Blog

Syriza succeeds in Greece by mainstreaming the anti-austerity movement

Yesterday, Syriza — a previously marginal, left-leaning coalition party in Greece — made history by winning the country’s general election. Winning 149 of 300 parliamentary seats, the party fell just two votes shy of an outright majority. Syriza’s leader, 40-year-old Alexis Tsipras, will become prime minister at the head of a coalition anti-austerity government, beating out the conservative New Democracy party and its now former prime minister, Antonis Samaras.

Many have attributed the party’s meteoric rise to power as a product of the brutal austerity conditions imposed on Greece by the International Monetary Fund and the European Union in their 2010 bailout of the country. Such measures have destroyed a quarter of the country’s GDP, and driven youth unemployment to an astounding 50 percent. At this point, the country’s non-working population outnumbers the employed as national debt continues to skyrocket.

Syriza has offered Greece a hopeful alternative, focused on getting people back to work, “transforming the political system,” and meeting basic needs. The party plans to immediately implement programs to guarantee housing and electricity as well as provide free medical and pharmaceutical care for the unemployed, among other measures aimed at reconstituting the country’s social safety net — left to crumble under austerity. In Brussels, they also plan to push for a renegotiation of the country’s debt, an infusion of capital for a “European New Deal,” and quantitative easing. In confronting the Eurozone and the IMF, the party has grown into rather than shrunk from its radical-left, anti-capitalist roots. Speaking with the Guardian, Tsipras noted, “This crisis is not coincidental. It’s a structural crisis of capitalism and of its neoliberal model.”

Syriza’s success, however, is about more than just material conditions. Emerging from various splits in Greece’s communist left, as well as the alter-globalization and anti-racist movements, the party jolted from relative obscurity by mobilizing a younger, more populist base alongside trade unionists and older middle-class Greeks shaken by the country’s financial crisis. The party has made a public alliance with the Spanish populist party Podemos, or “We Can,” a largely decentralized formation out of that country’s Indignados movement that, of late, has surged in popular opinion polls and predicts a strong turnout in the Spanish general election later this year.

Together, these two sister movements from the Mediterranean are looking to alter the course of European political, economic and social life, maintaining both left-patriotism for their respective nations and a defiant internationalism. Syriza’s tagline is “Greece goes forward — Europe is changing.” From their outset, each party has been staunchly anti-austerity, providing a political vehicle for both leftists and, perhaps more importantly, ordinary Greeks who felt abandoned by the political leaders who dumped them headfirst into a painful crisis.

In an interview with Jacobin, Syriza central committee member Stathis Kouvelakis describes his party’s success in terms of its transition from “a party of members [rather than] a party of activists or active members, a parti d’adhérents rather than aparti de militants.” In multiple publications and TV appearances, both Tsipras and Pablo Iglesias, Podemos’ former TV personality spokesman, have emphasized the need to reach beyond traditional left bases among educated workers, student radicals and intellectuals, being realistic about the extent to which the left has been defeated in the court of public opinion — in other words, “mainstreaming” the movement. There are plenty of lessons to be taken from Syriza’s victory and Podemos’ rise to power, but striving to speak to people rather than politics might be chief among them.

“Our enemies,” Iglesias advises, “want us small, speaking a language no one understands, in a minority, hiding behind our traditional symbols.” These enemies, he continues, are “delighted with that, because they know that as long as we are like that, we are not dangerous.” This may be a lesson, then, that now — more than ever — is the time to get dangerous.