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Time’s up for Greece’s populist demagogue

Credit: Milos Bicanski /Getty Images

Credit: Milos Bicanski /Getty Images

February 13, 2019   5 mins

Syntagma Square in central Athens has always had something of a Middle Eastern feel to it. It is the site of the old Royal Palace built in 1843 for King Otto, the Bavarian prince who became the first modern king of Greece in 1832.

The square has played a leading role in Greece’s modern history. Its very name represents the country’s – painful – political evolution. Originally called “Palace Square” it was changed to “Syntagma” (Constitution) Square when, in 1843, soldiers gathered in front of the palace to demand a written constitution. Otto conceded and it was brought into effect the following year.

In 1924 the Greeks abolished the monarchy through a referendum, and in 1934 the palace became the home of the Greek parliament. And like a magnet the square has drawn crowds of angry and protesting citizenry ever since.

2012 marked the beginning of the new age of protest in Syntagma. The desperate economic situation brought tens of thousands of Greeks into the square. For weeks they camped out and battled police. The air, almost permanently thick with the acridity of tear gas, heralded a changing of the political winds too, as the hard-Left Syriza party began to grow in popularity. Some three years later in January 2015 Syriza took power, and its leader, the then-radical Alexis Tsipras became Prime Minister. The hard Left had, finally, captured an EU state (and the cradle of European civilization, to boot). It was the revolution completed, and, for the Left, it was glorious.

It all seems so long ago now.

Syriza came to power on a wave of populist sentiment and demagogy. After calling a referendum on Europe’s bailout proposal in July 2015, Tsipras called snap elections in September, which he unsurprisingly won. Now he is facing his first real electoral test.

By no later than 20 October this year Greece must hold a general election. For the first time since the gravest financial crisis in modern Greek history brought Syriza to power, the people will tell the world what they think of the hard Left project that has governed their lives for half a decade.

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It has been a long four years. Since January 2015, Greece society has gone through three stages: hope, pain and acceptance. Hope came in the months following Syriza’s victory. Tsipras’s promises to end austerity had not yet been exposed as hot air. People dared to dream.

The second stage, fear, came after the 2015 referendum in which Greeks voted to reject further austerity – and which raised the possibility that Greece might exit the Eurozone or possibly even ‘Grexit’ the EU. Times were fraught. I covered events on the ground in Athens, and the panic I encountered in everyone from politicians to shopkeepers was striking. Even some of the perennial protesters seemed uncertain. The Molotov cocktails were hurled more hesitatingly.

Syriza’s subsequent capitulation through its compromise on a Third Memorandum (bailout agreement) with the so-called Troika (the European Commission, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund) and victory in the September 2015 elections saw the country segue into the third stage: acceptance, or, perhaps more correctly, apathy.

This state has continued until the present day and co-exists with what Vassilis Petsinis from the University of Tartu in Estonia describes as “existential pragmatism”. According to Petsinis “several cohorts within Greek society (the endangered lower middle classes, in particular) seem to primarily invest their effort on elaborating ways to survive and preserve their socioeconomic status, at least within the short term.”

He believes that the combination of existential pragmatism and political apathy accounts for the relative absence of grassroots action comparable with the anti-austerity movement of 2011-12, even with the Government’s approval of highly unpopular measures.

Chaos, despair and the effective loss of sovereignty, it would appear, affect countries rather deeply.

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The story of Greece since Syriza’s 2015 election win can be reduced to a homily: hyperpopulist parties, especially of the Leftist variety, are always, in their “pristine” incarnations, fatally flawed. The British Labour Party may feel it is only a matter of time before Jeremy Corbyn enters Downing Street, but it should beware, if not the Thucydides trap (the idea that rivalry between an established power and a rising one often ends in warthen the “Syriza trap”. You can promise the world, but if you win power there is a strong chance that you will actually have to deliver, which, by the very nature of your brand of populism, is almost impossible to do.

Syriza’s lesson, however, extends across Europe. Clear parallels (though also clear differences) can be seen between the Syriza/Independent Greeks coalition and Italy’s Five Star Movement/Lega coalition. Led by Beppe Grillo (a former comedian and blogger), Five Star was founded only in 2009, and like Syriza, emerged rapidly from the margins to enter the aorta of the body politic.

There are differences, however. As Petsinis notes, Syriza has relied on a strategy of transformation – from radical Left to social democrat – to ensure its longer-term political survival. By contrast, the Five Star Movement initially campaigned on a non-ideological platform, which allowed it to gain momentum (especially among the disfranchised electoral segments of southern Italy.) Since then, it has U-turned, allowing its coalition partner Lega (led by the more savvy Matteo Salvini) to eat into its popularity.

The Lega, founded in 1991, kicked off as a Right-wing regionalist party which, following a long sequence of reformation processes, finally settled on a pan-Italian appeal. The Lega has a much firmer Right-wing ideological standing, as well as more extensive and consolidated bases of support – which it is now making count at its partner’s expense.

Grillo is learning what Tsipras learned: populism is a fickle beast.

*          *          *

As it stands, the main opposition party New Democracy seems on course for a win in Greece. The latest polling puts the party around 10 points clear of Syriza. The race, however, is far from over. If a week is a long time in politics, a year is an eternity. Moreover, New Democracy’s lead is shrinking, and – critically – voters are returning to Syriza, rather than choosing alternatives to either. Syriza now stands at around 25% – almost 10 points up from 2016-17.

Syriza still has a chance. But again, as Petsinis observes, this depends on how well it can consolidate the vote among its natural constituency: members of the huge and bloated public sector at the heart of Hellenic clientelism, those who have seen their salaries and pensions slashed (though not the wholesale layoffs that should have occurred). In the economy, as with all countries, also lies the Government’s fate. After years of austerity and contraction the Greek economy is experiencing relative economic growth; if this continues Tsipras may have a shot – or at least they may avoid humiliating defeat.

Across Greece’s political landscape populist parties that gained support for promising the earth have imploded. On the Right, smaller parties that emerged from New Democracy, notably the Popular Orthodox Alarm and the Independent Greeks (the latter are in a governing coalition with Syriza) have suffered dramatic losses of support. ‘Soft’ Right-wing populism seemingly has little support, with Trumpian parties such as Nea Deksia (the New Right) making a negligible impact.

True, the third largest party is likely to remain the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn, but its popularity predates Syriza’s surge, and it has built considerable political capital on the ground because of the refugee crisis and rapidly increased immigration.

The same is true of the Left. When Syriza went against the 2015 referendum result its hard Left faction broke away to form its own, ultimately unsuccessful, party. The leaders of this faction, the former Syriza MPs Panayiotis Lafazanis and Zoe Konstantopoulou have since formed the Popular Unity and Course of Freedom parties respectively and, again, find voters nonplussed with their moral grandstanding and constant boasts of refusing to “surrender” to the Troika in 2015. Not even the star power of the former finance minister Yanis Varoufakis has enabled his DiEM 25 pan-European political movement to make any real inroads. None is likely to pass the 3% threshold for entry to parliament.

The 2019 election is a referendum on the populist experiment. Two big parties will dominate: the first, which, in government, has moved from quasi-communism to social democracy to gain acceptance, and which now faces defeat; and a centre-Right party that has extremist elements but is headed by a moderate with, on paper at least, a reasonable manifesto. Meanwhile, radical parties from both Right and Left face electoral annihilation.

Populism in Europe is far from dead but in Greece the situation is clear: the people have tasted radical demagoguery, and decided they don’t like it all that much.

David Patrikarakos is UnHerd‘s foreign correspondent. His latest book is War in 140 characters: how social media is reshaping conflict in the 21st century. (Hachette)


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