Alexis Tsipras survived last night’s vote in the Greek parliament, but not without witnessing the disintegration of his own party. Three ministers and 39 Syriza MPs refused to support the new memorandum of understanding voted in last night. The deal was passed with opposition votes. Technically Syriza still has a mandate, but in reality it will be unable to govern without these opposition votes.
Among those who split away are renegade MPs from other parties that Syriza integrated before the last election to attract voters. The core rebels, though, come from the party’s hardline Left Platform. They include the ministers Panagiotis Lafazanis and Dimitris Stratoulis, who despite not voting for the deal refuse to leave office. A standoff also occurred with the speaker of parliament and the Syriza MP Zoe Konstantopoulou. Disliked by many for her outspoken manner, Konstantopoulou voted against her own party last night. Syriza now faces a split that is not only about the deal but also about who will shape the future of the party.
The large majority of Greeks who voted Syriza into power last February expected two things. First, they wanted Tsipras’s party to put up a fierce fight with the creditors because they believed the old political representatives had not. Second, they wanted Syriza to throw out the old regime established by vested interests and corrupt politicians. Tsipras had committed to do both – but questions on how prepared he and his party were to carry out this tremendous fight were never answered in a satisfying manner.
A year and a half ago, during a meeting with a leading Syriza policymaker who now holds high office in the government, I inquired whether Syriza ought to communicate in a more straightforward way that standing up to Brussels’ technocrats could have repercussions for the Greek people. He responded that a party in power would scare supporters away by telling them such things. Not only was it not a convincing explanation, it proved to be a self-deluded one.
During the last few weeks it has emerged that Syriza’s government had not only failed to communicate the risks of its diplomatic approach, but also that it lacked a coherent strategy in the first place. Tsipras simply did not have a very sophisticated plan for where Greece ought to go, and what price he would be prepared to pay to get it there.
This was an integral problem in the government and the party. To an extent it can be explained by the way Syriza grew from a marginal 4% party to become a dominant political force. After the double election in 2012, during which Syriza emerged as the main challenger to the old establishment, the party incorporated large numbers of people who did not share the political culture and ideological constraints of the party’s traditional rank and file.
During the party’s rise to power, many of its leading members also developed a more individualistic interpretation of their role. This process spawned numerous interest groups and personal political agendas within Syriza’s structures in a short time.
The absence of a clearly defined strategy initially helped to boost the numbers of party supporters
Over the past two years many people from the core membership of the party warned about this lack of cohesion, the organisational deficits, and the privileged access of oligarchs to their leaders. Nonetheless, these issues were never openly discussed.
A few important members and traditional allies of Syriza discreetly distanced themselves from the party or became bystanders to what they believed was an integration of Syriza into the old system. The majority preferred to tolerate wrongdoing for the sake of what they believed to be a greater common cause – taking on austerity and the corrupt political establishment.
It is now certain that Tsipras and Syriza failed to deliver anything different on the austerity front. But the rapid disintegration of his government and party is not mainly due to this failure. Not many people expected a triumph on this front anyway. The real reason is the disenchantment with the lack of clarity on strategic objectives, and most of all the absence of a consensus on where the red lines in the fight with creditors should be drawn.
The absence of a clearly defined strategy initially helped to boost the numbers of party supporters. But at the crucial moment it has resulted in a disastrous lack of cohesion.
Tsipras will not be able to stay in power without transforming Syriza into a political monster: a leftist party implementing a neoliberal programme with the votes of rightwing and neoliberal opposition MPs. He understands that another election is inevitable, but knows that calling an election will spell further economic trouble.
Published first in The Guardian Blog – Comment is Free