Can Europe Make It?

After Syriza’s landslide: five predictions of a much similar future

In the end though, this will all probably lead mainly to more fragmentation, which will make fundamental change even more unlikely.

Cas Mudde
25 January 2015
Alexis Tsipras delivers Thessaloniki campaign speech, January 20.

Alexis Tsipras delivers Thessaloniki campaign speech, January 20. Athanasios Gioumpasis/Demotix. All rights reserved.After months of speculation and growing hyperbole, Greece will finally have a government dominated by the left-wing populist Coalition of the Radical Left (Syriza). Exit polls have Syriza at around 36-39 percent of the vote, which might give them a majority of the parliamentary seats. Party leader Alexis Tsipras, who has grown into the pin-up of the western (radical) left in the last years, will be the new prime minister. But what else will change? Despite all the hype of a new Greece and even a new Europe (and European Union), the most likely scenario is that the fundamentals of both systems will stay the same, but there will be some changes at the margins. Here are five predictions:

 (1) The Greek party system will consolidate a new two-party dynamic

Much has been made of the implosion of the Greek party system, which used to be based on a rigid division between the right-wing New Democracy (ND) and the left-wing Panhellenic Socialist Movement (PASOK). But the change might not be that significant. Greece today is not the same as Italy in the 1990s, when corruption scandals led to a true implosion of the old party system, i.e. of the so-called First Republic, and gave way to a completely new party system, of the so-called Second Republic. Today only the Northern League (LN) has survived, and that party only emerged at the end of the First Republic; all other parties are either completely new (e.g. Forza Italia and Five Star Movement) or constitute significant transformations of previous parties (e.g. Democratic Party).

Instead, in Greece the right-wing poll has hardly changed: it is still occupied by the ND, which merely lost some of its support and has more competition from far right parties like Golden Dawn (XA). And on the left, PASOK has imploded, but is replaced by Syriza. While the voters might not be the same, Syriza will play roughly the same role in the Greek party system as PASOK has done for decades, i.e. provide the populist left-wing alternative to the conservative ND.

(2) Greece will not follow the path of Weimar Germany

European elites are obsessed with Weimar Germany comparisons, i.e. weak democracies being threatened by strong extremist parties. From Russia to Greece alarmist elites warn of a Weimar scenario, i.e. death by elections. But whereas extremists of left and right gained huge pluralities of the votes in Weimar Germany, they are relatively small in contemporary Greece. The neo-Stalinist Communist Party of Greece (KKE) has been reduced to around 5 percent of the vote after the end of the Cold War, whereas the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn seems to also have hit its limits of roughly 7-8 percent, not in the least because of strong state repression, which will undoubtedly increase further under a Syriza government.

Syriza might not be a committed liberal democratic party, built upon the values of pluralism and minority rights, but neither was the left-wing populist PASOK, which governed Greece several times before the economic crisis. Syriza is essentially a democratic party, i.e. supporting popular sovereignty and majority rule, and will come to terms (grudgingly) with accepting pluralism and minority rights. Even if they collaborate with the KKE at times, which seems highly uncertain at this point as KKE considers Syriza members to be bourgeois traitors, they will not do so at the price of fundamental democratic procedures and values. 

(3) Syriza will consolidate into a more traditional party

The official name of Syriza is Coalition of the Radical Left and that accurately describes what the party is: a coalition of small radical (and extreme) left groupuscules. While many of the (old) members of Syriza are still, first and foremost, loyal to their small far left group, which in many cases still exists independently today, the vast majority of voters have their loyalty, or at least have put their hope, in Syriza.

Particularly if it will be able to form a ‘one-party’ government, the internal struggles between Syriza and its constituent parts will be one of its main challenges. Though perhaps not a charismatic leader in the traditional sense, Tsipras is essential to the victory of Syriza, having given one face to a fragmented hope.

But while he has a strong public mandate, his power over the Syriza cadres might be less strong. Much of his team has been drawn from outside the cadres of the groupuscules, including from Greek intellectuals abroad, which could entice the old guards. The pressures of governing a country in crisis, as well as the internal divisions and struggles of the party, will provide Tsipras and his team with strong incentives to build Syriza into a real political party, increasingly independent of the various groups that now make up the Coalition of the Radical Left.

One of the main challenges is to do this without being overrun by opportunistic defectors from PASOK, who might bring some of the necessary expertise, but also potentially the stigma of the old regime.

(4) Europe will not turn to the (far) left

Still not as sexy as the rise of the far right, which has attracted a couple of thousand media articles in 2014 alone, the rise of the far left has become an increasingly popular topic among commentators, either looking for the next big thing or engaging in wishful thinking.

They mainly point to the recent lead in the polls of “We Can” (Podemos) in Spain, simply stated, the party vehicle of the Indignados social movement. But while these two left-wing populist parties have indeed risen largely out of nowhere, as a consequence of the economic crisis, most of their brethren across the continent have not.

In Cyprus, Ireland and Italy left-wing populist parties might grow a bit, but mostly in the form of established forces. This is one of the key things that holds left-wing populism back in most other countries, where there clearly is a growing breeding ground of (far) left anti-establishment politics. The party vehicles of these sentiments are often old and stale, like the Dutch Socialist Party (SP) or the German The Left, including apparatchiks and opportunists who cannot convince their potential electorates to overcome their distrust of previously defeated ideologies. This, perhaps more than competition from the far right, prevents the spread of left-wing populism across the continent.

(5) European Union will not change fundamentally

Syriza has come to power by offering a third way to the Greek people: not the support for the bailout and austerity policies of the ND-PASOK government and not rejection of the bailout and support for a Greek exit from the EU (Grexit) of the extremist opposition (notably KKE and XA). Instead, they have proposed a bailout without austerity, despite the fact that European elites have consistently rejected this as a non-option.

Over the past years Tsipras has been touring Europe to argue that a new Europe is possible and that a Syriza victory in the 2015 Greek elections would be the beginning of building such a new Europe. European elites, most notably German Chancellor Angela Merkel, has reaffirmed her commitment to the EU’s austerity politics and has even stated that a Greek exit from the Eurozone is not problematic.

This game of chicken will soon come to an end, most likely with a ‘compromise’ that is essentially a Syriza defeat. After all, the party has very few weapons to negotiate with. Not only is Greece irrelevant to the EU and Eurozone economy, but the vast majority of Greeks, including undoubtedly most Syriza supporters, want Greece to stay in the Eurozone.

Consequently, the most likely scenario is a softening of EU austerity rhetoric, but to a lesser extent policy, just as happened in the first months after the election of French president Francois Hollande in 2012. Even if Podemos comes to power in Spain later this year, and that is a big if, the majority of European governments will continue to support austerity politics, if only because their political fate is tied to it.

This is not to argue that Syriza’s victory today is irrelevant. It is the first (new) left-wing populist party in the European Union to win a national parliamentary election and to lead a (one-party) government. It will undoubtedly boost the spirits and success of similar parties in Europe, notably Podemos in Spain and Sinn Fein in Ireland. It will further put pressure on the elites of more established radical left parties that have not been able to significantly increase their political fortunes, such as Jean-Luc Mélenchon of the Left Party in France and Emile Roemer of the Dutch SP.

It will also lead to more left-wing insurgencies within the meddling social democratic parties, which haven’t felt this pressure since the rise of the Green parties reached a halt in the 1990s. Obviously, the rumble on the left will have ramifications for the center-right. In the end though, this will all probably lead mainly to more fragmentation, which will make fundamental change even more unlikely.

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