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“Syriza is the expression of a new radicalism on the left”: excerpt of an interview with Stathis Kouvélakis in late May

The rise of Syriza is a profound transformation for a radical left that is still traumatized by the defeat of Greek communism in the last century. This radical left now wants to break with its position of being eternally in the minority - a force dedicated to nothing but “resistance”. 

Stathis Kouvélakis is a Reader in political theory at King’s College, London. He is also an intellectual figure of renown in the French and Greek left. He was a candidate on the lists of Syriza, a formation of the radical left which is still relatively unknown outside Greece, for the election of June 17. In this interview,  Stathis Kouvélakis analyses the origins of this coalition, describing the social make-up of its members and of its voters and their ideological frame of reference. He discusses the remarkable electoral breakthrough last May as well as Syriza’s position regarding debt and the eurozone partners.

PM What is the balance of power between activists inside Syzira and how many activists are there in the formations that make up the coalition?  

SK  Syriza formed itself into an electoral alliance between several distinct entities in 2004. The largest component part was Synaspismós, which calls itself a ‘Coalition of the Left, of Movements and of Ecology’, which was formed in 1991, and is led by Alexis Tsipras.

Traditionally, Synaspismós was not a very militant party. It contained many ‘well-known citizens’ who mainly pursued various electoral strategies in common. Since its formation a considerable evolution of the organizational and activist nature of the party has been observable on two levels.  First, a very dynamic ‘youth wing’ was developed through its anti-globalization and anti-racist movements.  This enabled the party to reinforce its presence among the young, notably students among whom it had traditionally been weak.  Its youth organization has several thousand members today.  Officials stemming from among them form a good portion of the close circle around Alexis Tsipras today. These young people are characterized by strong ideological radicalism and claim to be of a Marxist affiliation, mostly inspired by the thinking of  Louis Althusser. Secondly, trade unionists within Synaspismós asserted themselves from the 2000s onwards as the lynchpin of its left wing.  Stemming largely from the KKE, this left wing represents a more working class trend, which holds relatively traditional positions on class struggle and is very critical of the EU. 

These two elements, as well as the end of any prospect of an alliance with PASOK, have led to a transformation of Synaspismós which enabled it to initiate the ongoing process reconstruction within Syriza. This does not mean that moderate trends have been eliminated from the party today. They gather notably around the economic figurehead, Yanis Dragasakis, together with some officials who were close to Fotis Kouvelis and refused to follow him when he left the party. After the elections of May 6, this particular trend voiced their differences, particularly when they suggested that there could be no unilateral denunciation of the Memorandum, and so no head-on confrontation with the Troika. But they had to give in on this fundamental point. In any case it seems obvious that these contradictions within Syriza will re-emerge. 

PM You said that Syriza had until recently a mostly urban activist and voter base. Was this altered in any way by the electoral breakthrough of Syriza in the legislative elections of May 2012 which enabled Syriza to become the second largest Greek party with 16.7% of the vote, ahead of PASOK? 

ST Completely transformed. It is essential to understand the sociology of the vote of May 6 2012. The qualitative transformation is at least as seismic as the quantitative leap. A party which over the last years always fluctuated between 5 and 6% of the vote suddenly achieved 16.7%. Today, the polls are giving it more than 20% - some even more than 30%.  What happened on May 6 is relatively easy to analyze: it is essentially a class vote. The working class electorate consisting of employees from the big urban centres who had hitherto predominantly voted for PASOK suddenly transferred their allegiance wholesale over to Syriza. Synaspismós is now the leading party in the greater region of Athens, where half the Greek population lives, as well as in all of Greece’s big urban centres. It achieved its best results in the working-class districts which were the strongholds of PASOK as well as of the KKE. In these electoral areas, the KKE has begun a decline which is going to become even more marked, according to the polls, in the June election. We can see a transfer of votes from the KKE to Syriza. It is a popular vote, but it is also the vote of educated employees, and the vote of working people. Syriza has a score equivalent to its national average among the 18-24 year olds and the 24-30 year olds. But it has a score superior to its national average in the populations at the heart of the working population (+30 year old). Its weakest scores are among the non-working population in rural areas (particularly farmers), as well as retired people, stay-at-home mothers, the liberal professions and self-employed workers. The dynamics of Syriza thus rests on a class vote embracing the upper fringes of the working classes and also including the unemployed from the big urban centers of Greece.

PM In what measure is the vote for Syriza a vote of the employees from the public sector?

SK The electoral statistics show that Syriza receives 24% of the vote from employees in the public sector and 22.5% from employees in the private sector; scores which are roughly similar with a slight advantage to employees in the public sector. But its best scores are in the second largest constituency of Piraeus – a large industrial and working-class constituency -  as well as in the North of Greece, in the department of Xánthi, among the Turkish-speaking Muslim majority, whence a Syriza deputy from the Turkish-speaking Muslim minority was elected.

PM For the first time in Europe since the war, a party of the radical left has overtaken at the ballot box the party representing social-democracy. This outflanking is entirely due to the impressive breakthrough of Syriza, as well as to the collapse of the vote in favour of PASOK. Do you think this advantage will last?

SK  The shock therapy which has been used on Greece has caused the same political results as in the other countries where it was used. The old political system has collapsed. The two main parties have been badly affected in the process: PASOK and also, in a lesser measure, New Democracy, which lost 20% of its votes, getting the weakest score for a right-wing party since Greece has existed as an independent state. In fact, the qualitative collapse of PASOK is even worse than the story told by its national figures. In the big urban centres, PASOK comes in in sixth or seventh position. In most of the working class districts which were its former strongholds, it is outdistanced by Golden Dawn, the neo-Nazi party. Its score among the 18-24 year olds is 2.6%. Most of its electorate (13.4% of the vote) consists in retired people and the inhabitants of rural areas or small provincial towns. The polls on voting intentions for June 17 indicate that this tendency will continue to strengthen.

PM I'd like to go back on the position of Syriza regarding Greece's membership of the eurozone and the EU. What does it really want in this respect?

SK There are two levels of analysis in answering this. On the first level, the most obvious, one can argue that the position of Syriza regarding Europe is similar to that of the French Left Front, Die Linke or other members of the Party of the European Left, that is an opposition to neoliberal Europe and a call to transform it from the inside, which implies a break with the founding treaties of Maastricht and Lisbon and their replacement with new treaties breaking from neoliberalism.

There is a second level of analysis which focuses on the change of position of Syriza in recent months, or even the last few weeks. Syriza has been making its denunciation of the Memorandum a core message and insisting that its first act, should they manage to form the new government, would be the abrogation of this deal. For Syriza, this is not negotiable, whatever consequences it might entail. On the one hand Syriza denies that it is inevitable that any pause in the implementation of the Memorandum will lead directly to Greece’s exit from the euro, and a return to the drachma. This is how the Greek media, the main parties and European governments have been presenting the situation. Syriza rejects this type of blackmail. Whatever the consequences, Syriza will not renege on its position: it will reject any continuation of the Memorandum as it is now. Paradoxically, contrary to the law that says compromise always irresistibly attends proximity to power, this stance has become clearer as a result of the animated internal debates that took place after the results of May 6, once it emerged that there was an electoral dynamic under way that could be carrying Syriza towards the majority.

Tsipras presented the road map of Syriza very clearly. First: the immediate abrogation of the Memorandum through legislative action, which will also abolish all the implementation rules of the two Memoranda. Second: ask Europe to renegotiate the Greek public debt. If the EU refuses or if the ECB stops financing Greece, a Syriza government would unilaterally stop reimbursing the debt. Implicitly, even if they do not say so publicly, one must conclude that Syriza's leaders know that Greece would de facto exit the euro in this case. But they insist that this must not be presented as their choice or their objective. Defaulting on the debt would thus not be announced right away, but is a threatened reprisal if the call to renegotiate the Memorandum to annul most of the debt is met with a blank refusal. If the European governments were to stand in the way of Syriza's objective to cancel part of the debt, the idea of a plan B – that is, exiting the eurozone – will gain ground.

The political and electoral success of Syriza can be explained precisely by the fact that this party was quick to oppose the Memorandum and the austerity shock therapy. The party has become involved in a concrete and practical way in the social movements and collective actions that have developed over these last years throughout Greece. Syriza did so while respecting the autonomy of these movements, including the most spontaneous and the newest forms of mobilization. For instance, they supported the movement to occupy the squares that we witnessed last spring, while the KKE denounced this movement which they accused of being ‘anti-political’ and ‘dominated by petits-bourgeois elements’. The party has also been very active in local solidarity networks to cope with the trauma of the crisis in civil society, and its concrete effects in the daily life of the population. The party is also well recognized among institutions perceived as capable of transforming the balance of power at national level. This said, Syriza only took off in the polls in the last weeks of the campaign. The real takeoff happened when Tsipras focused its message on the theme : “a left-wing government against austerity now”, presenting this as an open invitation to the KKE, the extreme left, the parliamentary left, and the small dissident formations of the PASOK to join together in an electoral alliance. This is what literally changed the course of the electoral campaign and reoriented its agenda. From that moment onwards, all the political parties had to situate themselves in relation to Syriza's proposition, which appeared as a concrete political perspective, within reach, and which would make it possible to end the yoke of the Memorandum and of the Troika in one fell swoop.

PM This discourse unites the left....

SK Absolutely. Syriza is particularly credible with regard to this proposition because of its involvement in the social movements, as well as its formation as a political front cultivating the coexistence of various political cultures within Syriza. To answer your question, I would say that Syriza is a hybrid party, a synthetic party rooted in both the Greek communist movement and the new radicalism which has emerged to the fore in the recent period.

PM How is Alexis Tsipras perceived in Greece?

SK What is most striking about Tsipras' image is his age: he is young. The officials and the leading groups of the Greek radical left are still predominantly the generation getting close to or exceeding 60, the generation which was crowned in glory by their fight against the military junta.  Alékos Alavános, the former president of Synaspismós, organized the transfer of power to Tsipras to make official this break with a kind of generational ossification which was affecting the Greek radical left. This was a very resolute political gesture. Tsipras is popular because before he was elected to the head of Synaspismós, he had led the party's list in Athen's municipal elections. Alexis Tsipras is not what you would describe as precisely a charismatic speaker. He is not a bad orator, but he certainly does not have the efficiency of someone like George Galloway or Jean-Luc Mélenchon. He has also made many errors, notably at first as he underestimated – like a great part of the radical left – the seriousness of the crisis and the issue of public debt as a justification for the austerity policy. He seemed rather overtaken by the events at first. Then he developed a pugnacious style in parliament; particularly in opposition to the PASOK government and to Papandreou, thereby improving his orator's profile. But what enabled him to take off was his proposition a few weeks ago to form a government which united the radical left and all the forces against austerity. He transformed the image of the radical left which had still been predominantly perceived in Greek society as a force of integrity, honourable and useful in social movements, but not willing to take responsibility for the historical task of finding a way out of the crisis. This is a profound transformation for a radical left that is still traumatized by the defeat of communism in the last century. This radical left now wants to break with its position of being eternally in the minority - a force dedicated to nothing but “resistance”.


This is an excerpt, translated into English by Ludmilla Barrand, of an interview that took place in Bloomsbury, London, on May 22 2012. Read the full French version here.

About the author

Philippe Marlière is a Professor in French and European Politics at University College London (UK). He is a regular contributor to Le Monde, Le Monde diplomatique and The Guardian and tweets @PhMarliere.

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