How Syriza Pulled Off an Improbable Victory

If the fear of the drachma’s return kept the hard Left at bay, Syriza also benefited from voter distrust of the right wing New Democracy party

The one who got away: File photo of Greek prime minster Alexis Tsipras. Credit: Fraktion DIE LINKE. im Bundestag/Flickr CC 2.0

YOU’LL NEVER BELIEVE HOW HE GOT AWAY: File photo of Greek prime minster Alexis Tsipras. Credit: Fraktion DIE LINKE. im Bundestag/Flickr CC 2.0

Earlier this week, the Syriza party – fronted by its young and charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras – won an emphatic victory in the Greek parliamentary election.

This result was unexpected as most opinion polls in the days prior to the election were showing Syriza and its right-wing rival, New Democracy running neck and neck with each on about 24-25%. The poor showing of Syriza relative to its position in January was generally attributed to the party leadership’s U-turn on the bail-out terms for Greece that they eventually settle for: having vehemently opposed the terms not once but twice – if we take into account not only Syriza’s January election pledge but also its ‘No’ position in the July referendum – there was much confusion and dismay amongst some sections of the Greek population and particularly amongst the young.

The Left Platform of Syriza – having split off to form their own Popular Unity party following Tsipras’s decision to call a fresh election – sought to tap into this dismay by arguing for continued rejection of the bail out terms laid down by Greece’s creditors. It seems that Popular Unity expected on the basis of this tactic to win a sizeable proportion of Syriza’s January vote, possibly making it the third largest party in the Greek parliament. This did not happen. On the contrary, Syriza lost only 4 seats (it now has 145 seats instead of the 149 it secured in January) in winning nearly 36% of the vote, while Popular Unity did not win a single seat having failed to win the minimum 3% of the vote required to qualify for entry into the Greek parliament. Two major reasons lie between these starkly contrasting fortunes of Syriza and Popular Unity.

The first concerns the crucial matter of Greece and the euro. Syriza made not one but two key promises in the January election: to fight the terms of the Troika’s memorandum, and to keep Greece in the eurozone.

Having failed, despite every effort, to keep both promises, the majority of the Syriza party under Tsipras’s leadership opted to accept the bail out terms as the price that had to be paid to keep Greece in the eurozone and avoid a ‘Grexpulsion’. This option may have been difficult to stomach but it was also the one that was more or less in line with the thinking of about 80% of the Greek population – who sensed from past experience that any return to the drachma would make the already parlous state of the Greek economy far worse.

Voters showed little enthusiasm for the drachma's return

Voters showed little enthusiasm for the drachma’s return

Levelling accusations of betrayal against the Tsipras leadership, Popular Unity went for the alternative option of continuing the fight against the bail out terms by exiting the euro and returning to the drachma. It knew that if it was to win any substantial support for its Grexit strategy, it had to convince the Greek people that a return to the drachma would not be economically catastrophic and that claims to the contrary were simply exaggerated. In this task it failed completely.

The second major reason for Syriza’s clear victory concerns the equally crucial matter of Greece’s modernisation.

Most of the Greek electorate know that after decades of corruption, clientilism, rent-seeking and so forth on the part of the Greek political and business elites, there now has to be a genuine, root-and-branch restructuring of Greece’s institutions.

The only serious question that had to be answered in this election was whether the right-wing New Democracy party could be entrusted with this restructuring or whether the left wing Syriza under Tsipras was more suited to the task. Given New Democracy’s dismal past record when in government and given that Syriza carried no such baggage, it is hardly surprising that the question was firmly answered in the latter’s favour.

Photis Lysandrou is a Visiting Professor, Department of International Politics, City University London