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Can the birthplace of democracy provide the seeds of its renewal?

The Syriza candidate for mayor of Athens is not promising to govern on the people's behalf, writes Hilary Wainwright, but together with a wide range of citizens' social organisations

May 24, 2014
6 min read

Hilary WainwrightHilary Wainwright is a member of Red Pepper's editorial collective and a fellow of the Transnational Institute. @hilarypepper

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In Athens, there are two kinds of ruins. Alongside the remains of the first fora of democratic government, there is the social devastation wrought by Europe’s most extreme austerity programme. Against this backdrop, people are going to the polls in the second and final round of a closely-fought election for mayor – and 33 year old newcomer George Sakellaridis, candidate for the radical left party Syriza, looks set to be the victor.

Syriza’s candidate has no experience of governmental politics at any level, and it is to the surprise and alarm of many commentators that he is leading the polls. Even the mayoral candidate for the government party New Democracy, defeated in the first round, is now supporting Sakellaridis – though with the remark that “he is a bit too young”.

This lack of experience is part of his appeal. Though it is also potentially a vulnerability, the indications are that he has managed to overcome the classic dilemma facing any would-be challenger to a discredited political class: how to gain credibility with voters without ending up looking like a normal politician? For Robert Michels, the early twentieth century originator of the fatalistic ‘iron law of oligarchy’ and theory of ‘the circulation of elites’, this is not a dilemma, it is a description of reality: young rebels do in fact invariably become the new elite.

If Gabriel Sakellaridis wins on Sunday, he will have taken the first step to overturn Michels’ denial of the possibility of genuinely democratic change. The established politicians in Greece are so discredited that a challenger has to convince voters that they are competent to govern in a radically yet reassuringly, different way. How he has done this indicates that the Athenian experience offers some insights for renewing democracy rather than simply replacing an exhausted elite with a younger, fresher one.

Lesson number one is an impressive team, clearly chosen for their practical talents and record in championing people’s needs rather than their ability to brownnose their political patron. The list of Athens candidates supported by Syriza includes people like Stella Protonotariou, a primary school head who started an evening school to teach Greek to the parents of her non-Greek students (about 50% of the school) and to employ teachers who could educate the children (who were mostly Albanian) in their mother tongue. She was prosecuted for using the school premises for ‘illegal activities’, but acquitted in court.

Others on the list include those involved in the many voluntary social health clinics springing up in Athens, and the wider ‘Solidarity for All’ networks of support for those made destitute by austerity. There are workers in the water company, who took a popular stand against the privatisation of water, alongside architects, archeologists, university professors and activists of many kinds – some who are independent of Syriza.

A second lesson in governing differently but convincingly is a commitment to decentralising decisions about the everyday quality of life to the neighbourhood and the people who know what is needed, through regular referenda and democratic participation in local budgets.

At the same time, however, Syriza has shown that this does not simply amount to populism. For example, when New Democracy and Golden Dawn candidates tried to stir up popular opposition to the building of Athens’ first mosque in the neighbourhood of Votanikos, Syriza defended the rights of Muslims to a public place of worship. A distinct politics then: power to the people, but on the basis of explicit principles publicly explained and argued for.

Sakellaridis’ programme involves radical policies that strengthen the networks of solidarity, such as ‘no-mediator’ food provision – food sold by farmers directly to the people. Over 40% of young Athenians have no paid employment, so addressing this is a high priority, as is ensuring stable, decent housing affordable to all. But the would-be mayor makes it clear that achieving these changes in policy is not a matter of bringing Syriza technocrats into office and implementing solutions themselves, simply through the machinery of local government.

Over its ten year history, Syriza has been part of citizen initiatives that have been acting directly in response to the problems Greek society faces. These citizens’ organisations have been the mayor’s allies in the campaign, and will continue to be so in government. For example, in 2006, there was a strong movement against the then-mayor’s decision to turn the old fish and meat market of Demotiki Agora into a car park. The movement led to an occupation of the old market and its transformation into a social centre for the community and school for migrants.

The mayor evicted the centre and the school six years later. But across Athens there have been many similar struggles, combining resistance and refusal with creative, constructive alternatives. In Kypseli, a densely populated poor area, there is a community solidarity project called To Mirmigi (‘the ant’). People there collect food donations from supermarket shoppers and give them to around 600 families in need.

They also organize a bi-monthly ‘no mediators’ flea market, bringing producers from the countryside to sell their products (rice, potatoes, cheese, olive oil) at cheap prices. These allies, to be found in different forms on every policy issue, provide the human capacity, energy and intelligence that would allow Sakellaridis to use the infrastructure of the council in a way that is shaped by local knowledge and need.

In this way Sakellaridis’ campaign is directly challenging a taken-for-granted feature of the social democratic parties Michels studied, the pre-condition for his ‘iron law of oligarchy’ to hold. That is a political culture which assumes that party supporters are culturally inferior to the leadership, that socialism “does not signify everything by the people, but everything for the people”. The term ‘rank and file’ runs through both Michels’ writings and the practise of the social democratic parties he analysed: those who march in pre-determined order, in contrast to ‘officers’ who have the prerogative of initiative and leadership.

Sakellaridis’ ability to distance himself from the political class, while at the same time convincing voters of his ability to lead an effective government, depends on a party whose political culture is, by contrast, one which recognises and encourages the capacity and self-organising abilities of its members and supporters.

This raises a new dilemma which will be facing Syriza as it prepares for parliamentary elections that the crisis-hit government could call at any time: how to maintain the coherence of a party in which the members and supporters are not treated as an obedient ‘rank and file’, but as creative and therefore opinionated individual political actors.

Athens is known as the birthplace of democracy. Can it also provide the seedbed of democracy’s renewal?

This article was also published at openDemocracy

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Hilary WainwrightHilary Wainwright is a member of Red Pepper's editorial collective and a fellow of the Transnational Institute. @hilarypepper

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