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Hellenic Hellscape: Why does the Greek Left continue to lose?

*Editor's Note - TW:// One image in this article depicts dead bodies as a result of violent clashes in Greece in 1944. It is between the third and fourth paragraph.*


Greece has long been a country of political turbulence. Born as a revolutionary rump-state following its independence from the Ottoman Empire, Greece has been subject to vast political turbulence and upheaval for much of its history. Fast forward to 2023, Greece is crippled by economic instability, corruption, and a maelstrom of long-term socio-political disasters - results of decades of neoliberalism. So why have Greeks once more rejected the left at the ballot box? And worse yet  -  to what extent is the Greek left complicit in the country's crises?


“Never have our people needed such a Left in Parliament more than they do now. And never will such a Left be missing more from Parliament.” These were the words of former Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis in the wake of the Greek elections in June. Following four years of rule by Greece’s right-wing New Democracy party, Greeks took to the ballot box to decide their new government. The results were decisive. Headed by Kyriakos Mitsotakis - son of former PM Konstantinos Mitsotakis - the incumbent New Democracy achieved 40.56% of the vote and a 23 percentage point gap over its closest rival. In other shocking news, Greece’s parliament will now also feature a renewed far-right presence, with three parties - ranging from crypto-fascist to full-blown nazi apologists - garnering roughly 12% of the popular vote. For those who voted left, the election was a crushing, heartbreaking defeat. For those who did not vote - roughly half the population as turnout was only 53.74% - the results were but a confirmation of the demise and doom of a nation that has been under the brunt of corruption, austerity, and foreign domination for the best part of its history. So where is Greece’s left in all this?


Greece's incumbent Prime Minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis


Greece’s left has had a turbulent history. The country saw the emergence of a mass-line communist party (Communist Party of Greece, KKE), which still exists today, and some social democratic electoral successes in the 1920s.But for most of the decades between 1920 and 1974, the various political establishments - which evolved between liberal nationalists, conservative monarchists and ultra-nationalists - made sure to, at best, legislate anti-socialist stigmas and, at worst, systematically persecute left-wingers. Ironically, when Hitler invaded the country in 1941, it was German bombs that destroyed internment camps, allowing communists imprisoned by the Mussolini-inspired Greek regime of the era to escape and go on to form the backbone of the Greek resistance. Throughout the Second World War, similarly to its comrades in France and Italy, the KKE became the principal organising force in fighting Axis occupation, being the first political entity to oppose the Nazis and forming a broadchurch leftist political and military alliance. As the Germans pulled out of Greece, shaken by the bravery of the country’s resistance, the de jure exiled Greek government in Cairo peered on anxiously at the communist-headed alliance’s now substantial popularity. Of course, the Brits and Americans were quick to act. What ensued was an intervention to prevent the country from derogating from their sphere of influence. Protestors were shot, Nazi-collaborators were freed, concentration camps were set up, and soon the country was gripped in a bloody civil war. Communists, alongside socialists and ethnic and sexual minorities, were brutally and systematically repressed. Under the auspices of the USA, the Greek government of the 40s and 50s engaged in a cut-throat policy towards those suspected of holding communist views. The democratic socialist EDA (United Democratic Left) enjoyed some popularity in the post war period, but the party was no match for its powerful and corrupt right-wing opponents, which presented it as a crypto-communist front. The Greek security forces, so that they could be fanatic bulwark against communism, were heavily politicised. By the 1950s and 1960s, ultraconservative sympathies had become widespread in the police and army. Infamously, parts of the Greek military and police collaborated with shadow-state paramilitaries to intimidate and harass anti-nuclear bomb and peace movements, the climax of which was the murder of popular left-wing politician Grigoris Lambrakis. In 1967, political instability engendered by monarchical interference in politics, alongside fears amongst the security forces of a possible progressive minister of defence, spilled over into an extremist, and — of course — CIA-backed coup. The communists, now in exile for over 20 years and having suffered two major ideological splits, continued to be the eternal scapegoat, as the new fascist junta portrayed itself as a surgeon, implementing “medical” policies on the Hellenic “patient”. The regime, as with all fascist governments, governed corruptly and inefficiently. The left, meanwhile, operated clandestinely and focused on gaining support from abroad through influential cultural figures such as Mikis Theodorakis and Melina Merkouri.


Protestors shot dead by British soldiers in the infamous 'Dekemvriana' events of 1944 leading up to the Greek civil war.


After 7 years of ruthless dictatorship, the junta collapsed under its own idiocy following a failed mobilisation against Turkey. Greece then underwent liberalisation that saw the abolishment of the monarchy and the easing of anti-communist stigmas. In 1981, Greece elected a left-wing party, PASOK (Panhellenic Socialist Movement), led by firebrand leader Andreas Papandreou, the aforementioned possible progressive minister of defence of which the security state and CIA were scared. His government engaged in nationalisations, implemented social reforms, campaigned against NATO and the EEC membership and, significantly, ushered in a total rehabilitation of the KKE and a recognition of its pivotal role in the Greek resistance. But, as always the case with electoral socialism, this left-wing approach fizzled out quickly. Mirroring Mitterand’s tournant de la rigueur, the party jolted to the centre, and by the late 1990s had become the green coloured party playing the bi-party election game with ND, which is the result of the 1974 rebrand of the major right-wing pre-junta party National Radical Union. Other than on social issues, PASOK became indistinguishable from its supposed political rival. PASOK became a centrist party, and consequently achieved, throughout its decades as a leading political party, the alienation of left-wing forces. Its shift to the right and its slow decline coincided with the emergence of a left-wing force known as Synaspismos (alliance), and slightly later with the resurrection of the KKE, both of which provided staunch opposition to PASOK but also remained firmly in single digit territory at the ballot box. Nonetheless, PASOK continued to be the main party of the left going into the late 2000s, even if the term socialist in its name was no longer feasibly accurate.


Greeks celebrating the victory of PASOK in 1981.


But, as was the case with so many social-democratic parties in Europe, the 2008 economic crisis was PASOK’s coup-de-grâce. Despite winning a majority in the 2009 elections, PASOK’s share of the vote was quartered in the 2012 elections. Such was the calamity that the party found itself lending its name to a political phenomenon coined to describe the steep decline of European social democracy: Pasokification. PASOK’s Pasokification hit the party like an avalanche. By the mid-2010s it was a single digit force as well. It became associated with economic mismanagement, and many saw it responsible for Greece’s financial hellscape. Voters abandoned PASOK, and began opting more and more for the Alliance of the Radical Left (SYRIZA), an evolution of Synaspismos, which under charismatic young leader Alexis Tsipras had mushroomed in popularity and had incorporated many more minor left-wing forces. In 2015, SYRIZA, a previously fringe left-wing alliance, in a result characterised as a “historic watershed” by journalist Owen Jones, found itself in government. To fully understand the importance of this moment, one must recognise that SYRIZA included not only “democratic socialist” parties, but also far-left entities. This was supposedly not to be a government of social-democracy, instead one that was constituted by former communist youth members, former resistance fighters, and veteran members of the Greek left. SYRIZA promised to reverse austerity, fight against the EU bureaucracy, and resolve Greece’s unending crisis. But its government rested on a tenuous coalition with a right-wing party, Independent Greeks (ANEL), built out of common opposition to EU austerity.


The story of SYRIZA has a painful ending. The party was swept into office on the back of a disastrous “memorandum”, a bailout agreement signed with the IMF, the EU and the EU central bank, which imposed austerity and engendered a GDP drop reminiscent of the Second World War. Once in government, SYRIZA attempted to renegotiate the bailout agreement, but hit a roadblock in the face of intransigent EU negotiators. SYRIZA put the EU’s terms to referendum, and Greeks roundly rejected them. Inexplicably, however, SYRIZA agreed to those very terms the following day. As quickly as the pen with which SYRIZA signed those terms dropped beside the paper, the party jolted to the PASOK centre-left. It became, overnight, exactly what it ran against. Whilst the party retained some surface-level leftist positions, such as its refusal to endorse Juan Guaidó as president of Venezuela, it transformed into a dutiful and careful implementer of austerity. Furthermore, the party was hamstrung by its aforementioned cooperation with ANEL, which held many conservative positions on social issues. As a result, it was held back in some of its social progressivism. The U-turn saw a mass exodus of leading SYRIZA figures, who refused to govern in direct negation of their promises. The party changed from ‘we won’t accept the austerity of other parties’ to ‘we will implement austerity more responsibly than other parties’. SYRIZA’s derogation from its electoral promises, in combination with a rabidly anti-SYRIZA media, publicity debacles over the Prespa Agreement (an attempt by SYRIZA to resolve the naming dispute of Greece’s northern neighbour in former Yugoslavia now known as the Republic of North Macedonia), and the still ongoing Refugee Crisis, saw a surge in criticism of its government. In an attempt to mitigate this, the party abandoned its leftist roots, engaging in centrist discourse, chasing the ‘middle-class voter’ and promoting law and order. SYRIZA’s governance was arguably still more left-wing than its preceding governments, but its betrayal of its core ideological essence caused irreversible damage to its perception amongst the Greek people. In 2019, disillusion with SYRIZA led to voters putting the ever-present ND in government.. Combined with the incorporation of liberal parties in its alliance structure, failure to implement a consistent and uniform set of positions expressed by its politicians, and multiple instances of voting in favour of ND’s COVID policy whilst in opposition, SYRIZA has had a major identity crisis. Its largely negative campaign against ND in 2023, where the party focused on ad hominem attacks and scandals rather than promoting its own vision, did not reverse its electoral crisis. What followed was a measly 17% of the vote and the resignation of long-time leader Alexis Tsipras. SYRIZA too has eventually become Pasokified. Elsewhere in the EU, SYRIZA’s u-turns and transition from far-left to centrist arguably contributed to the overall deflation of the left-wing wave that saw the rise of the likes of Die Linke, Podemos and Labour’s Momentum faction. It was now easy for the corporate press to convince Europeans that the left would govern similarly to the very same centrist and right-wing politicians it would passionately criticise — only in a less experienced fashion and with higher fiscal irresponsibility. Could SYRIZA have avoided this fate? Perhaps — if it acted like the Greek communists, which lie at the opposite end of left-wing approaches to electoral strategy. The KKE completely refuses to enter government and, whilst consistently maintaining a loyal share of the vote, still follows the Leninist democratic centralist organisational model, in the year of 2023. Greece’s communists will probably never suffer a SYRIZA-esque humiliation, but that is because they will never toe the thin ice which is governing a country. The KKE is the Greek parliament’s own North Korea; sometimes cooperating with larger counterparts, but mostly in complete, fortified isolation, and with very little internal ideological derogation. If SYRIZA had adopted this strategy, it likely would not have ever been anywhere near government. So that is how the Greek left is perceived in a nutshell; a group of parties that either melt under the pressure of governing or base their entire electoral strategy off of the idea that they are an anti-capitalist protest vote.


In contrast to the fragmented and squabbling Greek left, the right seems very organised. The Greek right is represented by New Democracy, a party which seems to aspire to emulate the British Conservative Party. It holds the support of the country’s oligarchs, (and hence) media, as well as foreign political bodies, and has consistently implemented policies of austerity and atlanticism. ND is the final evolution of Greece’s right which has a dirty record on its hands, from having a penchant for political executions in the post-civil war, and alleged electoral fraud and paramilitary cooperation in the 1960s. Nowadays, ND positions itself as a party of business and innovation, and there are a plethora of articles from western media outlets praising the government’s moderate and liberal approach. What those articles fail to — or perhaps choose not to —  see, is that ND has shifted substantially to the right. Parties such as Popular Orthodox Rally (LAOS), representing an ultra-conservative and nationalistic strand of the Greek right, have essentially been integrated into ND with high-profile figures, such as anti-vaxxer Konstantinos Plevris, crypto-fascist Makis Voridis, and far-right apologist Adonis Georgiadis, holding important cabinet positions in recent ND governments. During the Prespa Agreement, the party endorsed protests spurred on by ultraconservative and nationalistic sentiment, underpinned by the now-illegal nazi Golden Dawn party. ND refused to withdraw its support once protests turned violent, and, with the help of a massively sympathetic media, rode the wave of ultra-nationalism, contributing to its victory in the 2019 elections. Supporters of ND have pointed to the supposed no-nonsense, fiscally responsible approach of the 2019 ND government, claim that Greek business has boomed, and have praised Kyriakos Mitsotakis’ Trumpian border wall to keep out refugees. Some have even proposed that Greece is no longer in economic crisis. Of course, reality is much different from the prosperous Greece that ND claims to have engendered. The 2019 ND government has been marred by a major wiretapping scandal, decreased labour rights, ruthless immigration policies, the positioning of the police within universities (for the first time since the fascist junta), poor handling of national tragedies such as the Tempi incident and the COVID pandemic, further privatisations, decreasing press freedoms, as well as many corruption scandals. The party is also the largest financier of the country’s press and television channels, revealed in the Petsas list. Widely recognised Greek economist Yanis Varoufakis has highlighted what he perceives of as the Orbanization of the country under ND, as the party and its supporters have expanded an already huge political network that spans media organisations and football clubs alike. Unlike Hungarian President Viktor Orban, however, ND is keen on entrenching Greece’s membership in NATO and the EU; which is probably why we see so many articles praising Mitsotakis in western media.



Die a left-wing hero or live long enough to become a centrist villain: leader of SYRIZA Alexis Tsipras resigns after 15 years.


So it seems like Greeks are just fans of neoliberalism. Maybe they want a strongman and respect Mitsotakis’ striking charisma and macho persona. Whilst Mitsotakis has developed somewhat of a strong following in rightward oriented Greeks, these assertions are hollow with regards to the wider population. Press freedom in Greece is very poor, and there is barely any proper scrutiny of the government, which is barely ever held to account by main media outlets. This, in combination with the fact that half of Greece’s population did not vote, suggests that the majority of those participating in Greek politics are supporters of New Democracy, with those opposed choosing to abstain. Even more significantly, this suggests that many Greeks find SYRIZA indistinguishable from New Democracy and believe that a change in government would not result in any meaningful policy change. Perhaps they are right. Former German finance minister Wolfgang Schauble, in negotiations with the SYRIZA government over that infamous aforementioned austerity package, allegedly stated that “elections cannot be allowed to change economic policy”. So it is also clear that the EU is a major obstacle to derogation from austerity and neoliberal policies. But regardless of how hamstrung SYRIZA was whilst in government, it has become stigmatised as a party that talks the talk but does not walk the walk. The country’s right-wing media certainly will continue perpetuating this stigma. On a positive note, most left-wing voters from previous elections have not abandoned the ballot box altogether, instead dispersing into parties adjacent to SYRIZA on the political spectrum. The Communists have increased their vote share and, shockingly, PASOK, the original blueprint for SYRIZA’s jolt to the centre, has now risen to status as the third largest party in parliament. This suggests that, if a unifying force were to arise amongst the left, left-wing voters could once more rally behind one party. But when SYRIZA won in 2015, it was mostly by mobilising that vast apathetic bloc of Greeks who, whilst previously partyless, agreed with SYRIZA’s anti-austerity outlook and radicalism. In recent elections, these voters were either reabsorbed by the giant bloc of non-voters, or — even worse, snatched up by the far-right, who present New Democracy and SYRIZA as two sides of the same coin. To regain these voters, left-wing parties must present tangible solutions to Greece’s malaise, and prove that they are indeed anti-establishment alternatives to ND. At the moment, none of these parties do so. PASOK remains a centrist force, and probably is only back on the scene due to a combination of centre-left flight from SYRIZA, the public forgetting its time in governance, and a somewhat successful rebrand. The Communist aim is purely to provide staunch opposition to all other parties, and Konstantopoulou’s party, Course of Freedom, might just be another small left-wing party that will pop up and promptly disappear in following elections.


But, there is hope. Neoliberal majorities and relative political stability are prone to shattering. We must remember that in the 2009 elections, shortly before the economic crisis, the political establishment seemed as stable as ever. PASOK and New Democracy, both “systemic” parties according to Varoufakis, won 251 seats from 300, resulting in a PASOK majority. In the following elections, the two parties’ grip on the Greek parliament was evaporated. Together, ND and PASOK won 149 seats — not even enough for a majority government if the two parties were to form a coalition. The same can happen in the next couple of years, if the left is able to effectively rejuvenate itself. The left does need a major rethink. But, as SYRIZA goes through major changes, with long-time leader Alexis Tsypras resigning, we could see a renewed challenge to New Democracy. What the Greek left needs to do is mobilise the huge number of politically apathetic Greeks and set out a clear vision of a new Greece. It needs to set out a clear programme of anti-austerity, diplomatic autonomy, investment in Green energy, the saving of Greece’s public services, and the cultivation of Greek industry. It should also reverse the Hawaii-fication of Greece and seek to develop its own industries upon which to develop economically, rather than depend on tourism. SYRIZA, needs profound changes to disassociate from the image of its time in government. The communists, despite their ideological consistency, aim for entrenchment rather than to govern. PASOK, and more widely centrism, are already known to be a lukewarm and ineffective outfit. But if we look to the fringes of the left — after all, that is where SYRIZA once dwelled — there are some exciting ideas. From Varoufakis’ Mera25 which proposes radical new economic plans to Konstantopoulou’s charismatic Course of Freedom, there are ideas and strategies that the left can utilise to create a substantial challenge to New Democracy. But Greece’s situation is not in any way unique. I am sure that readers of this article will see clear parallels between Greece and their own countries. The solutions to Greece’s issues are mostly the same ones as those that are needed elsewhere. There will be massive obstacles to bypass; from huge opposition from the country’s forces of capital to the EU bureaucracy that has choked Greece. What the Greek left must do is create a mass popular mobilisation à la Evo Morales in Bolivia. The anti-establishment sentiment certainly is there; we have all seen how passionately Greeks take to the pavement to protest. And in a new world where unipolarity seems to be crumbling day by day, and new economic poles are forming, there is hope for Greece to disassociate from a western economic sphere that has objectively prevented the country from having control over its own destiny. It was the Greek left that was on the ground fighting the Nazis, and the Greek left on the ground fighting the junta. Now, in 2023, it is the Greek left that must fight for the country’s independence once more. It is a mighty challenge, but one thing is for certain: the only way is up.


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Born in Watford to Greek parents, Andreas is a French and Spanish student at the University of Cambridge, focusing on the recent history of the Spanish-speaking and Francophone worlds. Outside of his studies, he enjoys keeping up to date with politics and he spends most of his time playing sport, pretending he is a good cook, or experiencing the few ups and many downs of being a Watford and Olympiakos supporter. When he is not doing those things, you will probably find him engaged in a deeply profound (and arguably pretentious) conversation about the last French film he watched.



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