Austerity takes toll on Greece’s Tsipras

The ‘House of Marxist Factions’ that was Greece’s Syriza party has gone. Talking leftist politics while implementing austerity is the gamble that Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras must continue to take while forging a new catch-all left-wing party for Greece. Our special correspondent Markus Bernath reports from Athens.

Syriza’s new headquarters in Athens comes complete with a conference hall and a rooftop cafe. But the view over this run-down part of western Athens is not as spectacular as the party headquarters itself. Located in Kerameikos, the showcase of Greece’s ruling leftist party is located in a district of Athens known for its Chinese textile retailers and seedy hotels, some of them now being squats for refugees.

Syriza’s boss, Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, kept the leftists’ old house which is a block up in Kerameikos at Koumoundourou Square where he continues to chair Syriza’s political secretariat, the party’s executive committee. For the hotchpotch of Marxist factions who came from nowhere just a few years ago, the abundance of office space, jobs and money stills feels like a miracle. But, as often with alleged miracles, the question really is when will reality show up?

Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras must reform his fractured Syriza party. [Greek Current]
Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras must reform his fractured Syriza party. [Greek Current]
Alexis Tsipras is now turning his attention to the party he brought to power one-and-a-half years ago. Having concluded the latest round of negotiations with the country’s lenders, he has decided that it is finally time to call a party congress. Delegates are scheduled to convene on the last weekend of September. Despite new headquarters and all, Syriza, the Coalition of the Radical Left, doesn’t actually exist anymore – at least not as the coalition that stunningly defeated Greek Conservatives and took over the government in January 2015.

Syriza rose from a mere 4.6 percent at the parliamentary elections in 2009 – the year before the official outbreak of the financial crisis – to an amazing 36.3 percent in early 2015. And then, reality kicked in.

After numerous U-turns and repeated surrendering to the lenders in the past year and up until now, Syriza’s anti-austerity program has all but been abandoned. Chrisanthos Tassis, an associate professor for political sciences at the University of Athens, who specializes in Greek leftist politics, admits with some dismay that, while coalition principles were being tossed overboard, there was no internal debate by Syriza’s party committees about accepting or not accepting a third bailout package.

Panayiotis Lafazanis, former minister of energy, environment and productive reconstruction. [Sigmalive]
Panayiotis Lafazanis, former minister of energy, environment and productive reconstruction. [Sigmalive]
Consensus and inner party democracy, however, were at the heart of the heteroclite party that was Syriza. By August 2015, Tsipras’ large alliance of eleven factions split anyway. What Syriza is today is not easy to define and the future of the governing radical left in Greece remains an open question. When Panagiotis Lafazanis, the powerful former minister for energy, environment and productive reconstruction – left the government and Syriza in the summer of 2015, he took with him a quarter of the party’s 200-strong central committee.

Syriza’s Secretary General Tassos Koronakis and the government’s spokesperson Gavriel Sakellaridis, both close friends of Tsipras, also walked away as did Parliamentary President Zoe Konstantopoulou. They were joined by the better part of Syriza’s youth organization and – officially – 11 percent of the party’s members. The remaining party membership is estimated to be around 30,000.

Lafazanis, the now former leader of Syriza’s Left Platform, founded his own party, Popular Unity or Laiki Enotita (LE). Despite its tiny showing of 2.86 percent in the snap elections of September 2015, Lafazanis still has a considerable sway over the trade unions and in particular, ADEDY, the union of public sector employees in Greece, as well as the docker workers’ unions in Piraeus and Thessaloniki, which do not accept the government’s privatization deal. However, it’s hard to see how being linked to a fringe leftist party and to the traditional Greek Communist Party, the KKE, could be a winning bet for the Greek trade unions in the long run. The expectation, at least in Syriza, is to see them return to the fold of the governing left party.

What remains part of the present-day Syriza is basically Synaspismos, the Euro-Communist, new-left party that was founded after 1989 and – much later, from 2008 on – led by Alexis Tsipras. All the other factions of the Coalition of the Radical Left have either left or merged with Synaspismos. The once horizontally constructed alliance of parties within Syriza has gone. That Synaspismos itself was nominally dissolved at the last Syriza congress in 2013 is not that much of importance. All its actors are still around and within the milieu of the radical left in Greece – identified as Synaspismos people.

Schmoozing with EU heavyweights – damn austerity, pass the champagne. [Sigmalive]
Schmoozing with EU heavyweights – damn austerity, pass the champagne. [Sigmalive]
Among Syriza’s former factions, the ecological-Marxist AKOA of incumbent Education Minister Nikos Filis and Parliament President Nikos Voutsis aligned with the Synaspismos group. So did the Marxist-Leninist KEDA of Yiannis Theonas, a former communist central committee secretary and a well-known figure within the Greek left. The Movement of Active Citizens also chose to stay with Syriza and the dominating Synaspismos, although the founder of the Active Citizens, 93-year old World War II resistance hero Manolis Glezos broke with Tsipras because of the bailout agreement.

The prime minister was also able to keep Zois Peppes, a well-known trade unionist, who previously was with Lafazanis’ Left Platform. Peppes has found a job at the National Bank of Greece with the bank’s president Louka Katseli, a former Pasok turned Syriza politician.

Other elements of the Syriza house of cards left the party alliance without making too much noise, among them the revolutionary DEA of Adonis Davanellos and the Maoist KOE, led by Rudy Rinaldi.

Tsipras’ foes on the left side of the political spectrum accuse him of having turned Syriza into a neoliberal party and of being too content with just schmoozing with world leaders at international summits. Lafazanis and – to a lesser degree – Zoe Konstantopoulou, with her new party Plefsi Elefthorias – Freedom Course – promise to stop serving the debts and to proudly leave the Eurozone. The mistake here, as pollsters in Athens say, is that both politicians appeal to the 4-5 percent of  Syriza’s old, truly radical leftist voters, not to the broader electorate that brought Tsipras to power, comprised of former supporters of the socialist Pasok, students, farmers, and self-employed people in liberal professions who have a small income and who just wanted to try something new.

For months now, Syriza has been lagging in the polls behind the conservative Nea Dimokratia by five or more percentage points. Moreover, Syriza’s coalition partner, the small rightwing populist party Anel (Independent Greeks), is not assured a place in parliament again. Victory or defeat in the next election is not that decisive for the survival of Syriza, according to political observers in Athens. To an extent, Syriza remains as a radical left party that simply sticks to the implementation of a bailout agreement that was imposed, they say.

Former parliament speaker Zoe Konstantopoulou is ready to leave the euro. [BBC]
Former parliament speaker Zoe Konstantopoulou is ready to leave the euro. [BBC]
Tsipras obviously aims to turn Syriza into a new-left catch-all party, similar to what Pasok had been in the past. The party congress in September will be organized for that reason. In order to survive, and despite all the austerity measures taken, Tsipras and his party need to come up with some two or three symbolic “leftist reforms” that Greek society will remember, in the emphatic view of analysts in Athens who have a more sympathetic view of Syriza.

The leftist-led government tried for a time to bypass lenders with a “parallel program” that failed – but it might try its luck again. Compared to “parallel” spending and reform under the suspicious eyes of the lenders, a brush-up of the Greek constitution seems less difficult. The Tsipras government proposes some changes in the electoral system and also the direct election of the head of state. That is unlikely to impress Greek voters much. What they really want to hear about are more jobs and lower taxes.

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