Has SYRIZA’s “Long March Through the Institutions” Come To An End?

A supporter of SYRIZA (Coalition of the Radical Left in Greece) waves a party flag at a 2015 election rally in Athens. Photo: Michael Debets

Greece’s Syriza was a beacon of hope to many parts of the left when they came to power in 2015 but the party’s quick capitulation to the austerity measures they campaigned against was a forceful affirmation of those critical of electoral strategies. With the party set to lose power after experiencing a heavy defeat in the early July 2019 election, Athens based Yavor Tarinski offers an assessment of outcome and it’s lessons.

By Yavor Tarinski

On July 7th the SYRIZA party (Coalition of the Radical Left) lost the Greek national elections to the conservative New Democracy with a bitter 8% difference, allowing the latter to form a self-reliance government (something which had not happen since the beginning of the crisis in 2008).

This defeat comes shortly after the package of elections of May in Greece, during which the Coalition of the Radical Left lost the EU elections (with 10% difference!), along with the regional and the municipal ones, to New Democracy. Most people, including the parliamentary opposition, were surprised with the significant difference between the first and the second party. But what led to SYRIZA’s loss of power to one of the old Greek parties, currently headed by the Mitsotakis dynasty, which had been ruling the country for many decades and is among the parties responsible for the ongoing Greek crisis?

Many rushed to blame these series of defeats on the Prespa agreement, which resolved (at least to a certain point) the so called “Macedonian name issue,” but which was also used by right-wing populists and certain patriotic sections of the Left in the country to provoke the lowest chauvinist and nationalist instincts within the Greek society in their strive at attracting the electorate. Others blamed the tax increases initiated by SYRIZA leader Alexis Tsipras’s government, which alienated many of those who initially voted for his party to put an end to the politics of austerity.

There were also the images of lawlessness in urban centers that were portrayed by the mainstream media (sympathetic to the conservative opposition), which were either enormous exaggerations or utter lies, aimed to undermine the left government’s ability to enforce order. These factors surely played an important role in the increased support for New Democracy, but it does not show the whole picture for SYRIZA’s defeat.

Also notable was a significant increase in abstention rates: in the 2015 elections it was 36%, while now it soared to 42% (the highest in the country up to date). Many of those who decided to abstain from voting, were among those who voted for SYRIZA in previous elections.

From the streets to the halls of power: SYRIZA leader Alexis Tsipras appears above with circle. The image shows a clash between Italian police and 1,000 Greek radicals traveling to the 2001 G8 protests in Genoa who were refused entry at the port of Ancona. In response the group of Greek radicals staged an all-day protest which ended with hundreds of arrests and injuries. Photo: Bobo Antic

What Changed This Time?

SYRIZA came to power after series of popular uprisings and social movements in Greece, among which the most significant was the movement of the indignants in 2011. It is a mistake to believe that these movements openly supported the Coalition of the Radical Left. It was more like a “protest” vote for many enraged Greeks. With popular assemblies, cooperatives, and demonstrations taking place all over the country, many thought that they might pressure the system further by voting for “anti-systemic” parties like SYRIZA and even the fascist Golden Dawn (which also saw increase in votes in this period).

What has changed since then is that voting for SYRIZA (as well as Golden Dawn) is no longer seen as “anti-systemic”, as the party had presence in the halls of power (as opposition, as well as government) for almost a decade without initiating any significant change. That’s why now it lost its position (while the neo-Nazis remained outside parliament as they were also present for almost a decade in the Greek parliament). The Left’s “long march through the institutions” (to use Rudi Dutschke’s famous slogan) once again proved to lead to a dead end.

Tsipras and his party formed their government with promises to put an end to austerity, to drastically reduce social inequalities, to halt extractivist projects in Northern Greece, to legalize the occupied Vio.Me factory, which currently operates under workers control, and much more. But they did nothing of the above, while implementing new austerity measures. The main difference with previous governments was that they expressed their disagreement with what they were implementing, but this was not enough. It is not a question of the sincerity of SYRIZA’s initial intentions, but rather a confirmation of the historic trend, according to which the state and capitalism cannot be made to work for the many.

The most negative aspect of SYRIZA’s hold on power was the increased sense of political cynicism and hopelessness among the Greek population. Many submerged into the so-called Left melancholy and descended into apathy. But not all. Many social movements and struggles continue to this day to fight for a direct democratic and ecological future.

Among the major such movements is the one against oil extraction in Northern Greece, where locals have established a dense network of popular assemblies, through which they direct their struggle, without the means of hierarchy or electoral politics. Another is the self-managed factory of Vio.Me., which was threatened by previous governments, as well as by the SYRIZA’s, but continues its struggle, with the support of solidarity committees in all major Greek cities.

People in many other areas in Greece, like those in Agrafa, continue their fights for dignity, direct democracy and ecology, against the plans of the Capital-Nation-State complex, and beyond any logic of political representation and parliamentarism. It is this refusal of theirs to depend on professional politicians and political parties, which have allowed them to build resilient communities, which to successfully resist the socially and environmentally destructive appetites of political and capitalist elites.

Check out our “Socialist Faces in High Places” reader which includes over a dozen articles critically engaging with left electoralism in the U.S. and internationally.

An Object Lesson

SYRIZA may not disappear from the political landscape of Greece. It may remain significant parliamentary force in the following years. But it will do so not as an “anti-systemic” party, but as a replacement to the old social democratic PASOK, in a society where increasing amount of people refuse to participate in the electoral spectacle (and governments are being voted into power by increasingly smaller minorities).

SYRIZA’s transformation from a radical left party into a classic social democrats is not an exception but the rule, when trying to make institutions, which were initially intended to concentrate power and wealth into the hands of a few elites, do anything radically different from that.

Although history is filled with other examples of similar cases, we need to look no further than the recent municipal elections in Spain, where the municipalist parties, which in previous elections swept their electoral competitors, this time experienced major setbacks. Once again, it was not “bad intentions,” which led to the inefficiency of these municipalists when in power, but the irreformable nature of local bureaucratic mechanisms.

Instead of entrapping ourselves in the current authoritarian institutions, we should build our own from the ground up, which to resemble our desire for direct democracy and ecology. Bright examples are the Zapatistas, who are doing just this for 25 years now, or the communities of Northern Syria/Rojava, who have established a feminist democratic confederation in one of the harshest environments imaginable. But even closer to us is the movement of the Yellow Vests in France, which rejected negotiation with Macron’s government and instead established an assembly of assemblies (a confederal structure, which sustains power at the local grassroots assemblies of the movement).

Nietzsche has said that he who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster. This is the lesson, which all efforts of the Left to change the system from within, show us. Instead of altering it, they became part of it. It is time to look away from how things currently are, and towards how we would want them to be.

Yavor Tarinski is an independent researcher and a militant in social movements. He currently participates in the political journal Babylonia.gr, and is also a bibliographer at AgoraInternational.org. This article was originally published by Freedom News.