What’s in a name? A lot of confusion, when it comes to Syriza. It’s an acronym for the ‘Coalition of the Radical Left’ but it’s not, technically, a coalition. Yet it hasn’t adopted a typical, hierarchical party structure either, despite accusations within the English-speaking left.
A bit of history. When they formed, in 2004, Syriza was composed of a broad range of thirteen groups, including greens, eurocommunists, democratic socialists and eurosceptics. Throw in a bunch of independent politicians, and you got your motley crew. The largest group, from which the now-leader Alexis Tsipras hails, was, confusingly, itself a coalition of the left: Synaspismos means ‘coalition’ in Greek.
Despite some high polling (14% in 2008), the party was electorally a tiny force until 2011-2012, when it’s opposition to the harsh terms of the EU’s memorandum, and ability to work with and support anti-austerity social movements, propelled it onto the big stage. Coming out of the indignados movement in Greece and the occupation of Syntagma square, Syriza became the only party to capitalise heavily on these movements.
But to have a chance at future power, the coalition knew it had to restructure. It did so in 2012, unifying most of the groups into a loose party form. Interpreting this as a decision to ‘shift to the right’ is a misunderstanding of the Greek parliamentary system. If Syriza had not re-structured, it would have been impossible for them to govern. On winning power, they would not have been able to receive the bonus top-up of 50 parliamentary seats given to the winning party, a system intended to ensure strong government in Greece.
So are they now a traditional, top-down party? Not quite. Some organisations retain their relationship to Syriza as allied groups, and have not been incorporated into the single party. Members still often speak for their groups, or indeed speak their mind, rather than toeing the ‘party line’.
For example, Costas Lapavitsas, the SOAS professor and surprise candidate with Syriza, made his position clear on BBC HARDtalk last week. When asked what Syriza will do with the Euro, he replied: “The party’s line is to stay in the Euro and negotiate with our partners. I have for years advocated an exit from the Euro. And that’s fine.” The official position, voted on by a party majority, is to re-negotiate the country’s debt with its creditors.
Syriza’s logo, composed of three flags – red, green and purple – reflects this mix of groups and ideological standpoints. The party’s parliamentary spokesperson, Panagiotis Lafazanis, heads Syriza’s Left Platform, which openly lobbies within the party as a ‘left-wing opposition’. The charisma of Alexis Tsipras, by all means a “rock star” politician, has created a false sense of a top-down structure for the international press. Within the party, the leader is seen more as a caretaker, rather than policy enforcer. In fact, key figures inside Syriza have said they are looking to do the same with their ministerial make-up.
Can such a party keep it together once in power? Internal strife over possible party alliances was quelled in the interests of presenting a united front to the electorate, but this has only put a lid on a pot that seems ready to bubble over.
The world is watching, particularly Spain, whose newly ascendant party Podemos must decide on how to balance its radically democratic structure with the demands of power if it is to stand a chance at winning the December elections. It’s undoubtedly the time for a new kind of political party. Let’s hope that Syriza can lead the way.