We’re sitting on the roof terrace of a restaurant at the foot of the Acropolis, with the brightly lit temple above us. But the mood among the company this evening is far from good. “I’ll never forgive those Syriza guys to the point that, thanks to them, I almost want the Conservatives to win the election,” one of the women there tells me. “Last week I spoke to my Dad, an old communist, who always stood firm in the fight against right-wingers. I sort of muttered under my breath: ‘Shouldn’t one for once not consider voting for the Conservatives?’ And even my Dad said: ‘Well worth thinking about.’ And if even he’s gone that far…”
Of course, these are not utterly committed Syriza party members complaining about the political situation this evening. But they’re not hardline Syriza opponents either. Rather, the typical modern liberal lefties who, up till now, were obviously not uncritical followers of Alexis Tsipras and his party but were pretty taken with him. People, all in all, who wanted him to succeed. But now there’s this huge hangover feeling: symptom of a sobering up process among wide circles of folks.
A day or so before the early parliamentary elections Alexis Tsipras, against all expectations, must fight for his re-election. The published opinion polls put Syriza and the conservative Neo Demokratia (New Democracy) pretty well neck-and-neck at 31% – they obviously vary. Putting aside all the uncertainties attached to polling, one thing is obvious: Tsipras and Syriza have lost their untrammelled dominant position.
What lies behind this? The mistakes that Tsipras’s government made in its first six months in office? Or his capitulation that July night in Brussels to the ultimatum that he had to accept an austerity programme he had so passionately fought against only a few days before?
Exarchia, the hippy anarchist district that figures as “Anarchia” in all the travel guides. My hotel right on Exarchia Square has filled up with left-wingers from all over the world. It’s a great “Hello everybody” meeting place and, with a bit of imagination, you can think yourself back into the more heroic days of the international left, to Barcelona in the Thirties when George Orwell and Lefties from all over the world stopped off at the Hotel Continental on the Ramblas. I’m sitting with Giorgis Chondros in a café a few meters on and there’s a constant coming and going. Chondros sits on the central committee of Syriza and is responsible for relations with German-speaking parties. Michalis drops by, he’s some big cheese at Athens University. Peter, an old anarchist from the American students’ movement of the 60s who, it emerges, is a second cousin of Bruno Kreisky and his Jewish forebears, who left in 1938, lived in Vienna’s 13th district somewhere.
What was the one mistake too many that tipped the mood, I ask Georgis Chondros? Deciding to go for fresh elections? Decidedly, the capitulation at the Brussels summit, as the supporters of the ex-radical left wing of Syriza – now standing under the banner of the new Popular Unity party – insist? Just like ex-finance minister Yanis Varoufakis who has just let loose a public broadside against his former friend and premier? No, Chondros says, there simply would have been no alternative at that point in July to the deal with the other EU heads of government that kept Greece in the Eurozone. With no practical Plan B available, there was no other choice for responsible politicians. And the fresh elections were simply unavoidable after the left wing of the party with its 20 to 30 MPs had definitively broken with Tsipras.
“It was certainly a mistake for Tsipras to avoid holding a party conference before the elections,” opines Chondros. In his view that was the only “avoidable” mistake. Tsipras wouldn’t have been able to use it to win over his determined inner-party opponents but he would have got the great camp of the sceptics, i.e. those left insecure and frustrated by the rollercoaster ride of the previous months. He gave too little time and thought to “taking them with him” to some extent. That’s not an untypical failing of premiers who find themselves kind of under siege; they feel their own guys owe it to them to get behind them. We’ve gone through that a hundred times. But it’s still a mistake.
“For me the referendum was the first big mistake,” a woman friend tells me. It split the society, family members fell out among themselves, only for Tsipras to ignore the result a week later. And why? Only so that Tsipras could gloss over his inner-party problems for a few days. That is: it’s because of Syriza’s internal problems that we’ve got to stage a referendum. And now, for the same reason, we’ve got this fresh election around our necks. None of this would’ve happened without the ruling party’s internal conflicts,” she snaps. And then adds another two cents sarcastically: “A very expensive party.”
That’s a pretty bitter criticism – but it’s pretty certain too that quite a few Greeks would more or less make the same criticism and indeed precisely those whom Tsipras had been able to win over in the previous years.
Syriza can scarcely position itself any more as the party that is fighting against European austerity politics in general and the spending cuts dictates of Eurogroup finance ministers in particular. Its “message” – in the phrase of election specialists – is simply no longer tenable. And so is the only election message it’s got left: We’re new, we’re the young, we’re unused, we’re the ones who don’t come from the Establishment so we’re the ones who can clean up the corrupt cronyism state. We’ll implement the agreed austerity programme, we’ll stick to what we’ve signed up for, even the passages that we think are wrong and deadly, but we’ll do it with social awareness and with maximum regard to all room for manoeuvre. Well, that’s not a meaningless message – but it’s not exactly a particularly exciting policy programme.
The official superficial election debates are thus very bizarre. All the parties are outbidding each other in declaring they stand for the “new”. Tsipras plays the young hero fighting like a lion. ND-boss Vangelis Meimarakis, who can’t compete with Tsipras’s charisma and was, in fact, thought of only as a transitional leader – and now, somewhat mistakenly and because there’s no alternative, has to appear as the lead candidate in the election campaign – he’s presenting himself as the “new conservative.” Meimarakis is wishy-washy and is himself probably the most surprised that he’s actually succeeding in forcing Tsipras into a neck-and-neck race. But after six months of a negotiations série noir, after the referendum and nightly poker dramas, after the controls on capital transfers which practically brought the Greek economy to its knees, suddenly there’s a demand for the type of politico like Meimarakis – so boring that he comes on as solid, so dull that he guarantees that, with him, there’ll be no nerve-shattering surprises. He incarnates, pretty well, the need of many Greeks for peace and quiet.
I plod on down from Exarchia to Monastirski, the inner-city shopping district, and start thinking about how much the mood since last June has changed. The election campaign is just a “normal” campaign, with TV debates where the top candidates try to emerge looking a little better than their opponents. Of course, one’s inclination is to look for the mistakes that Tsipras and his leadership team have committed, and thus be a bit unfair. For, in the end, the mistakes that Tsipras may have made or not are all the result of the brutal refusal to compromise on the part of European partners that aimed at forcing an unlovable left-wing government into this very position – removing, via endless undermining of its position, any popular support in its own country.
In Monastirski I meet up with my friend Yannis Drakoulis who works as a photographer and has been running, with a few fellow combatants, the media start-up “AthensLive” for the past few months. Yannis is standing by a leather sofa in the corridor and smoking a fag when I come up the stairs. “I’m just tired ‘cos of the political situation. We’re all knackered,” he says. The crisis has been going on for at least five years already and the hope that something might change, the silver lining in the Spring, well it’s gone too.
“It’s time,” says Athanasios Marvakis, “for the Greek left to become a bit more serious.” Athanasios is professor of social psychology at the University of Thessaloniki and we got to know each other a few months ago in the occupied broadcasting centre of state radio station ERT. “The best thing the left can do is to split.” For the left-wing opposition Tsipras and the remaining Syriza people are simply “traitors,” social democrats who have capitulated. For Tsipras and his people, on the other hand, all those who don’t stand 100% behind the party boss are “deserters” – even those who are simply rattled. And, yes, clearly, that was the goal of Wolfgang Schäuble and the Eurozone strategists who wanted to force the Greek left into this position – only, according to Marvakis, nobody forced the Greek left to make it such an easy game for their opponents.
Tsipras’s fall is a peculiar fall, a “successful fall”. Everybody knows today that the austerity tack in Europe has failed. Everybody knows that a programme nobody believes in was only pushed through by brutal pressure from Wolfgang Schäuble and Co. The neoliberal elite’s hegemony is no longer uncontested and that’s a feather in the cap of the Tsipras government.
The election campaign has lumbered through its final days; unlike in January nobody feels it’s about anything that important. Even so, there’s a lot at stake: Syriza could go from being the great hope to the great disaster of the European left. If Tsipras is voted out, it won’t be the heroic departure of someone defeated by over-mighty opponents and the neoliberal elite will find it dead easy to cast Syriza as a laughing stock, a ludicrous amateur episode. If Tsipras gets away with a black eye and a two, three percent leap over this election hurdle then he’ll govern in a new centre-left-coalition and press the restart button: his government will then have to try and, first, reform the country quite practically in small push-and-shove steps and build alliances slowly but surely in Europe with that part of European social democracy that can be won over to such a position, even with the more progressive part of Christian Democracy, with social movements, trade unions, think tanks. Syriza has learned the lesson that the strategy of the Tsipras cabinet mark one led to self-isolation and is a cul-de-sac.
Robert Misik is a writer and essayist living in Vienna. His Das Große Beginnergefühl: Moderne, Zeitgeist, Revolution (Suhrkamp-Verlag) will appear in May. He publishes in many newspapers and magazines, including Die Zeit and Die Tageszeitung. Awards include the prize for economic journalism of the John Maynard Keynes Society.