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  1. Politics
6 July 2015

What is Syriza? The answer’s more complicated than you think

Beyond the famous few, who are they? Michael Chessum meets the Syriza grassroots.

By Michael Chessum

Looking at most mainstream coverage of the Greek crisis and Sunday’s referendum, you could be forgiven for thinking that Greece’s governing party was composed entirely of Alexis Tsipras and Yanis Varoufakis.

 Behind the lazy tropes about Greek laziness and the treasure trove of clichés taken out of posh journalists’ high school classics lessons – the birthplace of democracy, the authentic home of tragedy – most coverage has portrayed the crisis merely in terms of a series of high-level jousting matches between Syriza’s celebrities, Angela Merkel and some EU and IMF bureaucrats from central casting.

The reality of the situation in Greece is very different – because Syriza is not like any establishment political party in Europe. It is a relatively new organisation, which in 2007 got just 5 per cent of the vote – but much more importantly, it has real internal democracy and is deeply rooted in the social movements of the past few years. Before they were elected, a large proportion of its politicians were ordinary citizens, who came to politics out of a sense of duty rather than ambition. Despite laboured attempts to portray the leadership of Syriza as lone actors – including by the Greek press – they are perhaps some of the most accountable politicians in Europe.

The level of internal democracy in Syriza adds a whole new dimension of tactical intrigue to negotiations with Greece’s creditors. Earlier this week, when Tsipras wrote a series of letters to Greece’s creditors apparently surrendering to the bulk of its conditions, he could be sure not only that the Eurozone would reject the proposal prior to the referendum, but also relatively sure that there was a double-lock against such a substantial retreat – the fact that the party’s base would not allow him to do it. As it was, the letters did not consummate a retreat (at least for the moment), and served to illustrate the intransigence of Schauble and Merkel.

These are calculations and dynamics with which Syriza’s activist base is constantly grappling. When I interviewed Petros Markopoulos and George Diakos on Thursday, both activists in Syriza Youth, any questions about internal discord or discussion were secondary to the almighty ground war for the No campaign. But the recent letters, and the negotiation concessions made by the Syriza leadership, have clearly been a subject of discussion.

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“You have to show the people, not the ones who are already convinced to vote No, but the ones who are afraid and in the middle, that you’re not getting out of the negotiations – that the referendum is a matter of strengthening your position in the negotiations,” says Markopoulos. When I push him on whether the letter was acceptable to activists, he replies that “as a tactical move, it is – but we expect something better than it.” Diakos adds the crucial point: “After the referendum, the atmosphere will be completely different.”

The ability of Syriza’s grassroots to influence the more day-to-day business of government is a work in progress, but there are certainly ways in which it has leverage. When Yanis Varoufakis, the now-departed finance minister who is not technically a member of the Party, appointed an adviser who was part of a neo-liberal banking policy in Peru, there was an outcry and the adviser stepped down. A Syriza student activist reminds me that when Yiannis Panousis, a Syriza minister, authorised the police to invade the University of Athens (in Greece, universities are legal asylums and police are usually banned from entering) in order to evict an occupation staged by an anarchist group earlier this year, Syriza Youth called on the minister to resign, although for the moment he remains in post.

It is not lost on many activists that the question of how and how much Syriza’s party membership can order its ministers around is really just the latest chapter in a long history of insurgent movements that have found themselves in government. As Markopoulos puts it: “Because we’re new to government, the boundaries between party, government and state are not clear.” As well as spending its first five months in office fighting Greece’s creditors, Syriza is also pioneering a “new methodology of working”, re-casting the relationship between the government, the state and social movements. “You want to have control over the government, but you also need to be distinct from the government, you don’t want to be incorporated into the state.”

For the bulk of the European media covering Greece’s current crisis, the power and dynamism of Syriza’s grassroots – incomplete and developing though its everyday leverage may be – is not only incomprehensible, but subversive and threatening. What it represents is a new kind of politics – one which has swept to power not only in Greece but also across Spain and beyond.

As well as an outright rejection of neo-liberalism and a radical policy platform, all of these new movements are really about the future of democracy. Where the old politics could be understood in terms of high-level briefings from machine politicians and robotic advisers, the people who have called the shots and done the groundwork in Syriza are teachers, unemployed people, waiters and electricians – and it is from this fact that it derives its strength. As the crisis of European democracy rolls on, everyone – the media, the political establishment, the wider European left, and Tsipras himself – would do well to remember that. 

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