The many transformations of Syriza

By Ioannis Vlastaris and Konstantinos Kostagiannis.

Some history: From one Coalition to another

The formation of Syriza (Coalition of Radical Left) as a unitary party is a recent development. Its Founding Congress only took place in July 2013. Syriza, however, existed as an electoral alliance for almost a decade before it became a party. It is as an electoral alliance that Syriza skyrocketed in the two rounds of elections that took place in 2012 and assumed the role of leading opposition in the Greek parliament.[1] When first established as an electoral alliance in 2004, Syriza was an attempt to bring together the left-of-social democracy SYN (Coalition of Left, Movements, and Ecology) and various smaller parties and organisations of the radical left. SYN was undoubtedly the major party [2] in this alliance, and was itself the remnant of an earlier short-lived coalition between KKE (Communist Party) and the Eurocommunist EAR (Greek Left). After the withdrawal of KKE in 1991, SYN continued to participate in national elections. Its results, however, revolved around the threshold of 3% and in the election of 1993 it failed to enter parliament. The formation of Syriza in 2004 did not immediately lead to a radical improvement in electoral performance. Indeed in the election of 2009, just before the outbreak of the debt crisis, Syriza secured only 4.6% of the vote. Between the elections of 2009 and those of 2012 there were two developments that affected Syriza’s composition. The social democratic wing of SYN left the party in 2010 to form DIMAR (democratic left) and in 2012 EM (Unitary Front), a splinter group of PASOK, joined Syriza.

Radical Left and the dilemmas of Integration

Syriza belongs to the emerging party family of the radical left. Parties of the radical left look forward to a “root and branch” change [3] of the political and economic system and seek to occupy the field between social democracy and extreme left. Consequently, Syriza displays a number of characteristics that form its radical left ideological and programmatic profile: it advocates a rejuvenation of democracy through the strengthening of social movements, promotes cultural liberalism, adopts a strong critical attitude towards neoliberalism and financial globalization, supports wider state intervention in the economy (Keynesianism), and, last but not least, takes a clear “eurocritical” (or “soft eurosceptical”) stance.[4]

The party’s position on the process of European integration is indeed of great importance for both its ideological orientation and its strategic political choices. The rising importance of the EU created a new “cleavage” within the radical left.[5] Criticism towards EU policies has become a substantial part of radical left’s distinct identity. As a result, however, radical left parties have been divided between those that reject the European integration on principle and those (like Syriza) that seek another path towards it. The formation of a party’s identity is a dynamic process, subject to a variety of influences. Whilst in the early 1990s SYN (Syriza’s major constituent party) declared its ‘Europeanism’ and voted for the ratification of the Maastricht Treaty, its outlook changed as it gradually embraced more Eurosceptic positions.[6] Last July’s agreement between the Syriza-led government and Greece’s creditors might have alleviated fears of a Grexit but it entailed the acceptance of policies that sharply contrasted with the party’s ideology and led to a split of the party.

Kindred by Choice: Syriza’s European allies

Syriza comprises of several organizations of the left ranging from social democracy to Trotskyism and Maoism. Given the limited amount of space available here we will focus solely on the connection of the most important constituent part of Syriza, i.e. SYN, to the European context. As mentioned above, SYN was originally formed as an alliance between KKE and EAR. This alliance could be seen as an attempt to re-combine the forces of the traditionalist KKE with the Eurocommunist elements that split from it in 1968.[7] After the withdrawal of KKE in 1991, what remained of SYN had a stronger Eurocommunist identity, operating in a catch-all framework which also attempted to incorporate parts of the new left, political ecology, feminism and others. SYN, and later Syriza, maintained close relations to parties of similar orientation around Europe such as the Portuguese Left Bloc, the French Communist Party, and the German PDS (later on ‘die Linke’). SYN was a founding member of the Party of European Left (EL) and indeed played an important role in the initiatives for its formation. Alexis Tsipras was EL’s nominee for the presidency of the European Commission in 2014.

“People” versus “Establishment”

Syriza tried to adopt a typical mass party organizational structure, based on a network of grassroots organizations. According to its statute, it seeks to create an open framework that promotes wide political participation. Additionally, as a radical left party, Syriza promotes political participation not only through party organizations, but also through a rich array of social organizations and movements. It is difficult to evaluate how successful such endeavours have been. There are certainly those, like former chief economic adviser G. Milios, who claim that post-2012 internal democracy in the party has been steadily receding in favour of more autonomy for the leadership.

Between 2010 and 2014, anti-austerity social mobilization through participation to social movements (such as “The Indignants”) was widespread in Greece and Syriza sought to assume responsibility for their political representation. The party tried to be recognized as the political link between these movements and the government, since it believed it could make anti-austerity social mobilization politically effective. This initiative became one of the most important parts of Syriza’s strategy towards its 2015 electoral victory.[8]

Pursuing this strategy, Syriza adopted a populist discourse. Whilst the narrative of “people versus establishment” became central [9], appeals to other political and social subjects (classes etc.) eclipsed. Along with this discursive choice, the promotion of Alexis Tsipras’ charismatic personality became crucial for the party’s endeavours to construct the image of a credible political power with strong and determined leadership. Syriza was anxious to show that, in contrast to other protest parties of the left, it was both capable and willing to come to power.

A future for Syriza?

Since the outburst of the debt crisis, Greece’s political system has been marked by successive bouts of instability. Giorgos Papandreou’s (PASOK) government, which had formally requested the international bailout for Greece in April 2010, resigned in 2011, to be replaced by a coalition government (PASOK, New Democracy, and LAOS) led by the former banker and European Central Bank vice president Loukas Papademos. During his term of office the second bailout was finalized (February 2012) and then elections were called for May and then, again, June as no government could be formed after the first elections.

The earthquake elections of 2012 radically altered the party system in Greece.[10] The dominant characteristics of the debate before the elections were: a profound dissatisfaction with corruption and political elites that hitherto ran the country, and controversy over the bailout.[11] In the wake of the election of January 2015 the social democratic PASOK had lost close to 90% of its 2009 voters in absolute numbers.[12] It was Syriza – a political space that PASOK voters felt more comfortable with despite its radical rhetoric [13]– that capitalised most from this collapse.

Syriza, as suggested by some commentators already after the European Parliament elections of 2014 [14], seems to have successfully established itself as the dominant centre-left party. Its success in maintaining that position, however, is far from assured. Having failed in its negotiations with Greece’s creditors, Syriza’s main goal should now be no less than the dismantling of clientelism and corruption that constitute the dual chronic malaise of the Greek political system. It faces after all, a demonstrably less forgiving electorate which in September 2015, and amidst an unprecedented abstention rate of 44%, only returned Syriza to government as “the lesser of many evils”.

About the authors

Dr. Konstantinos Kostagiannis is a lecturer in International Relations at Maastricht University. Ioannis Vlastaris has worked as a researcher at Institute of International Relations of Panteion University and presently pursues a degree in Political Science and History in Athens.


[1] The difference between a party and an electoral alliance is not negligible. According to the current electoral law (3626/08) the party that comes first in a national election is entitled to a bonus of 50 (out of 300) seats. In the case of an electoral alliance between several parties (like Syriza until 2013), however, the percentage they achieved has to be divided by the number of parties comprising that alliance. This makes it extremely unlikely that an electoral alliance would receive the bonus even if it came first in the elections. More discussion on this here (in Greek).

[2] According to Tsakatika and Eleftheriou, SYN accounted for “at least 80 per cent of its [Syriza’s] cadres, activists and voters”. Tsakatika, Myrto, and Costas Eleftheriou. “The Radical Left’s turn towards civil society in Greece: one strategy, two paths.” South European Society and Politics 18.1 (2013): 81-99.

[3] March, Luke, and Cas Mudde. “What’s left of the radical left? The European radical left after 1989: Decline and mutation.” Comparative European Politics 3.1 (2005): 23-49.

[4] Charalambous, Giorgos. “All the shades of red: examining the radical left’s Euroscepticism.” Contemporary Politics 17.3 (2011): 299–320; Μοσχονάς, Γεράσιμος. “Ριζοσπαστική Αριστερά: ο μετακομμουνιστικός χώρος σε αναζήτηση ταυτότητας”, Διεθνής και Ευρωπαϊκή Πολιτική, τ. 15, (Απρίλιος 2007): 233-242. Moschonas, Gerassimos. “Radical Left: the post-communist space in search for identity” (in Greek).

[5] Moschonas, Gerassimos. “The European Union and the Dilemmas of the Radical Left: Some Preliminary Thoughts.” Transform! (2011).

[6] Verney, Susannah. “An exceptional case? Party and popular Euroscepticism in Greece, 1959–2009.” South European Society and Politics 16.01 (2011): 51-79.

[7] This was not the first attempt. Eurocommunist KKEint (the predecessor to EAR) and the traditionalist KKEext also participated jointly in the first elections after the fall of the dictatorship in 1974. For a general discussion of the first steps of Greek Eurocommunism before the establishment of SYN see: Kapetanyannis, Basil. “The Making of Greek Eurocommunism.” The Political Quarterly 50.4 (1979): 445-460; also: Μπαλαμπανίδης, Γιάννης. Ευρωκομμουνισμός : Από την κομμουνιστική στη ριζοσπαστική ευρωπαϊκή Αριστερά. Πόλις (2015). Balabanidis, Giannis. Eurocommunism: From communist to radical European left. (In Greek).

[8] Spourdalakis, Michalis. “Left strategy in the Greek cauldron: Explaining Syriza’s success.” Socialist Register 49 (2013): 107.

[9] Stavrakakis, Yannis, and Giorgos Katsambekis. “Left-wing populism in the European periphery: the case of SYRIZA.” Journal of political ideologies 19.2 (2014): 119-142.

[10] Teperoglou, Eftichia, and Emmanouil Tsatsanis. “Dealignment, de-legitimation and the implosion of the two-party system in Greece: the earthquake election of 6 May 2012.” Journal of Elections, Public Opinion & Parties 24.2 (2014): 222-242

[11] Dinas, Elias, and Lamprini Rori. “The 2012 Greek parliamentary elections: Fear and loathing in the polls.” West European Politics 36.1 (2013): 270-282.

[12] Tsirbas, Yannis. “The January 2015 Parliamentary Election in Greece: Government Change, Partial Punishment and Hesitant Stabilisation.” South European Society and Politics (2015): 1-22.

[13] Βούλγαρης, Γιάννης. Η μεταπολιτευτική Ελλάδα 1974-2009. Πόλις (2013): 331. Voulgaris, Giannis. Greece of Metapolitefsi 1974-2009 (In Greek).

[14] Teperoglou, Eftichia, Emmanouil Tsatsanis, and Elias Nicolacopoulos. “Habituating to the new normal in a post-earthquake party system: the 2014 European election in Greece.” South European Society and Politics 20.3 (2015): 333-355.


Title picture: Thierry Ehrmann, Syriza logo, Creative Commons via Flickr


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