From protest to power: the transformation of Syriza

Marina Prentoulis reports on how Greece’s left party Syriza is taking power with a new kind of organisation

January 26, 2015
6 min read

What are the challenges facing a small leftist alliance when it suddenly emerges from a marginal electoral position to become first the main opposition party and then the government? How can its internal organisational structures be transformed in accordance with its enlarged political power and grassroots base? These questions have been central to the transformation in the status and nature of Syriza, Greece’s extraordinarily successful new left party, since it received 27 per cent of the vote in national elections in 2012 and became the second biggest party in the Greek parliament.

The success of Syriza is down to two separate but intertwined processes: first, an outward-looking effort to extend its appeal to wider social strata; and second, an internal transition from a coalition to a pluralistic but unified party.

The party emerged from the social and political turmoil resulting from the economic crisis in Greece after the then prime minister George Papandreou announced in 2010 that the country was unable to meet its debts. In order to obtain a rescue loan, Greece was forced to submit to the extreme neoliberal austerity measures imposed by the ‘Troika’ of the European Commission, European Central Bank and IMF. The protests of the aganaktismenoi, the Greek counterparts of the Spanish indignados, indicated a general crisis of political representation and the May 2011 movement’s diverse demands included a defence of national economic sovereignty, an end to the severe austerity measures and radical change in a political establishment that offered no alternative to neoliberalism.

The anti-neoliberal sentiment resonated with Syriza’s programme. As the leading counter-hegemonic force in representational politics and the key agent in taking the demands of the aganaktismenoi into party politics, it positioned itself against both the Greek political elite and the Troika. In the May 2012 national election it almost quadrupled its vote to 16.7 per cent, up from 4.6 per cent in 2009. When another national election followed in June, Syriza came second with 26.9 per cent. The right-wing New Democracy received 29.7 per cent and entered into a coalition with Pasok (the Labour Party equivalent) and the Democratic Left.

Until then, Syriza had functioned as an electoral coalition rather than a fully-fledged party. Between the two elections, however, Syriza’s leader, Alexis Tsipras, announced its transformation into a broader democratic entity that would ‘represent a new social alliance from a broader political spectrum, reaching even traditionally right-wing voters and forming the conditions for a new political coalition’. Tsipras acknowledged as essential to this ambition the need, on the one hand, to bridge the different political positions within Syriza and, on the other, to link Syriza with wider social strata.

Opening up

The opening up of the organisation to the aganaktismenoi – symbolically inaugurated with the addition of the acronym EKM (United Social Front) to the party’s name – has been crucial to both its identity and its chances of electoral success. As the party’s manifesto states, ‘Syriza is coordinated with the social movements and popular demands… A left government will come about as the product of this huge popular movement.’

Syriza has seen its role not as ‘leading’ these diverse movements but operating alongside them and providing an effective electoral vehicle for their demands. With this in mind, the nature of its transformation to turn it into a potential party of government was also driven in part by Greek electoral law, which allocates an extra 50 seats in parliament to the party that tops the poll in a national election. Only a unified national party, with a clear identity, programme and voice, could achieve this ambition.

From 2004 to 2012, Syriza functioned as an electoral coalition with a consensus-based decision-making process. Its constituent organisations retained their organisational autonomy. The largest of these was Alexis Tsipras’s own organisation, the Coalition of the Left, Movements and Ecology (Synaspismos). When, in May 2012, Syriza submitted its application to the supreme court to register as a single party, Tsipras also announced the dissolution of Synaspismos and invited the other organisations in the Syriza coalition to do likewise. It was proposed that Syriza should reconstitute itself as a single party based on individual membership.

Syriza’s 2013 conference

This didn’t get immediate or unanimous approval. The new party’s founding conference in July 2013, attended by some 3,500 delegates elected by the local members’ organisations, was marked by intense debate. A compromise was agreed giving ‘reasonable’ time to the organisations to dissolve or cease to maintain their separate public identities. Instead, individual members were encouraged to join ‘tendencies’, promoting collective positions within the party – and publicly too, as long as they specified that they did not express the official position of the party.

Profound impact

The appeal of Syriza to a wider social base externally and the unification of its constituent organisations internally are both having a profound impact on the participatory potential of Syriza as a new kind of left organisation. The process has resulted in inevitable tensions and difficulties as the previously established grassroots base has adapted to the newly-formed local groups within Syriza. These are more inclusive and open not only to party members but also ‘friends’, thus inviting a much broader composition to the party. At the same time, however, they are dominated by the organised and established ‘majority’ and ‘minority’ tendencies, which control elections within the party, such as delegates to the party conference or members of its central committee.

Nevertheless, various Syriza initiatives show a new commitment to popular participation. For example, following the launch of Syriza’s economic programme at the international fair in Thessaloniki, public assemblies were organised to open a consultation process between party officials, members and the general public. It is the first initiative of this kind in Greece and its significance has been marked by the impressive attendance of a public eager to hear the party’s proposals.

Another initiative has been the creation of the umbrella organisation Solidarity4All. Its aim is to link the different autonomous solidarity groups operating in Greece in a network to facilitate exchange of knowledge and information and increase their online and offline visibility. The solidarity groups, some organising wholesale markets, others collective kitchens, social clinics and/or cooperatives make up an important grassroots network offering direct practical aid in the face of a humanitarian crisis and engaging citizens in a active, participatory movement.

Although many activists are impatient for a quicker, more far-reaching movement towards an active, participatory democracy, Syriza has laid some, albeit not fully fledged, foundations for a different type of democratic politics.

Marina Prentoulis is a senior lecturer in media and politics at the University of East Anglia