Alexis Tsipras (38), the leader of the leftist Syriza in Greece, has been the subject of much attention, both inside and outside Greece. As leader of Syriza, he managed to take them within striking distance of government power in the latest Greek elections, as the electoral percentage of Syriza soared from under 5% in 2009 to 27% in June 2012.
Demotix/Alexandros Michailidis. All rights reserved.
The appeal of the party and Tsipras himself goes far beyond the usual suspects of old communists, social movement activists and anarchists. Syriza, with the new acronym Unified Social Front (EKM) added to its name, is a much broader democratic left coalition, prepared to go places where no true lefty would have dared to step. Although based on a populist discourse that divides society into the corrupt (political and financial) elites and the people, the language of Syriza is also cast in universalist terms. Anyone in favour of justice, equality and freedom is a potential Syriza voter.
Despite a relentless series of attacks by the Greek media, ‘sexy Alexis’, as he was nicknamed by infatuated audiences tired of old, stuck up men with white hair (and beards), has it all: his good looks, socialist principles and easy, media friendly manners. He attracts a part of the electorate that would otherwise never have been available to a leftist party: the young women who want to be with him, the young men who want to be like him, and the older women who would not mind him for a son-in-law.
Above all, Tsipras attracts many of those whose former nightmares about the ‘reds’ taking their home has lately been substituted by the possibility of having no home at all. Tsipras – and the people around him – have been able to repackage socialism over the last couple of years. Although some of the parties in the coalition still use the language of revolution and communism, it remains to be seen how the party will position itself on the centre/left spectrum.
In Denmark, the small leftist party Enhedslisten (‘the Unity List’) has recently enjoyed a lot of success. Not only did they do well in the last general election, but they stand to gain even more seats in the current opinion polls. They have profited from the impact of the right turn on the rest of the centre-left. And, like Syriza, they are fronted by a young and good-looking leader, this time a woman, Johanne Schmidt-Nielsen. She just turned 29 and is known to most people as Johanne.
Flickr/Hanjosan. Some rights resevred.
It was not always so. The Unity List was created as a coalition of a number of small parties on the left in 1989, and mostly they just scraped into parliament. Their spokespersons – they do not have ‘leaders’ – came out of the old parties, and were often male. Some of those people remain, but gradually the party has been taken over by the young guard, who tend not to enter the party through the old parties. They have become politicised through protest movements, above all the alter-globalisation movement. Their way of thinking politics suits the current media-scape much better than the old guard from the amalgamation of Marxists/Leninists/Maoists/Trotskyite groupings. What’s more, like Schmidt-Nielsen, many of the young ones are women. And, like Schmidt-Nielsen, good looking.
As good-looking women, the media cannot present them in such a way that they appear threatening to a wider electorate – and during the last general election, Schmidt-Nielsen was consistently perceived as the most trustworthy party leader, despite the fact that the party programme is packed with revolutionary language. Schmidt-Nielsen’s language, however, is middle-class and based on references to justice and fairness rather than class. Because of internal rules about rotation, Schmidt-Nielsen will soon have to hand over her spokespersonship. Luckily there is already another young and good-looking woman, Pernille Skipper, ready to take over.
In another corner of Europe, Izquierda Unida (‘the United Left’) and Alberto Garzón in Spain are set to do a Tsipras or a Schmidt-Nielsen. Izquierda Unida is a party like Syriza and the Unity List: created in 1986 from among a motley combination of small parties on the left who used to hate one another more than they hated the class enemy. Traditionally it was dominated by older men, such as the current leader, the 61 year-old Cayo Lara.
Wikimedia/Prensa Izquierda Unida Federal. Some rights resevred.
In the wake of the indignados protests in 2011, like Syriza, it was only natural that Izquierda Unida would pick up some of the disaffection with the bigger parties, even if, for the protesters, the party was just one party among others. Although individual members of Izquierda Unida took part in the protests, the party is faced by a gap between them and the extra-parliamentary left.
Within the party, however, the young and photogenic Alberto Garzón – who is 27 – is on the rise, and he could easily become their next leader. He was part of the indignados movement and has since won a seat in the national parliament. Like Tsipras in Greece and Schmidt-Nielsen in Denmark, Garzón does not articulate his policies in terms of class or revolution, but in terms that combine social indignation with the language of justice and democracy, a language that may reach well beyond the traditional Izquierda Unida voters.
Good looks always help nowadays. So does youth, packaged in a more middle-class-friendly language and dress. Some on the more traditional left complain that it’s no more than a pretty face as a front to policies that are no longer truly leftist. What the future holds depends on the extent to which these parties are able to turn what may be only a precarious attraction into changes in voters’ deeper-lying attitudes, thereby building the basis for a longer-term change in the political landscape.