In what condition do we find the Greek Left today, two years after the electoral victory of the right-wing New Democracy (ND) party under Kyriakos Mitsotakis? Before we attempt to answer this question, we should first clarify what we mean by the “Greek Left” so as to prevent any confusion for readers unfamiliar with Greek politics.
Yannis Almpanis is an Athens-based freelance journalist. This article first appeared in the RLS-funded insert, Info: Griechenland.
There are a number of points we should consider in defining what comprises the Greek Left. Firstly, historically in Greece, the Left occupies the space to the left of Social Democracy. To a large degree, the notion of “Left” refers to parties that either define themselves as Communist or have their origins in the Communist tradition but no longer define themselves as such.
Secondly, following Syriza’s signing of the memorandum and the split in that party, the issue of whether Syriza belongs to the Left has become an object of political confrontation. The usual stance of the political forces to the left of Syriza is not to include it in the public space of the Left. Lately, however, there has been a certain easing of this tendency.
Thirdly, within Syriza, the party’s ideological identity is also politically disputed: there is the question of whether Syriza belongs to the Left or to the country’s “progressive forces”, which includes the centre-left and Left. The party balances the two by always mentioning both. Besides, its change in its official name to Coalition of Radical Left–Progressive Alliance is telling.
Finally, since the rise of Syriza, the Communist Party of Greece (KKE) tends to avoid using the term “Left”. Nevertheless, in typical terms of political geography, it would be methodologically appropriate to include Syriza in a report on the Greek Left.
The Negative Correlation
However we define it, the Greek Left is up against the constant predominance of ND under Mitsotakis. Despite the growing frustration with the government, which peaked with its inability to deal with the devastating wildfires last summer, ND maintains a clear lead over Syriza.
A poll by Prorata published on 30 August put ND at 33 percent (–1.5 percent from the last poll), Syriza at 25 percent (+0.5 percent), Movement for Change (KINAL, formerly PASOK) at 6.5 percent (–0.5 percent), ΚΚΕ at 4.5 percent (+0.5 percent), the far-right Greek Solution at 3.5 percent (+0.5 percent) and Yanis Varoufakis’ MeRA25 at 2 percent (–0.5 percent). All recent polls have produced similar results, although Varoufakis’s party generally clears the 3 percent threshold required to enter parliament. The polls lead to the conclusion that, no matter when the election will take place, Mitsotakis is certain to emerge victorious. Whether ND can secure an absolute majority is, however, debatable.
We should note here that the next election will, almost without doubt, be immediately followed by another one, which complicates the political game. The next election will use the system of proportional representation, and should it fail to produce a government, as is expected, the new election will use enhanced proportional representation. In this case, the leading party will need to take about 40 percent of the vote to achieve an absolute majority.
Syriza in a Tough Spot
Two years after the last election, Syriza finds itself in a tough spot. Not only does ND have a clear lead, but Syriza is now polling less than what it took in the 2019 election (31.53 percent). The polls now give the party almost 30 percent. Matters are even worse if we examine the qualitative polling data: Syriza is considered even less suitable for government than ND, while Alexis Tsipras’ popularity is far below that of Mitsotakis.
How can we explain Syriza and Tsipras lagging so far behind? There are six main reasons.
First, ND enjoys not only political predominance, but also ideological hegemony. After the failure of the left government embodied by Syriza, Greek society took a conservative turn. As early as 2017, prominent social scientist Yiannis Mavris pointed out that: “Greek society’s conservative turn is obvious, not only at the level of voting tendency, but – more importantly – on an ideological level.” All in all, ND’s political predominance has a certain ideological depth.
Second, Syriza has yet to break through the so-called “anti-Syriza front”, despite whatever ruptures the latter may have experienced. From 2010 to 2019, with the 2015 referendum as its peak moment, parallel to the staggering rise of Syriza, a very tough anti-Syriza front emerged. This front consists not only of ND’s traditional electorate, but also of followers of the far-right as well as of those who belong to the so-called “radical centre”, which despises not only Tsipras, but everything that is, or appears, progressive.
Third, Syriza has not distanced itself from its time in government, a government associated with the austerity measures imposed under the memorandums and with administrative inadequacy.
Fourth, Syriza and Tsipras have not methodically followed a strategy of rebuilding their respectability, which was seriously undermined after all the backpedalling with the signing of the memorandum.
Fifth, Syriza’s tactics in opposition are not coherent, since it seems to be wavering between its militant radical past and the centrist turn promoted by its leadership. As a result, its programmatic proposition is not clear.
Finally, immediately after the election, a bitter internal party debate began between the “presidential” tendency (meaning those around Tsipras) and an “umbrella” of internal party opposition. The confrontation has now settled down to a large degree, but the party’s image has suffered. It is important to note that in the recent elections for the party’s regional committees, the umbrella group reinforced its positions.
However, it seems that the efforts of ND and powerful media groups to stop Syriza from being a party of power have been in vain. Syriza undisputedly remains the second pole in the political system, remaining far ahead of KINAL.
A Progressive Government?
A main element in Syriza’s political planning is to put together a progressive government that will take over after ND. During the party’s goalsetting conference on 7 July, Tsipras noted that: “Every citizen of this country has to know that as long as Syriza–Progressive Alliance wins the next election, the following day the country is going to have a government; it is going to have a new powerful progressive government.”
By the term “progressive government”, he means a coalition government including Syriza, KINAL, and possibly MeRA25. Both KINAL and MeRA25 seem to have responded negatively to this proposal. Especially when it comes to KINAL, its orientation will become clear after the internal election to appoint a new leader. One part of KINAL’s voters feels closer to ND, and another to Syriza — it is not certain that the party unity will remain unbroken.
Communist Party of Greece
Recently, the KKE has solidified its position with percentages of around 5 percent. During Syriza’s rise, the KKE felt cornered when the “left government” slogan became mainstream. After Syriza signed the memorandum, the KKE felt vindicated and had a great boost of confidence. The party, however, does not seem to be harvesting electoral gains, taking 5.55 percent in September 2015 and 5.3 percent in July 2019.
Since a split in 1991, the KKE has insisted on a policy of autonomous party building, ruling out collaborations with other political forces. Now faced with a ban on the march in memory of the 1973 Polytechnic uprising, the KKE has requested other opposition powers to join forces for the first time. This move, however, was not continued.
At its twenty-first congress, which took place on 25–27 June 2021, the KKE reaffirmed that it will continue on its solitary course. The political resolution passed by the congress states: “Today it is becoming clearer that the bourgeois parties show consistency in the basic strategic choices of the bourgeoisie.” The new central committee elected by the congress is composed of many new-generation party leaders, meaning people that joined the KKE after the collapse of actually existing socialism.
The party founded by Yanis Varoufakis, finance minister in the first Syriza government, is trying to acquire organizational substance and explore its social appeal. In the last general election, MeRA25 took 3.45 percent of the vote, a little over the threshold to enter parliament. While it is not certain, the chances are it will re-enter parliament. Varoufakis, apart from his core position against EU financial policy and the memorandums, is seeking to enrich his political agenda by extending bridges to social movements and radical youth.
On 4 June of last year, Varoufakis concluded his speech at MeRA25’s first consultative conference as follows: “Our first pre-election promise was that we would engage in an all-out struggle against the parasitic regime that ND is trying to build on Syriza’s 4th memorandum. And we have kept it inside and outside of parliament.”
The Extra-Parliamentary Left
In Greece, the extra-parliamentary Left has been traditionally powerful in universities and youth movements, without however achieving noteworthy electoral success.
In the last election, Antarsya, the largest formation of the extra-parliamentary Left, got 0.41 percent, while Popular Unity (LAE) got only 0.28 percent. LAE consists mainly of those who broke away from Syriza in the summer of 2015. In the September 2015 election, its vote share increased to 2.86 percent, missing the parliamentary threshold by a few thousand votes. Afterwards, its influence shrunk rapidly.
LAE, along with other organisations of the Left, such as Anametrisi, ARAN, ARAS, Internationalist Workers’ Left (DEA), Paremvasi, Synantisi, Modern Communist Plan (Synchrono Kommunistiko Schedio) and Coordination of Communist Forces (Syntonismos Kommunistikon Dynameon), formed the Left Initiative for Dialogue and Action (Aristeri Protovoulia Dialogou kai Drasis) in July, the central figure of which is economist Costas Lapavitsas. The initiative’s aim is to reconstruct the space of the extra-parliamentary Left.
It is unlikely that any extra-parliamentary Left formation will enjoy electoral success.
Social Movements On the Rise
As happened all around the world, the pandemic and lockdown also “froze” the movements in Greece. There had, of course, been a prolonged movement stillness due to the disillusionment that followed the signing of the memorandum by Syriza. Lately, however, things have started to stir. A major driving force has been the youth rallies against state authoritarianism and repression. The students’ response to the new authoritarian arrangements for universities are linked to these rallies. Despite the lockdown, protests against repression have seen enough participation to create concerns for the government and force it to take a few steps back as far as police aggression is concerned. What is interesting is that the resistance to state repression extends far beyond the limits of the collectives that have been traditionally involved with this issue, such as the Network for Political and Social Rights (Diktyo) and anarchist groups.
The second field of action that has seen important developments is that of gender and sexuality. The last three years have witnessed a surprising resurrection of Greek feminism. In fact, the word resurrection does not completely reflect the reality because the feminist movement has never been as powerful; a force that can be witnessed both at the street and public discourse level. With #MeToo as it top moment, feminists have managed to raise awareness and mobilize the state apparatus in order to ensure that violence against women does not remain unpunished. The change is starting to become visible in workspaces, but also in the media discourse regarding femicides and sexual harassment.
Finally, with the criminal conviction of Golden Dawn, the country’s antifascist movement has had a significant boost. Besides, with the constant pressure it exerted the movement itself played a part in securing this conviction. On 7 October 2020, the day the court announced its verdict on Golden Dawn, tens of thousands of people gathered outside the courthouse in Athens and wildly celebrated the condemnation of the Nazis.
No matter how we outline it, the Greek Left remains strong and indeed stronger than the Left in other countries. However, the major political goal, to overturn Mitsotakis’ hegemony, seems unattainable for the time being. To achieve it, a political confrontation on current issues will not suffice — there will have to be a planned and organized battle against conservative ideology.