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The battle within Syriza

Miri Davidson23 June 2015

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For many Syriza members, the proposals announced by Tsipras yesterday will represent less a "rescue" for the Greek people than a surrender to the punitive terms—and "delusional economics"—of the troika. We re-publish an article from Politico by David Patrikarakos examining the divergent views within Syriza that will determine its ultimate decision.

By David Patrikarakos, 18/6/15, updated 19/6/15.

I wait in the reception area of the Mégaro Maxímou, the office of the prime minister of Greece, a compact building with an understated marble façade that sits behind the national parliament on Syntagma Square in central Athens. I am here to meet Gabriel Sakellaridis, deputy minister to the prime minister, official government spokesman and one of the most powerful men in Greece. After about two minutes, Sakellaridis’s assistant, Yannis, emerges to greet me. He is in his early forties, and wears an earring, a dark T-shirt and battered denim jeans.

Syriza has shattered traditional norms of modern EU politics. From its incendiary anti-austerity rhetoric to its ear and occasionally nose-ringed political advisers, Greece’s governing party often seems more at home in the student unions of the country’s college Polytechnios than in the European institutions.

Certainly, no government of a European state has so directly challenged, and angered, the EU’s principal institutions and politicians. By many estimates, Syriza is the product of the damage done by the fiscal austerity measures ravaging the Continent; the product of the widening chasm between rich and poor; and the inevitable reaction to neoliberalism itself.

But Syriza’s perceived radical stance has led to a clash that now threatens to send Greece spinning into default, unable to pay its debts to the EU and the International Monetary Fund. While EU officials publicly express exasperation with what they view as the party’s failure to accept economic realities, Syriza’s leaders vow to stick to their anti-austerity manifesto. On Tuesday, June 16, Greece’s Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras condemned the “criminal responsibility” of his country’s creditors, who, he claimed, were “strangling” Greece.

Despite such rhetoric, Tsipras remains a moderate and a pragmatist within his party. He still represents the mainstream Syriza agenda (though perhaps now more uncertainly) to fight austerity while remaining in the eurozone. The European tendency to see the party as a single, homogenous extremist force is wrong. As Greece battles with its creditors, Syriza’s partisans battle among themselves. The result of their battle is what will ultimately determine the country’s future.

Sakellaridis, together with Tsipras, Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis and the speaker of the parliament, Zoe Konstantopoulou, heads up Syriza’s mainstream block. The spokesman is appropriately sanguine when I ask him whether he had expected the clash between Greece and its creditors: “Yes,” he replies simply. “We were not living in the clouds. We knew there would be reactions given our intentions. From the moment you elect a government opposed to a program imposed from abroad and agreed to by previous governments it’s difficult for the various institutions involved to admit there was a mistake, and that we were implementing an incorrect plan.”

Despite recent tensions, Sakellaridis remains clear on his party’s opposition to austerity. “In opposition, our criticism was focused on the fact that the austerity program was the wrong medicine given to a patient; a medicine that actually created more problems without solving the structural problems of the Greek economy,” he tells me.

Sakellaridis speaks in deft sentences; he rarely misses a beat and exudes an easygoing charm. He sells Syriza’s message well. “We believe that renegotiating the current program and relaxing austerity measures should have taken place before,” he says. “So this is something we are doing right now. And of course there is the issue of the sustainability of the debt, which is something you can’t sweep under the carpet. It’s an issue that even if we don’t want to discuss, we have to—it’s the elephant in the room. Everyone understands that right now it’s impossible for a country in Greece’s situation to make the payments in the way they have been set.”

But he is careful to be conciliatory. “We knew very well the problems our partners would have in their national parliaments and we respect all this,” he says. “We are not judging or criticizing them. We understand that it’s an objectively difficult situation for everybody. That’s why we want to have mutual and beneficial resolution.”

Sakellaridis laughs off talk of internal divisions within Syriza. But just a few days earlier at a meeting of the party’s central committee, the “Left Platform,” a loose grouping of around 25 to 30 MPs led by Energy Minister Panagiotis Lafazanis, argued that the government should end talks with its creditors and prepare for Greece’s exit from the EU. Their view received significant support even though Tsipras ultimately won overall support for continuing talks. “There is no danger of a schism within the party,” Sakellaridis assures me. “We have our own procedures and a tradition of open discussion and in unprecedented times it is normal for us to have these kinds of disagreements.”

He does concede, however, that there have been mistakes in what he describes as the coordination of party members’ rhetoric. “MPs say different things and this sometimes creates confusion, especially for people abroad who don’t understand the situation here,” he acknowledges. “As the government’s spokesman this is one of the main issues for me.”

Anti-austerity … pro-Europe … a united party: these sentiments, expressed by a man many predict to be a future Syriza leader, all represent the government’s official position, even as ties between the EU and Greece remain strained.

* * *

To walk through the corridors of the Greek parliament is to understand the country’s psyche. The walls are lined with old paintings and marble busts of long-dead politicians, which stand alongside modern leather couches. Borrowed money has bought designer art while creaking wooden elevators groan between floors.

The office of Alexis Metropoulos, the deputy speaker of the Greek parliament, is on the second floor. A former member of the Panhellenic Socialist Movement (PASOK), which governed Greece for decades, Metropoulos represents yet another faction within Syriza, still part of its mainstream but removed from Tsipras’s inner circle. Metropoulos is an old-school politician with decades of experience. An old hand with excellent political antennae, he now holds a senior position in the ruling government though his old party has imploded.

As deputy speaker, Metropoulos remains loyal to the party leadership, but in our talk, he was candid in describing the first few months of Syriza’s government. “The main issue is that we overestimated the willingness of Brussels to accept the result of the Greek elections,” he says. “The first 100 days of Tsipras’s government can be characterized by difficulty in achieving his goals because of pressure from Brussels. You can see a weakening of support among our voters: there is a general uneasiness. This is because the people clearly want an agreement to stay in the euro with the least possible pain or with a new memorandum.”

Statistics back him up. According to a June survey by the polling firm GPO, 70 percent of Greeks wish to remain in the eurozone, and are willing to accept more austerity to do so. The question is, just how much will they take? It is perhaps telling that Metropoulos believes the party’s greatest success so far has been more psychological than economic. “The real achievement,” he tells me, “is that for the first time the people feel we are negotiating toughly. This is completely different from previous governments and gives the population a sense of pride that was absent in recent years where it seemed like we were always being pushed around.”

He is even more blunt about the divide within the party. “It’s not a new disagreement between two parts of the party,” he explains. “It’s a basic ideological divide that has existed from the beginning between those on the left, who have their origins in the Communist Party and believe there are solutions to the crisis beyond the European project, and the majority, like Tsipras and myself, who believe the debt needs to be restructured but we must stay in the euro.”

This divide was also much on the mind of Syriza’s Parliamentary Spokesman and long-time publisher of the party’s newspaper AVGI, Nikos Filis, though he remained more upbeat when I speak to him a few days later. An imposing man with expansive body language, he is far removed from the sleek and polished Sakellaridis, though he is equally dismissive of the threat from the party’s far-left faction, especially of its ability to vote down any agreement Tsipras might reach with Greece’s creditors if it contains too many concessions.

“Any agreement that the government reaches will be voted through by the parliament,” he says. “Not everyone will vote for it. But for the first time in Greece we have a government of the left. Every single MP in government knows that and under no circumstances are they going to undermine it. Differences of opinion have always existed, but once the party is in power they become less important. Power is the glue that binds us together.”

A die-hard Syriza man, Filis is outspoken on his view of Brussels and its behavior toward Greece. “Our biggest mistake is that we never expected how ferocious the reaction from Brussels would be,” he says. “A reaction that is motivated by political not economic considerations—that’s for sure: they are policing us. We are facing an uncompromising, punishing response, aimed at both the Greek people and any other European country that might consider taking a similar path.”

* * *

A few days later I meet with a dominant voice of Syriza’s radical left. If Panagiotis Lafazanis leads Syriza’s Left Platform, its most articulate MP is Costas Lapavitsas, an economics professor from London’s SOAS University who understands both finance and Europe beyond Greece’s borders. We meet over coffee in his office in central Athens. Dressed in a blue short-sleeved polo shirt tucked into gray slacks, Lapavitsas represents the side of Syriza that Europe fears the most.

The toxic relations between Syriza and its creditors, he tells me, are no surprise to him. “I’ve lived abroad for long periods of time and I understand how European politics works in practice,” he says. “I don’t see it as merely a projection of Greek politics as many in Syriza do. So I understand the importance of institutions and the institutional dimension of politics—of politics as something beyond individuals and personal groups. Greek politics is of this variety: Jonny knows Jimmy; this group knows that group; and that’s how things get done. But that’s not how European politics works, and it’s very hard for Greeks to grasp that because their society is different. To me, it was always fairly clear from beginning that when Syriza went out to negotiate with the lenders that it would come up against this hard reality of European politics and there would be an enormous clash.”

Syriza’s manifesto, he tells me, is radical, but only as a result of the prevailing global political climate. So far to the right has the world moved, he explains, that even moderate Keynesianism is now seen as Bolshevism. “If you look at Syriza’s manifesto in historical terms it’s actually very modest, more modest even than PASOK three decades ago.”

So given those realities, what is Europe’s prevailing economic theory? “Dysfunctional neo-mercantilism,” Lapavitsas replies without hesitation. “The real problem with the eurozone is Germany—Germany is the delinquent country. There’s no two ways about it. It follows an utterly dysfunctional economic policy, which is basically to keep nominal real wages down with a view to gaining competitive advantage and thereby accumulate external surpluses, which is understood to be the source of wealth in Germany — this is why it is neomercantilism. The domestic economy is not doing well at all: a quick glance of the figures will tell you that.”

“But,” he continues, “they’re big exporters and the big banks are doing OK. Germany succeeds in accumulating these surpluses and therefore it has become the biggest lender in Europe, and as a result it has more power in Europe than at any other time since Hitler ruled the continent for a short period.”

I ask Lapavitsas whether, in light of his own provocative assessment of the situation, Syriza’s anti-austerity manifesto was unrealistic. “You’ve got to understand the power of Europeansim,” he replies. “It’s not very powerful in Britain, but it is on the continent, especially in the peripheral smaller, southern countries.”

And what is Europeanism? “It’s a mixture of things; it’s an ideology emanating from the core of the eurozone based on the idea of a Europe as a good thing in itself, which embodies all that is good about humanity. This is a powerful myth cultivated over two decades that has gained great traction amongst the left and you’ll find a very strong dose of it in large parts of Syriza. Europe is almost like a transcendental entity for these people. So it’s difficult for a lot of people in Syriza to believe that Europe is not like that. It’s very hard to give up on an idea.”

Lapavitsas favors a Grexit from the EU. He is on record as stating that the time has come for Greece and its partners to understand that “they are flogging a dead horse” and work together on a “negotiated, consensual, orderly exit.”

He knows the dangers involved: “Greece will suffer, but I favor it. Exit is not the answer; it’s the first step to avoid the disaster that the continuation of the bailout programs would bring. Greece is in a hole, and the first thing you do in a hole is stop digging. Greece has been digging for five years now.”

I ask him how likely he thinks the possibility of Greece exiting the eurozone now is. “It depends on the lenders,” he replies. “And they are doing their level best to ensure it because they’re arrogant and they don’t care, and they want to teach Greece, Syriza and anyone else of a similar inclination in Europe a severe lesson.”

When I note that Syriza remains committed to staying in the eurozone, Lapavitsas fixes me with a steady gaze. “A lot of people within Syriza, left or not, belatedly realize the world is not like they thought it was, and the platform they were elected on is unenforceable. It’s a bitter realization and it has forced them to reconsider the world in a violent way.”

* * *

Prime Minister Tsipras remains in a bind. Even those at the center of his party, like Zoe Konstanoupolu, who recently referred to the “illegitimacy, odiousness and unsustainability of a large part of what is purported to be the Greek public debt,” seem to be losing patience with the EU. And to make matters worse, he is new to the game.

In the 2009 legislative elections Syriza received a mere 4.6 percent of the vote. Just under five years later it took power in a snap election in January 2015 with 36.3 percent of the vote. Greek disgust with austerity smashed a decades-old political order. The result has been the emergence of a party with absolutely no experience of government leading the country through one of the greatest ever crises in its modern history.

So Tsipras must be commended. As George Pagoulatos, an economics professor at Athens Business University, points out, after Greece’s equivalent of the Great Depression (the country has lost 25 percent of its 2008 GDP) a huge political shake up was inevitable.

“The fact that Tspiras incorporated the victims of the crisis under a radical and populist left wing agenda that was not anti-European is something he should be credited for,” he says.

“He has prevented those who have suffered from the crisis from going over to more extreme parties like the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn. Syriza is populist, it has made silly promises, but it’s not anti-democratic. It’s better than the alternatives.

“Even more important, if Tsipras manages to incorporate the radical left into some sort of pro-European left-wing mainstream, then that will be good for himself and for Europe because it will show that Europe is an open house for all kinds of democratic forces.”

If Tsipras is able to do that he may yet have a chance of saving Greece. As I walk through the streets of central Athens and see the burgeoning numbers of homeless people and drug addicts, it is clear this country needs saving. Could he be the man to do it—as unlikely as it now seems? If he is, he will create a significant legacy for himself, and for his party—or, as Pagoulatos suggests, whatever is left of his party, because the painful concessions required will mean parting ways with many of those who once followed him.

David Patrikarakos is a journalist and the author of “Nuclear Iran: The Birth of an Atomic State.” Follow him on Twitter @dpatrikarakos.

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