Can Europe Make It?

Populist hegemony in Greece

The electoral victory of Tsipras over his political opponents signifies the triumph of energetic populism over docile liberalism.

Takis S Pappas
25 September 2015

In Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s The Leopard, Tancredi Falconeri, a descendant of the dying Sicilian aristocracy, asserts that, “for things to remain the same, everything must change.” Not quite so with Alexis Tsipras, the young leader of the youthful left-wing party in crisis-ridden Greece. If there were to be one, his dictum would be exactly the opposite: “If everything is to change, things have to remain the same.” And, ho, in the third electoral contest since the beginning of the year, the winner was the same as in the previous ones: Syriza, the party led by Tsipras. So, what exactly happened in Greece’s last election? Why? And, what is in the store for this country?


Graph.Takis S Pappas.Beginning with the bare facts (shown above), there have been several new developments. First of all, beyond anybody’s (especially the pollsters’) expectations, Syriza won big. This, mind you, happened in the face of a disastrous term in office during which unemployment didn’t decline, the banks closed and capital controls were imposed, Greece’s future in the euro was seriously risked, and Syriza suffered a huge internal party split.  And yet, in the course of this most calamitous year for the country, Syriza’s share of the vote only declined from 36.3 percent in January to 35.5 percent in September.

Secondly, while the Communist Party on the extreme left and the neo-Nazis on the extreme right retained (and, in the case of Golden Dawn, even increased) their electoral strength, the more liberal parties at the middle of the political and ideological spectrum, that is center-of-right New Democracy, centrist Potami and left-of center PASOK, did not display electoral oomph. Put together, they received exactly the same percentage of votes they had won in January 2015 (38.5 percent in both elections), which remarkably also corresponds with the “yes” vote in the July 2015 referendum (38.7 percent).

Third, particularly noteworthy is the electoral persistence of Syriza’s former coalition partner: the right populist (and with strong nationalistic instincts) Independent Greeks (ANEL), led by Panos Kammenos. Defying the polls, this party got back into parliament with enough seats to serve once again as Syriza’s junior coalition partner. It is highly unlikely that Kammenos would have been successful without the persistent, and at times quite enthusiastic, public acclaim he received from Tsipras during the electoral campaign.

Alexis Tsipras with Minister of National Defense,Panos Kammenos, July 2015.

Alexis Tsipras with Minister of National Defense,Panos Kammenos, July 2015. Demotix/Chrissa Giannakoudi.All rights reserved. Fourth, voter abstention was the highest recorded in contemporary Greek politics, reaching 45 percent (as compared to 36.4 percent in January 2015 and only 29 percent in the general election of 2009). The reason for such a low participation, besides of course the unattractiveness of existing political options, is the fatigue of a large part in the electorate from dejà vu politics, as well as an increasing social angst about political forces publicly portrayed as being divided into pro-Memorandum and anti-Memorandum ones, which is perceived as a bogus dilemma.  

Fifth, both populist parties, Syriza and ANEL, have emerged as highly personalised forces. This is particularly significant for Syriza, which, as a leftist party, is organized around several collective decision-making bodies, including the party Congress, a Central Committee, and the Political Secretariat. After the split of his internal opponents, and their rout in the elections, Tsipras is now in full control of a party and its internal mechanisms.

How are we to explain the foregoing developments in Greece? Clearly, neither the theory of economic voting nor of ideological preference is of any help. In the first case, Tsipras should have been severely penalized for the worsening shape of the economy, while, in the second case, left ideological voters should have turned against him for giving kudos during the campaign to right-wing ANEL and pledging to form a coalition with that party in order to enter parliament. So, what happened?

A reasonable explanation is that, over recent decades, there has developed in the Greek electorate a quite solid populist constituency which is now firmly captured by Tsipras and, to a lesser but crucial degree, by his political partner Kammenos. This constituency formed during earlier decades under the long rule of PASOK and, by contagion, ND governments. But when the two old party behemoths became forced under Greece’s first and second bailout agreements to turn (albeit reluctantly) into reformers, their voters migrated en masse to the new populist parties of Syriza and ANEL. This ideologically mixed, massive, and rock-hard segment of the Greek electorate is animated by three interrelated ideas which, when put together, reveal a typically populist mind frame, as follows.

First, Greek society is divided by one single cleavage ostensibly separating ‘the people’ from a host of political and economic elites, whether domestic (such as the old parties, but also young ones like Potami) or foreign (such as the Troika). As a result, second, there can be in Greek politics no compromise among political forces, no attempt to reach consensual solutions, and, eventually, no political moderation; politics is a zero-sum game between the people and their opponents. Therefore, third, rule of law  - stable, nonpartisan institutions are worthless since they fail to serve the people’s interests; it is the will of the majority that reigns supreme, and political parties should serve the people and its will.

Tsipras was perfectly able to express these ideas and this is the secret of his continuing success. His political opponents tried to convey an exactly opposite message, which however has little resonance in today’s Greek society. Thus, New Democracy, PASOK and Potami projected an image of an unfortunately multi-fractured society being faced with a multitude of complex problems, which, to be solved, necessitate consensus, political moderation and compromise among all political forces; for that to succeed, the liberal parties vainly argued, the rule of law has to prevail in society, meritocracy to win over party patronage, and technocrats to stand alongside traditional politicians in close cooperation with Greece’s EU partners, to implement complex solutions.

The electoral victory of Tsipras over his political opponents, therefore, signifies the triumph of energetic populism over docile liberalism. As I have shown in my own work, populism has long been a dominant force in Greek politics and, after a short respite during the years of crisis, it is back with a vengeance. There is more to this: as the main populist parties are now strategically located on both the left and the right of the ideological spectrum, they are in a perfect position to actually encircle the embattled centrist and moderate forces, and even try to cause them political asphyxiation.

And what now for Greece? Although much seems to remain the same as in the recent past, Greek politics is currently undergoing tectonic changes. For one thing, Tsipras and his party are here to stay. For the first time since he assumed the party leadership, he is in control of Syriza and with a free hand in government. The liberal opposition parties are significantly weaker than his, fragmented or leaderless, badly squeezed between both populist and nondemocratic forces. And Tsipras’ message to society is hegemonic, almost beyond dispute. He, in coalition with Kammenos, represents the people and they are there to defend their interests.

Alexis Tsipras with Panos Kammenos,September 2015

Alexis Tsipras with Panos Kammenos,September 2015.Demotix/ spirofoto. All rights reserved.The big problem will be continuing austerity at least until Greece’s new coalition government, controlling 155 MPs in the 300-seat parliament, succeeds in honouring the deal with the Troika that they have already signed.

There are only two basic scenarios, although each may have several variants. In the good scenario, Tsipras will surprise friends and foes alike by proving a true reformer. This however requires the implementation of difficult reforms, over many of which the government will probably not be willing, or able, to assume ownership. What may happen in that case, especially given that Tsipras will want to maintain his current electoral constituency? This is the bad scenario, and includes at least three dangers: foot-dragging, nationalist stir-up, and political autarchy.

Tsipras is likely to try playing for time in an attempt to delay, and even reverse, reforms. In that case, there will be lots of internal party acrimony and blame shifting as the government will try to assign responsibility for most past wrongdoings to the opposition. A nationalist flare-up is also likely, especially given the key role of ultra-nationalist Kammenos in the government. This may take various forms, ranging from patriotic (and anti-EU) flag-waving, to xenophobic (and anti-immigration) feelings, to outright chauvinism peppered with a bellicose discourse. Political autarchy may also increase and turn against the liberal opposition, mass media, civic associations and other institutions.

 Greece’s new prime minister won a big victory marching on the shoulders of a solid populist constituency. He now faces a tantalizing dilemma: will he sacrifice his power base for the national good or will he once again risk the general interest and try solidifying populist rule?

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