Alexis Tsipras Leaves the Greek Left at a Historic Low

Syriza is electing a new leader after Alexis Tsipras resigned from his longtime role at the head of the party. He leaves the Greek left at its lowest point in decades, with far-right forces now exploiting the mood of social despair.

A gathering of New Democracy supporters in Athens ahead of the second round of the Greek parliamentary elections on June 23, 2023. (Giorgos Arapekos / NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Alexis Tsipras’s resignation as leader of Syriza on June 29 symbolizes the end of an era. This era had begun in spring 2010 with the imposition of unprecedentedly brutal neoliberal shock therapy and imposition of European Union (EU) tutelage on Greece. Yet this was also the moment of an impressive wave of popular mobilization and, in January 2015, the rise to power of a radical-left force hitherto on the margins of the political system. Seven months later came the capitulation of this same formation to EU diktats — and the destruction of the hope that this small country represented during these tumultuous years.

Tsipras’s resignation follows Syriza’s poor performance in Greece’s two general elections held this May and June. Both contests brought a strengthening of conservatives and the far right and a major defeat for the Left. Three elements stand out in particular: First, that prime minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis’s conservative New Democracy party consolidated its dominant position in the political scene. Then, that Syriza sank into yet steeper decline, stripping it of its role as an opposition even capable of claiming to return to office in the foreseeable future. Yet even so, in the June 25 contest the old social democratic party Pasok failed to surpass the score it achieved in May. An entirely systemic force, internally riven by contradictory strategies, this party cannot present an alternative to the existing government.

June’s repeat election gave Mitsotakis’s New Democracy an absolute majority of seats, with this contest using a different electoral system than the first vote in May. Yet these conservatives, together with the far right, received almost 55 percent of popular support — meaning that the Right won an absolute majority of votes for the first time since 1974. It has now fully recovered from the slump it suffered after the 2008 financial crisis. The rise of the far right, now represented in parliament by three parties, is equally indicative of a radicalization on the right. Its most acute expression is the reconstitution of a neo-Nazi force (“The Spartans”) and the consolidation of obscurantist and conspiracy-theorist formations such as Greek Solution and Niki (Victory).

The limited progress of the Greek Communist Party (KKE) and the high level of abstention are not enough to counterbalance, or relativize, this trend. Throughout this period, falling turnout has affected the center left and the Left more than the Right. The rise in abstention these last few decades reflects a crisis in the legitimacy of political parties. But in the absence of popular participation in political action and the parliamentary process, abstention fuels conservatism, not social radicalization.

In June 2023, the far-right parties represented in parliament are the Spartans (4.7 percent), a neo-Nazi formation standing for the first time and taking over from Golden Dawn, and the two alt-right parties: Greek Solution (4.4 percent), and Niki (3.7 percent). Golden Dawn first entered parliament in May 2012, with 7 percent.

Why Did the Right Win?

The main factor behind New Democracy’s triumph is the far-reaching social impact of the shock therapy imposed by the “adjustment programs” that the EU and successive Greek governments have implemented since 2010. As a result, Greek capitalism has indeed stabilized somewhat, even if it is performing well below precrisis levels. The winners of this process saw their political weight increase, whereas the losers witnessed a sharp decline in their political power and representation.

The outcome of the electoral cycle is the combined expression of underlying trends that marked the post-2010 period. On the one hand, the economic balance of power shifted in favor of capital. On the other, the presence of New Democracy in the state allowed for the formation of a social bloc that regroups not just the bourgeoisie but also, around it, large fractions of the petty bourgeoisie and certain sectors of the popular classes.

During its previous term (2019–23), New Democracy took advantage of the relaxation of fiscal policies during the pandemic, and the EU’s unusually lenient attitude toward spending, to channel substantial resources (European funds, surpluses accumulated under the previous Syriza government, primary surpluses) to stabilizing its own social base. Most of these funds were allocated to big business and upper-middle-class layers. However, a part was also allocated to small businesses and the self-employed. To a limited extent, those one-off benefits helped to mitigate the direct effects of the crisis on the working classes.

The mainstream media also played an important role in maintaining New Democracy’s electoral base, despite its aggressive policies, its major failures, and its wiretapping scandal. For the first time since the fall of the dictatorship, the media system supports the ruling party en bloc, while the opposition has neither its own media outlets nor significant access to mainstream media. This was how it was possible to restore the government’s image even after last February’s Tempi rail disaster. The opposition’s mistakes during the election campaigns — mainly, but not only, by Syriza — surely also had some effect on the result, fueling insecurity among a section of voters who sought “stability and normality.”

Ruling-Class Strategy

After 2015, all sectors of the Greek bourgeoisie have supported an overall political configuration premised on a single dominant right-wing party and two weak “center” or “center-left” parties, which have no short- or medium-term prospects of reaching government. Their aggressive treatment of Syriza, despite its full capitulation to neoliberalism, shows that a certain widely held assumption on the Left is not true in all circumstances: namely, the bourgeoisie does not necessarily need a two-party system to maintain stability through the safe alternation of ruling parties.

At the same time, during this period Greece’s ruling power bloc has been dominated by capitalist sectors that are less dependent than previously on any kind of long-term development strategy. The upturn in profits of the last decade was not achieved through the revival of capitalist accumulation, but by devaluing wage labor and by seizing the opportunities created by the selling-off of Greece’s natural resources and public assets, as the “adjustment programs” demanded. The reasons behind the Greek bourgeoisie’s resolute support for New Democracy are, in part, rooted in this evolution.

The repeat election in June also accentuated Syriza’s decline, with a cumulative loss of over 1.3 million votes since it first won office in January 2015, when it took 2.3 million votes. Only a small fraction of this electorate moved to the left, while the bulk turned either to the right or to abstention. This was particularly true in the four years since New Democracy returned to power in 2019, in which most voters leaving Syriza turned to the right, even in working-class areas. Interpretations that attribute Syriza’s electoral defeat only to its own turn to the right are simplistic insofar as there has been no substantial strengthening of political formations on its left. That said, the betrayal of the “No” vote in the 2015 referendum and the subsequent neoliberal shift undoubtedly shaped the ideological and political trends that determined the 2023 election results.

An alternative course would have required radically different choices by Syriza’s leadership group as early as the first quarter of 2015, well before the referendum, when signs of the worsening situation were multiplying. This alternative would have entailed not the alliance with Independent Greeks (ANEL) that was actually made (a right-wing sovereigntist party that participated in Syriza-led governments from 2015 to 2019), but going to a second election, breaking off negotiations with the troika, halting debt repayments, and seeking other economic and political alliances at international level around the emerging BRICS countries.

As it turned out, Syriza had neither the structure, the roots in social mobilization, nor the international reference points that would have enabled it to engage successfully in a large-scale conflict with Greek capital, the state, and imperialist powers. Syriza’s electoral rise evidently was fueled by social discontent and the desire of broad sections of the population for an alternative that would halt the rapid fall in their standards of living. However, this social movement had clear political and ideological limitations in terms of the level of conflict it was prepared to take on.

Syriza presented itself as an intermediate solution, with limited risks and costs. On the one hand, it assured voters that it would be easy to negotiate a change of policy with the EU and avoid resorting to major conflict. On the other hand, its previous support for European integration offered certain guarantees, not only to the bourgeoisie, but also to the popular and petty-bourgeois strata who sought a change of policy without making any radical break.

The Greek Communist Party’s Longer-Term Role

For the radical left, the results of the May and June elections also signal a conservative shift, insofar as the only pole to emerge stronger is the KKE. It is now the only force to the left of Syriza represented in parliament. One decisive reason for its success was its ability to maintain an organized base, allowing it to stay in touch with popular sectors even amidst the broader shift to the right. However, the KKE also benefited from its benevolent treatment by the media, who presented it as a “serious and responsible” left-wing party. The KKE is thus recognized by the system as a protest party which, at every critical moment, plays a stabilizing role.

In this respect, KKE’s own interpretation of its election result is revealing. It sees it as a vindication of its strategy over the 2012–15 period, i.e. its attitude in the 2011 square occupation movement (which it denounced), the July 2015 referendum (in which it called for a neither-nor vote), or on the euro (hostile to exit). It is thus surprising that certain currents of the radical left have implicitly or explicitly called for electoral support for this party when they explicitly opposed its policies over the last thirteen years. In any case, KKE only attracted a small proportion of voters who turned away from Syriza. Despite its relative success, KKE’s scope for intervention will also diminish as the effects of neoliberal and authoritarian policies crystallize, so long as it does not change orientation.

Radical-Left Failure

A confused part of the left-wing vote turned toward former parliamentary speaker Zoe Konstantopoulou’s formation, Course to Freedom. Combining its antiausterity stance with nationalist identity politics and flirtation with no-vaxxers, this can hardly be considered a movement of the Left. Yet in this election it benefited from its high visibility in the mainstream media, reflecting a form of support from certain parts of the establishment anxious to reduce the influence of Syriza and radical-left formations such as MeRA25–Alliance for Rupture.

The result for MeRA25–Alliance for Rupture, which failed to reach the 3 percent threshold to enter parliament, is a failure for the Left as a whole. The June result was largely determined by the negative dynamics of the first ballot in May, which could not be reversed in the short time separating the two elections. In this context, even maintaining support of just under 3 percent was a positive sign in an overall negative situation.

One of the main reasons for this failure is MeRA25’s inability to forge organic links with sectors of the popular classes, even on a small scale. As a result, in much of the country, the promotion of the coalition’s message depended on its presence in the media and the social networks. This made it difficult to counter the constant stigmatization of MeRA25 by all the other parties and by mainstream outlets.

Every tactical error during the campaign was thus amplified. Putting forward a quasi-governmental program, even if it contained relevant elements of a break with neoliberalism (guaranteeing homes threatened with repossessions, creation a development bank, public control of the banking system, abolition of the privatization agency, challenging public debt, etc.) appeared an inappropriate choice for a small left-wing formation fighting to enter parliament.

Beyond these tactical questions, strategic errors affected the radical left as well as Syriza. The electoral cycle revealed an acute inability to understand the changes and realignments within the working classes. It also revealed incomprehension of the exhaustion of the energy that had, between 2010 and 2015, fueled the rise of Syriza and the “No” vote in the July 2015 referendum.   Indeed, the Right’s success, the collapse of Syriza and the failure of MeRA25–Alliance for rupture, all point to a rejection of the possibility of repeating a crisis like 2015. Large sections of the population take this for a traumatic experience — not only the wealthiest strata, but also those with relatively stable employment or decent pensions. It also symbolizes a loss of hope for those sectors devastated by the crisis and neoliberal shock therapy. The MeRA25–Alliance for Rupture’s insistence on the 2015 cleavage during the May election campaign failed to take into account the political and ideological shift that has taken place over the last eight years.

These elections also expressed a kind of exhaustion of the political space that had emerged from the previous period, affecting all forms of splinter organizations, whether they came from Syriza or from the anti-capitalist Antarsya. By refusing to join, or even to support, the regrouping attempted by MeRA25–Alliance for Rupture, certain parts of the radical left missed a crucial opportunity to influence the overall balance of political forces. They made the same mistake as Antarsya in 2015, failing to realize that, in the absence of institutional representation of the radical left beyond the KKE, there is no fertile terrain for a broader recomposition of forces.

Antarsya’s sub­–1 percent result confirmed the erosion of this political space over the last ten years. The stubborn maintenance of a discourse centered on the “anti-capitalist revolution” has once again proved to be self-referential and ineffective. At the end of a historic period of sociopolitical crisis — during which millions of workers first moved to the left, then in the opposite direction, or abstained from voting — Antarsya finds itself at a lower level of influence than the forces that preceded it in the 1990s and 2000s.

Reorienting the Left

The current balance of forces means that Mitsotakis’s government can speed up its policies and, in certain conditions, consolidate its dominant position. This does not mean that there will be no contradictions or room for social struggle, nor that this balance of forces cannot be challenged. The aggressive, authoritarian nature of New Democracy’s policies will inevitably spark discontent and resistance. Moreover, recent experience has shown that political and electoral affiliations are characterized by great fluidity, and that society’s organic relations with political parties have disintegrated.

The possibility of intervening in this more arduous terrain requires patient work and a resolute focus on building unity.  This strategy must center on the issues of the day and address the resulting fronts of struggle in simple, widely comprehensible language. And it must also recognize the defensive position that social movements are currently in. It means combining the necessary political dividing lines with intervention in the issues most crucial to the working and popular classes, such as public health, education, inflation, cost of living, and the housing crisis.

Longer-term programmatic work is also needed to challenge Greek capitalism’s development and strengthen the opposition to imperialist integration projects, from the EU to NATO. This orientation should also lead to greater unity in action, with the creation of unitary platforms in social movements and in the trade unions to build lasting links with sectors of the working classes. Another distinct, indeed highly important, front that requires specific forms of intervention is the anti-fascist struggle.

Politically, the Left needs to build a network of forces and organizations, but also of organizationally unaffiliated activists and of those who have withdrawn from political action — that is, of all those seeking a left-wing way out of Syriza’s crisis. This space should include the whole spectrum going from MeRA25 to those radical-left organizations willing to overcome past disagreements and promote relations of fairness and mutual respect. Such a process could begin to materialize during the municipal and regional elections slated for this October, creating favorable conditions for a common platform in the 2024 European elections.