Syriza’s leftism losing its lustre

By Yannis Palaiologos
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23 March 2017
Greece Greece
Even with the government struggling in the polls an early election could prove a headache for the centre left
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This is not a happy time to be a leftist in Greece. When Syriza, a party of Marxist origins, gained power in January 2015, it styled itself as “the first government of the left” in the country – conveniently ignoring both the eight years of avowedly leftwing rule by Pasok in the 1980s and the fact that their coalition partners were, and remain, the hard-right, nationalist Independent Greeks.

A little over two years later, having dragged the country into a travesty of a referendum, imposed capital controls and pushed the economy back into a recession it is still struggling to emerge from, the government’s popularity has collapsed. A recent poll by the University of Macedonia for Skai television showed that Syriza is trailing the centre-right opposition, New Democracy – a party it beat by more than seven percentage points in September 2015 – by a whopping 17-point margin. Almost nine out of 10 voters disapprove of the government’s performance.

But it is not only the appeal of Alexis Tsipras and his cabinet that lie in tatters. Along with them, there are strong indications that leftism as an ideology, long-dominant in the post-junta period which began in 1974, is losing its lustre. Earlier this month, Dianeosis, a polling organisation, released the third edition of an ambitious survey entitled “What Greeks believe”. One of its notable findings was that the percentage of Greeks who view the left positively has dropped to 37.4%, from 52.5% in the first edition of the survey in April 2015 – in the early, heady days of Syriza rule.

This past Sunday, Alexis Papahelas, the managing editor of Kathimerini, Greece’s centre-right newspaper of record where I work, wrote an op-ed with the provocative title “A big thank you to the Syriza government”. In it, he wrote: “It took a ‘leftwing’ government to push the pendulum to the centre, where it should have been to begin with. None of us, however hard we tried, were able to do this in the past 40-plus years. Anyone who attempted tasted the bitterness of someone fighting alone against the millstones of history.”

Meanwhile, the centre left in Greece remains in a sorry state. Pasok, the party that ran the country for 21 years between 1981-2011, has been reduced to single-digit support – even in coalition with the once-popular Democratic Left. Pasok recently reunited with the breakaway party formed in 2014 by its former leader and prime minister George Papandreou, and seen a mild uptick in its numbers as a result. But its policy of equal distance between New Democracy and Syriza masks a lack of leadership on the tough issues and an unwillingness to break with the practices that brought the country – and the party – low. Several other initiatives to create new parties on the centre left in the long years of the crisis have all foundered, mostly because of clashes of personalities.

In theory, elections are more than two years away. But under increasing pressure to pass unpopular measures that will further dent his already shrinking support base, Tsipras may opt for an early election in the coming months. It is likely that New Democracy will win that contest, but not earn enough seats for a majority. Pasok will then be faced with a major dilemma: will it (again) support a government of the centre-right and ensure political stability, or will it allow the country to be led to a repeat election, under a new, proportional voting system, which will all but guarantee a period of political chaos in a very critical time for the economy? Keeping equal distance will mean very little if the whole country falls off the cliff.