Five years ago Syriza won the Greek elections and raised the hopes of the European Left. Costas Isychos, a minister in their first government, explains why the party’s socialist ambitions evaporated.
When the results of the parliamentary elections were announced on 25 January 2015, all eyes were on Greece. For the first time, a party of the radical left — beyond the social democrats, who had shared a common neoliberal programme with the Right for years — had a chance to ascend to power in a European country.
In the eyes of most people, the centre-left and centre-right had become almost indistinguishable, advocating austerity and treating fiscal discipline and competitiveness as religious gospel. Syriza’s victory seemed like a popular revolution in a European Union which had been transformed into a greenhouse for pro-market policies.
Syriza itself had led a five-year period of mass protests across the country. Its electoral platform in 2015 — the Thessaloniki programme — promised to repeal the Troika’s austerian memorandums, which had immiserated the country. The party maintained as a slogan that the euro ‘was not a fetish’, and seemed willing to stand up to the ruling elites on the continent.
The four pillars of Syriza’s platform were widely popular: confronting Greece’s humanitarian crisis, restarting the economy and promoting tax justice, regaining lost employment, and deepening democracy by transforming the political system. These measures, it was hoped, could prevent the exodus of an entire generation — over 600,000 of whom had left since the country plunged into financial crisis.
The Greek people had had enough. The past five years had seen social and economic catastrophe: Greece lost around 25% of its GDP, unemployment soared to 28%, real wages lost one third of their value, and parliament had turned into a rubber stamp for European memorandums which promised more of the same. The need for political change was great.
After Syriza’s election with 36.3 per cent of the vote there was, for the first time in many years, a sense of hope. At last, there would be a real fightback against the establishment, the media barons, and the Greek oligarchy. We believed this, too, as new members of parliament with this insurgent movement. Sadly, as we now know, that resistance proved short-lived.
The First Months
Syriza entered government with an official position of ‘no more sacrifices for the euro’, which was interpreted within the party as meaning that we would be prepared to pursue a Plan B in our negotiations over the debt burden and memorandums with the European authorities — up to and potentially including an exit.
From the early stages, however, it became clear that this was not really the strategy of Alexis Tsipras and the leadership group. They were determined to pursue negotiations in such a way as to avoid jeopardising Greece’s membership of the eurozone, or its alliance with NATO. As well as diminishing any leverage we might have had, this all but guaranteed there would be no real shift in power from the oligarchy to the parliament and other citizens’ decision-making bodies.
What followed was a six-month-long slow defeat for the movements which had propelled Syriza to power. Day after day, news would break about negotiations being held far away and the people who had hoped to be protagonists were gradually reduced to spectators.
Of course, it must have been clear to the leadership team early on that the promises on which we were elected could not be achieved by the course of negotiation that was being pursued. But they continued — and Europe and the world were subjected to a prolonged and futile drama.
The Troika was determined throughout to make Greece an example to other countries and peoples that dared to defy the financial dictatorship they had constructed. They were aware that Greece symbolised more than one country’s struggle — it was united with Spain, Portugal, Italy, and Ireland, and beyond this with the aspirations of millions for a new and more just social order.
It was against this threat that they arranged themselves. And that context made the approach of Alexis Tsipras and his allies — to rely on their conceding — an obvious fallacy. But then, in the summer of 2015, the embers of those popular discontents which had scorched the earth of Greece’s political system and produced Syriza, were set ablaze again by the referendum campaign.
In July, after the dead-end of negotiations, the government turned the question of Greece’s adherence to the memorandums back to the people. Against all odds, 61.3 per cent voted to reject the Troika’s demands for continued austerity and debt servitude. They said ‘No’.
This No was a great moment of patriotic and internationalist pride, reminiscent of the unifying capabilities of the Greek left during Nazi occupation (and, indeed, in the case of Syriza MEP and former resistance fighter Manolis Glezos, there is real historical continuity). It was also an expression of resistance against a broader international financial order rooted in American hegemony, one which has imposed its structural adjustment programmes on so many countries.
The people had chosen. They invested in selflessness and collective responsibility. They had been warned throughout the campaign by the oligarchs and the media barons about the consequences, but they were prepared for sacrifices and great costs. They fought despite these things for the incalculable value of Greek society, for its departing youth, and for its future. Alas, their courage was not matched by our government.
Within hours it became clear that the leadership team of Alexis Tsipras was not prepared to follow the spirit of the referendum. They had chosen political opportunism and power, to be administrators of ‘memorandums with a human face’. They had made their own choice, away from the hollowed-out political bodies and procedures of their party.
The full humiliation of retreat became clear. Not only were the Troika unwilling to accept an honest compromise after the result of the referendum, but, enraged by its exposing of their political and economic system, they demanded unconditional surrender with an immediate vote on a third package memorandum.
Soon, the Left Platform, of which I was a part and which refused to accept the capitulation, was expelled. German and American political leaders expressed great relief about this sign of responsibility from the once-radical left party.
Although the Right in Greece had lost the referendum it had, in fact, won the ideological battle. The austerity agenda and adherence to European orthodoxy began to be accepted. The leadership of Syriza — whose limited political insights were compensated for with excellent communication skills — had lost the ideological battle on which it had risen, but won a stay in power to carry out the policies it had once opposed.
The deep wound from that referendum result and its aftermath is still open. It does not heal. Especially for a Greek left which had won and lost battles, but always retained its moral legitimacy and political leadership. From the time of the Greek Civil War, it had countless martyrs but had also accumulated in the historical memory of the Greek people a great and timeless legacy, which kept it alive as a red thread in the history of our people.
In the moment of the referendum, the Greek people had demanded a rupture. They demanded a historical turning point, a fair deal for Greece with an end to the debt servitude — even if that meant leaving the eurozone to achieve economic independence. But the government turned this expression into a tactical move. In doing so, it broke a covenant with the people, damaging the Left to a degree which has yet to be fully understood.
The clique around Tsipras claimed that the referendum was a tool to further their leverage with the Troika. This argument evaporated within minutes. Others, no doubt, hoped for a closer result, or a defeat, to legitimise the withdrawal of our political programme. In the end, they received neither — and, although they won the elections which followed amid the ruins of that summer, they were never truly a force in society again. Syriza became something quite different.
From Resistance to Cynicism
It was at this point that something appeared which until then we hadn’t seen from Alexis Tsipras: a peculiar cynicism, quite alien from the traditional ethics of the Left. Having capitulated to the creditors, Tsipras invoked the spirit of the referendum and resistance once again to win the election. He pretended to stand on its legitimacy — even as he voided its outcome.
In essence, Tsipras managed to communicate that his own capitulation was not the result of a retreat or lack of preparation. Instead, it was an inevitability. Resistance to the market dictatorship and the coup which had been enacted against the Greek people was impossible. Politics once again became a place where hopes could only die.
In the following three years, Alexis Tsipras and his Syriza government managed to achieve what even the previous pro-memorandum governments could not. They fully implemented the third memorandum, completed major privatisations, dismantled the institutional framework of social security, and generalised flexible, precarious, and underpaid work — all with minimal social resistance. The back of the movements had been broken.
They achieved this by consciously investing in the fact that an exhausted society could not summon the same reactions that it did in 2010-12. But they also knew that Syriza’s own transformation had created a political scenario which provided ultimate proof of the doctrine — TINA (There Is No Alternative) — against which we had all struggled.
Setting as its main goal an exit from the memorandums before the end of its term, regardless of the social cost, Syriza not only accepted all the prerequisites that the Troika demanded but also committed itself to perpetual austerity and even the surveillance of the Greek economy until 2060.
First one principle is sacrificed, then another, and before long there are no coordinates. It is no coincidence that Syriza no longer even adopts the identity of the Left, despite its very name meaning ‘The Coalition of the Radical Left’ in Greek. Now it describes itself as ‘progressive’, and adopts the position of the centre-left — barely distinguishable in policy terms from the centre-right.
The charm of power proved to be irresistible for many long-time cadres of the Left. An important lesson from this experience is that party officials — when transferred to the state as advisors and bureaucrats — can quite easily become converts of the system.
Last year, during the election, Alexis Tsipras made a point of ignoring the invitation by Greek industrialists to speak at their convention. But this year, with the election over, he was free to attend — and to speak his mind. ‘It is good to remember that, many times, to be on the right side of history, you need to go beyond even yourself,’ he said.
Alexis Tsipras and Syriza did, indeed, go beyond themselves — contorting their entire political project from one which served the people to one which served power. We must remember that winning elections is not the same thing as shaping and transforming society in the interests of the people. It is vital that we learn from these mistakes, as well as from our great moments.
If the Greek experience proves one thing, it is that people are capable of great resilience when subjected to humiliation and blackmail. Our struggle for socialism encourages us to reach out to them, rather than subjugate their role and participation in decisive moments of history. If we can do this, then we can reach Ithaca — together.
About the Author
Costas Isychos is a former member of parliament for Syriza and deputy defence minister in the Greek government.