Anyone who is serious about democracy in Europe will need to think long and hard about yesterday’s Greek election result. Syriza’s rise to political influence in Greece has been a disaster for democracy. Syriza’s major political achievement has been to depoliticise the Greek people, to convince them openly to agree to being ruled by someone other than their own elected representatives.
The turnout at around 55 per cent was low. This should not come as a surprise. Local authority elections generally have lower turnouts and, since Alex Tsipras had already signed away Greece’s sovereignty in the bailout deal in July, Greek voters were being asked to vote for a government with the powers of a local authority. The largest group of voters supported Tsipras’s Syriza party, endorsing the view that austerity implemented by a party that claims to be against it is the best that can be done. As low political horizons go, these are minimal indeed. The idea that the Greeks’ should have a national government accountable to themselves rather than to the Eurozone was marginalized, with the breakaway Popular Unity party achieving less than three per cent and no seats in parliament.
Alex Tsipras has pulled off a remarkable political feat. He now has the opportunity to become the modernising new broom in Greece, a new broom to be wielded by the Eurozone’s technocrats. And he has done that off the back of months of militant populist posturing in the bailout negotiations. How has he achieved that this astonishing volte face? The pivotal moment was his U-turn after the No vote in July’s referendum. Having mobilized the Greek people for a show of defiance, he then cut the ground from under it by immediately agreeing to what the Eurozone wanted. To many this looked like a betrayal of the party’s anti-austerity mandate. But Syriza came to power in January on a contradictory political platform of no to austerity, yes to the Eurozone. Tsipras has exploited that contradiction effectively. He survived the U-turn because having led the Greeks to make a show of defiance in the referendum, they were prepared to resign themselves immediately to the bailout deal since that was all that was on offer from the Eurozone, they were committed to remaining within. And, having survived that, Tsipras has now renewed his mandate by decisively seeing off the anti-Eurozone left in his own party. The Greek people have in the process openly endorsed a political arrangement in which their government will be the servant of distant, unaccountable powers.
It would be a mistake however to attribute Tsipras’s achievements only to his political cunning and skill. No doubt he has some of these talents, but it has to be recognised that he owes his current position to the fact that the wider Greek left was in no position to give the Greek people any confidence in their own capacity to take their political destiny into their own hands. The left was unable to inspire the Greek people to free itself from the clutches of the European banks that are demanding and, courtesy of the Eurozone, getting kilos of its flesh. The left was unable to give a lead with a clear independent platform that explained what a disaster Syriza’s contradictory position would prove. As a result, when the crunch came in July, Greek citizens had nowhere to go, except to make their show of defiance and then resign.
The politics of the Greek bailout involve the relations of a small, peripheral European nation to the Eurozone. By contrast the politics of the forthcoming British referendum involve the relations of a major European nation to the EU. There are significant differences between the two situations. However there is one critical question that is common to both. Are our governments to be accountable to us, their citizens, or will we allow them to be accountable instead to other European governments before they are accountable to us? For the process of insulating governmental decision-making from popular accountability is common to both the EU and the Eurozone. The left’s problem with inspiring a self-confident democratic movement is far from unique to Greece. With Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party opting to subordinate domestic political accountability to the EU apparatus, the Greek debacle demonstrates the urgent need to begin to address the left’s historic failing and to make an unambiguous case for the sovereignty of the people.