Rethinking Populism: Opinion

The systemic metamorphosis of Greece’s once radical left-wing SYRIZA party

SYRIZA is not the same party that rose to power in 2015 – is this the end of its populist adventure?

Grigoris Markou
14 June 2021, 12.00am
Alexis Tsipras, leader of SYRIZA, protests during a general strike in the center of Athens, 2014
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Aristidis Vafeiadakis/ZUMA Wire/Alamy Live News
Rethinking Populism partner banner: Lund, Helsinki and Istanbul Bilgi universities

The career of Greece’s second largest party, SYRIZA (The Coalition of the Radical Left – Progressive Alliance) – its transformation from a small radical party into one that claimed and seized power in a European country – has aroused interest around its politics, strategy and, ultimately, character.

After all, it is not common for a left-wing populist party in Europe to come to power and form a government while claiming that it opposes the dominant political and economic establishment.

In the aftermath of the global financial crisis of 2008, SYRIZA (along with other left-wing populist parties) gave hope to the peoples of Europe that it was able to strike a new anti-neoliberal path and tear down the liberal and social democratic politics that led to economic collapse, poverty and social exclusion.

Even if the party’s strategy seemed to lack precision, even if the presence of many currents (known as τάσεις – tendencies) within the party itself created obstacles to the production of a coherent political proposal, even if its leader’s statements on managing the economy in a possible confrontation with Europe were rather vague, a large

part of the popular classes was convinced that SYRIZA would be able to change the balance of power and achieve its anti-austerity goals.

Thirteen years after the outbreak of the economic crisis in Greece, ten years after the remarkable Greek movement of squares and six years after the huge victory of SYRIZA leader Alexis Tsipras in the elections, many citizens have now turned their backs on the party.

The abandonment of radicalism

SYRIZA as an opposition party (2004-2015) had a strong radical character: standing firmly against imperialism, the decline of democracy, racism and xenophobia, as well as neoliberal capitalism.

But SYRIZA’s rapid adaptation to the existing political-economic structure after its rise to power transformed its logic. The party maintained its left-wing populist characteristics, which (mainly in the first phase of its rule between January and September 2015) retained both a kind of radicalism and a close relationship with the popular classes.

Nonetheless, SYRIZA gradually abandoned its radicalism, adopted ‘realism’ in its policies, compromised on its interactions with the EU and attempted converging with the political establishment, ignoring popular grievances and demands.

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During its second term in office (September 2015-2019), SYRIZA gradually abandoned its radical elements and the radical politico-economic solutions it had been advocating, instead adopting more pragmatic positions and policies. The party did not find it difficult to accept liberal democracy with all its problems, or to form a coalition government with the Independent Greeks, a radical-Right party. It forgot its recent anti-imperialist past and recognized fiscal discipline and liberal reforms as an important tool of governance.

Shortly before the end of his term in 2019, Tsipras favored moving the party to a new political direction through a so-called ‘progressive alliance’ (but in cooperation with both progressive and conservative politicians), flirting with the center-Left, and adopting consensual politics and ‘political realism’.

After SYRIZA’s 2019 electoral defeat, these steps towards the ‘mainstreaming’ of the party became more concrete. SYRIZA accepted the role of a ‘realistic’ political force, not intent on ‘overthrowing’ the political system or pursuing its ‘radical reform’, but instead a party intent on managing the economy through specific, targeted social interventions within the limits of the existing system.

Although Tsipras described the new party’s program as radical and realistic, it was hard to discern any radicalism anymore. As academic and journalist Panagiotis Sotiris rightly argues, during the pandemic period SYRIZA did not proceed to an ideological counter-attack against the government as it refrained from pointing out the limitations of the market (which the conservative government appealed to) or the importance of state intervention, thus consenting to a large extent to a conservative logic of ‘managing’ the current situation.

Populism in decline?

So what has happened to the populism of SYRIZA, the central characteristic of the party in the years before its ‘pragmatic’ turn? Let's start from the beginning. SYRIZA has not always been a populist party. In the period before the election of Tsipras to the party’s leadership, its former leader Alekos Alavanos had not adopted a clear populist logic, placing great emphasis on the role of youth and movements.

Tsipras’ ascendance changed the orientation of the party from 2008 onwards, during a period of strong social movement activism marked by popular mobilizations. The new leader of SYRIZA provided a new populist logic to the party through the articulation and representation of popular demands for democracy, equality, justice and solidarity, as well as uncompromising opposition to the political and economic establishment that led the country and Europe to the destructive fiscal, sovereign debt and political crises.

SYRIZA can no longer persuade, mobilize and lead the people against the right-wing government

During its time in office (2015-2019), SYRIZA continued to resort to populist discursive and performative repertoires, with the popular classes occupying a central position in its discourse, refusing to compromise with the political and economic establishment, while fostering and maintaining – to some extent – a close relationship with certain social groups and organizations (e.g. workers affected by job cuts and austerity measures of the previous government and re-hired by the SYRIZA government, segments at the bottom of the class structure, such as the unemployed and low-wage workers, minorities such as the Roma, and others).

However, its populist logic progressively lost its rigour and centrality. The party’s bonds with the popular classes began to weaken as the embrace of austerity policies by the SYRIZA government and the critical decisions it took on a range of political, social and national issues such as the management of migrant/refugee crisis, the Macedonia naming dispute and others, had a negative effect.

After its electoral defeat in 2019, it gradually became clear that SYRIZA’s populism had nothing to do with the populist intensity and passion of the past. In opposition, as it has been since 2019, SYRIZA continued to maintain elements of its populist rhetoric and less pronounced aspects of its anti-elitism, such as the persistence of its self-identification with ‘the many’ against ‘the elites/the establishment’. According to populism researcher Antonis Galanopoulos, while SYRIZA is still accurately recognized as a left-wing populist party, its populist discourse has admittedly been toned down during the pandemic.

SYRIZA seems to moderate its populist critique of the current government, most likely due to its centre-Left turn and embrace of a consensus strategy. Nikos Voutsis, former speaker of parliament (2015-2019) and current SYRIZA MP, characteristically commented on the oppositional style of his party recently, saying: “It is correct, we have distanced ourselves from the populism of screams and complaints, which lacked stability, substantiation and programmatic priorities. But this maturation of the party was a collective accomplishment by all of us and it is the right thing to do…”

Furthermore, SYRIZA can no longer persuade, mobilize and lead the people against the right-wing government of New Democracy, in a period of intense social discontent with the management of the pandemic and the economy by the Greek government and at a time when popular demands for democracy, justice and labour protection are emerging.

This weakness is reflected not only in its electoral appeal (which is dwindling according to public opinion polls) but mainly in its ‘decrepit relationship’ with social groups, movements and organizations.

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Until recently, SYRIZA had retained a privileged relationship with the people, created alliances with various social groups and organizations from the ‘I won’t pay’ movement, to school cleaners, Romani minority grassroots and part of the LGBTQI community. It participated actively both in workers’ struggles and social movements. A special relationship between SYRIZA and the popular classes seems to be utopian right now as the opposition party has lost the trust of many of its former supporters.

As Tsipras has toned down his populist discourse, and the party has at best a lukewarm relationship with the Greek people today, and, more significantly, in view of SYRIZA’s compromising and consensual orientation towards the system and the establishment, it is hard to say if one can talk today about a ‘populist party without the people’, ‘a pragmatic populist party’ or a party that flirts intensely with the abandonment of the populist element.

SYRIZA has been completely transformed and it is time for political analysts to take that seriously and move on, beyond ideological expediencies.

And what about the left-wing radical populist vision?

The rise of SYRIZA in Greece coincided with the forceful electoral rise of other left-wing populist parties and leaders in Europe, such as Podemos (We Can) in Spain, Jean-Luc Mélenchon in France and, a bit later, Jeremy Corbyn in the UK. However, Left radicalism either failed to persuade the popular masses to bring it to power or was not able to implement its alternative proposal, as it has accepted the existing politico-economic framework that does not allow major deviations. Thus, over the years, most populist leaders (if not all) have compromised with the political situation to a large extent and have reduced their populist rhetoric and action.

It is true that European radical parties in opposition are always in danger of becoming mainstream parties after coming to power as once they accept key aspects of the political system, they reject their radical tendencies and positions (e.g. their anti-imperialism) and govern according to the principles set out in the European framework. At the same time, it is very difficult for a populist party to retain its populism in power, without moderating its intensity. It is characteristic that most of the populist parties, after their rise, attempt to find political solutions through consensus, while accepting aspects of the political establishment. As a result, they are unable to maintain the antagonistic logic of ‘the people versus the elites’ and their close relationship with the people.

Perhaps we need to look beyond Europe to find radical Left populist cases in government. Latin American populists have proved to be more resilient as they are not always bound by a strict politico-economic framework such as that of the EU and the Eurozone, and to maintain an antagonistic relationship with the oppositional forces. But, in these cases, it turns out that polarization and radicalism often create an unstable politico-social environment marked by constant tensions, making radical change difficult to achieve.

After the successive defeats suffered by left-wing parties in Europe and their compliance to the system, it seems that the radical left cycle and populist vision of the post-crisis period is now closing. Recently, Pablo Iglesias from Podemos decided to leave Spanish politics after the Madrid regional election, proving that ‘the show’ has come to an end. Left-wing populism is likely to return stronger in the future. But what will happen to Left radicalism, which today seems to be inspired by the ‘old glory’ of social democracy?

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