Until recently, many people in Greece believed that SYRIZA would never come to power. They justified their view on the assumption that the party was far too radical, putting in question almost everything that secured Greece’s position in the Euro: negotiations, bailouts and traditional Greek-European political alliances.
According to this view, in the unlikely event that SYRIZA won the general election by taking advantage of popular anger against austerity, it would still fall short of an overall majority. Lack of political allies would then also preclude the possibility of forming a coalition government. A shift to a more moderate position was essential for SYRIZA to gain trust from wider parts of the electorate. The party should not merely benefit from the anti-systemic vote, but try to become a mainstream party at the heart of the political system.
This lack of belief in SYRIZA’s electoral victory chances might have been justified in 2012, at the peak of the crisis, but not three years later, when the Greek people could see the first signs of recovery and with the prime minister claiming that the bailout programme was about to end. This increased optimism was reinforced by the economic figures which showed a surplus, a return to growth and a small drop in unemployment.
It was this political and fiscal conjuncture that allowed SYRIZA to develop a different approach to the crisis, and which subsequently informed their change in electoral strategy. First, the country was no longer in existential danger as it had been throughout much of 2012. The Greek economy, after years of excessive austerity, was now on the path to recovery and a Grexit had long ceased to be part of public debate. Things were still very hard for people, but the country was in a much more secure position. Secondly, SYRIZA’s leadership changed. Alexis Tsipras adopted a more moderate, pro-European profile by opening SYRIZA to ex PASOK members and distancing himself from far left voices within his party. This new fiscal and political landscape gave the impression that SYRIZA was now replacing PASOK as the traditional dominant power of a two-party political system. The Greek political spectrum, just like the economy, could regain the characteristics it had before the crisis. Life could go back to normal, as Antonis Samaras had promised, though his presence as a stabilizing force was no longer essential. Tsipras would be able to succeed him as prime minister and change certain terms of the bailout agreement which, according to the public opinion, should be improved but not abandoned (84% of the Greek public is in favour of staying in Euro even with austerity).
Many people predicted that SYRIZA’s popularity as an ‘anti-crisis’ movement, would disappear along with the symptoms of the crisis. In fact, the opposite happened. SYRIZA won the election when living conditions in Greece started to improve. It was the evidence of an imminent recovery and not the crisis that brought radical left into power.
In spite of allowing controversial political figures to take power, the Greek political system has traditionally been moderate with experienced and efficient politicians making it to the top.
The previous government failed to convince the electorate, not because their campaign was too negative, portraying a dark SYRIZA future, but due to the contradictory message of their campaign ads. Samaras, who until yesterday was referring to Greek economy as a firmly grounded success story, started to argue that recovery could vanish with a change in government. The public wasn’t convinced. Even within his own party few members believed that the future of the country depended on his leadership and charisma. It would now be Tsipras’ turn to build on improved fiscal conditions and improve the terms of the agreement with the nation’s creditors.
Yet, having a mainstream party’s share of the vote, does not automatically denote the adaption of its political characteristics. SYRIZA may be dominant, but it has not ceased to be a radical, populist party. In fact, its radical character alienates the party from Greece’s political culture. Never before in its recent political history, has Greece had a government so radical and controversial. The Foreign Minister has threatened that jihadists will flock to Europe if the Greek economy crumbles; the Finance Minister has referred to representatives of the Troika as “CIA torturers”; the Education minister argues that model experimental schools are a “Hitler” project.
In spite of allowing controversial political figures to take power, the Greek political system has traditionally been moderate with experienced and efficient politicians making it to the top. This is no time to defend Greece’s political class, but that does not mean that we could eradicate the entire political system because of its failure to deter the crisis. Traditional political parties, as the example of New Democracy indicates, still have real influence and relative electorate success. SYRIZA needs to connect itself with the Greek political culture by adopting the rhetoric and practices of a mainstream, reliable political organization. It came to power under the silent agreement that it is a “normal” party. If they break this agreement, they will soon have to face the consequences of misleading the public.