Syriza: The radical left’s Greek Spring?

Will Syriza’s victory lead to a ‘radical left’ Spring across Europe, or are such reactions premature?
Alexis Tsipras and Pablo Iglesias. Demotix/Czuko Williams. Some rights reserved.

In a critical national election held on January 25th, Syriza, the Greek radical Left, secured a landslide victory winning 149 out of the 300 seats in the Greek parliament. The image of hundreds of domestic and international reporters squeezed behind the 40-year old leader, Mr. Alexis Tsipras, in the ballot box best captures the global attention to political developments in Greece.

The phenomenon of Syriza has captured the hearts and minds of European intellectuals. For many informed observers Greece is the prelude of tectonic changes that would shape future European politics, as there is a wave of elections in in 2015 countries facing similar challenges, including Portugal and Spain. The rising popularity of the Spanish ‘Podemos’ movement makes it plausible to see another party of the radical left gaining electoral support in the aftermath of the Eurozone crisis.

In a pre-electoral speech in Athens, Mr. Alexis Tsipras and Mr. Pablo Iglesias, the leaders of Syriza and Podemos respectively, addressed the audience together promising ‘Syriza, Podemos, Venceremos’ (literally “Syriza, we can, we’ll win”). So, should we expect a ‘spill-over’ of governing radical left parties in Europe or is, this, another Greek exceptionalism?

Although it is very difficult to make an accurate prediction within such a volatile political context, the chances of replicating the success story of Syriza elsewhere in Europe are slim.

First, whether the Greek radical left will be seen as a model relies primarily on Syriza’s performance in the effective management of the crisis. The tight external conditionality attached to the bailout is coupled with a limited timeframe within which crucial decisions need to be taken.

Syriza’s honeymoon period is very short, and it is therefore highly probable to disappoint many domestic and European sympathizers. By February 28th, Athens would have to reach an agreement for the extension of the bailout with the Troika (ECB, EU, IMF). Otherwise, the Greek government would lose access to approximately 11 billion euros in bailout bonds to protect Greek bank capital needs in the Hellenic Financial Stability Fund.

Apart from the external influences, there are also a number of reasons endogenous to the Greek political system that makes it difficult to replicate the model of Syriza abroad. For starters, the Greek electoral law, guided by an unusual majoritarian ‘winner take all’ logic makes it easier for a radical party to form a government. In sharp contrast to most other European countries operating under some form of proportional representation, in Greece the first party receives a premium of 50 seats (that is a sixth of the total 300 seat parliament).

Hence, while in most continental European countries the first party needs to participate in broad coalition government and convince a number of partners on the credibility of its program, a real obstacle for radical parties, Syriza under Greece’s current electoral system only needed to secure the first position (and following the elections the support of the small and unpredictable Independent Greeks party of the populist right).

Similarly, Greece is the only country in the Eurozone where the economic recession triggered a political crisis, marked by governmental instability, electoral rise of the far right and mass MP defections. A unique feature of the Greek political system since the beginning of the recession in 2009 is the high number of MP defections who crossed the floor. In our study we found that the period between 2010-2012 approximately 75 MPs defected; since then this number has increased.

It is worth remembering that Syriza is a broad church, ranging from radical Marxists to social democrats with radically different policy preferences in dealing with the crisis. Within such a highly volatile political context, it becomes impossible for Syriza to maintain the loyalty of all its MPs in the long term, especially if they have to make painful concessions in the negotiations regarding debt restructuring. A wave of defections, similar to that experienced by all governing parties in the past three years will weaken Syriza’s negotiating power and will disappoint domestic and international sympathizers.

Finally, another reason why the Syriza experiment may prove difficult to bear fruit elsewhere is related to the idiosyncratic structure of the party itself. In sharp contrast to Podemos, which emerged from a loose grassroots social movement, Syriza participated in the parliament even before the crisis, even though as a party with minimal electoral support. Hence, power structures were already present, while it could also draw on experienced mainstream politicians.

In fact, Syriza was very effective in attracting a number of influential MPs from the dominant socialist party (PASOK) that crumbled after the mismanagement of the crisis. In that respect, it is difficult to draw parallels between the Syriza and Podemos; even at the leadership level Mr. Tsipras has more than fifteen years of professional political experience climbing fast the ranks of party politics, while Mr. Iglesias is a newcomer in professional politics propagating his distrust to established politicians.

For all these reasons it may prove difficult for the electoral success of the Greek radical left to spill over to other European countries. Europe’s radical left will have to go through a harsh winter before its ‘Greek spring.’ More importantly, punishing Syriza to prevent the rise of Podemos will add another catastrophic decision in the management of Europe’s debt crisis. Instead the humanitarian crisis in Greece should be dealt on its own right taking into consideration Greece’s particularities.

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