Can Europe Make It?

Syriza and ANEL: a match made in Greece

Are we seeing the convergence of Syriza and their right-wing coalition partners, ANEL, into a single party?

Vassilis Petsinis
25 January 2017

ANEL leader Panos Kammenos (left) and Syriza leader and Greek PM Alexis Tsipras (right) embrace at a rally. PAimages/Lefteris Pitarakis. All rights reserved.

In one of my older commentaries for openDemocracy, written shortly after the January 2015 elections, I had speculated that there were two possible trajectories for the evolution of the Syriza-Independent Greeks (ANEL) condominium.

The one assumption was that ideological disagreements in crucial areas of policymaking (e.g. military expenditures or the Church-state relations) would emerge and eventually lead to a split.

The other assumption was that the pact between the two partners would trigger a ‘right-turn’ on the Syriza’s part and culminate in a government with more explicit features of national populism. Following the September 2015 elections and the compromise on a ‘Third Memorandum’ with the troika, it started becoming obvious that Greece’s governing coalition is internally more sustainable than meets the eye.

The Syriza-ANEL relationship: a brief overview

Between 2011 and 2014, Syriza succeeded in assembling the political forces of Greece’s broad left under its umbrella. This included the so-called ‘patriotic left’ and ranged from the margins of social democracy and green initiatives all the way to Trotskyist groupings. In this process, Syriza benefited from its highly devolved intra-party structure and a horizontal arrangement built upon the system of synistoses (‘premises’).

The latter were an aggregate of smaller, semi-autonomous, units with a focus on various aspects of political activism and a stress on different areas of political engagement (e.g. feminism, ecological issues, LGBT and minority rights, etc.). This enabled the party to approach a multitude of target-groups during its political campaign in the opposition.

Since 2012, an ostensibly peculiar rapprochement started to unfold between Syriza and the, recently formed, right-wing populists of ANEL. Long before it concretized into the governing coalition between the two parties in January 2015, political analysts had detected the catalysts which provided a common substratum for the two partners: varying degrees of anti-liberalism and euroscepticism, anti-establishment rhetoric, and capitalization on the pre-existing discourse of national populism.

From an instrumental angle, the grass-roots venues against austerity such as the Greek indignants (‘αγανακτισμένοι’/’aganaktismenoi’) protests between 2011 and 2012 operated as public forums and communication channels for the exchange of political standpoints that oscillated from the far right to the radical left. In the long run, this helped provide the necessary bottom-up impetus for the removal of any ideological obstacles along the traditional left-right axis and the consolidation of the first Syriza-ANEL government.

Syriza in a state of constant flux (2015-2016)

Since the second half of 2015, Syriza has been undergoing a process of continuous transformation. The most decisive development was the departure of the Left Platform premise (July 2015) on the basis of their opposition to the government’s compromise with the troika on the Third Memorandum.

Following the internal split with Syriza’s far left segment, Alexis Tsipras centralized political authority and enhanced his leadership within the party structures. In regards to external relations, Syriza’s ostensible capitulation to the demands of the troika gradually alienated the party among their partners in the GUE/NGL group of the European parliament.

Since then, Alexis Tsipras has been building more extensive relations with the European Socialists and has obtained observer status in this parliamentary group. More importantly, the Greek government has been steadily implementing the reforms stipulated in the Third Memorandum.

This includes schemes which Syriza had opposed on ideological grounds and because of environmental concerns during the days in the opposition (e.g. cross-border energy projects such as the Trans-Adriatic Pipeline, TAP). Nevertheless, this process of transformation is not the outcome of a long-term and well-coordinated strategy from within the party structures. Instead, Syriza’s malleability seems to be highly subject to the impact of external stimuli, namely, the Greek government’s interaction with the creditors.

Meanwhile, ANEL, as the smaller party in the coalition, have been very situationally adaptive in their relations with Syriza and effectively prevented occasional misunderstandings from ruining the partnership. For instance, ANEL were not comfortable with the ‘open borders’ outlook on the refugee question advocated by various Syriza affiliates.

Furthermore, Migration Policy Minister Ioannis Mouzalas’s reference to Greece’s northern neighbour as ‘Macedonia’ rather than ‘the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia/Fyrom’ infuriated the party-leader, Panos Kammenos, who briefly called for Mouzalas’ resignation. Nevertheless, ANEL have turned out to be very efficient in inventing ways to maintain the status quo with Syriza.

The two parties seem to converge along certain areas of policymaking such as: the private media, Church-state relations, and the management of the public sector. In regards to the former, the government has been elaborating legal, as well as more informal, channels to weaken opposition voices in the private media. Early in 2016, Minister of State Nikos Pappas sponsored a new legal framework that would reduce the number of national TV stations to approximately four (later found unconstitutional by the Council of State).

Furthermore, Syriza and ANEL seem to converge along their mutual intention not to question or jeopardize the informal partnership between the Greek Orthodox Church and the state. In the latest reshuffling of the ministerial cabinet, the former Minister of Education, Nikos Filis, was removed largely on the basis of his older proposal to classify religious education as an 'optional' subject in the schooling curriculum.

Lastly, both parties have been accused of promoting, instead of combatting, clientelistic appointments in the public sector as a last-gasp resort to reverse their declining popularity.

Political survival and implications for the future

Most opinion polls conducted throughout 2016 hint at the two parties’ remarkable erosion in popularity. The percentage of voters intending to opt for Syriza in the next elections hovers around 15% in most samples. Meanwhile, ANEL face the prospect of not even passing the 3% threshold required for entering Parliament.

In an attempt to prevent the risk of a landslide defeat, the coalition partners have been lobbying for the reform of the parliamentary elections law in accordance with a more proportional model. More importantly, the two partners have intensified their informal contacts with smaller parties as part of their endeavor to pass a series of draft legal measures and maintain their grip on power.

So far, the leader of the Union of Centrists (EK), Vassilis Leventis, has granted his assent to the government for the draft law on national elections. However, the attempts to reach an informal pact with the, erstwhile preponderant, PASOK (Socialists) did not turn out to be fruitful.

Meanwhile, a peculiar modus vivendi seems to evolve between the government and the far right Golden Dawn on the grounds of Greece’s feeble stateness and the two partners’ short-term, micro-political, objectives. This does not solely complicate the ongoing legal process against the party; it has also encouraged Golden Dawn to keep on coordinating the grass-roots mobilization against immigration and ‘Islamization’ with virtually no legal constraints.

Over the last couple of years, an idiosyncratic political chemistry has been developing between Syriza and ANEL. The different political origins of the two parties have not sufficed to endanger their cohabitation in the power structures. Moreover, the jargon employed by the coalition partners seems to standardize and any distinctive ‘ideological’ hints continuously weaken.

Within the frame of this ongoing amalgamation, and especially in the light of the imminent danger for ANEL not to pass the 3% threshold, it might not be such a precarious exaggeration to predict one of the following trajectories: (a) the formation of a joint Syriza-ANEL coalition for the next elections; (b) the final incorporation of ANEL into Syriza as a ‘right-wing premise’.

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