By Dr. Tomi Dimitrovski
Rise to the top
The foundation of the leftist movement in Greece is the SYNASPISMOS coalition, which was established in 1991. SYNASPISMOS was also one of the founders of the Party of the European Left (PEL) in Rome in 2004. In Greece, the successor of SYNASPISMOS is the radical-left coalition named SYRIZA, which is actually the syllabic abbreviation of the full name of the coalition in Greek. SYRIZA was established in 2004 by several leftist and extreme-left parties. The first president of SYRIZA was Alekos Alavanos (1950). He is a moderate left-wing politician and was the party leader until 2008. These years were filled with numerous tensions between the coalition partners and marked by modest results at parliamentary and local elections. Many in Greece associated these two parties with anarchist groups, which frequently caused unrests in Greece.
In that period PASOK (member of the Party of European Socialists – PES) sovereignly held the left-center, while the Communist Party of Greece (KKE) was more left-wing oriented than the PASOK. SYRIZA occupied a small space left of PASOK’s. No one expected that a party promoting a radical leftist ideology would ever rule the country.
Alexis Tsipras (1974) was elected as the President of SYRIZA in June 2009. The coalition was registered as a political party in 2012. Tsipras was the one who headed the process of its transition from being a marginal left-wing party to a qualified majority in the Greek parliament. In January 2015, as a result of the victory in the parliamentary elections, Tsipras was elected as the new Prime Minister of Greece. However, it needs to be noted that the weak policy of the governments headed by the New Democracy (member of the European People’s Party – EPP) and PASOK had facilitated such developments. The establishment of the government led by SYRIZA is the largest and so far unmatched achievement of a far-left party in the EU, as well as in Europe in general.
The party that endangered the Eurozone
SYRIZA inherited an exceptionally unfavorable economic situation in the country. From 2009 Greece was in a debt crisis and under strict austerity measures. Everything was coordinated in agreement with the European Commission, the International Monetary Fund, and the European Central Bank, also known as the Troika.
The takeover of the government by a far-left coalition in one of the oldest members of the European Union and a member of the Eurozone had its impact. Yanis Varoufakis (1961) took over the position of the Finance Minister of Greece in the new Government. Although he remained in the position for only six months, it was a turbulent period marked by tense negotiations with the Troika. By the instructions received from Prime Minister Tsipras, Varoufakis secretly worked on Plan B, an apocalyptic scenario for a “parallel system of liquidity” in Greece. However, at the same time, he asserted that Greece had no ambitions to leave the Eurozone. In June 2015 Varoufakis faced an ultimatum from finance ministers of the Eurozone. The next day, Prime Minister Tsipras called for a referendum on the rejection of austerity measures proposed by the Troika. At the referendum, which was held in July 2015, the majority of voters (61%) said “NO” to austerity measures. Varoufakis’s resignation followed as a result of the referendum, but also as a major surprise. Antonis Samaras(1951), President of the New Democracy also stepped down because his party and the majority of the media had been backing a “Yes” vote on austerity measures.
Varoufakis stated that he had recorded the meetings of the Eurogroup with his mobile phone. His excuse was that it was necessary for his work, as nobody took notes at the meetings. The Eurogroup does not expressly ban recording of its meetings, although classified information is often discussed at them.
Tsipras decided to ignore the will of the voters expressed at the referendum, which was actually the reason for Varoufakis’s resignation. In mid-July 2018 Tsipras brokered an agreement with the Troika. Varoufakis, now an opponent, described the agreement as even more restrictive than the previously proposed one. It appeared that Tsipras had abandoned the extreme ideology and became a moderate left-wing European politician.
At the time several countries were afraid of a possible domino effect that the situation in Greece could have on financially weaker members of the Eurozone and were concerned by the potential further repercussions it could have on the unity and stability of the EU.
As a result of it all, Greece had to hold snap extraordinary elections. In September 2015 Tsipras was re-elected as the Prime Minister and continued with the restrictive policy regarding spending of budget funds and austerity measures.
Prime Minister who wore a tie only once
In Greece, the Prime Minister and the Government traditionally take an oath at a ceremony before the Archbishop of Athens and the whole of Greece. Tsipras took an oath before the President of the Republic Prokopis Pavlopoulos (1950). However, later that day Tsipras went to a meeting with the Archbishop at the premises of the Archbishopric. Tsipras is an atheist, and the Greek voters did not welcome such a choice of his.
Tsipras is an eloquent and charismatic politician. He is a kind of an icon among left-wing politicians in Europe. He still has a specific style of dressing. Specifically, he never wears a tie. He expressed his commitment to his country and stated that he would put on a tie once he saves the country from the debt crises.
In the end, he fulfilled his promise. In 2018, finance ministers of the Eurozone offered to Greece favorable financial measures, which meant that Greece would be able to, financially, stand on its own feet. One evening in June of the same year, Tsipras showed up with a tie at an evening meeting with the coalition partners. Naturally, it was a burgundy-colored tie. He wore the tie for only half an hour. He dedicated this act to all those who had fought against the debt crises in Greece over the previous years.
Since 1991 Greece had a dispute related to the name of its neighbor in the north. Nationalists in the country disapproved of the fact that their neighbor at the north had name Macedonia in its constitution. For the majority of them that state should be called only Skopje (after the name of its capital). Some of them, truth be told not many, still promote such a policy. In June 2019, under the leadership of Prime Minister Tsipras the then Minister of Foreign Affairs of Greece Nikos Kotzias (1950) signed the Prespa Agreement. With the Agreement Tsipras ended a multiyear problem – from the Greek perspective. The agreement was not connected with the mitigation of austerity measures by the Troika. Or maybe it was?
It is worth noting that the Prespa Agreement was signed by a government, or more specifically by a Minister from the left -wing ranks. Prior to that for several decades the Greek parties that are members of the EPP and PES did not manage or did not want to resolve that issue.
However, many voters in Greece did not welcome the signing of the Prespa Agreement. While Tsipras and SYRIZA became an enormous inspiration to other left-wing parties throughout Europe, their popularity in Greece was on a decline – but primarily as a result of a prolonged restrictive economic policy in the country.
SYRIZA lost at the parliamentary elections in July 2019. Since January 2016, the New Democracy has been headed by the current Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis (1968.). SYRIZA also lost at the parliamentary elections in June 2023, after what Tsipras stepped down from the position of the president of the party. He is still a member of the current convocation of the Greek parliament.
Democrats shift to the left
In the United States, not Tsipras but Varoufakis is the most popular figure that emerged from SYRIZA. He had completed his master and PhD studies in Great Britain. Currently, he is the leader of a small non-parliamentary left-wing party MeRA25 in Greece and often appears in the media in Great Britain and the Unites States. Varoufakis mainly articulates his leftist stances on finance and economy. In the United States, the large Greek diaspora traditionally supports the Democratic Party. Anyway, US President Joе Biden stated that for years and years in his electorate the Greek community had given him unqualified support in the elections for the Senate. The Greek community in his electorate dubbed him Bidenopoulos as a token of cooperation and respect.
It seems that the emergence of SYRIZA and Varoufakis has indicated a shift to the left by the Democratic Party in the Unites States. SYRIZA has inspired and energized the Democratic Party. This was felt also in the campaign at the presidential primary elections in the parties. Bernie Sanders, a leftist, won a large number of votes in the presidential primary elections in 2016 and 2020. Sanders’s leftist campaign also informed a shift to the left of the usually centralized to center-left policy of the winning presidential candidate of the Democratic Party, Biden, who was elected as the 46th president of the United States. Some of the policies related to free healthcare, abolition of student loans, social support, support to trade unions, free education, etc. epitomize the shift to the left by the Democratic Party in the US, which met with large support of the voters.
New leader did not manage to consolidate the party
Stefanos Kasselakis (1988) was elected as the new President of SYRIZA in September 2023. For a number of years, he lived in the USA and completed his education there. He is a member of the LGBT+ community. At the end of the day, Kasselakis had returned to Greece only several months before he was elected as the leader of SYRIZA. His partner, who he married in the United States, is a US citizen. Greece still does not allow same sex marriages. One of Kasselakis’s goals is to have the country recognize such communities.
At the local elections in October 2023, in the second round Kasselakis gave unequivocal support to the candidates for mayor positions who came up from the ranks of (оr were supported by) the PASOK. Maybe this support was decisive and helped PASOK to win in Athens and Thessaloniki, two biggest cities in Greece. Many believed that such moves would facilitate the ascent of SYRIZA. However, the party lost the unity in its ranks. This led to dissolution of the representative’s group, while some Euro-parliamentarians defected. Although Kasselakis enjoys support among younger voters, the party is currently on a slippery path. According to the December public opinion polls, SYRIZA is down to a single-digit rating for the first time in several years.
Euro elections in 2024 – fight for the second position in Greek politics
All the above enabled the New Democracy party to continue, although in a lesser measure, its dominance on the political scene in Greece. SYRIZA no longer holds the second position in the polls, as that position is now occupied by PASOK. It is already evident that at the European elections in June 2024, PASOK will win more positions than SYRIZA. The New Democracy will remain at the top with respect to the number of representative mandates won.
This creates room for PASOK. European representative Nikos Androulakis (1979) has been on the helm of the PASOK since December 2021 and is already the second most popular Greek politician. However, Mitsotakis is still the most popular one.
If the New Democracy continues with the policy it has been pursuing so far, it will continue to dominate the political scene of the country for quite some time to come. The question is will and when PASOK manage to surpass the New Democracy. For time to come, PASOK will remain the number two political party in Greece. The current difference in the rating between the New Democracy and PASOK is in the area of 23%. SYRIZA will aim to rise to the position of the second most popular political party. However, currently it does not stand a lot of chance. However, when Tsipras took over SYRIZA in 2009 its rating was very low as well.
Maybe the restructuring on the Greek political scene is a herald of upcoming developments in the EU.
New tendencies in the EU – shifts on the opposite political pole
It is now evident that the largest left-wing parties in Europe, specifically SYRIZA in Greece and PODEMOS in Spain, have lost their primacy. Currently, it seems rather unlikely that any party similar to SYRIZA, in some other EU country or in the wider European area, will repeat the success of Alexis Tsipras. The question to be asked is does this mean the end of shifts of the European political scene to the left? SYRIZA also had to make a shift towards the center and reach an agreement on the austerity measures with Troika to end its mandate as the ruling party in Greece. It abandoned its radical ideology and towards the end of its mandate it was no longer a radical leftist party.
Currently, right-wing movements are also in trend in the EU, specifically, in Hungary, Italy, Netherlands, as well as in Austria, Germany, France, and Poland. There is a trend of some parties leaving the EPP and establishing a new block, that is of differentiation of the established “conservative and Christian Democrat” and “radical rightist”. This process is similar to the one that happened to the left-center parties during the financial crises and led to the rise of SYRIZA, PODEMOS, as well as some smaller leftist parties in Europe-such as the Levicaparty in Slovenia. In Hungary, FIDES is leading the national government and it separated from the EPP at the time when it was at the peak of its political power. Currently the Brothers of Italy party is the closest to mirroring the SYRIZA party on the right wing. In other EU member countries the radical right-wing is still far away from establishing a government and getting the position of a prime minister.
You may recall that Tsipras rose SYRIZA from being a party with a modest rating to being the ruling party in the country. The question is will someone manage to repeat the success of SYRIZA, that is which party will be able to become a new SYRIZA – but this time in the radical right wing.
About the author: Dr. Tomi Dimitrovski is a former Macedonian Ambassador to the Republic of Slovenia (2014-2018) and former Consul General in Thessaloniki, Republic of Greece (2007-2014). Tomi Dimitrovski holds a PhD (University of Sheffield, United Kingdom, 2018). He teaches Strategic management of healthcare organizations at the University of Sheffield, United Kingdom, and Healthcare management at the CITY College, University of York Europe Campus in Thessaloniki, Republic of Greece.
The article presents the stance of the author and does not necessarily reflect the stance of IFIMES.