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Not so strange bedfellows: making sense of the coalition between Syriza and the Independent Greeks

How do we make sense of the seemingly incongruous coalition between Syriza and the Independent Greeks?

"Panos, teach me to dance..." Flickr/edoardobaraldi. Some rights reserved.

In the aftermath of its clear electoral victory on January 25, 2015, but still two parliamentary seats short of having an absolute majority on its own, the Coalition of the Radical Left (Syriza) took a decision that most people consider paradoxical: to seek governmental support from the party of Independent Greeks (ANEL), a nationalist, right-wing populist party positioned between the center-right New Democracy (ND) and the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn.

ANEL, a spinoff from ND, was launched in February 2012 demanding an end to austerity. Party leader Panos Kammenos is a vocal champion of racist, homophobic, and anti-Semitic views, and has a penchant for conspiracy theories that verge on the absurd.

Thinking in perspective, the alliance of Greece’s new leftist prime-minister Mr. Tsipras with Mr. Kammenos is the equivalent of rightly unthinkable working relations between, say, Michael Foot and Nigel Farage in the UK, Jean-Luc Mélenchon and Nicolas Dupont-Aignan in France, or, at political group level, Die Linke and the Pegida movement in Germany.

But the Syriza-ANEL partnership should not be quite surprising, nor is it without explanation. In a book I authored last year under the title Populism and Crisis Politics in Greece (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), I made a clear prediction about this development on the understanding that “the distance between Syriza and ANEL is smaller (and hence their coalition potential larger) than the distance separating each of these parties from PASOK and ND respectively” (p. 105).

What was the logic behind this prediction? And how can we make sense of the phenomenon of left- and right-populist alliance? Following, and occasionally quoting directly from, the foregoing book, here is a rationalization.

To understand the “unholy alliance” of Syriza and ANEL, we must first dispense with the traditional way of thinking about parties and party competition solely across a left-to-right continuum, which rests on two basic assumptions:

First, that all parties take positions on a left-right space, over which they form clusters of distinct ideological party groups, and, second, that political coalitions occur within each group or, in any case, between ideologically adjacent parties. This kind of thinking cannot explain new political realities.

As suggested by the Greek case, national politics (and policies, and parties) in western democracies are not primarily divided between left, center and right. Instead, they are divided into three different political and ideological camps, which we can for simplicity call them the liberal, the populist, and the non-democratic camp. Interestingly enough, and promising far-reaching political consequences, each and all camps contain both left- and right-wing parties.

In a nutshell, the parties within the liberal camp acknowledge the fact that contemporary societies are divided by many, and often crosscutting, cleavages, which can only be bridged via political moderation, bilateral negotiations, and reciprocal commitments; to this end, they insist on the rule of law and, despite all failings, are intent on protecting minority rights.

In contrast, the parties within the populist camp perceive society as being split by one single cleavage, ostensibly dividing the moral “people” from some corrupt “elite,” and call for an unrelenting struggle for popular sovereignty, moral victory, and the routing of the people’s foes; quite often, however, such strong majoritarianism distorts, and even overcomes, the rule of law.

Finally, there is not much to be said about the non-democratic camp of parties, whether of a communist or a neo-Nazi hue, since they simply stand against representative democracy and would be happy to see it gone.

From this new perspective, let us now have a fresh look at Greek party politics. The figure below depicts the geography and dynamics of Greece’s current seven-party system based on the tripartite division among liberal, populist and non-democratic forces.

The inner circle (A) contains center-right New Democracy, and center-left Pasok and River (To Potami); notwithstanding their past failings and other faults, all these parties call for reforms and the strengthening of institutions, present clear pro-EU agendas, and dread the possibility of a Grexit.

The intermediate circle (B) includes left-populist Syriza and right-populist ANEL; they have at best mixed feelings about the EU and the euro, pursue adversarial politics to the detriment of institutions, and thrive on majoritarianism.

The outer circle (C) is made of Greece’s two non-democratic parties, the Communist Party (KKE) on the outer left and Golden Dawn (GD) on the outer right. They are representative democracy’s openly declared foes.

In such a system, parties may move strategically in two different ways – one linear, across the left-right space, and another circular, thus leapfrogging over neighboring parties while also spanning left and right.

The argument is, then, that rather than viewing the parties as solely being arranged along a spatial configuration (which would yield two lefts, two rights, and a center), we may as well distinguish them on whether they stand for, or against, representative democracy and, among those standing for it, whether they favor a liberal or a populist type of democracy. With such an understanding, the seeming paradox of the Syriza-ANEL coalition makes perfect sense.

There are three major reasons that make this coalition feasible, let alone desirable.

Firstly, no workable alliance could have been possible between Syriza and either the non-democratic Communist Party or the liberal River party.

In the first case, despite sharing a common anti-austerity stance, the KKE considers Syriza an “enemy party” and its General Secretary, Dimitris Koutsoumbas, refused even to discuss the possibility of coalition. In the second case, Syriza would not welcome the River as a coalition partner for its social democratic leanings and its willingness for reforms.

Secondly, despite their polar ideological locations, left populist Syriza and right populist ANEL, share many common features. This has becomes evident above all in the quite similar discourses they have used during the crisis years, which are very much akin to old-style Greek populism trumpeting the return to the status quo ante and the restoration of a big, spendthrift state.

Thirdly, there is an important strategic reason from this alliance. Straddling the political forces situated at the center of the political competition space, Syriza and ANEL may thrive electorally by attacking the moderate and reformist parties while advancing a majoritarian populist discourse. This may potentially lead to the further enfeeblement of the liberal camp and its political marginalization.

This is not a foolish idea. For, as it appears in our figure above, the cumulative electoral strength of the populist camp (41.1 percent) is already higher that the strength of the liberal parties that are represented in the Greek parliament (38.5 percent), while the non-democratic camp retains a menacingly strong 11.8 percent of the national vote.

As populism overshadows liberalism and non-democratic extremism remains strong, the Greek democracy is in serious jeopardy. Meanwhile, watch out for similar coalitions between left- and right-populism that may also soon appear in a country near you.

About the author

Takis S. Pappas is a Visiting Professor at the Central European University, and has recently authored Populism and Crisis Politics in Greece (Palgrave 2014) and co-authored European Populism in the Shadow of the Great Recession (ECPR Press 2015).

 


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