Syriza in free fall: The great party of the Greek left collapses

The new leader, Stefanos Kasselakis, has seen 11 of his 47 deputies leave the ranks while polls have shown the party has been relegated to second place in the opposition, behind the socialists

El líder del partido izquierdista Syriza, Estéfanos Kasselakis, asistía a una manifestación de trabajadores autónomos griegos que protestaban contra las nuevas políticas fiscales en Atenas, el pasado 22 de noviembre.
The leader of the leftist Syriza party Stefanos Kasselakis with Greek self-employed workers demonstrating against new tax policies in Athens on November 22.ALKIS KONSTANTINIDIS (REUTERS)

Syriza’s general secretary Stefanos Kasselakis took the reins of Greece’s main opposition party in September, flying high on the promising wind of his new image and style. Kasselakis is not the run-of-the-mill Greek politician. He grew up in the United States, worked for Goldman Sachs, donated to the U.S. Democratic Party, and is married to another man. He has brought all the impetus of his 35 years, with no ties to the old party structures and the energy of the disruptor. He was a breath of fresh air, although he was unknown to most Greeks. But after two months at the head of the main left-wing party in Greece, Kasselakis has seen 11 of his 47 deputies leave the party while the polls have relegated Syriza to second place in the opposition, behind the socialist Pasok party, something that has not happened since 2012.

Until June this year, the name of Syriza was associated with the undisputed leadership of Alexis Tsipras, who was prime minister between 2015 and 2019. However, Tsipras’s charisma did not prevent the New Democracy party of conservative Kyriakos Mitsotakis from winning with an absolute majority in 2019 (while Syriza won 86 seats in a Parliament of 300). It also failed to prevent Mitsotakis from consolidating that majority on June 25.

After such disastrous results, which surprised everyone, Tsipras was forced to resign and a primary election process was begun to elect his successor. Kasselakis won the primaries with the support of 56% of members, compared to the 44% garnered by his rival, Effie Achtsioglou, the former labor minister under Tsipras. With only 9%, former finance minister Euclid Tsakalotos was eliminated in the first round. Last Tuesday, Achtsioglou and Tsakalatos left Syriza along with nine other parliamentarians to create a new “left-wing, environmentalist, and feminist” party.

Then-government ministers Effie Achtsioglou (left) and Euclid Tsakalotos (right) at a parliamentary session in 2018.Petros Giannakouris (AP)

Those loyal to Kasselakis say that the dissent is not due to ideological reasons or the party’s platform. The new leadership argues that the splitters were unable to accept the result of the primaries and left because they did not achieve the amount of internal power they wanted. EL PAÍS has tried unsuccessfully to get the opinions of Kasselakis himself and those of members of Syriza’s current leadership. The ruling faction is reluctant to comment on the breakup because it believes that airing internal problems in public would damage the party. On condition of anonymity, several officials from the party agreed that, in their opinion, Syriza’s disagreements with Achtsioglou and Tsakalotos are no greater than those between Achtsioglou and Tsakalotos themselves. They say that neither of them raised ideological debates in the central committee.

For his part, Nasos Iliopulos, the future spokesperson for the new parliamentary group of dissident deputies, argues in a telephone conversation that they do not like Kasselakis’ form or content: “His first speech as general secretary in the central committee — in September — came across like a CEO announcing company layoffs. And his proposals to reform the labor market are totally neoliberal.” The deputy says that the proof that this is not a dispute for seats is that a thousand local officials throughout Greece have left the party since Kasselakis was elected in September.

Syriza is still the leading opposition force in the Greek parliament, but five surveys published this month by different local media place it behind the socialist party in terms of voting intention. Kasselakis’s party is losing votes to the center left Pasok party and the far-left communists of the KKE. Not even half of the 930,000 voters who backed Syriza last June would vote for them today.

On condition of anonymity, a source familiar with the process points out that the two main difficulties that the splinter group will face when it becomes a new party will be financing and territorial settlement. “Without subsidies it will be difficult for them to create structures and they will only have militants in Athens.” This veteran analyst of the Greek left believes that Kasselakis was clumsy in the way he named his circle of trust. “He probably did it because of his inexperience. But the losers of the primaries felt completely excluded,” he explains.

The most immediate challenge, both for Syriza and its dissidents, will be the European elections next June. They will compete against each other, as well as the other candidates, although both deny that their former teammates are their main objective. Iliopulos states: “We do not want to create a party for those disillusioned with Syriza, but rather a project that is open to many more people.”

Corina Vasilopoulou, a former Syriza activist and journalist for the Efsyn newspaper, believes that Kasselakis is the symptom of the crisis, not the cause. And she explains that the crisis dates back to 2015, when Tsipras submitted to a referendum the austerity programs imposed by the European Union, which he ultimately ended up accepting. Vasilopoulou argues that the result of that consultation on July 5, 2015, ordered the government to reject not only the rescue package proposed by the then head of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, “but the total austerity policy that the country had suffered over the previous years.” Tsipras and Syriza had campaigned in favor of ‘no’ to the bailout. And ‘no’ won with 61.31% of the votes. “But what we saw a few days after this referendum, and this overwhelming result, was the capitulation of Tsipras and the acceptance of a third rescue package,” the former Syriza activist concludes.

These days, however, Vasilopoulou does not discern major ideological differences between Kasselakis and those who left. “There is a crisis of power distribution. There are people who believed that the party was theirs and suddenly see that this is not the case. They call Kasselakis a despot. But when Alexis Tsipras became the despot of the party, everyone agreed. Now, it’s hard to obey a despot you don’t know. Kasselakis got it very wrong and it is clear that he knows almost nothing or very little about the reality of Greece and the reality of the party, but he is not the only one. They all got it wrong.”

Tsipras remains silent

Analysts and activists wonder what Tsipras thinks about this situation and why he has remained silent. But supporters of both Kasselakis and those who split agree on this point. “Tsipras said he would remain neutral in the party’s renewal process and, by his silence, he is keeping his word,” says Iliopulos. One of the anonymous sources believes that, to a large extent, Tsipras is responsible for the current situation and that is the reason for his silence: “The party should have been overhauled in 2019, when the electoral results were decent. But both Tsipras and Achtsioglou preferred a smaller party that was under control to a process of opening up.”

With regard to Tsipras, Vasilopoulu remarks: “No one knows if he is happy, thinking ‘after me, the deluge’ or if he intends to see where things are going to later approach one group or the other. But it is impressive that at a time when the party has been truly torn apart, and perhaps a word from him could help, he has chosen silence. And he remains silent.”

The breakup of the parliamentary group will offer Kasselakis a period of truce. With the critics out, he will now have more peace of mind to establish both his leadership and his strategic line, at least until the Syriza congress, which is scheduled for February. The first official test that the new leader will face will be the European Parliament elections scheduled for next June. An electoral defeat would endanger not only Kasselakis’s political future, but the continuity of Syriza itself.

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