Greece’s Radical Left Is Fighting to Overcome Syriza’s Legacy

Mariana Tsichli

The campaign for Greece’s election this Sunday has been mostly uninspiring, with little hope of an end to austerity. With Syriza’s capitulation in 2015 still weighing heavily, the radical left faces an uphill struggle to overcome the mood of despair.

Posters featuring images of Aléxis Tsípras, head of Syriza party, ahead of the general election in Thessaloniki, Greece, on May 16, 2023. (Konstantinos Tsakalidis / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Interview by
Stathis Kouvelakis

As Greece heads for a general election on Sunday, its citizens surely have plenty of reason for discontent. The country is, after all, still reeling from years of neoliberal policies, whose sheer savagery is without comparison in Western Europe. The effects of austerity were dramatically illustrated at the end of February, when fifty-seven people died in the Tempi train disaster, prompting angry protests. Yet ahead of the election, the political situation seems rather stagnant.

The incumbent ruling party is Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis’s right-wing New Democracy, which has held power since 2019. While a change in the electoral system leaves it unlikely to achieve an outright majority — with a high possibility of a second election to follow — it has maintained its lead in national polls. The main opposition party, Syriza, seems unable to capitalize on popular discontent, amidst the enduring trauma of its capitulation to austerity in July 2015.

To its left, a new coalition called MeRA25-Alliance for Rupture has formed for this election, seeking to overcome this baleful legacy. It brings together MeRA25, the movement created by former finance minister Yanis Varoufakis, which entered parliament in the 2019 elections (on 3.4 percent support), and Popular Unity, formed in 2015 by the currents emerging from the left wing of Syriza and certain sectors of the far left, with the support of social-movement activists and intellectual figures. This coalition aims at rebuilding a united radical-left space, able to learn from past failures and respond to the challenges of the present.

Mariana Tsichli is co-secretary of Popular Unity and a candidate for the coalition in the Athens-Center constituency. She spoke to Stathis Kouvelakis about its prospects.

Stathis Kouvelakis

Everyone seems to agree that this election campaign is particularly sluggish and lacking in substance. There is widespread distrust toward political parties and expectations seem particularly low. Such a situation is unprecedented in Greece. How do you explain this?

Mariana Tsichli

Yes, this is probably the most opaque and unpredictable election I can remember. There is no debate and little, if any, involvement of the wider public in the campaign. At the moment, there doesn’t seem to be a strong polarization between Syriza and New Democracy.

The main explanation is the popular disillusionment with the main forces of the political system. This includes the Left, which is paying the price for Syriza’s capitulation in 2015 and its subsequent four-year term in government. A large part of society now believes that “all politicians are the same” and that there is no alternative.

A second factor lies in the programs and the kind of policies offered by the mainstream parties. They are not absolutely identical, but on fundamental issues the positions of New Democracy, Syriza, and Pasok are very similar. These parties agree that the neoliberal framework imposed by the three memoranda signed between the previous Greek governments and the EU cannot be challenged. So, whoever wins the elections, it will make little difference to the policies that follow.

There is also a problem with the quality of public debate. The kind of issues promoted by the media have nothing to do with people’s real concerns. The press only talk about small nuances within this basic common ground. As polls do not predict any clear majority, the discussion centers on punditry about seat numbers and possible coalitions rather than the programmatic substance.

Stathis Kouvelakis

In the days following the Tempi railway disaster, we saw an upsurge in popular mobilization. People took to the streets by hundreds of thousands, with the youth in the front line. In recent years, we have also seen some remarkable social struggles and mobilizations. Today, however, these events do not seem to have left any imprint.

Mariana Tsichli

The Tempi train collision cannot be considered as an accident. It was the predictable result of austerity and privatizations, and there are criminal responsibilities for what happened. Last March, we saw the largest demonstrations since Syriza had first come to power, comparable only to the rallies before the July 2015 referendum. People, and particularly the young, took to the streets en masse even in small villages. This was a real breakthrough.

Perhaps less well known is that there were mobilizations throughout Mitsotakis’s government. We could mention some major strikes against the anti-labor laws voted in parliament and the struggles against the university police and mounting state authoritarianism, culminating in the government’s attempt to severely restrict street demonstrations. Last winter, there were also protracted mobilizations by artists who saw their degrees downgraded following a government decision.

However, this vibrant social movements activity doesn’t enter mainstream debate, nor is it reflected in the political field. One reason is that media is dominated by the same oligarchs who support the Mitsotakis government. Their goal is to ensure a second term for New Democracy, if possible with a clear parliamentary majority.

The attitude of large sectors of the Left wasn’t particularly helpful either. These forces have not stood united in these struggles and therefore have undermined their ability to become cohesive and durable.

These mobilizations ended quickly and something similar has happened many times over the last four years. Surely this is an effect of the demoralization that followed the defeat in 2015. But it also owes to the fact that since then the radical left hasn’t been able to offer a political perspective credible enough to overturn this situation.

Stathis Kouvelakis

The dominant narrative both in Greece and abroad is that it successfully exited the bailout programs and has returned to normality. All three parties that managed the memoranda — New Democracy, Syriza, and Pasok — have the same version of this story. Does it hold water?

Mariana Tsichli

This narrative is a deliberate lie. The mainstream parties and the business interests they represent know very well that to formally exit these programs, Greece has made a series of commitments to its creditors. These commitments run until 2060, when a large proportion of the loans under the memoranda will theoretically have been repaid. Until then, Greece is under “post-program surveillance” by the EU, like all countries who haven’t repaid at least 75 percent of their loans, for instance Portugal and Spain.

The goal is for Greece to maintain primary surpluses [meaning that state revenue is higher than state spending, excluding interest payments on consolidated government liabilities] of at least 2.2 percent for the next decades while expected growth rates are very low, even according to official forecasts. Whoever is in power, this means endless harsh austerity, unless this framework is canceled.

All this is being done in the name of paying off an unsustainable public debt. It currently stands at €400 billion, to which we must add €300 billion in private debt, while Greece’s annual GDP is only €178 billion. These indicators are worse than those with which we entered the first memorandum in 2010 [€300 billion and a 130 percent debt ratio in late 2009].

A huge social disaster has taken place in Greece, and it has not been repaired, nor is it likely to be with the kind of policy shared by the main parties. The magnitude of the catastrophe is unprecedented in peacetime. Greek GDP is now 25 percent lower than in 2010, when the first memorandum was passed. Before the memoranda, GDP per capita was about 75 percent of Germany’s, now it’s 42 percent. Wages have fallen by 30 percent cumulatively. The process of deindustrialization and the dismantling of whatever productive base was left is intensifying. How far this remains manageable depends on the imposition of further harsh neoliberal policies.

Stathis Kouvelakis

The memoranda do not only mean endless austerity and the crushing of labor rights. They have established something even deeper, namely a series of structural regulations that mean a loss of national sovereignty and of the Greek state’s ability to follow a policy of its own.

Mariana Tsichli

Much of what is happening in Greece today is unprecedented. We no longer have our own tax authority because the supposedly “independent” AADE [Independent Authority for Public Revenue] is in fact controlled by the creditors. In essence, Greece doesn’t have the means to control and enact policy as a sovereign state.

All public property has been ceded for ninety-nine years to the so-called “Growthfund,” an institution also controlled by the creditors, and serves as a guarantee for servicing the Greek debt. This fund can decide the sale of any public asset without asking anyone in this country, to assure the payment on time of the tranches of the loans.

To this we must add what is valid for the entire European Union. By definition, the framework of the Eurozone forbids any notion of an independent monetary policy and the EU rules put the budgetary policy of all member-states under heavy constraint.

The Greek Parliament has also voted that the next parliaments will not have the right to repeal or amend any measure or law prescribed by the memoranda unless they have the creditors’ permission. Clearly, there is no possibility of implementing any kind of alternative economic and social policy without challenging this loss of state sovereignty.

Stathis Kouvelakis

On issues of national sovereignty, we need to touch on Greece’s foreign policy. One of the saddest aspects of Syriza’s legacy in government is that it deepened the country’s integration to NATO and the US-led “Western camp.” This is unprecedented for a party that still nominally refers to the “radical left.” Of course, such a policy was already in place for decades, but Syriza has continued and intensified it. What are the consequences for Greece and the wider region?

Mariana Tsichli

Immediately after the 2015 capitulation, Syriza made it clear that it would align itself with its predecessors on that terrain as well. At a symbolic level, it even dared to invite a US president — [Barack] Obama — to Greece on the anniversary of the 1973 Athens Polytechnic uprising, which carries a very heavy meaning in Greek history. It is a moment that preserves the memory the anti-imperialist and anti-US sentiment of a people who suffered under a Washington-backed military dictatorship.

But beyond the symbols, there are also concrete moves. Syriza, among other similar initiatives, allowed the expansion of the US military installations in the strategic port of Alexandroupolis in the North and in Stefanovikio in central Greece, near the city of Volos. Now we see that Alexandroupolis serves as a NATO hub that will possibly be used in conflicts in the wider area, especially in the war now raging in Ukraine.

What is perhaps the most shocking is that after four years of New Democracy in government, [Syriza’s Aléxis] Tsípras and Mitsotakis now compete with each other to appear as the most ardent supporters of commissioning Rafale and F16 planes and increasing military spending in order to be recognized as the most obedient member of NATO. Greece already spends more on its military, as a share of its GDP, than the US does (3.9 versus 3.5 percent)!

As far as the war in Ukraine is concerned, the Mitsotakis government has shown particular zeal in implementing NATO decisions. It was one of the first to send weapons to Ukraine and willingly included the country in the network of sanctions imposed on Russia, which primarily affect our own people as well as the peoples of other countries that imposed them.

The only criticism Syriza made of all this was procedural. The essence of its political attitude was to give full support for NATO’s strategy for the wider region, as exemplified with the case of Ukraine. These paths are very dangerous and expose the country to disastrous adventures. Fortunately, large sectors of Greek public opinion still oppose a level of ideological and political resistance to this type of narrative.

Stathis Kouvelakis

Let’s turn to the process that led to the formation of MeRA25-Alliance for Rupture. You come from the extraparliamentary left, but you have been part of Popular Unity from the beginning. This front was created after Tsípras’s capitulation in the summer of 2015 by currents splitting from Syriza, joined by other organizations of the radical left.

These forces were then in strong disagreement with Yanis Varoufakis, who, as a minister in the Syriza government, opposed leaving the euro and breaking with the European Union. Varoufakis voted against the memoranda and opposed Syriza’s surrender, but in the previous general elections, in 2019, his movement, MeRA25, and Popular Unity ran separately. How did this coalition come about in these elections?

Mariana Tsichli

As Popular Unity, we always thought it necessary to build broader convergences between forces of the radical left. The current state of fragmentation doesn’t help anyone and, above all, it does not help the workers’ movement, the youth, and the popular classes in Greece. Such a convergence needs to have a clear content, which presupposes an agreement on basic points, even though compromises are unavoidable. In social movements, in mobilizations, there is much more scope for unity between a wide range of forces. But alliances at the political level depend on specific programmatic conditions.

A key point for us has been the shift of Varoufakis and MeRA25 to the Left in some of their basic positions. At its last congress, MeRA25 concluded that there can be no left alternative within the framework of the Eurozone and that a break is necessary. This represents a significant change from its previous position, which supported negotiations within the Eurozone to reorient it in a different direction.

The same applies to Greece’s relations with NATO, where there is also a clear shift toward disengagement and in favor of a multidimensional and nonaligned foreign policy. This process has made it possible for us to have a programmatic discussion with MeRA25. Its efforts to intervene in social movements also had a positive effect, as well as its consistent oppositional stance in parliament, where its MPs gave voice to important demands of the movements.

We have to recognize the context after four years of an authoritarian government combining the extreme neoliberal center with the far right. We cannot be indifferent to the outcome of the elections: it is vital to avoid another term for such a government.

But it is equally important to have an alternative to the logic of “lesser-evilism” that leads to voting for Syriza. That is why a level of programmatic convergence within the radical left is crucial. This also applies to the debate currently taking place about a possible “progressive government” as proposed by Tsípras’s party, in substance a coalition between Syriza and Pasok. But Syriza is also asking the other left-wing forces to support — or at least not oppose in parliament — the implementation of neoliberal policies under a “progressive” disguise.

Such a move would be disastrous for the whole left. A Syriza-led government cannot even be seen as a “lesser evil,” because its policies on key issues would be similar to the current ones. We have no reason to tarnish once again the credibility of the Left, which we have been struggling for eight years to reconstruct. It would be foolish to accept a proposal that leads the political scene in a conservative direction and alienates people from participating in politics.

This doesn’t mean that Syriza and Mitsotakis are identical or that we shouldn’t fight to prevent New Democracy getting a majority. That is why we believe that radical-left forces such as MeRA25-Alliance for Rupture should have the strongest possible representation in parliament. Under the new electoral system, achieving a parliamentary majority does not depend on the difference between the first- and second-placed parties in the popular vote, but on how many parties cross the 3 percent threshold to enter parliament. So, the success of our coalition has a broader significance for the overall balance of forces. It is also crucial for the strengthening of a combative and nonsectarian pole on the Left, the most important thing in the long run.

Stathis Kouvelakis

The main slogan of the MeRA25-Alliance for Rupture is “For the first time, rupture.” It inevitably reminds us of Syriza’s slogan in the January 2015 elections: “For the first time the Left,” meaning the possibility of a government to the left of social democracy. Beyond this allusion, what is the content of this proposed rupture?

Mariana Tsichli

The main lines of our program challenge the core of capital’s strategy in Greece. Even the points that respond to immediate social demands require ruptures in order to be implemented. For example, we have the most expensive electricity in Europe. To stop this scandal, we must abolish the so-called “energy exchange group” implemented by Syriza, which is simply an oligarchic cartel. But this is contrary to the “European energy market” set by the EU. We must also fight for the nationalization of the energy sector and the reconstitution of the former unified public company, which is also contrary to EU guidelines.

We will have to offer clear solutions for the nonperforming household loans, which is a huge problem for hundreds of thousands of households. During the period of the memoranda, the share of these loans has jumped from 3 to 50 percent. Now, following recommendations coming from Brussels, the “Hercules” plan allows funds to buy these loans at ridiculous prices and speculate on people’s homes under the shadow of foreclosures at a mass scale.

Our program also touches on crucial issues that may not currently be at the forefront of popular concerns. Indeed, it has to, given that the level of political debate has declined considerably since 2015. First comes the question of public debt. There cannot be a sustainable path for Greece without canceling most of its public debt, which is unsustainable in the long run. Key programmatic points also include a public banking system and public ownership of strategic enterprises and infrastructure, privatized over the last twelve years.

In our view, there can be no such change without a break with the Eurozone. It is a tough challenge, for which we have to prepare ourselves and the people; all these years there has been a relentless campaign spreading fear around this question. However, leaving the Eurozone is key. If you want to implement a program in favor of the people’s interests, it cannot be done any other way.

More generally, for us, there can be no “economy for the many” if we continue to rely on a model based exclusively on low value-adding services and tourism. This is capital’s plan for Greece. We, conversely, have a project for productive reconstruction based on ecological and democratic planning, with an emphasis on the primary sector, on specific sectors of manufacturing, and on high value-adding services. Otherwise, the course of desertification and plundering of the country will continue.

Stathis Kouvelakis

My last question is about the future prospects of the MeRA25-Alliance for Rupture. Some critical parts of the radical left say it is a purely electoral partnership between two contrasting bodies. Popular Unity is an organization with deep roots in the history of the radical left, while MeRA25 is a strongly leader-centered party, with a weak organizational base and a low presence in social movements. How would you respond to these criticisms?

Mariana Tsichli

I believe that the coalition between MeRA25 and Popular Unity and other forces and comrades that make up the Alliance for Rupture is a clear and sincere agreement respectful of the autonomy of each component. Its relations are based on equity, which lets each put forward its own programmatic orientations. This is also reflected in the composite name of the slate.

The common program corresponds, in our opinion, to the needs of this period. All the points we discussed earlier point to the direction of breaking with capitalist and imperialist integration. The current conjuncture in Greece isn’t one of impending revolution, not even a fluid situation of mass contestation comparable to 2010–15. In such a context, the success of this coalition can reopen the possibility of a mass political intervention for the radical left.

However, this convergence needs to acquire greater depth to be able to thrive. Within the framework of the Alliance for Rupture, we are constantly calling the other forces of the radical and extraparliamentary left to build a broader convergence. These forces are significant in Greece and they have deep roots in social movements, in local councils, in workplaces, and in the student youth.

Stathis Kouvelakis

Are you planning to take initiatives in that direction after the elections?

Mariana Tsichli

I believe that if this electoral slate goes well in the polls and keeps on working together, it will offer a great opportunity for reconstructing the radical left, including forces that are not currently part of it. It can offer political visibility to a sociopolitical current that has not yet found a proper parliamentary representation.

To achieve this, we have a job to do that is more difficult than the one we did during the electoral campaign. We have to build counter-hegemonic practices at a grassroots level, strengthen our intervention in the youth, and build spaces of intervention in the labor movement and in local government. The latter is a serious issue: the recently changed legal framework further hampers the radical left’s presence in these institutions, by raising the threshold for representation.

In any case, the greatest possible unity is indispensable to change the balance of forces. National politics are obviously of great importance, but the spaces where struggles and movements are built from below are at least equally important.