Report Early elections in Greece
Rena Dourou and Alexis Tsipras celebrate victory in May 2014 elections.

The political laboratory of Syriza

Fears are spreading in Brussels and in several European capitals about what will happen if Syriza, the anti-austerity coalition led by Alexis Tsipras, comes to power as expected in Greece’s legislative elections on 25 January. But the radical left party already has some experience in public office. Report.

Published on 23 January 2015 at 12:47
Vasileios Katsardis  | Rena Dourou and Alexis Tsipras celebrate victory in May 2014 elections.

When Rena Dourou took up her job at the head of the regional government of Attica, she compared it to the storming of the Bastille in 1789. A member of Syriza, the rising star of the Greek left, Dourou chose an appropriate location for her speech: a Greco-Roman gymnasium in the neighbourhood of Drosoupolis, at Ano Liosia in the north-east of Athens. Comprised of the nearly four million inhabitants and including Athens, Piraeus and several islands, Attica is the most populous and influential region in the country.

Dourou is also a personal friend of Alexis Tsipras, the leader of Syriza, and Attica is a laboratory for the whole party. “It’s a powerful symbol,” affirms Corina Vasilopoulou, one of Dourou’s deputies and also a member of Syriza. “Until recently, it was a bastion of the right or of the Socialists.” [[Attica is more than a region. It is the possible incubator for Europe’s first anti-austerity government.]]

After Prime Minister Antonis Samaras failed to obtain the parliamentary majority needed to elect a new president during the first round of voting in December 2014, a poll showed 24.2 per cent support for Syriza. It put New Democracy, Samaras’s party, at 21 per cent, Potami at 5.6 per cent, the socialist party PASOK at 5.5 per cent, the Communist Party at 5 per cent and the far-right Golden Dawn at 4.5 per cent. More recently, another poll appearing 19 January showed Syriza’s popular support had jumped to 33.5 per cent.

Political shakeup

Syriza became the most popular party in the country during the May 2014 European elections, winning 26.6 per cent of the vote. Local elections took place during the same period and saw Syriza, along with a few small parties, take power in a number of districts in a veritable political shakeup. In addition to Attica, Tsipras’s movement took public office in the Ionian islands, in nine municipalities around Athens and in Larissa, the country’s fifth-largest city.

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The European elections confirmed another political phenomenon: the popularity of the party Potami (The River). Founded by television journalist Stavros Theodorakis, Potami plays on the new political scene and gives off ambiguous messages. Social movements are wary: “it is neoliberal, progressive and ultraconservative at the same time,” affirms activist Tina V. “It’s the party of hipsters and yuppies. They fight corruption and nepotism as much as they fight immigrants and the homeless.”

“The neoliberal discourse is a no-go in Greece. We want change,” says Syriza organiser Mihail Panagiotakis. Will Syriza bring a radical change if it comes to power? Tsipras has been forced to tone down his image when facing the markets. “We’re calling for a renegotiation of the debt and the continuation of the eurozone,” Panagiotakis concedes.

Are there initiatives or measures adopted by Syriza-run local governments that give an idea of what a national government would do? “The context for the new mayors and regional presidents is rather hostile,” says Vasilopoulou. “They want to resist the massive privatisation and neoliberal measures imposed by the central government and the troika, such as laying off 15 to 20 per cent of civil servants. Rena Dourou has increased the budget for social benefits sixfold.”

If Attica is the laboratory, [[the best metaphor for change in Greece is to be found in the new government of Chalandri, a former bastion of the bourgoisie]]. Its mayor, Simos Rousos, is blocking massive layoffs of civil servants, all the while risking being stopped on grounds of insubordination to the government’s orders. “Chalandri was a rich part of Athens for decades,” explains Stelios Foteinopoulos, a member of Syriza and of the local collective Resistance. “During the crisis, its population became to middle class and then lower middle class. Dozens of shops closed, the unemployment level was high and Golden Dawn's popularity grew.”

Suspicion of all parties

The triumph of Syriza in Chalandri became possible thanks to the support from “Maoists, Trotskyists, greens and former social democrats”. The new “movement” of Chalandri, according to Foteinopoulos, is an attempt “to support the cooperative economy and to put people at the centre of politics, from the management of services to education”.

Partisan language tends to be rejected in Exarchia, the historical anarchist quarter of Athens: “the majority of movements in Exarchia do not trust Syriza. The left coalition of Antarsya is come up from below as an alternative,” affirms veteran activist Kostas Latoufis. Polls credit Antarsya with 2 per cent of votes.

During municipal elections, Syriza and Antarsya called on their voters to chose left-wing candidates in second round ballots. This is not the case with the Communist Party nor with several social movements, which have not taken a position.

Facing a historic moment in which Tsipras’s party stands a real chance of coming to power, will the Communists and sympathisers of Antarsia vote for Syriza? Will the left rally around Syriza after the elections? Will the popularity of Potami continue to grow?

No one knows what will happen on 25 January. But one thing is certain: the socialists of the PASOK party, who played the game of the right and the troika, have lost forty points of support in several years, and they have before them as dark a future as the headline of a recent newspaper: “Molotov cocktail in the offices of PASOK”.

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