“Syriza Let Us Down — But We Can Still End Austerity”
In this summer’s Greek elections Yanis Varoufakis’s DiEM25 movement won parliamentary representation for the first time. MP Sofia Sakorafa told Jacobin how the party is challenging Syriza — and rekindling the fight against European austerity.
- Interview by
- George Souvlis
In July’s election Greeks passed a grim verdict on Syriza’s record in government. Back in the January 2015 contest Alexis Tsipras’s radical-left party had surged to victory, promising to challenge the austerity “memoranda” being imposed on Greece by the European institutions. Yet within months Syriza had accepted Brussels’s demands for further austerity — and over its next four years in office it became a mere enforcer for the welfare and public service cuts this implied. This summer it was finally thrown out of office, as the right-wing New Democracy returned to power.
The embrace of austerity in the name of European rules also marked a shift in Syriza’s domestic political positioning — becoming increasingly like the previously dominant center-left party Pasok, it embarked on a repressive course against social movements and notably those fighting against evictions. At the same time, it moved notably to the right on foreign policy, including through Tsipras’s sealing of closer ties with Israel. Nonetheless, until recently this turn did little to open up political space to Syriza’s left, as its austerian and repressive turn gravely weakened Greeks’ hope that change is even possible.
The DiEM25 movement, led by former finance minister Yanis Varoufakis, aims precisely to break out of this vicious circle. This European-wide movement, and its Greek referent MeRA25, insist that Syriza did not have to take the choices it did, and that with further crises on the horizon, the battle for Europe remains to be fought and won. After almost securing seats in May’s European election, in July’s national election MeRA25 won representation for the first time, with its 200,000 votes giving it nine MPs in the 300-seat Greek Parliament.
One of these nine is Sofia Sakorafa, a former Olympic javelin-thrower and ex-Syriza MP today active in MeRA25. She spoke to George Souvlis about the legacy of the Syriza government, the state of anti-austerity movements in Greece, and her party’s plans for a European New Deal.
Four years after Syriza arrived in office promising to combat austerity, this July’s general election put an end to its spell in government. Yet as Alexis Tsipras’s party fell back to 31 percent, it was the conservative New Democracy that surged to almost 40 percent of the vote. If your former party Syriza has abandoned its program, what explains why the traditional conservative party benefited most?
Syriza was elected on the basis of specific commitments to the Greek people which it did not respect. This negative impression was sealed with what happened after the referendum of July 5, 2015 — 61 percent of Greeks voted No (“Oxi”) to the European austerity memorandum, only for Syriza to swallow even worse conditions. Whenever the popular will is betrayed or ignored, there will always be retribution against the party concerned.
Every Greek prime minister over the last decade who has accepted the austerity memoranda has failed to secure reelection. Tsipras thought he’d be the exception. But the government’s indifference to popular needs, the deepening of the social and financial crisis, and Syriza’s mere waffle about having taken Greece out of the memoranda ensured his defeat. In the July 2019 election it campaigned as the only force able to block the Right, while invoking a kind of TINA (“There is No Alternative”) regarding the measures it had itself taken. Yet Greeks hit hard in their everyday lives were no longer willing to support it.
The gap between the Syriza leadership’s self-image and the popular mood was also reflected in the party’s surprise at the scale of its defeat in May’s European elections. There, as in July’s Greek elections, there was a mainly negative vote — people voted more to punish the Syriza government than because they believed New Democracy’s Kyriakos Mitsotakis will answer their problems. This is typical of Greeks’ voting patterns during the austerity era. Yet Syriza only has itself to blame for the electorate’s shift to the right — for by swallowing austerity it itself closed down the horizon of possibility.
Syriza’s managerial, top-down approach itself prevented it from making the kind of institutional interventions that would have undermined the bases of the ancien regime, and thus left a legacy of institutional change. So, when New Democracy returned to office this summer, no barriers had been put up to the restoration of the old establishment. This was visible in Syriza’s handling of the justice system and the public broadcaster, where it did nothing to challenge the preexisting elites.
Having been a Syriza member of the Greek and then European parliaments, you’re now an MP for MeRA25. In July this new party, part of Yanis Varoufakis’s DiEM25, elected nine MPs to the Greek parliament. Could you give me some impression where you think its voters have come from — for instance, have you built support in the labor movement, or is MeRA25 more based among urban progressive circles or students?
MeRA25 is a new party, and as you would expect it is still working to shape its social reference points and its relationship with existing Greek realities. So far, we have seen our message enjoy a broad social dissemination, which is also connected to a certain dynamic within Greek society itself, as citizens’ established party allegiances are still in turmoil.
The “audience” of MeRA25 is not socially limited to specific classes of Greeks society or professional categories. Its reach extends to every Greek that disagrees with the reality of the European memoranda — or as Syriza would call it, the “post-memoranda” realities of Greece — and recognizes that we need a break with the current path of social and financial destruction. This is, indeed, a realization that cuts across sectional divides.
In a recent article for Jacobin, Stathis Kouvelakis highlighted how Syriza’s failure has served to demoralize and undermine the whole anti-austerity movement. What do you think that your MPs can do to help reverse this tide, and what other forces do you plan to work with?
I think our diagnosis should go one step further. This experience proved that Syriza’s institutional strategy and its rejection of confrontation — refusing to do anything with the popular mobilization — itself undermined the social movements. Alexis Tsipras’s failed strategy cut the ground from underneath the movements against austerity, against the dominant European agenda, and against the policies that sustain Greece’s parasitic oligarchy.
This demoralization set in as soon as Syriza decided to capitulate to the European austerity demands. Indeed, that reversal came at what had been a high point of mobilization — Syriza decided to capitulate on the night of the referendum result (and in flagrant disregard of that outcome). Already by the following day, it was integrated into the arc of pro-memorandum parties, which meant a complete restoration of the Greek oligarchy.
Faced with these setbacks, we need not only MeRA25’s own MPs to resist the dominant policies, but also a wide social coalition. It can draw on forces of different political or ideological origins, but the important thing is that they recognize the need to reverse policies that are driving Greece deeper into impasse. The overthrow of the regime of debt serfdom is a key aim — and one which a Marxist left-winger, a sincere liberal, and others ought to be able to unite around. In other words, it is possible to form a wide front of resistance and disobedience against the doctrine that “There Is No Alternative.”
If in 2015 the resistance in Greece was a sign of hope for the whole European left, Syriza’s capitulation and the acceptance of fresh memoranda stopped it playing this role. Yet Greece is also the country where your pan-European DiEM25 movement has first elected MPs. So how do you think you can use this base in the Greek parliament to build an anti-austerity movement embracing other countries — and on what terrain do you expect a confrontation to be possible?
We think it’s obvious that DiEM25 expresses — or aims to express — a perfect continuation of the hopes that were raised in 2015. Syriza failed mainly because of the capitulation of Tsipras and his team. But the social forces that supported, shaped and expressed this message of hope did not support the decision he eventually took. The fight is still there.
But we as MeRA25 and DiEM25 have also recognized that Greeks can’t change things all by ourselves. The problem of the general orientation of European politics is something that concerns all EU member states. For that reason, the type of solutions we are struggling for have a necessarily pan-European rather than simply national character. We need to build a movement throughout Europe that is united by rejection of austerity policies, of dominance by banks and oligarchs, and of the thwarting of the European popular will.
You want change at the European level. Yet the recent selection of the European Union’s new leading officials — from former International Monetary Fund chief Christine Lagarde to German Christian Democrat Ursula von der Leyen and former Belgian prime minister Charles Michel — epitomized its undemocratic structures. Politicians unpopular in their own countries are recycled at the European level, with voters being little able to affect the process — a kind of grand coalition in which parties exchange among themselves. What kind of pressure do you think can be made to democratize Europe, if not individual states clashing with the existing architecture?
The antidemocratic structure of the EU’s political mechanisms is a key problem. This domination by an impersonal nomenklatura is so lacking in democratic legitimization or accountability that not even the most fervent partisans of capitalism can defend it. Yet at the same time, this requires pan-European solutions. The antidemocratic structure of the European architecture is not a “Greek” problem, any more than it is a German, Irish, or a Spanish one.
Indeed, we have a particular responsibility in building pan-European movements to democratize Europe. Only changing this reality can prevent nationalist and far-right forces from exploiting the democratic deficit to bolster their own message — and this is a big danger for Europe’s future. The European left’s historic role is to confront, at the same time, both the undemocratic structures of the European Union and the nationalist ideological offensive in each country.
More precisely, we aim to build this confrontation through a program focused on dealing with Europe’s multiple political, social, economic, and ecological crises. Faced with these crises, we have set out four responses that together constitute a call for a new European New Deal.
First of all, we aim to transform capitalist wealth into green investment. Then, we insist on the provision of basic goods (food, shelter, transport, energy) for everyone. The third objective is to give society’s wealth back to those who produce it. And last but not least, we are fighting to put people back in control of the economy.
We have also identified the means to put these principles into action. That means regulating the banks, connecting central bank operations with public investment banks, funding basic goods for everyone through a green investment program, coordinating the economies of Europe on the monetary, fiscal, and social policy level, and overcoming the ongoing crisis of the eurozone.
MeRA25 speaks of “Constructive and Realistic Disobedience,” and at the same time of extending beyond the Left to also include people of all political traditions who reject austerity. Of course, you are now a part of the opposition. But what about your disobedience distinguishes you from the approach taken by Syriza before, and which it will now take in opposition to New Democracy? What room is there for collaboration with Syriza?
Let’s begin with the fact that Syriza cannot lead the resistance against the oligarchic restoration in Greece — after all, its own leadership has considerable responsibility in having brought this about. For four years its MPs passed all the cuts and austerity measures that the memoranda demanded — and some of its MPs would even be proud of having done this. It has no credibility in turning around now and saying it opposes what New Democracy is planning.
The political scene as a whole is gloomy. But MeRA25 aims to be a beacon of hope, even as it opposes the empty promises of populism by articulating a moderate, programmatic discourse. That is what being realistic means, even as we are unyielding in our struggle against those policies that force our children to go abroad in search of work. As part of the opposition we’ll surely cross paths with both Syriza and the Communists and have the same view of some issues. But there’s a big difference between that and collaboration with those who have been imposing austerity for four years. We’re open, but we aren’t going to collaborate with those at the top of the social pyramid.
Does MeRA25 want Greece to stay in the European Union at all costs? If not, under what conditions would a MeRA25 government take the country out of the European Union?
Let’s be clear — MERA 25 does not unconditionally support Greece remaining within the EU. The problem needs posing the other way around. We want to remain within the EU, but only on condition that this does not work against the interests of the Greek people. If it is necessary to adopt measures that clash with the European institutions, in order to overcome the crisis, then such “disruption” within the EU is clearly to be accepted.
Remaining within the EU is not an objective for which we would sacrifice everything else, regardless of its effect on the interests and the dignity of the Greek people. Any government seeking to save Greece, and conscious of its responsibilities, ought to break with the EU’s institutions, if necessary, rather than destructively submit to them.
So how does MeRA25 plan to deal with the debt question?
We believe that the restructuring of the Greek public debt is essential for recovery in both the Greek and eurozone economies. Restructuring implies, first and foremost, connecting the repayment rate to fluctuations in GDP, so we are not paying large interest payments even when this undermines growth. More importantly, freeing Greece of these payments is necessary in order to hold back the further desertification of Greece society.
That is the only possibly realistic approach to the debt problem. Greece is confronted with a fourfold bankruptcy: a bankrupt public sector, bankrupt banks, bankrupt businesses, and bankrupt households. Everybody owes everyone and nobody is able to pay. The only way to overcome this general bankruptcy is not to lend more and more, but rather to restructure all the debts, both public and private.
The Greek private sector is collapsing under a regime of low demand and high taxes. This demands a drastic reduction of tax rates and the abolition of the down-payment of taxes, which is strangling investment.
But there are no solutions within the straitjacket of the memoranda regime, negotiating small changes here and there. New Democracy claims that “good behavior” is enough to solve Greece’s problems, but refuses to talk about a general program for breaking out of the crisis, debt relief measures or the restructuring of the Greek debt.
You are a well-known supporter of the Palestinian people and its struggles against Israeli imperialism. Does MeRA25’s position coincide with your own, for instance regarding the ties that the Greek government has established with Israel?
MeRA25 and Yanis Varoufakis have taken a very explicit position against Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians, and thus stand against the Greek government’s approach to this issue. Syriza itself contributed to this problem, with its shameful agreement with Cyprus and Israel for the joint exploitation of hydrocarbons deposits in the eastern Mediterranean, as well as defense collaboration with Israel. Unfortunately, Greece has become a collaborator with those that sow the seeds of death in Gaza.
Yanis Varoufakis has taken clear positions on Israel-Palestine and more precisely regarding Benjamin Netanyahu, considering him far-right, deeply racist, militaristic, corrupt, and determined to subvert the peace process. With all our power we resist the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians and Greece’s support for Israel. We are also opposed to the notion that collaboration with Netanyahu and Donald Trump suits Greece. In contrast with the EU, we do not overlook the ongoing crimes against the Palestinians. We are one of the few parties in the Greek parliament that has such an explicit position.
Finally, could you briefly say what you think is the specific reason why people should support your party?
What MeRA25 wants to do is offer a way out of the crisis. We address ourselves to all those that stand by the “Oxi” vote of July 2015 and a rupture with debt serfdom, and to all those that reject a model of development based on desertification, worsened working conditions, and tax exemptions for oligarchs. Our political commitment is based on the rejection of the current dismal reality. We seek the allegiance of all who want to take part in overturning it.