THE BLOG
01/25/2016 01:17 pm ET Updated Jan 25, 2017

After One Year in Government, Syriza and Greece Are More Isolated Than Ever

Courtesy of Cas Mudde

One year ago today the left-wing populist Coalition of the Radical Left (Syriza) won the Greek parliamentary elections; the first time since the re-introduction of democracy in 1974 that another party than the two dinosaurs of the post-dictatorship democracy, the center-left Panhellenic Socialist Movement (Pasok) and the center-right New Democracy (ND), came first. While the success of Syriza was expected, its choice of coalition partner took many by surprise, not in the least its many (foreign) supporters. And yet, the choice for the right-wing populist Independent Greeks (Anel) made perfect sense at that point in time.

Syriza had won the elections on the basis of its Third Way proposal on the Memorandum, which governed the relationship between the Troika - the European Commission (EC), the European Central Bank (ECB) and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) - and Greece after several bailouts. Anel was the only other parliamentary party to support its utopian "No to the Memorandum, Yes to the Eurozone" position. Hence, Syriza leader, and new Prime Minister, Alexis Tsipras had no other choice than to form a government with ANEL in an attempt to try and renegotiate the bailout conditions in the way it had promised his voters.

Nine months later the still fresh, though worn down, Prime Minister handed in his resignation and brought Greece to the polls for the fourth time in just over three years. No one, not even Tsipras, argued that the first Syriza-Anel government had been a success. Personified in its flamboyant Finance Minister, Yanis Varoufakis, Syriza went for an all-out moral battle with the Troika, assuming that it possessed the absolute truth and that its opponents - in classic populist parlor increasingly demonized as "enemies," "traitors," and even "terrorists" - would see the light once it had been shined upon them. But as Varoufakis lectured economics at Eurogroup meetings, his colleagues became increasingly entrenched in their original positions and lost their little remaining sympathy for the plight of the "radical left" Greek government.

To break the deadlock Tsipras pulled out his joker, a snap referendum on an incomprehensible issue, which only made sense in Syriza's worldvision of an epic battle between "democratic Greece" and the "technocratic Troika" - as if other Eurozone ministers, like the Dutch Jeroen Dijsselbloem and the German Wolfgang Schäuble, did not have a democratic mandate for their austerity policies within their own countries. Syriza won the Greferendum convincingly, 61 percent voted "Oxi" (no), but soon found that nothing had changed outside of Greece. Consequently, Tsipras ignored the referendum results, betrayed his "democratic mandate," and accepted a bailout package that was even more disadvantageous for Greece than the deal he and his supporters had rejected in the referendum.

Soon after, Tsipras called for new elections, taking his many opponents within and outside of his own party by surprise. Despite the rollercoaster that Greece had gone through between January and September, the election results showed remarkably little changes at the aggregate level. Most shifts were within the one percent range; only the liberal Potami (The River) lost two percent. Still, Tsipras emerged from the elections strengthened, having cleansed SYRIZA of most of his most ardent opponents and with the main opposition party (ND) leaderless for the moment. Once again he chose ANEL as his coalition partner, but this time the logic was much less convincing.

Having accepted, however reluctantly, the new bailout and its harsh conditions, the new government was going to be seriously constrained on socio-economic policies. Logically, it should have shifted its focus to state reform and socio-cultural issues, which were always important to the party and its supporters. On these issues Anel was among the least likely available partners. However, Syriza was left little choice after months of polarizing the political debate. How could it work with parties like the center-left Pasok-Dimar and the centrist Potami, after accusing them of being part of the "corrupt" and "traitorous" elite? That said, it doesn't seem that Tsipras ever seriously considered an alternative to ANEL. He and ANEL leader Panos Kammenos seemed to have developed a clear and stable working relationship, in which SYRIZA could govern almost unhindered, as long as it stayed away from Kammenos's Ministry of Defence.

What Tsipras seem to have miscalculated, however, is that Anel's passiveness relates primarily to socio-economic issues, which are secondary to that party. When it comes to socio-cultural issues, particularly those central to Syriza, Anel does not only have a different opinion, it has a strong opinion. This is particularly the case with respect to two traditional sensitivities of the Greek left, the powerful position of the Greek Orthodox Church and of the military.

The political power of the Greek Orthodox Church is unlike almost any other within the EU and is perfectly illustrated by the fact that Greek governments are sworn in under the watchful eye of Orthodox bishops. The Syriza-ANEL governments were no exception.

Similarly, the Greek military remains one of the most expensive within the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). The country spent a whopping 2.4 percent of its GDP on the military in 2015. Despite the fact that the Greek economy has collapsed during the Great Recession, with GDP falling from $355 billion in 2008 to $238 billion in 2014 (a loss of one third!), the Greek military has seen few cuts, and even increased its budget by 0.1 percent of GDP in 2014.

After one year in power the Church and the Military remain as powerful as ever. As Vassilis Petsinis has shown, SYRIZA has by and large given up on its pledge to reduce their importance, facing strong opposition from ANEL. This has reduced the party's policy agenda even further, even on socio-cultural issues. Among its few successes was the new legislation passed last month, legalizing civil unions of LGBT couples. While far from insignificant, particularly for the couple involved, it is at best a minor victory and hardly puts Greece at the forefront of gay rights in the EU.

The refugee crisis could have given Syriza a chance to regain its standing within the EU and the national and international left. With more than 80 percent of refugees entering Europe through Greece, the country has been at the forefront of the EU's struggle to control the unprecedented influx. But where many ordinary Greeks have gone far beyond the expected by providing emergency services for stranded refugees, despite their own economic plight, the Greek government has mainly failed in its, admittedly very demanding, task to orderly shelter and register them. As Tsipras makes (laudable) normative appeals for a more humane EU refugee policy, his government's practical incompetence undermines the chances of them catching on among his crucial partners in the north. In fact, rather than transforming the refugee crisis from a crisis into an opportunity, as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has so skillfully done, Tsipras has again made Greece the whipping boy of the EU in general, and Germany in particular. It is now even facing a possible Schengen area expulsion.

While Syriza created neither the economic crisis nor the refugee crisis, its incompetence and opportunism have worsened their impacts on Greece and have undermined the country's position within Europe. Tsipras is still thinking that lofty speeches are enough to change policies and realities, investing little effort and time in building constructive and lasting coalitions within Greece or the EU. By not making a choice between returning SYRIZA to its radical left roots or transforming it into a "responsible" center-left party, and instead muddling through with a mix of these two fundamentally opposed models, he remains politically isolated and therefore easily defeated, both at home, including by his own coalition partner, and abroad.