) of the HDP have become the discursive tools of the new populist approach. These new discourses have opened up more opportunities for the HDP. For example, during the last presidential election (August 2014), Demirtaş obtained 9.7% of the votes while his own party, the BDP, scored only between 6-7% at the last general election.

Furthermore, Kurds have started to implement their own radical democratic project through the canton regime in Rojava while fighting (particularly by female fighters) against the violent Islamic State (IS) under the banner of protecting democracy, equality and liberty and standing against the sex slavery and the ‘barbaric acts’ of IS. This dynamic development at the same time stimulates the HDP to activate its radical democratic project in Turkey through a peace building process. The existence of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in the north of Iraq has already boosted Kurdish national demands for equality and liberty and also challenges and expands the AKP’s ‘conservative democracy’ within democratic institutions.

Here we see that another EU project is possible after all.  There is optimism for an agonistic democratic public sphere through hegemonic articulation, new discourses and the creation of an agonistic debate by these emerging left-wing popular parties in the EU. They are capable of eliminating the universal dichotomy of 'us/them' and shifting this antagonistic relation into an agonistic one between democratic adversaries rather than enemies.

About the author

Omer Tekdemir is a research associate and associate lecturer at the School of History, Politics and International Relations, University of Leicester. He taught at the Department of Politics and International Relations, University of Westminster and has been visiting scholar at the Coventry and Durham University. He is also one of the editors of the New Middle Eastern Studies.


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