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Greek elections: Syriza and the populist blame game

Submitted by on 17 Feb 2015 – 16:19

The February-March issue of the Government Gazette offers an extended focus on the implications of the 2015 Greek elections and the eurozone debt crisis. Here, Takis S. Pappas assesses Syriza’s populist rhetoric and analyses the possible political machinations behind a Grexit.

In last month’s snap© European Union 2015 - European Parliament election, the Greek voters brought to power the populist Coalition of the Radical Left (known by its acronym, Syriza), a party led by the 41-year old Alexis Tsipras. However, as Syriza was unable to muster a parliamentary majority on its own, it opted to form a coalition government with the rightist populist and ultra nationalist Independent Greeks (ANEL), a party that was launched in February 2012 also on an anti-austerity platform.

ANEL party leader Panos Kammenos is a vocal champion of racist, homophobic and anti-Semitic views and has a penchant for conspiracy theories that verge on the absurd. This seemingly “unholy” alliance of Mr. Tsipras and Mr. Kammenos is the equivalent of a working relationship between say, Michael Foot and Nigel Farage in the UK, Jean-Luc Mélenchon and Nicolas Dupont-Aignan in France, or, at party level, Die Linke and the Pegida movement in Germany.

In the aftermath of the election, the new prime minister was quick to place his government between a rock and a hard place. First, he made clear that the government is not interested in an extension of the current bailout program, thereby setting Greece on a collision course with its foreign lenders that may eventually cause a Greek exit from the euro.

Second, Tsipras made pledges that are clearly undeliverable without extra money, including an increase of the minimum wage, the halting of privatisation plans and other reforms, the abolition of an unpopular property tax, and the promise of generous social welfare packages to low-income groups in society.
But, third, as he now has effectively brought his Government (and Greece) to the brink, Tsipras was also quick to identify those to be held responsible in case of a Grexit: Germany, which, according to the new Greek government, still owes Greece reparations for its invasion during World War II, the ECB, which recently stopped acting as a lender of last resort for Greece, the Greek banking system and, of course, the previous government for all its misdeeds.

Is it all irrational brinkmanship, then, or is there some logic to it? For it seems that the Greek prime minister, himself under considerable pressure from far-left internal opposition, may indeed welcome a Grexit and then engage in a blame game against the Germans, the ECB, the Greek bankers and the outgoing political classes for having betrayed the Greek people.

As opinion polls now show that over 70 percent of the Greek public supports an open confrontation with the Troika, Tsipras has tried to project himself and his party as the sole representatives of Greeks. As he put it in his first policy speech before the Greek Parliament on February 8th, “This government is just the voice of [our] people. In the honour, history, and civilization this people carries in its luggage, we can only be its own will … We are flesh from the people’s flesh, we come from within the pages of this people’s history [book], and for this reason we are going to serve it to the end”.

Greek Finance Minister, Yanis Varoufakis (anticapitalistes.net)

Greek Finance Minister, Yanis Varoufakis

Syriza is a populist party par excellence and as such, is guaranteed to antagonize the liberal political elites. It conceives of and refers to, Greek society as divided between the “pure,” “ethical” or blameless people, and the parasitical native political oligarchy which is firmly subservient to foreign interests. These two groups stand poles apart and there can be no reconciliation between them, or, as an earlier slogan of Syriza snapped, “It is either Us or Them.” Nor is there any need for compromise since the people as a natural majority are bound to finally win and impose their collective will on the political system. In fact, some believe that so strong will be the impact of the Syriza-led popular movement in Greece that it will soon sweep across the rest of southern Europe to the north until all “European people” finally regain sovereignty.
Will this government last? Well, that depends on whether the country can retain its position in the Eurozone. Staying in will give the new government a new lease of life but it will be forced to implement painful structural reforms under the eye of foreign lenders and against forceful internal party opposition.
Being compelled to leave the Eurozone, however, may actually offer the government a better chance of retaining power because, in that case, it would be able to mobilize a rainbow of political forces from both the left and the right, domestically and internationally, in a relentless blame game against all actors who could be held responsible for such a development.
For the time being, and as important decisions about the future of Greece are currently being taken in Athens, Brussels and the other major world capitals, Greece’s liberal democracy is in the balance. Since the crisis began in 2009, the Greek people have taken part in four elections, put six different prime ministers to the test of office and experimented with government coalition partners of most political hues – from the nationalist and populist ANEL, to the ultra conservative Popular Orthodox Rally (LAOS) to the centre-right New Democracy and the centre-left PASOK, to the moderate leftist Democratic Left, and now the radical leftist Syriza. The only other parties that have not been given a chance to govern in crisis-ridden Greece are the Communist Party (KKE) and the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn. This naturally raises the question of what may be the next development in Greece if even Syriza, in its strange partnership with ANEL, may not succeed in solving the Greek crisis.

Takis S. Pappas is the author of Populism and Crisis Politics in Greece  and co-editor of the forthcoming book ‘European Populism in the Shadow of the Great Recession’.