‘Hope begins today’: the inside story of Syriza’s rise to power

The leader of Syriza, Alexis Tsipras, waves to supporters at a rally in Athens, 22 January 22, 2015. Ten years ago, Syriza scraped just 4% of the vote in Greek elections. This week, the leftwing party took control under the charismatic leadership of Alexis Tsipras. How did it do it? For 22 days, Paul Mason followed the party’s campaign trail and saw an anti-austerity message delivered with youthful plausibility win over a nation The leader of Syriza, Alexis Tsipras, waves to supporters at a rally in Athens, 22 January 2015.

Photograph: Reuters by Paul Mason published at The Guardian 

Wednesday 28 January 2015

Syriza’s victory has electrified the left in Europe – even moderate social democrats who have floundered in search of ideas and inspiration since the 2008 crisis. Now there is talk everywhere of “doing a Syriza” – and in Spain, where the leftist party Podemos is scoring 25% in the polls, more than talk. But Syriza’s route to becoming Europe’s first far-left government of modern times was neither easy nor inevitable. For the past 22 days, I have been part of a Greek documentary team following its activists and leaders on the campaign trail to watch how they did it. I have seen them offering new hope to farmers on the breadline, and drumming up supplies for their network of food banks.

I have watched them win over old-school communists in the dockers’ union, smarting from seeing their workplace sold off to the Chinese, and present a modern, youthful alternative to a political establishment serving a corrupt elite. And I have seen their leader, Alexis Tsipras, in action in his private office at critical moments. Tsipras is so charismatic that he hardly needs a world-class press team. But when I interview him, in the first week of the campaign, it becomes clear that Syriza has no shortage of spin doctors. “I’m afraid I have to forbid it,” press secretary Danai Badogianni tells me, just as Tsipras looks persuaded to speak in English on camera. “Otherwise it will set a precedent.” Tsipras’s campaign began from a solid record of parliamentary opposition. On 3 January, the day he filled a stadium with 5,000 party members, the inner core saw him browbeat his party’s left into withdrawing their objections to his choice of prospective MPs. Tsipras has transformed both the party and its operation; the central committee in its shabby HQ became less important than the policy team around shadow ministers. Up close, he speaks perfect English and has an infectious laugh. There are some Syriza MPs who have mastered restraint and discretion in off-the-record conversations, but he is not one of them. We talk frankly about a controversial briefing his economics team gave the City, and the high-profile attempted bribery case he thinks has torpedoed the election strategy of the right. He poses, without demur, for selfies with the young Greek women I am filming with, knowing they will be on Facebook within minutes. Tsipras with supporters in Thessaloniki. Tsipras with supporters in Thessaloniki. Photograph: Kostas Argyris Despite recruiting no fewer than four leftwing economics professors to his ministerial team, Tsipras himself seems to have the clearest grasp of the political economy of his coming showdown with the European Central Bank. The crunch calls, when they come, will be made by him. Advertisement But on top of professionalism and discipline, Tsipras has built momentum. His poll lead in early January was 2%. With all the private Greek TV channels against him, and most of the newspapers, the right expected to claw back the lead. Instead it was Syriza that surged. A countryside in revolt In the weak January sun, the mountains along the Gulf of Corinth are topped with snow. Dotted along the hillsides are villages known as political “castles”, normally so wedded to one or other of the main parties – Pasok and New Democracy – that you could navigate at election time by following the posters. But this is a troubled land; two-thirds of the vineyards and lemon groves here are technically in foreclosure. The farmers have been forced to take morgtgages, the banks are clamouring to repossess and suicides in these quiet farming towns are on the up. Giannis Tsogkas, a 56-year-old grape grower from Assos, tells us: “[The government] pushed us into the IMF deal and all they do is obey the rightwingers. The little man will die. We keep hearing about suicides. So we tried to find somebody on the left to protect us. And we found it in Syriza.” As night falls, the taverna in nearby Psari is full of the old and children – most of the young adults are gone. The battered faces of farmers on the breadline stare cautiously as one Syriza man delivers a Bolshevik-style oration: “Why do the IMF want to destroy us? Is it because the sun shines here? Is it because we’re a hospitable people? Do they hate southern European life?” ‘In Syriza, we found someone to protect us’ … grape grower Giannis Tsogkas. Facebook Twitter Pinterest expand ‘In Syriza, we found someone to protect us’ … grape grower Giannis Tsogkas. Photograph: PR But, says election candidate Theofanis Kourembes, it’s not rhetoric that has turned villages like this red. “We go out and help people. When they tell us something, we listen. When they ask for help, we are here. You never see Pasok or New Democracy.” It’s small meetings like this, miles from the main towns, that have helped turn Syriza from a party polling 4% 10 years ago to, by the last week of campaigning, a party leading on 32%. “You journalists have come all the way up here to interview us,” says one farmer. “Syriza is the only party that did the same. They came and talked to us. If we wanted to talk to the main parties, how would we find them?” The countryside, a stark landscape of twigs and turned fields, is fertile ground for Syriza’s winning message. Farmers have suffered badly from austerity: it means higher taxes and fewer subsidies. But corruption is also a major issue. In Assos, Tsogkas tells us how the merchants who buy the grapes regularly disappear without paying: “They don’t give us receipts, and the law protects them. They disappear, they claim bankruptcy and we get nothing. But we have to pay for medication, workers’ wages, service our loans, electricity, all of that. We’re done,” he sighs, “it’s over.” The Greek political system was so inept, corrupt and oiled by what they call here “black money” that, when the money ran out, support for it collapsed. Though Syriza’s economic programme is constrained by the €319bn Greece owes the rest of Europe, fighting the oligarchy costs nothing. Tsipras tells me: “We will start a new political era. We will bring in massive change in state governance. We have no responsibility for the state of clientelism created by the parties that ran the country up till now. We need a state that functions and stands by the citizens. We need to stop this carnival of tax evasion and tax avoidance.” All over Greece, Syriza set up food banks, known as Solidarity Clubs. When I follow their activists into a street market in Athens, they wear orange bibs and politely but firmly put the argument to farmers there that a bag of potatoes or oranges for the poor is their social duty. Within half an hour the trolleys are full of food. The organiser tells me: “This is the opposite of charity. We’re supporting 120 families in one area, and a lot of the work we do is about isolation, mental health and shame.” You cannot get more micro-political than sitting in a small room with desperate people and talking them out of suicide. Spin becomes impossible, the trust built hard to destroy. And in the final week, as the polls give Syriza a solid six-point lead, it becomes clear what is going to deliver victory. Even if Syriza’s programme is only a form of left social democracy, it is doing the opposite of what social democrats do at election time. It is giving clear, hard promises to take on the rich. Its senior MPs promise publicly to “destroy the oligarchy” – to tax the ship owners and construction bosses, and to enforce basic modern regulation on the private TV channels the oligarchs own, which at present do not even have to register, or pay for, the radio spectrum they use. “Hope begins today” is Tsipra’s mantra. This translates into a new mood in the coffee bars and at family dinner tables: we’re not frightened any more. The centre self-destructs By the time of Syriza’s final election rally, the global media have woken up to the possibility of an upset. To the outside eye, the red flags and polite renditions of the Italian communist anthem, Bandiera Rossa, look radical – but everybody in the crowd knows the party is travelling in the opposite direction. It won’t confront Europe on debt reduction – simply request a new deal. But it is determined to cancel austerity. That, say the canny economists huddled backstage at the rally, puts the ball in the court of ECB boss Mario Draghi. He can pull the trigger on a bank collapse and euro exit crisis, but Syriza will not. A woman walks past a slogan in central Athens. Facebook Twitter Pinterest expand A woman walks past a slogan in central Athens. Photograph: Louisa Gouliamaki As Tsipras wows the crowd, Pablo Iglesias, the journalist who has taken Spain’s new left party Podemos to a 25% poll position, shrugs and shakes like a boxer about to go in the ring. He is rehearsing what he is going to say and then sprints up the steps, accompanied by a Leonard Cohen song, to join Tsipras. He yells in English: “First we take Manhattan, then we take Berlin.” The IMF and the ECB, in other words, will face a determined challenge. The Syriza cadres surrounding the two men know how heavy the pressure is going to be from now on. Rena Dourou, whom I first met as a bedraggled protester in the Occupy camp at Athens’ Syntagma Square four years earlier, can’t contain her smile as she waves a hand at the streets, crammed with supporters: “Nobody listened to us for years,” she says. “Now everybody is listening. And this is not just about Greece. It’s about Europe, and especially the young.” Dourou is in her first few weeks of office as prefect of Attica, Greece’s largest region. She’s finding out for real what it means to try and clean up the Greek state. Now coiffed and trouser-suited like a mainstream politician, she can’t suppress her nervousness. Four years ago, as we dodged the tear gas, she had told me: “Europe needs a Chirac, or a Schröder, or even someone like Kirchner in Argentina. Some kind of mainstream leader to stop the madness of austerity.” I joked then: “It’s probably going to be you guys.” Today she knows that’s not a joke. As the whole political centre in Europe acquiesced in an austerity programme that pushed the continent towards deflation, only a party of former Trotskyists, eco-warriors and Occupy protesters stood its ground. On election night, on the top floor of Syriza’s HQ, where Tsipras staff sit, nervousness turns to stunned relief as the results come through. Their prospects of winning a majority in parliament are on a knife’s edge, but a few minutes after the polls close, it is clear they have won. Tsipras arrives, beaming. He hugs a tiny middle-aged woman on his staff, calling her “my little piglet”. His secretaries are in tears. “Why are you crying?” he jokes. “When we lost in 2012 you were celebrating and now we’ve won, you cry!” Syriza’s future interior minister phones the heads of the army and police. “We trust you,” is the gist of the message. Which is a big leap of faith, as the Greek military and police force have been configured since the cold war to suppress far leftism, even giving their officers political education as to the perils of Marxism. In the years since the fall of the military junta in 1974, the two-party oligarchy tolerated the left, but ensured there was no chance it could hold power. This, with hindsight, created a massive but dormant left consciousness. Tsipras is surrounded by party cadres who fought in the student rising that overthrew the junta, but their fathers’ generation suffered torture and imprisonment during and after the civil war. Excluded from power, the left built a counterculture of rebel songs, folk music, the Che Guevara cult and powerful manual trade unions, as in the docks. This is key to understanding what is replicable about Syriza, and what is not. The party emerged out of the Eurocommunist split with Moscow in the 1970s, but has grafted on to it a soft-left culture, and captured the allegiance of many young people, whose lives revolve around precarious and low-skill work, and reaching the magical subsitence figure of €400 a month. Tsipras crafted Syriza from a loose alliance into a party that is the quintessential expression of the values of this broad-left section of the Greek electorate. All it took was for their natural party, Pasok, to destroy itself. In the last week of campaigning, leftwing Greeks found the invisible walls around them collapsing. Conversations with their rightwing neighbours and their non-political workmates were dominated by one word – Tsipras. And in the last days, just “him”. So for all the relentless canvassing, and the food banks, and the classy branding, what put Syriza into power was, basically, the self-destruction of the centre. And that, in turn, was the work of the EU and the IMF. A party of youth and normality In the village of Assos, once the votes are counted, 1,529 of its 4,000 inhabitants have voted Syriza (38%). The conservatives, who relied on this town for generations, have just 29%, with the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party scoring 7% – a near exact replica of the national result. The electoral map shows that, apart from in the old right heartlands of Macedonia and the southern Peloponnesus, deep Greece has turned red. A woman takes away a portion of food from a soup kitchen in Athens. Facebook Twitter Pinterest expand A woman takes away a portion of food from a soup kitchen in Athens. Photograph: Marko Djurica Kourembes, who is now the Syriza MP for Assos, tells us: “This time people just started to think differently. They realised there’s no way out with the current set of politicians. They realised that, to keep afloat, they had to do something different.” There was no killer tactic Syriza employed on the campaign trail. But there were killer qualities: youthfulness, plausibility and normality. Many of their candidates are young and stylish; they live and behave like normal twenty- and thirtysomethings. At the launch rally of conservative shipping minister Miltiadis Varvitsiotis, the contrasts were obvious. As befits a system that allows ship owners to pay no tax on offshore profits, the crowd here was old, exquisitely turned out and unashamedly rich. Though the minister himself is part of a technocratic generation that nods towards modernised conservatism, it is impossible to be modern when surrounded by an apparatus crafted in the cold war, and reliant on billionaires for support. Just by being normal, and avoiding deranged broadcasts by individual MPs, and projecting bland calm into the face of the right’s fear campaign, Syriza’s people won. It will be hard to pull off again, once years or months of compromise and hard work take their toll. In Athens, just after the polls have closed, Syriza candidate Spiros Rapanakis leans, exhausted, against the shutters of a shop. He has spent the day zipping around his constituency, the port community of Keratsini, in a battered Hyundai, whistling the Internationale for courage. It is clear, as we speak to voters, that even traditional right wingers have voted Syriza. As it dawns on him that, instead of begin a junior reporter on the party’s newspaper, he is now an MP, he murmurs: “The Greek people wrote history and I am glad to be part of it. I can’t really describe how I feel. We have a big duty to keep going. Tomorrow we are going to create Greece anew.” Paul Mason is economics editor at Channel 4 News. He worked with the documentary maker Theopi Skarlatos on Greece: The End Of Austerity. vimeo.com/117885460

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