Still Demoralized by Syriza, Greece’s Left Is Struggling to Rebuild

In Greece, the right-wing government’s authoritarian measures have sparked important social struggles. But after Alexis Tsipras’s dismal spell in government, the Left faces an uphill battle to overcome Syriza’s legacy and show that an alternative is possible.

Demonstrations organized by Syriza, the umbrella union of civil servants ADEDY, and the Communist–affiliated PAME labor union in Athens, Greece, July 2020. (Lefteris Partsalis / Xinhua via Getty)

“Crystal-clear waters, constant sunshine, explosive local flavors and sublime sunsets”: so promised the “Endless Greek Summer,” Greece’s official 2020 campaign to promote tourism. A year and an environmental disaster later, everyone is asking where this summer went — and who actually enjoyed it.

According to a poll for the Ιnstitute of Retail Consumer Goods (IELKA), only one in three Greeks said they would take a vacation in 2021, with many unable to do so given their dire financial situation. Those who stayed in the cities had to endure the heat, the toxic atmosphere, the lack of quality creative activities for children, and even power cuts, with the supply exhausted by both excessive use and extreme weather.

In this context, the promise of an “endless Greek summer” sounds like something from a bygone era. But from a climate perspective, it also sounds like a threat. For this summer, Greece was hit by repeated heat waves, the country’s worst in over three decades. Temperatures soared to a record-breaking 47 degrees Celsius (around 116 degrees Fahrenheit). Extreme heat conditions facilitated rampaging wildfires which destroyed a hundred twenty hectares of land — ten times the average across the last decade.

This was also a summer where Greece “re-opened” in order to make way for the tourist industry’s customers — a “success story” which came at a heavy cost in terms of infections and hospitalizations. Faced with an alarming rise in COVID-19 cases and still-poor vaccination rates, Greeks are asking whether the government will impose a new series of restrictions this fall.

So, for the last two years, Greece has seemed as if it is switching between two national costumes. The winter one consists of rising coronavirus deaths, decimated hospitals, unemployment, business closures, severe restrictions, and authoritarianism. Then, after May, Greece puts on its summer clothes to welcome the foreign guests. And from October, we’re back to the satanic mills, with the government blaming the crisis on “irresponsible citizens,” just like usual.

Austerity and the Pandemic

Kyriakos Mitsotakis’s right-wing New Democracy government dealt with the pandemic through successive lockdowns and restrictions on movement — but only minimal compensation to the sectors of the economy hit hardest by the pandemic. Measures to bolster the capacity and efficiency of Greece’s failing public services proved both scarce and insufficient. Instead, the government used the state of emergency to promote anti-labor and authoritarian laws, including the abolition of the eight-hour workday and the creation of a special police force on university campuses.

The COVID-19 health crisis exacerbated all aspects of austerity. Unemployment topped 15 percent in May 2021 — 19.1 percent for women and 12.3 percent for men. Once again, Greece was worst in the European Union (EU) for youth unemployment, with around 38.2 percent of youth jobless in May 2021.

The pandemic dramatically exposed the vulnerabilities of a public health system already hit hard by ten years of austerity. Understaffed care facilities simply lacked the resources to deal with the pandemic’s devastating health and social effects; indeed, since 2009, health spending has declined significantly compared to other European states. Today, public health expenditure in Greece stands at 5 percent of GDP, one-third lower than the EU average.

These spending cuts, combined with structural changes in the National Health System and the introduction of precarious forms of employment, have eroded access to public health. Unmet health care needs among the low-income population and the unemployed have increased heavily, with a 21.5 percent rate among the unemployed and 34.3 percent among low-income strata in need of treatment.

Gender-based violence (GBV) also increased during the pandemic. According to a report from the General Secretariat for Demography and Family Policy and Gender Equality published last November, lockdowns, quarantine measures, and movement restrictions “resulted in domestic violence being more frequent and more serious for women and their children.”

Calls to the emergency telephone line dedicated to GBV increased by 230 percent during the first lockdown. Furthermore, during the first and the second lockdowns (November 2020 to May 2021), a series of brutal, disturbing femicides revealed the extent of domestic abuse and gender-based violence in Greece. Overall, since the start of the pandemic, eleven women have been murdered by their husbands or partners.

Despite the clear social fallout of the crisis, the government has promoted a narrative centered on individual responsibility. The “stay home, stay safe” slogan emphasized personal choice rather than solidarity to minimize the spread of the disease. Citizens were regarded as isolated individuals — indeed, potential offenders.

In this context, it was unsurprising that many hesitated to join the vaccination campaign, not least given public authorities’ failure to organize a proper communication campaign and address public anxieties by explaining scientific expertise. The Ministry of Health and the National Vaccination Committee openly expressed doubts about whether the AstraZeneca jab was suitable for young and pregnant women under age thirty-nine, even when this was the only vaccine available for this age group. Given the generalized lack of credibility of the state’s measures, irrational and individualistic approaches flourished.

However, blaming the unvaccinated doesn’t help to understand the current pandemic in Greece. As of September only 56 percent of the country’s population had been fully vaccinated, with even lower rates among eighteen to twenty-four year olds (51 percent), twenty-five to forty-nine year olds (40 percent), and Greeks in their fifties (28.5 percent). Approximately 90 percent of the intubated COVID-19 patients admitted in ICU are unvaccinated.

In September, Greece was also among the worst three EU countries in deaths per million, alongside Bulgaria and Lithuania. These numbers are the consequence of an insufficient rate of vaccination among the most vulnerable populations. But instead of a targeted effort to protect those groups, the government uses the vaccination campaign as a tool to escalate authoritarianism, layoffs, shifting of responsibilities, and attacks on already decimated state agencies. The result is a growing frustration against the government, without addressing the resistance to the vaccine.

Wildfires as a Business Opportunity

Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis did acknowledge that this year’s wildfires were a sign of the current climate crisis — but he also insisted that the issue should be treated as “politically neutral.” Greece does, indeed, have a long history of wildfires. But the country crucially lacks a unified framework for preventing these blazes and protecting its forests.

The private-investment model promoted as the unique remedy to Greece’s economic hardships is itself a significant threat to the natural environment. One of the first pieces of legislation passed by the government at the start of the pandemic, the infamous “environmental multi-bill” further deregulated the energy sector and large-scale investments — directly threatening protected areas and biodiversity.

In his first press conference after the peak of August’s wildfires, Mitsotakis boldly claimed that he prefers “to assign projects to private contractors,” because private sector investors are not bound by complicated bureaucratic procedures. Based on this assumption, the government plans an extensive reforestation program relying on the private sector and public-private partnerships such as sponsored reforestation. The state is thus seen as a mere regulator overseeing business transactions, while gradually withdrawing from its responsibility to protect society and the environment.

The only exception to this noninterventionist principle is the state’s disciplinary role, as manifested during the lockdowns. The use of police violence in political demonstrations, unprovoked attacks on citizens, and hundreds of unjustifiable arrests enhanced public distrust toward state institutions and revealed the face of a punishing and vengeful police.

In this sense, a March 7 incident in Nea Smyrni, a middle-class suburb of Athens, where police officers threw a young citizen to the ground and attacked him with batons, was no isolated occurrence. During the lockdowns, several incidents of human rights abuse by law enforcement were reported, including beatings, sexual assaults, and denial of medical assistance. Τhe prime minister along with the former minister “of Citizen’s Protection” (the Greek equivalent of the ministry in charge of police and security agencies), Michalis Chrysochoidis, ignored public calls for accountability and claimed that police violence is a matter of the past.

All these expressions of authoritarianism and complicity with the arbitrariness of the police increased people’s sense of alienation from the state institutions. They feel tired, insecure, and in need of a protection which they don’t seek from the state.

Defending Society

Despite widespread social discontent and sporadic social mobilizations, criticism of government policy has not yet translated into a strong social and political confrontation. The government’s approval rates are declining, and Syriza, the main opposition party, hopes to turn this into a future electoral victory. Nonetheless, following its spell in government, Syriza’s ongoing transformation into a “center-left” party prevents it from maintaining a connection to the working class and the party’s populist roots.

The recent period has seen a surge of struggles against repression, the flourishing of a new feminist movement, a wave of #MeToo protests in sports and entertainment, and a student movement reactivated by the bill creating police forces on campuses. However, social struggles are fragmented and often isolated from each other. The radical legacy of the anti-austerity movement still exists, but it currently stands as a controversial landmark in the memory of Greece’s left and its social movements.

Despite the widespread disappointment, the recent victorious strike and protest by workers at food delivery app Efood is a powerful example of a vivid and impactful labor struggle. Their protest against the company’s blackmail sparked a massive wave of solidarity and social support, with tens of thousands of customers uninstalling the app in order to exert pressure on the company. This fruitful combination of “traditional” union organization, “new” methods of digital activism, and grassroots solidarity to essential workers, managed to overcome extraordinary odds in the difficult post-quarantine period in Greece.

The question is, whether the Left is prepared to learn from this positive experience after recent bruising setbacks. For certain, the outcome of the last decade wasn’t positive for radical forces. When the 2008 financial collapse and the subsequent Greek crisis broke out, wider layers of society turned to the Left and the workers’ movement in order to defend their rights, and Marxist ideas provided a reference point for understanding the world and an ideal for the future. Today, things look quite different. Society doesn’t seem ready to envision the next steps, so long as the fear of the pandemic still weighs over its head.

At the same time, these exceptional circumstances call for a new radical political program. In 2010–15, the country’s presence within the Eurozone and the EU came under discussion in social movements. Today, alongside the still-valid claims for debt cancellation and breaking with the iron cage of the memoranda, the crisis demands a comprehensive program of its own.

The obvious basis for such a program is to support and protect public services and common goods, public health, education, and care. Universal vaccination should be the primary weapon within a comprehensive protection plan, but neither conceded to capitalist governments and businesses nor isolated as the sole, self-sufficient solution. The fight for public health also needs to be combined with a defense of civil liberties and a rejection of the use of the pandemic as an excuse for reinforcing state authoritarianism.

There is an urgent need for a social policy in favor of the weaker parts of the society, based on the taxation of wealth, the protection of labor, the reduction of working time, a guaranteed income, the right to housing, and similar. A broader restructuring of the economy also demands breaking from Greece’s destructive dependence on tourism and the neoliberal obsession with privatizations and foreign investments. Finally, restoration of burned land, support for those affected by the disaster and protection of the environment are vitally important.

Such demands have constantly emerged in recent struggles — and were discussed extensively this summer. But the debate needs to go further, and it needs to engage with vision of a radically different future based on modern socialist and communist, but also ecological and feminist, principles.

Many Lefts, No Alternative

But even the best program doesn’t provide the impulse for an alternative. For the fundamental condition for this lies in the political forces of the Left and movements’ own collective structures.

Here is where the greatest difficulty lies, as the contradictory experience of the past decade has produced multiple effects. For some left-wingers within or around Syriza, the party’s experience in government has brought a clear shift toward a search for more “realistic” solutions; a change which has continued even after the Right’s return to power, and as Alexis Tsipras seeks to mount a more “institutional” opposition. Meanwhile, for the parties and organizations of the radical left, defeat has produced a sense of impotence in changing Greece’s course, or even inspiring and organizing large-scale social resistance.

Despite Syriza’s transformation — and its declared intention to move toward a social-democratic center-left — it does remain the main opposition party and a reference for many people on the Left. It upholds an anti-government discourse and articulates social demands, but it is neither able nor willing to lead a social struggle aiming to overturn the framework of EU directives and austerity measures. For this reason, it clearly will not be able to reiterate the role it played during the 2010–15 anti-austerity mobilizations.

The Communist Party of Greece (KKE) remains, by current standards, a mass party. As it did not participate substantially in the 2011 squares movement, the 2015 referendum battle, and, naturally, the Syriza government, it seems to have increased its credibility and organizational strength. It is the most consistent political force in the labor movement but its overall political attitude remains passive, closing down the possibility of leading a new social unrest aiming to shake the political landscape.

In 2019, MeRA25 and its leader Yanis Varoufakis scored just over the 3 percent threshold for parliamentary representation, partly “filling the gap” on the left of Syriza. MeRA25 holds on to the radical legacy of 2015 and a desire to express new radical social demands in the economy and environmental and gender issues. Nonetheless, its leader-centric structure and lack of any significant connection to social movements severely limits its potential role in rebuilding the Greek left.

Finally, while Greece’s numerous far-left organizations continue to have a grassroots presence, especially within the youth movement, overall they are still in a state of fragmentation and stagnation, despite some recent attempts to rebuild the radical left.

Yet while there are plenty of left-wing forces both inside and outside of parliament, there is a void in terms of building an alternative. Instead, left-oriented people are increasingly taking their distance from the organized left, alienated by its fragmentation and disappointed by Syriza’s experience in government.

In this sense, the main problem today is not the lack of anti-governmental or even anti-capitalist criticism but the severe weakening of movements and political organizations. Their leaders rarely address the issue — which would necessarily mean discussing their own mistakes and shortcomings — and activists follow developments at a distance, sometimes participating in specific actions while also frequently turning to the private sphere.

Such attitudes cannot fill the void of theoretical dialogue and effective action. Only the collective pursuit of a response and a new radical project, based on grassroots organization and interventions relevant to the issues of everyday life, can provide viable answers.

Yet while the dominant forces are seeking to reaffirm the dogma of TINA — “There Is No Alternative” — the situation is not entirely without hope. Although weakened, the Left remains a relatively mass, electorally influential force. Social movements are lively and new mobilizations are always emerging. New generations are approaching the Left and communist ideas in significant numbers. But what remains crucially missing is the belief that struggles can bring actual political change.

The devastating consequences of the “left government” as represented by Syriza between 2015 and 2019 are still being felt. This experience has generated fatigue, frustration, and, often, aggressive attitudes within the Left, especially among the older generations. But the experience of the previous decade is also more complex than this. People have also learned that popular struggles can turn the political scene upside down. If this happened once but stopped midway, why could it not happen again, in a more radical way?

A new coherent effort to reconstruct the movement and the radical left may find fertile ground, especially among younger activists. What is needed today is a unifying and militant effort of this kind. After an endless summer, the winter may not be as dark as we fear.