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Syriza one year on: what happened to the radical left dream in Greece?

In the year since they came to power, Syriza have all but capitulated on their radical economic program. But what happened to other 'leftist' issues such as church-state relations, minority rights and the military?

Flickr/Thierry Ehrmann. Creative commons.On 25 January 2015, Syriza and Alexis Tsipras won the Greek parliamentary elections. Syriza’s proponents as well as critics, at home and abroad, regarded this as a landmark for Greek politics: It was the first time in Greece’s history that a political party with ‘genuinely’ leftist origins had entered the halls of power. The first weeks after Syriza’s victory were marked by a renewed wave of optimism that a more positive turn for Greece could still be feasible despite the critical phase that the country has been going through.

Nevertheless, a few months later, this optimism was gradually replaced with disillusionment. For a start, the government coalition with the right-wing Independent Greeks/ANEL did not resonate well with the ‘older’ segment of Syriza’s electorate.

Furthermore, it soon became evident that, during his electoral campaign, Alexis Tsipras had made various promises to different target-groups which were often incompatible with each other (e.g. the ‘Thessaloniki Declaration’ in September 2014).

For instance, pledges to maintain the wage-grid intact and suspend additional layoffs in the public sector combined with promises to relax taxation for small and medium-size entrepreneurs.

In due time, the materialization of these diverse proclamations emerged as a particularly hard and complex task for the new government. Most importantly, it became clear that Syriza’s policymakers had overestimated their capacities to achieve a better deal for Greece in the negotiations with the creditors. Syriza’s critics accused the government (the former Finance Minister, Yanis Varoufakis, in particular) of lacking a concrete roadmap during the negotiations.

Meanwhile, Syriza’s sympathizers accused the European ordo (neo)liberalis of doing whatever possible to obstruct the implementation of Syriza’s programme and thwart this early challenge to their hegemony. Whichever of these two allegations may be more accurate, it remains true that a third set of austerity measures (i.e. the ‘Third Memorandum’), with particularly harsh terms, is currently under way for Greece.

My focus in this brief piece is cast on policymaking aspects that do not necessarily interweave with the economic crisis (or the bailout) and which have long formed component of Syriza's political identity as a leftist party. These are, namely, areas such as: minority and LGBT rights; refugees and other migrants; the separation of Church from the state; and the reduction of military spending. The main questions here are: How much did Syriza manage to implement a more 'left-leaning' agenda in the abovementioned areas? What were the main obstacles? What are the prospects for the future?

Minority groups, the LGBT community and the refugee question

Since its days as the Left Coalition/Synaspismos in the 1990s, Syriza has been particularly popular among Greece’s officially recognized minority group; the Muslims of Western Thrace (consisting of ethnic Turks as the main component, Pomaks and Roma). Greece’s reformist left has traditionally subscribed to an inclusive platform on minorities and the endorsement of individual and collective rights for minority groups.

In the January as well as the September 2015 elections, Syriza retained its popularity among the Muslim community in the electoral constituencies of Rodopi and Xanthi. Nevertheless, as early as its days in the opposition, an intra-party split on the question of the Muslim minority emerged.

In April 2014, a Muslim Roma candidate of Syriza, Sabha Suleiman, warned of the alleged endeavour by Turkish nationalists to overstress the ethnically Turkish physiognomy of the minority and sideline the smaller Pomak and Roma identities. Certain Syriza-affiliates accused Suleiman of, whether passively or intentionally, replicating the divisive outlook of Greek nationalists on the Muslim community. This, in turn, triggered the counter-reactions of other Syriza-affiliates who rushed to Suleiman's defense and judged that their fellow-cadres had disregarded the dynamics and state of fragmentation inside the minority.

As soon as it ascended to power, Syriza has largely adopted the official line of previous Greek governments on minority issues: Only religious and not ethnic minorities are officially recognized as legal subjects whereas a greater emphasis is laid on the individual instead of the collective dimension of minority rights. This serves as clear indication that the party's leadership has reneged on its older declarations over the right of individuals belonging to minority groups to self-identification (including ethnic self-identification).

Much earlier, as soon as Alexis Tsipras became the party-leader he gradually froze Syriza's rapprochement to non-recognized minority groups (e.g. the 'Rainbow-Political Party of the Macedonian Minority in Greece') which his predecessor, Alekos Alavanos, had put under way. Nevertheless, Syriza has been consistent in the implementation of the legal provisions on minority rights and its high-rank cadres have firmly refrained from potentially inflammatory speech.

The most decisive breakthrough was witnessed in the field of LGBT rights. Since its days as a marginal party, Syriza had been calling for the termination of the LGBT community's 'second class citizen' status in Greece. Meanwhile, the party's representatives have been continuously participating in the Athens/Thessaloniki PRIDE and other manifestations of this community.

Most recently, in December 2015, Syriza's MPs voted in favour of a new legal framework that officially recognizes LGBT couples as legal subjects. The ensuing paradox, though, was that Syriza's coalition partners, ANEL, disapproved the draft law. Consequently, the new law passed with the additional votes from the opposition (i.e. PASOK, To Potami, and the liberal segment of New Democracy). Syriza's consistent decision to back the new legal framework leaves Italy and Lithuania as the two EU member-states with the staunchest reservations over LGBT rights.

The landscape becomes hazier when it comes to the question of refugees. Greece's reformist left has been long opposing any 'Fortress Europe' options and has been insisting on the dictum that 'no human being is illegal'. The Migration Policy Minister, Nikos Mouzalas, and other Syriza-affiliates keep on emphasizing the humanitarian and European dimensions of the refugee crisis while fervently opposing any 'Fortress Europe' proposals.

In this respect, the decision by the new government to shut down certain detention camps with dubious living conditions (e.g. Amygdaleza in Attica) was fully consistent with the party's policy principles. The main problem, however, is that Syriza's policymakers did not invest sufficient thought towards the elaboration of an alternative arrangement. In the short term, this backfired on the refugees themselves. In the long term, this contributed to the emergence of inter-state friction.

A string of EU member-states from Central Europe (e.g. Hungary, Slovakia and Czech Republic) have accused Greek authorities of unjustifiable and inexplicable hastiness in the relocation of refugees to the north. Political commentators throughout Central and Eastern Europe have gone as far as to accuse Greece of intentionally 'smuggling' migrants to the Continent as a pressure means for securing better terms in the domestic reforms. Despite such alarmist allegations, the most likely explanation is that the Greek government has been too consumed over the management of the economic crisis to elaborate a more concrete strategy on the refugee issue.

The new government has been consistent in its pledge to grant Greek citizenship to ethnically non-Greek children who have been born in Greece. These are mostly stateless children from Africa and Asia who were born or arrived as refugees at an early age in the country. Since its early days of engagement in Greek politics, Syriza has been calling for a greater emphasis on the ius solis instead of the ius sanguinis concept of citizenship. In July 2015, the new government passed a law on citizenship that makes the naturalization of these stateless individuals feasible. Nevertheless Syriza's coalition partners, ANEL, did not approve the draft law.

Secularization of the state and military expenditures

During Syriza's opposition campaign, various party-affiliates called for the termination of the, allegedly illegitimate, partnership between the Greek Orthodox Church and the state. The most radical demands comprised proposals for the taxation of land and other immobile property owned by the Church. An early attempt to challenge the Church's prestigious status was the proposal by the Minister of Education, Nikos Filis, to classify religious education as 'optional' subject in the schooling curriculum (October 2015).

Nevertheless, this proposal was swiftly withdrawn following the irate reactions from Archbishop Ieronymos and other high-rank representatives of the clergy. The Greek Orthodox Church has been highly efficient in mobilizing the clergy and the faithful against potentially detrimental decisions by the state. The most recent and emphatic example was the mass mobilization over the 'personal IDs question' by Ieronymos' predecessor, Archbishop Christodoulos, in 2000.

In the light of the urgent priorities for the government (i.e. mainly the implementation of the 'Third Memorandum'), Syriza's top-rank cadres seem increasingly reluctant to open an additional front with the Church. Alexis Tsipras' repeated gestures of appeasement vis-à-vis the clergy largely correspond to this tactical adjustment.

One of the strongest blows for quite a few Syriza's voters was dealt in the field of military spending. During its opposition campaign, the party called for a substantial reduction in the state funds earmarked for the armed forces. On the one hand, the reformist left has long rejected proposals to turn Greece into an 'Israel of the Southern Balkans and the Eastern Mediterranean' and juxtaposed a foreign policy of appeasement in regards to regional disputes.

On the other hand, Syriza's leadership had promptly hinted at the repeated misuse of military funds by state officials and its sheer implications for corruption (e.g. PASOK's former Defense Minister, Akis Tsochatzopoulos, and the 'submarines scandal').

Nevertheless, the pact with Panos Kammenos put an abrupt end to any hopes for a more rational management of military expenditures. The ANEL-leader and current Defense Minister has, if only subtly, set as a basic condition to Alexis Tsipras that 'no reforms which may jeopardize national security are to be enacted in defense policy'. Furthermore, Panos Kammenos has been even envisaging the extension of military draft to women in the foreseeable future.

As a final assessment, the most decisive breakthrough towards a more 'left-leaning' track was achieved in the area of LGBT rights and the naturalization of stateless individuals. Despite the absence of a comparable step forward, the new government has been mostly consistent in its management of minority issues. Meanwhile, a greater attention towards the elaboration of alternative schemes must be paid in regards to the refugee question while the projects for the secularization of the state and the rationalization of military spending are currently frozen.

One of the main obstacles in the government's path towards a more 'left-leaning' course seems to be internal; namely the coalition with ANEL. Syriza's partners have clearly drawn their 'red line' in questions such as minority rights, national defense and state-Church relations. As it became transparent in the parliamentary votes on the naturalization of stateless individuals and LGBT rights, this primarily casts a bleak light upon the government's long-term sustainability and viability.

At this given moment, it might appear premature to anticipate rapid and more substantial developments in the aforementioned areas. In addition to the internal opposition by ANEL, the prioritization of the 'Third Memorandum' and its implementation further undermines such an endeavour.

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About the author

Vassilis Petsinis is a Marie Curie Experienced Researcher at the University of Tartu (Johan Skytte Institute of Political Studies). His specialisation is European politics and ethnopolitics with a regional focus on central and southeast Europe (including the Baltic States). He holds a PhD from the University of Birmingham. His personal profile on academia.edu can be accessed here.

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