The victory of the radically left Syriza in the Greek election is a historical moment for the country. It is the first time since the modern Greek state was founded in 1832 that a left-wing party will govern. It’s also the first time that traditional political families will not participate in the government.
But Syriza secured only 149 out of the 151 seats it needed to win an absolute majority in parliament and has decided to form a government with Independent Greeks. This is a right-wing party that believes in nationalism and strict immigration controls. It came in sixth place in the election with 4.75% of the vote and 13 parliamentary seats.
While the partnership might seem an unlikely one, the potential for a coalition bringing together Syriza and Independent Greeks has been cultivated ever since the latter was established in 2012 in reaction to the terms set for the Greek bailout.
In fact, the coalition is consistent with Syriza’s pre-election commitment to ally only with anti-austerity political parties. With the Greek Communist Party refusing to cooperate and the centrist Potami unclear about its position on austerity, Independent Greeks has emerged as the most sensible choice.
And indeed, the manifesto put forward by Independent Greeks is not incompatible with Syriza’s Thessaloniki Programme. The party favours also debt relief, austerity easing and the restoration of salaries and pensions to pre-2009 levels. It wants to restore Labour relations, alleviate poverty and punish those responsible for the crisis. Like Syriza, it also believes in constitutional reform to repair the political system.
All that said, there are disparities between Syriza and Independent Greeks that could shake the coalition. The smaller coalition partner wants the European bailout programme to be unilaterally denounced, while Syriza’s Thessaloniki Programme includes renegotiating with the EU over the Greek debt. The course of these negotiations and the compromise to be reached are fundamental to the economic future of the country, the longevity of the coalition and possibly the unity of Syriza itself.
Then there are the deep ideological disparities that separate the two parties. The manifesto of Independent Greeks declares their commitment to the values of the Greek Orthodox Church, the defence of the Greek nation and the protection of the family. Not surprisingly, it was pushing for and eventually gained control of the Ministry of defence as the government line-up was announced. Syriza, in contrast, is committed to the separation of the state from the church and believes in cutting arms spending.
New prime minister Alexis Tsipras is also committed to an inclusive immigration policy – a stance that doesn’t chime particularly well with its choice of coalition partner. Panos Kammenos, leader of Independent Greeks, has made xenophobic and racist comments about immigrants and ethnic minorities in the past.
Perhaps even more importantly for their working relationship, there are disparities in terms of social ethics. Kammenos’s party was formed by a number of breakaway members of New Democracy, a party that appeals to traditional voters. Along with PASOK, it has shaped and perpetuated the forces of clientelism and patronage that drive Greek politics.
According to a recent study by Transparency International, the majority of Greeks believe that bribery and “string-pulling” are acceptable parts of getting along and have little faith in the idea of justice towards fellow citizens.
Like other left-wing groups in Europe, Syriza is expected to have little tolerance for this kind of thinking. The Thessaloniki Programme involves transforming Greek politics by curtailing parliamentary immunity. It also includes introducing institutions based on direct democracy and self-organisation, such as a people’s legislative initiative, a people’s veto and a people’s initiative to call a referendum.
Syriza MPs already contribute 20% of their monthly salary to fund Solidarity for All, an umbrella organisation that provides logistical support to grassroot actions that help vulnerable people.
We can work it out
Despite these stark differences, it would be premature and fatalistic to say that the coalition between Syriza and Independent Greeks cannot last. Syriza is aware that this is a historical moment and is committed to succeeding.
If the coalition manages to end austerity without damaging the European profile of the country, then Independent Greeks will be the only right-wing party to have contributed to the Greek revival.
Failure would plunge the country deeper into crisis and austerity. It would probably annihilate Independent Greeks and the left as a political force – not just in Greece but in other countries too – for many years to come. The stakes are high. Tsipras has already adopted a more conciliatory discourse. He also made an experienced journalist and member of Independent Greeks responsible for the coalition communicative strategy, in an effort to ensure the it will speak with one voice
Success also depends on how the left in Europe reacts. This could significantly influence the dynamics of negotiations and potentially recalibrate the process of European integration. If the left can rise in other member states, Syriza’s chances of success are increased. In the meantime, the party needs to smooth out its differences with Independent Greeks – or at least work out how to keep them contained – to get this coalition up and running.