Syriza’s Defeat: Is Tsipras the Grave-Digger Who Buried the Leftwing Idea in Europe?

The Tsipras election defeat is his personal affair. But his rule brought discredit on the leftwing idea and leftwing politics in Europe as a whole. Therein lies the historic importance of the “Greek tragedy” Tsipras-style, Oleg Barabanov writes.

Last Sunday’s parliamentary elections which took place in Greece have led to the expected defeat of the Syriza party. A prelude to its discomfiture was the election to the European Parliament one and a half months ago, which Syriza lost to the center-right New Democracy party that beat it by nearly 10 percent of the vote. The national election was equally a failure, with the gap between the rivals reaching 8.5 percent. That ended the party’s (and its leader Alexis Tsipras’) tenure. And this is not an ordinary change of guard. Syriza and Tsipras were actually the first non-systemic political force that was swept to power by the 2000-2010 civic protests in Western Europe. This is why the “Tsipras epoch” merits special attention and analysis.

What is particularly memorable about his rule for Greece and Europe as a whole? The important thing in this context is to answer the question as to whether Tsipras has managed to transform civic protests into a real policy of change in his country and the European Union as a whole. From this point of view, it would not be an exaggeration to say that the main feeling here is disappointment and frustration caused by the collapse of a hope for change. First of all, Tsipras failed to uphold the Greek civil society’s demand for a reversal of the EU financial and industrial policies vis-à-vis individual member countries. A hefty part of the Greek public opinion was blaming the budget crisis in the country on the Brussels authorities that had insisted during the past decades that Greece phase out its own production in many key sectors. This was done to boost competitive advantages of stronger EU members. In exchange, Greece was offered subsidies from various EU stabilization funds. But after the EU’s expansion to Eastern Europe in 2004, these funds were rechanneled east to support the new members. As a result, Greece was back to square one.

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This is why the Greek protests and Tsipras’ election were largely a sign of revulsion against the EU policies and expressed an aspiration that the new non-systemic force in office would hopefully change the situation. And it is this hope that was dashed. These events culminated in a Tsipras-organized referendum meant to strengthen his hand at the financial negotiations with the EU. But despite a clearly expressed national position, Tsipras almost immediately backed away from the referendum results and accepted almost all EU terms that consolidated his country’s economic dependence on Brussels.

In fact, Tsipras used the referendum as nothing but a short-term blackmail tool to gain a minor tactical advantage. This neglect of the popular will could not but lead to a drop in his popularity ratings both among the public and inside Syriza itself. Many Syriza enthusiasts left the party and made Tsipras a target of stern (and legitimate) criticism. This position was reflected, for example, in Dimitri Konstantakopoulos’ Valdai Paper. What is natural for a non-systemic left movement, much of this criticism was clad in old good Marxist terms like “liquidationism,” “opportunism,” “collaboration with the imperialists,” and so on. Thereby Tsipras was expelled from the leftwing movement and declared a traitor. Incidentally, some of his left critics have made it to the Greek parliament. These are, for example, the MeRA25 party (European Realistic Disobedience Front) led by former Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis and the Communist Party of Greece. This is a sign of strong popular support for Tsipras’ critics among the leftwing forces themselves.

Tsipras’ post-referendum moves not only split the Greek left wing but also seriously affected the sway and popularity of the new non-systemic left forces in other EU countries. Spain was the first victim. The Podemos party lost a lot of votes despite its high electoral potential largely due to the negative example of Greece. It could be assumed with much certainty that were it not for Tsipras, Podemos would have come to power in Spain, where popular discontent was as intense as in Greece. But seeing the negative outcome of Tsipras’ domestic and foreign policies, many Spanish voters logically asked themselves whether they wanted things to take as bad a turn as in Greece. This alienated many of its potential voters. Thus Tsipras emerged as a grave digger of sorts, who made the high leftwing wave in Europe subside, a wave that could have triggered off a chain reaction in many EU countries in the mid-2010s and radically changed their political landscape.

But does this mean that the leftwing idea is dead in Europe after Tsipras? On the one hand, the pendulum of electoral support has swung to the right, as confirmed by the examples of Marine Le Pen in France, Matteo Salvini in Italy, Nigel Farage in the UK, and the defection of voters from Die Linke to Alternative for Germany. It is also important that some of these rightwing forces have started using leftwing social slogans to boost their electoral support. Incidentally, Italy’s coalition of rightwing Eurosceptics (Salvini) and civic anarchists from the Five Stars (no left-wingers at all) has become the next post-Tsipras example of non-systemic forces coming to power in Old Europe. Poland’s and Hungary’s post-communist specifics identify both countries as a case apart. Indicatively, the right-wingers in Italy have proved much tougher defenders of national interests vis-à-vis Brussels than the left-winger Tsipras.

So does this mean that the protest strata in the EU should now vote for the right wing alone or that any left-winger in office will be as “opportunistic” as Tsipras? The Valdai club has analyzed this subject in detail in its report dedicated to the “leftist revolt” in Europe. The cases of Jean-Luc Mélenchon in France and Jeremy Corbyn in the UK, their detailed and sophisticated programs show that the leftwing ideas are still popular in Europe even after Tsipras. But both are not (yet) in power and so it is difficult to verify whether their deeds will match their words.

Tsipras’ “opportunism” played a nasty role in Russian-Greek relations as well. During his first months in office he made many overtures to Russia, promising to fight sanctions and other problems. But it was soon clear that he used the Russia factor as a tool to blackmail the EU in the same way as he did the Greek referendum. He just sought to “scare” his Brussels partners by his “friendship” with Russia (plus the referendum results) only to discard it in favor of other matters at the first opportunity. Naturally, our bilateral dynamics could not but respond to this sort of approaches.

Tsipras’s election defeat is his personal affair. But his rule brought discredit on the leftwing idea and leftwing politics in Europe as a whole. Therein lies the historic importance of the “Greek tragedy” Tsipras-style.
Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.