Syriza’s Second Year in Power: From Being Isolated to Being Ignored

Few people outside of Greece will have noticed it, but last week the Coalition of the Radical Left (SYRIZA) celebrated its second year in power. Well, “celebrate” might be too strong a term; perhaps it is better to say, “survived” its second year in power, and that only barely.

While the first year was still reason for reflection from media around the globe, this year the brave little left-wing upstarts from Hellas were drowned out by the first week in power of US president Donald Trump as well as previews of the upcoming elections in the Netherlands, France and Germany, which are all portrayed as a battle between the political mainstream and an insurgent populist radical right.

With issues like immigration and security dominating the agenda, Greece’s plight with austerity barely makes the financial newspapers anymore. Moreover, the left-wing populist moment has clearly past. SYRIZA is but a shadow of itself, both in the polls and in power, while its Spanish brother, Podemos, has significantly downplayed its populism as well as its connection to its (former) Greek brethren. Premier Alexis Tsipras is not even isolated anymore, he is simply ignored.

Meanwhile, the situation in Greece goes from bad to worse – or, perhaps more accurately, from worse to worst (for now). The country is still facing economic stagnation and mass unemployment, while vital state reform is going nowhere. As far as there is progress, it is exactly on the points that SYRIZA opposed when coming to power: acceptance of bailout conditions, including budget cuts and privatization of major state companies. The most painful, from SYRIZA’s point of view, was the sale of the controlling stake in the Pireaus Port Authority to the Chinese company Cosco – a sale that it has so boldly stopped in its first days of coming to power in 2015.

Despite these humiliating compromises, the Greek economy remains in a dire state and the specter of a possible Grexit is again looming over the frustrating and protracted negotiations between the SYRIZA government and its European creditors. In fact, Tsipras finds himself roughly in the same position as when he surprised everyone with his Greferendum, in July of 2015, but without the credible threat of either an election or a referendum. After the embarrassing about-face in 2015, the Eurogroup will happily call Tspiras’s bluff should he threaten with a new referendum – leaving aside that many Greeks probably no longer come out for it, after having burnt last time. At the same time, the threats of a snap election sound increasingly hollow too, given the recent opinion polls.

As the effects of the (latest) bailout conditions become increasingly visible to the Greek population, SYRIZA continues to lose support in the polls. Almost half of its 2015 voters think Tsipras is a bad Prime Minister and a staggering 63 percent have a negative view of the past two years. Almost two-thirds of (former) SYRIZA voters think the situation now is worse than when the party came to power. Unsurprisingly, support for the party has been almost halved, while just over one-third of SYRIZA voters in September 2015 still support the party.

At the same time, its main rival, the conservative New Democracy (ND), has a new leader who has increased its support by almost half. At this moment ND is virtually twice as big in the polls as SYRIZA, while a plurality of Greeks (35 percent) think the country would be better off under an ND government. At the same time, most small parties have remained relatively stable. The main exception is its coalition partner, Independent Greeks (ANEL), which has been fighting with the electoral threshold of 3 percent for almost a year now.

SYRIZA came to power with the promise to dismantle Greece’s clientelist system, but has so far achieved little. It has backed down from struggles with the two most powerful extra-parliamentary political actors in the country, the trade unions and the oligarchs. Instead, it has tried to replace the political establishment’s political appointees with its own. The latest, highly contentious, example is the appointment of Vassilis Moulopoulos to solve the financial and structural problems of the Lambrakis Press Organization (DOL). Moulopoulos is a former SYRIZA MP and chairman of the pro-government newspaper Avgi, while DOL owns two major newspapers and a radio station that are critical of the government.

To cover all of this up, the government has become increasingly intolerant and even repressive toward domestic dissenters. Not only is it trying to replace key people in the state apparatus, including in education and judiciary, it is trying to revise the existing power structure by dodgy new laws. Most notably, its new media law, which allowed the government to license TV broadcasters directly, rather than through the independent media regulator, was ruled unconstitutional by the country’s highest court. In typical populist fashion, State Minister Nikos Pappas, who had overseen the government’s auction of broadcasting licenses, attacked the Council of State, by proclaiming, “Governments are not brought down by judicial decisions, but only by the people.”

In short, two years in, SYRIZA has become increasingly unpopular within Greece, and irrelevant outside of it. There are no more sympathetic op-eds in the Guardian and even Open Democracy has chosen Varoufakis’s DIEM25 over Tsipras’s SYRIZA. Economically Greece is still threatened by Grexit, but is operating in a radically different European context, in which left-wing parties are even weaker than two years ago, and Brexit and refugees have pushed austerity politics to the margins of the political debate. To cover its incompetence, SYRIZA has increased its populist attacks, while breaking election promise after election promise. Whether that will be enough to survive a third year, seems highly unlikely.

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