Theodora Oikonomides: SYRIZA -Independent Greeks: Strange bedfellows

"Girl wearing white dress" Painting by Edouardos Sakagian, 2000 "Girl wearing white dress" Painting by Edouardos Sakagian, 2000
Theodora Oikonomides

The final results of the Greek elections came in early this morning. SYRIZA garnered 149 seats in parliament, two short of a majority, and is entering a coalition with Independent Greeks to form a government. SYRIZA is a more-or-less radical left-wing party, while Independent Greeks is a nationalist-populist right-wing party whose leader, Panos Kammenos, espouses racist, homophobic, antisemitic and occasionally outright lunatic views (such as plane exhaust trails in the sky being unspecified chemical spraying.) This is as if Podemos were forming a coalition with UKIP. How can that happen and what can we expect to happen next? Here’s my two drachmas. 
Why SYRIZA rejected the option of repeat elections
The options SYRIZA had when it became clear that they would not secure 151 seats in parliament was either to give up on forming a government and go for repeat elections, or to seek coalition partners. Repeat elections could have given SYRIZA a larger share of the vote. However, this option wouldn’t come without risks and downsides.

There is no guarantee whatsoever that SYRIZA would perform better in repeat elections.
As a party that garnered a mere 4.6% of the vote as recently as 2009, it is still perceived as untested and possibly incompetent by a large section of the electorate. There is a fair argument to be made that, as long as SYRIZA has not governed, its 36.34% showing yesterday is the best it can hope for.

Calling for repeat elections could generate enthusiasm but could also result in a backlash. There are people in this country (like myself) who would redouble their efforts to have a left-wing government elected and who hate viscerally the idea of Panos Kammenos being anywhere near a position of power. But there are also people who want something – anything – to happen and to happen now. My educated guess is that these people don’t really care if Kammenos is in power, and that they would be sorely disappointed if, instead of an anti-austerity government, all they got was a new elections campaign.

One aspect that I am not very knowledgeable about, but which I understand is significant, is that there are important deadlines coming up in Greece’s current agreements with the EU, ECB and IMF. I don’t know how these issues would be dealt with if Greece only had a caretaker government (a possibility is that they’d simply be postponed?) but I know that, if nothing else, the uncertainty revolving around this would be a powerful argument for the pro-austerity camp if there were a repeat election campaign.

Lastly, there is an issue of procedure that has immense symbolic weight. Should SYRIZA choose to give up on the mandate to form a government now, the mandate passes on to the second largest party in parliament, New Democracy, who cannot assemble a 151 MP coalition given the current composition of parliament. The mandate would then pass on to the third largest party, which is none other than neo-Nazi Golden Dawn, whose leader, Nikos Michaloliakos, is currently in prison awaiting trial. While the risk of Golden Dawn forming a government is nil, the symbolism of the scene would create a noxious (to say the least) atmosphere ahead of repeat elections. The question of apportioning blame for this situation would become central to the campaign, and it is unclear if SYRIZA would benefit or lose from it.
Why SYRIZA chose to join forces with Independent Greeks
Following yesterday’s results, there are 6 political parties other than SYRIZA who entered the Greek parliament: outgoing coalition members New Democracy and PASOK, neo-Nazi Golden Dawn, the communist party of Greece KKE, a recently-formed, so-called centrist party, To Potami, and Independent Greeks. I will not discuss here the possibility that SYRIZA forms a coalition with New Democracy, PASOK or Golden Dawn, as all three are political science-fiction. This leaves us with KKE, To Potami and Independent Greeks.

One would think that a SYRIZA-KKE is the obvious choice. KKE is a traditional communist party, they claim to support the betterment of the working class and they have a powerful labour union to support them in the streets.
However, Greek politics simply don’t work like that. To KKE, SYRIZA is public enemy number one, because they are a left-wing party that supports parliamentary democracy and participation in the European Union and the Eurozone. Not only did the party refuse to support a SYRIZA government, but its secretary-general, Dimitris Koutsoumpas, even refused to meet with Tsipras today. So the obvious option is out. This leaves us with To Potami and Independent Greeks.

International and national media have repeated at length over the past few months that To Potami, a party founded in February 2014 by journalist Stavros Theodorakis ahead of the European elections, is a centre-left or centrist party. I would actually be quite curious to know where that characterization comes from – for the very simple reason that To Potami doesn’t even have a proper policy programme (its founder said last week that he would present that policy programme today, meaning one day after the elections.) It is true that many disaffected PASOK and Democratic Left members and sympathizers chose to join this party. But it is also true that To Potami joined forces with Drasi, a small, extreme neoliberal party whose positions on “small government” would make Ronald Reagan pale with envy. In any case, Stavros Theodorakis has repeatedly, if indirectly, said that he is not willing to challenge the bailout agreements, under the guise of a “pro-European” line. This would make collaboration with SYRIZA quite difficult, since the core of SYRIZA’s platform is rolling back austerity.

Another important issue when it comes to To Potami is the question to know who is backing it, and in particular which big businessmen are bankrolling it. Both HotDoc magazine and UNFOLLOW magazine investigated this aspect of the newly-founded party in the spring of 2014, and their findings were damning. Both publications found that To Potami was established with the support of the Bobolas family, owners of Ellaktor, the largest public works company in Greece that is involved in a number of scandalous projects (including the gold mining project in Skouries) and of a variety of mainstream media, including a majority share of Greece’s largest and notoriously pro-austerity private TV station, Mega Channel. The fight against corruption, against tax evasion by the rich and more generally against the oligarchy that rules Greece being also a top item of SYRIZA’s agenda, working with To Potami would be not only difficult but also risky.

This leaves us with Independent Greeks, an offshot of New Democracy launched in February 2012. The one thing SYRIZA and Independent Greeks have in common is that they both oppose austerity. From there on, they are as diametrically opposed to one another as a “radical” left-wing party can be opposed to a nationalist, socially and religiously conservative and xenophobic right-wing party. These are two parties that agree about ending austerity, but disagree about everything else. 

To me, the message that this choice of a coalition partner sends is clear. The one and only priority of SYRIZA in the coming months is to launch negotiations with the EU/ECB/IMF while pushing essential bills through parliament (e.g. raising the minimum wage to €751/month.) Everything else will take a back seat. As Greek political commentator Nick Malkoutzis noted this morning, this is the “nuclear option” when it comes to confronting Greece’s lenders. It will undoubtedly ruffle some feathers among SYRIZA’s base, in particular among left-wingers, anti-racists, the LGBTQ community, as well as radical leftists and anarchists who chose to support SYRIZA in yesterday’s elections. However, my educated guess again – and I may be wrong – is that the vast majority of SYRIZA’s electorate don’t care: they did not vote for SYRIZA because SYRIZA is left-wing, they voted for the “new guys”, they voted for change. Whatever change. And we should consider ourselves lucky that, until now, the vast majority of voters chose SYRIZA as the heralds of change rather than Golden Dawn.

Taking a step back, I will add here one point that I consider essential. The fact that SYRIZA chose to join forces with Independent Greeks is extremely revealing. A left-wing, democratic party that defends basic liberties and human rights has essentially no other option, in order to govern with an anti-austerity agenda, than to join forces with a racist, ultra-conservative right-wing party whose mentality belongs in the dungeons of history. This is extremely revealing of how screwed up (for lack of a better word) the Greek political scene has become over the past few years, and it is an issue that must be urgently addressed.
What likely scenarios we can expect with this coalition
I find it difficult to see how this coalition can last for more than a few months without collapsing under its intrinsic contradictions. Here are possible scenarios I can imagine for the future.

One possible scenario is that the coalition falls apart as soon as SYRIZA try to push through elements of their agenda that Independent Greeks oppose fiercely (e.g. naturalization for immigrant children born in Greece.) However, the impact of such a collapse could vary wildly depending on how it is done and what the government has achieved by the time it happens. If the government has failed to make any progress in its negotiations with the troika and therefore to take essential measures domestically, such as raising the minimum wage, both SYRIZA and Independent Greeks will be simply wiped off the face of the earth. If however the government has managed to secure some basic economic relief measures for society, SYRIZA could win the ensuing elections in a landslide. I deem it extremely unlikely that Independent Greeks would seek to trigger an election in such a way – pulling the plug on the government, whether it is successful or not, could be political suicide for such a small party. On the other hand, I can imagine SYRIZA choosing to go for early elections if it has something to show for its work as the governing party.

Another possible scenario is that, with time, individual MPs from third parties will defect and join SYRIZA, thus giving it the 151 seats it needs to govern alone. These could (theoretically) be MPs from To Potami, PASOK and KKE. Given the old-school MPs who were elected on the PASOK ballot, I don’t believe that they are likely to move on to SYRIZA. Some To Potami MPs are a political unknown, so I view this option as more realistic. As for KKE, it has extremely strong party discipline, but it may find itself entangled in internal conflicts when the issue of supporting specific bills put forward by SYRIZA is raised.

A third possible scenario is that SYRIZA and Independent Greeks come to an agreement of sorts to keep the government in place while voting selectively on non-economic bills – essentially both parties taking advantage of the fact that they are dependent on each other to remain in power and that neither wants early elections. This would mean that SYRIZA could bring a bill to parliament on, for instance, the separation of the Church and State, and pass it with the votes of KKE, or a bill on LGBTQ rights and pass it with the votes of PASOK, etc, while Independent Greeks look the other way and, most importantly, do not withdraw their vote of confidence to the government. Such a thing has never happened in Greek politics, but hey, you never know. Don’t hold your breath though. It probably ain’t gonna happen.

The last possible scenario I can imagine is that SYRIZA drop all the rest of their agenda other than rolling back austerity for the sake of keeping the coalition alive. This would be disastrous for the Greek left, but it’s a scenario that will become increasingly likely if the negotiations with the EC/ECB/IMF drag on without producing any results.

One last word
I am incensed – INCENSED – that SYRIZA chose to go for a coalition with Independent Greeks instead of repeat elections. I believe that people like Panos Kammenos – the raving, racist lunatic who said last week that that “Buddhists, Jews and Muslims don’t pay taxes” – should never, ever be given positions of power. Furthermore, accepting people such as Kammenos in a left-led government is playing with fire because it gives public and political legitimacy to his xenophobic, racist, antisemitic, homophobic views and Greece doesn’t need more of that when it already has a neo-Nazi party as its third largest political force.

So everything I wrote above is not arguments I agree with. I can see the reasons why SYRIZA chose this alliance, and I can see why it was the only possible alliance, but I think that, in the long term, it will prove to be the wrong choice.
  • Translated by: Iraklis Oikonomou
  • The original text was first published on: The Irate Greek