The European radical left beyond Syriza – a new left-wing Zeitgeist?

Luke March 

For years now, several analysts (including me) have been proclaiming that the European radical left is on the upswing. However, reality has often confounded prognosis, with electoral dividends from the Great Recession meagre, and every success counteracted by an apparent debacle. Certainly, politically it is the right and austerity programmes that have dominated the crisis response, leading to suspicions that the radical left had passed up a perfect opportunity to exploit capitalism’s travails.

Until now. Syriza’s stunning victory in the Greek parliamentary poll saw the election of the first anti-austerity radical left government within the EU, at a time when the austerity consensus is under sustained assault from many angles. This has led to a profusion of sympathetic articles proclaiming that Syriza ‘magic equation’ will usher in a sea change in European politics, with a wave of hope transforming Europe and finally undermining TINA (Thatcher’s adage that ‘There is No Alternative’ to neo-liberalism). Not so fast! TINA has been proclaimed dead before (particularly after the 1999 Seattle protests), while if simply asserting austerity’s demise (however forcefully) were enough to transform Europe, the left would have done so long ago.

A closer focus on the strengths and weaknesses of the European radical left shows that Syriza remains exceptional and its success is unlikely to be repeated imminently anywhere else, even if activists draw specific lessons as well as inspiration. Similarly, dramatic ruptures in European politics remain remote possibilities. Nevertheless, the longer-term prospects for the radical left will continue to improve, especially if Syriza’s governing experience offers benefits both to the Greek population and the wider European left alike.

The mosaic left – from movement to mutation 

Today’s European radical left is a ‘mosaic left’ – a constellation of variegated parties/movements from motley backgrounds. There have been concerted efforts to develop common policies and networks, and, still more importantly, to bridge chasms between different ideological traditions, both in forming new electorally-focussed parties which are coalitions of different tendencies and in emphasising as never before European nuclei of common action (e.g. the European Social Forums, the GUE/NGL European Parliament [EP] group and the European Left Party). This radical left is no longer in full-blown crisis, as it was until the 2000s, and the emphasis has shifted from (eternal) fragmentation to limited fusion. There has even been a significant uptick in party performance from the mid-2000s with parties increasing their vote share by over 50% on average since the onset of the Great Recession.

Nevertheless, aggregate growth can’t conceal inconsistency. A 10% average vote share is not negligible but is much less impressive when Syriza, Latvia’s Harmony Centre (a coalition between the larger social democrats and the Latvian Socialist Party which the latter has now left) and the former Soviet bloc (where historical legacy increases party support) are excluded. The radical left tends to do better in poorer and/or smaller countries, and is regularly dwarfed by the radical right in some of the more prosperous and or larger countries (e.g. France, Italy and the UK). Iceland excepted, the Nordic countries are no longer a zone of particular strength. The performance of the radical left in the 2014 EP elections was similarly patchwork. On one hand, the GUE/NGL group was one of the winners, increasing its seat share from 4.8% to 6.9% (52 seats), becoming the largest EP radical left group since 1986, and broadening its membership to 14 countries, far beyond the Latin communist core of the 1980s and early 1990s. On the other hand, in the 1980s it held nearly 10% of EP seats. Moreover, its total is disproportionally boosted by stellar results in Greece and Spain and its current diversity encompasses regionalist and nationalist members unlikely to help build a true radical left family: the group will hardly overcome its record as one of the EP’s least cohesive groups.

More troublingly, the radical left no longer exists as a movement in the pre-1989 sense (albeit in few European countries) of strongly institutionalised parties embedded in sub-cultures with a panoply of affiliated social organisations. This is why some from the Marxist-Leninist tradition regard the radical left as still in deep crisis, summarily dismissing the achievements of what they regard as ‘left reformist’ parties with weak social bases incapable of exploiting class discontent. However, the fact remains that, for much of the last two decades, genuine protest movements have largely by-passed organised political parties, including the radical left, and even (still infused by the spirit of ‘68) seen them as ossified institutions of the ‘system’ rather than as part of the solution. Even mass demonstrations in which trade unions and parties of the left have played key roles have often failed to bring obvious electoral dividends (e.g. the anti-austerity general strikes in Portugal in 2012-3)). Exceptions to this rule are younger radical left groupuscules in Eastern Europe (e.g. Bosnia, Croatia and, above all, Slovenia, where the United Left entered parliament in 2014).

Yet even today, most European countries have some half-a-dozen competing radical left parties, usually individually miniscule but salami-slicing an already fragile vote. Several of the earlier generation of ‘broad left’ parties uniting different ideological traditions (e.g. Rifondazione Comunista, the Scottish Socialist Party and the Portuguese Left Bloc) found schismatic traditions stubbornly persistent and have foundered as a result (the former two are now on the edge of oblivion). Even some of the larger, more established parties such as the German Die Linke and Dutch Socialist Party have struggled to increase support during the crisis. Gradual moderation to increase governing perspectives has often risked disappointing more radical supporters while failing to fully convince new voters and coalition partners that they mean business, while the business community itself often weighs in heavily against the radical left and their supposedly obsolete, ‘extreme’ or ‘far left’ policies. At the same time, the radical right often benefits more than the radical left, mainly because they are more ideologically flexible and can appropriate left-wing arguments (defence of the welfare state, protection of workers) while the left often struggles to come up with a popular response to right-wing arguments. Repugnant though anti-immigration sentiment is, it can be electorally dynamic in a way that international solidarity is not.

At the same time, Syriza’s success is clearly somewhat exceptional, with a remarkably propitious combination of external and internal factors. Externally, as Stathis Kouvelakis has argued, Greece has suffered from an unprecedented, violent socio-economic cataclysm resulting in political polarisation. Nowhere else in Europe (except Ukraine, for obviously very different reasons) has experienced anything like this. Relatedly, the complete collapse of the mainstream left PASOK, because of its role in the imposition of the Troika’s policies (as well as in systemic corruption), has allowed Syriza to appropriate much of PASOK’s electoral space, activists and organisation, as well as remaining one of the few untainted parties. Although social democrats are in trouble across Europe, nowhere else is a PASOK-like implosion (yet) on the horizon.

Simultaneously, Syriza possesses something of a magic formula for radical left party success, namely: a populist ideology that projects defiance and can unite different ideological tendencies by articulating popular anger against the ‘establishment’ and a pragmatic but principled approach to power (seeking government around clear anti-austerity principles, yet downplaying maximalist demands and proving coalitionable with ideological opponents such as the Independent Greeks). In addition, the party leadership’s calibre is not lightly to be dismissed – it clearly (especially in Yanis Varoufakis) contains intelligent and charismatic individuals. Alexis Tsipras himself, although politically inexperienced, is ‘an effective leader but not a charismatic one’, presenting a solid, statesman-like quality and charm. Obviously, the leadership remains to be tested, and whether Tsipras has the stature or qualities to unite a potentially fractious party throughout future travails is unclear.

The party also has strong ties with the anti-austerity ‘Squares’ movement, which allows Syriza to present itself as a genuinely ‘new’ force, even though its antecedent parties have been around for decades. For all that, while some analysts see it as a recent product of Ernesto Laclau, or a new left populist spectre haunting the continent, although many other successful radical left parties have aspired to such qualities over the last decade or more, few have acquired all of them nor benefitted from such a unique external environment.

Sustaining the Syriza surge

It is this singularity that means that there is unlikely to be an immediate ‘Syriza surge’ elsewhere in Europe. Only in Spain, and perhaps Denmark, are we likely to see dramatic gains for the radical left in 2015 elections (although the quasi-left Sinn Féin is currently topping the Irish polls for the 2016 elections). Podemos is often portrayed as the next Syriza and, indeed, possesses some extra advantages: a more developed, populist image as the defender of popular ‘common sense’; an even more charismatic and media-friendly leader in Pablo Iglesias; a centralised party structure; organic links with the anti-austerity Indignados; and a greater authenticity as a ‘new’ force battling the corrupt establishment ‘caste’. That said, the barriers are still formidable with the Spanish Socialists much more resilient than PASOK (‘badly beaten but not defeated’), a modest economic recovery in progress, and the presence of the established United Left party likely to complicate matters further.

In the longer run Syriza’s victory can clearly have a galvanising effect elsewhere; as, indeed, it already has: Tsipras has emerged as a left-wing figurehead, leading the European Left Party in the 2014 EP elections, and inspiring a ‘Tsipras List’ to unite the fractious Italian left. But sustaining this figurehead status will depend on the longer-term performance of the Syriza government. At the time of writing this is entirely unclear as Greece and EU ‘have become stuck in a passive-aggressive standoff that has made serious negotiation impossible’. Remember that Syriza is the first anti-austerity but not the first radical left government in Europe: such parties have governed alone in Cyprus and Moldova, as well as being in coalition in several other countries during the last decade, although they have been satisfied with meagre adjustments to the neo-liberal status quo. If Syriza manages to gain even limited respite from Greece’s debt burden that allows it to soften domestic conditions and contributes to rolling back austerity elsewhere, then this will be a comparative victory that can contribute to a credibility breakthrough for the radical left, and its increased inclusion in governmental calculations elsewhere. Such an outcome is devoutly wished by many, not just on the radical left: the prestigious US Foreign Affairs journal, hardly a bastion of Marxism, even called on the EU to make ‘some sort of deal with Syriza’, and (unlike many analyses) saw the radical left as a lesser evil than the radical right. On the other hand, if the EU continues playing hardball and the ‘Grexit’ scenario or a complete Syriza capitulation ensue, these risk undermining almost all Syriza’s achievements to date and reinforcing the mainstream view of the radical left as an economic pariah or juvenile. Consequently, the radical right may be the chief beneficiary, not least in Greece itself.

That said, the longer-term opportunities for the radical left will remain brighter than for decades. After all, support for radical left parties is scarcely negligible in Europe now and, whereas one obviously cannot directly extrapolate party success from individual level data, the potential vote for such parties is considerably greater than their achieved success. Even in a notionally ‘post-austerity’ Europe, inequality, poverty and corruption will scarcely be dormant issues. And whatever Syriza’s actual policy achievements, its electoral performance demonstrates a ‘success formula’ of populism, principle and pragmatism that other parties may emulate more explicitly than before. If we add in the stirrings of radical left protest in Eastern Europe, then Syriza will be the first but not the last party of the anti-austerity left to gain power in Europe.

Luke March is Senior Lecturer in Soviet and Post-Soviet Politics at the University of Edinburgh and author of Radical Left Parties in Europe (Routledge, 2011).

What has been the impact of the Eurozone Crisis on the Greek Party System: Evidence from the 2015 Greek National Election

Nikoleta Kiapidou

The 2015 Greek national election confirmed the radical transformations which the Greek party system has been undergoing since 2009. The outcome of the election showed that the trends which were traced throughout the Eurozone crisis and became much apparent in the elections that took place from 2012-2015 revealed new patterns of party support in Greek politics. First, a new two-party competition between the radical left SYRIZA and centre-right New Democracy replaced the old divide between New Democracy and the social democratic PASOK, as PASOK became the weakest party in parliament. The debate between the two major parties as well as political debate on the whole has been characterised by the new salient issue over which parties have been competing throughout the years of the crisis: the pro-/anti-austerity divide. Also, new parties have managed not only to gain seats (such as To Potami), but also to join the coalition government (such as DIMAR and the Independent Greeks). Moreover, we find a much more fragmented Greek parliament which consists of a high number of political parties that cover a particularly broad range of positions on the Left-Right scale. In the same vein, right-wing extremism has steadily gained ground in Greek politics, as Golden Dawn’s electoral performance has secured its place at the heart of the party system. Moreover, coalition governments appear to have been a new norm that Greek people seem to expect from elections.

The Results 

Table 1: 2015 Greek national election results (parties in parliament) 

Party Vote share (%) Seats
SYRIZA 36.3 149
New Democracy 27.8 76
Golden Dawn 6.3 17
To Potami (The River) 6.1 17
KKE 5.5 15
Independent Greeks 4.8 13
PASOK 4.7 13

Source: Greek Ministry of Interior, http://www.ypes.gr

As Table 1 shows, the election results gave SYRIZA the upper hand over the two previously dominant parties: New Democracy and PASOK. The party managed to become the strongest power in parliament by achieving an impressive 36.3% of the votes that no party had managed to reach in the previous elections that took place during the crisis. New Democracy became the second largest party with 27.8% and remained the main opponent to SYRIZA. The extreme right-wing Golden Dawn became the third party with 6.3%. The party continued attracting a significant base of supporters, bearing in mind that some Golden Dawn MPs are in prison awaiting trial on charges of belonging to a criminal gang, and therefore, unable to run any kind of pre-election campaign. The new centrist party, To Potami (The River), managed to secure fourth place after its initial success in the 2014 European Parliament elections. The Communist Party (KKE) became the fifth party with 5.5%, which is much lower than the vote share it got in the previous 2012 May elections (8.5%). Despite what most opinion polls predicted, the right-wing Independent Greeks not only secured seats in parliament, but also became the sixth largest party even finishing ahead of PASOK. PASOK had an extremely disappointing performance (4.7%) and became the last party to gain seats. This result confirmed the gradual meltdown of one of the biggest parties in Greece and one of the most stable centre-left parties in Europe.

The day after the election saw SYRIZA rapidly forming a coalition government with the Independent Greeks. This came as no surprise since both parties had expressed their willingness to co-operate in case SYRIZA did not reach the 151 seats required by the Greek constitution for a single-party government. SYRIZA missed the chance of having the absolute majority by just two seats, in spite of securing the bonus of 50 seats that the Greek electoral law offers to the strongest party in parliament.

Patterns of change in the Greek Party System 

These results showed that the changes that were identified in the 2012 national and 2014 EP elections are now something more than trends; they are the established patterns of the Greek party system under the conditions of the crisis. Figure 1 illustrates the development of voter support for the main political parties from 2004-2015. Although it had an impressive performance in the 2009 election, PASOK’s collapse started immediately after the crisis began and resulted in it being the last party to gain seats in parliament in 2015. New Democracy’s performance is also disappointing, although the party kept its position as the main opposition party. SYRIZA, a party that had no more than 5% support from 2004-2009, raised its level of support by more than 30% in 2015 compared to 2009. Several new parties were created and managed to affect political developments by offering a wide range of opposition alternatives to Greek voters as well as being potential coalition partners to the major parties. At the same time, Golden Dawn’s ultra right-wing positions did not prevent the party from turning into a stable political power.

Figure 1. Vote share of the main Greek parties in the Greek National Elections from 2004 to 2015.

Vote share of the main Greek parties in the Greek National Elections from 2004 to 2015

Source: Greek Ministry of Interior, http://www.ypes.gr

In particular, five main patterns can be identified in the Greek party system during the Eurozone crisis:

  1. A familiar two-party debate but with new opponents

Before the Eurozone crisis began, percentages of 35-45% support were familiar to the major Greek parties, PASOK and New Democracy. However, during the crisis the highest vote share achieved was 29.7% by New Democracy in June 2012. SYRIZA managed to bring back high voter support when getting 36.3% in 2015. At the same time, New Democracy performed much better in 2015 than it did in the May 2012 election. Since the Greek public are familiar with a two-party system, the new debate between SYRIZA and New Democracy seems to fit in to well-known Greek political standards. The previously strongest opponent to New Democracy, PASOK, was replaced by SYRIZA. Thus, a familiar pattern which was much weakened in the beginning of the crisis, has found its place back to the centre of Greek politics.

  1. A fragmented Greek parliament

Despite the growing power of SYRIZA and the relatively good performance of New Democracy in 2015, the Greek parliament once again consisted of a significant number of political parties. New parties that were created during the crisis, such as The Potami and Independent Greeks, have become key players in the political arena, particularly in terms of being potential partners of the coalition government. Older, well-established parties, such as KKE and PASOK could still secure seats in parliament. Although the coalition potential of Golden Dawn is completely out of the picture, the party is also considered a significant power in Greek politics. New alternatives have been offered to, as well as demanded by, the Greek electorate, which has been supporting a wide range of political actors throughout the crisis.

  1. Wide range of ideological positions and right-wing extremism

This wide range of parties is not only evident in the number of parties, but also in their ideological positions. An extremely broad range of ideological views can be traced in parliament from 2012 until today. Naturally, one of the parties that pulls this range to the extreme is Golden Dawn, which has seen a stable performance of around 6.5% support throughout these years. In fact, a trend towards more right-wing positions was already identified in the 2009 election when the minor right-wing nationalist party LAOS gained seats. Although LAOS disappeared in the following elections, the trend continued. Greek voters seem to have acquired an ongoing appetite for right-wing extremism.

  1. The pro-/anti-Memorandum divide 

Despite the large scale of ideological positions in the Greek party system, the main political debate has not been developed in pure ideological terms. A new issue that emerged during the crisis, particularly in the Southern European countries, dominated the political discussion in Greece. The pro-/anti-austerity divide managed to create such deep divisions between parties, that it brought together opponents who would not co-operate under different circumstances; first New Democracy and PASOK, and then SYRIZA and the Independent Greeks. When austerity reached such a high level of salience, ideology became a secondary issue.

  1. Coalition formation

All the above led to the last new pattern in Greek politics during the crisis: a change from absolute majority single-party governments to coalition formation. Even if SYRIZA managed to gain the two seats needed for an absolute majority, it would remain a weak single-party government. While coalition governments were an unfamiliar pattern for the Greek people, it has been the norm since 2012. This new shift has made parties compete in completely different terms than before; major parties are involved in constant attempts to secure coalition partners and minor parties are trying to play the ‘coalition potential’ card in the best way possible.

These patterns have characterised Greek politics from the beginning of the crisis until the present day and they were verified by the 2015 election results. Clearly, they developed in Greece under extremely difficult economic and social conditions. Whether they have managed to develop deep roots in the Greek party system remains to be seen.

Nikoleta Kiapidou (N.Kiapidou@sussex.ac.uk) is a doctoral researcher at the Sussex European Institute in the Department of Politics, University of Sussex.