SYRIZA pulled off a remarkable victory at the September 20 Greek election. Although burdened by its acceptance of the draconian austerity measures in the third memorandum imposed by Greece's creditors and eight months of rule in the midst of recession, closed banks and capital controls, SYRIZA's vote fell by only 0.88% and its parliamentary seats by just four.
On September 20, SYRIZA won 35.46% and 145 seats. At the January 25 election it won 36.34% and 149 seats. Its lead over the main opposition party, the conservative New Democracy, fell by only 1.17%, from 8.53% in January to 7.36% today.
The ND vote increased marginally, from 27.81% to 28.1%, but it lost a seat, falling from 76 to 75.
In January, SYRIZA was the leading party in 42 of Greece's 56 constituencies and ND in 14 — figures that remained the same. SYRIZA overtook ND as the leading party in three regional constituencies, while ND replaced SYRIZA as leading party in another three.
This result flew in the face of all the opinion polls, which had SYRIZA winning by 3% at most. Nearly all polls had the election too close to call, while some had ND winning. No one remotely predicted the size of the left coalition's win.
All the pre-election commentary was of a weakened SYRIZA or ND having to govern in coalition with some combination of the social-democratic Pan-Hellenic Socialist Movement (PASOK) or The River, the hipster party of cool urban professionals.
Yet the September 20 result lets SYRIZA to repeat its governing alliance with the socially conservative right-nationalist Independent Greeks (ANEL).
Within SYRIZA confident predictions, like those of labour and social solidarity minister Giorgios Katrougalos, had looked very rash.
Katrougalos had told the September 17 French weekly Politis: “We are going to win the elections. I am very optimistic because in Greece there are two political fronts.
“One is the same as that of other peoples in Europe, of opposition to neoliberalism. The other front, specific to our country, pits us against the oligarchy and the system of political and economic corruption which ruled up to January 25.
“I'm confident that our experience of a left government will not be stopped and that we will be given a second chance.”
The most plausible explanation for the result is that SYRIZA's relentless warnings against the threat of an ND win induced people — especially the young — who were leaning towards abstention or a vote for other left parties to stick to the left coalition.
Petros Markopoulos, a former member of SYRIZA youth's management committee who resigned after Tsipras agreed in July to the the creditors' bailout conditions of extreme austerity, expressed this sentiment, telling the September 14 Financial Times: “If SYRIZA loses this election, then we will see a total collapse of the left…
“Sure, SYRIZA has not achieved the revolution we hoped. But we have to do all we can to ensure they win now. Then the debate on our future can restart.”
The two main victims of this pull on disappointed SYRIZA voters were the Communist Party of Greece (KKE) and Popular Unity (PU), the left split from SYRIZA of outright opponents of the July 13 memorandum agreement led by former energy minister Panagiotis Lafazanis.
All but the very last polls gave PU between 3% and 4%, enough to get the new formation over the 3% threshold for parliamentary representation with between eight and 13 seats. Yet the final result for PU, which accepts that Greece probably needs to leave the Eurozone, was only 2.86%, leaving it out of the parliament altogether.
This compares with the 25 seats previously held by MPs from SYRIZA's former Left Platform, which forms the core of of PU.
The KKE averaged 6.4% in polling before September 20, up from as the 5.47% won in January. Yet its final score was only 5.55%, leaving its representation in parliament unchanged at 15 seats.
The setback for non-SYRIZA left forces was compounded by the decision of Anti-Capitalist Left Cooperation for the Overthrow (ANTARSYA) not to join the PU ticket. Its own vote increased from 0.64% to 0.85%, but if it had stood with PU on a joint ticket this would have passed the 3% threshold.
The decision of former finance minister Yanis Varoufakis to sit out what he called a “sad” election also weakened the position of the non-SYRIZA left.
His initial analysis, published in the September 21 Guardian, stated: “Popular Unity failed stunningly to exploit the grief felt by a majority of 'No' voters following Tsipras’ U-turn in favour of a deal that curtailed national sovereignty further and boosted already vicious levels of austerity.
“POTAMI [The River], a party positioning itself as the troika’s reformist darling, also failed to rally the smaller 'Yes' vote.”
SYRIZA's win was achieved with 320,000 less votes than it won in January. There were 764,500 extra abstentions at this election compared to January 25.
In a country where voting is formally compulsory and 9.84 million are on the electoral roll, on September 20 only 5.567 million (56.57%) bothered to vote. This is 600,000 less than in the July 5 referendum and the lowest participation rate since Greece's military dictatorship was overthrown in 1974.
PASOK, running in this election on a joint ticket with the Democratic Left (DIMAR, a 2010 split from SYRIZA which lost all 17 of its MPs in January), was the only party with parliamentary representation to actually raise the number of people voting for it. Its tally rose from 319,000 to 341,000 — 5.15% to 6.29%.
The only other party to lift its vote haul — and enter parliament for the first time — was the Union of Centrists (EK). Established in 1992 as a middle-of-the-road “alternative” to the PASOK and ND dynasties, EK scored 3.43% (186,500 votes and nine seats), compared to 111,000 votes (1.79%) in January.
This result indicated that its neither-left-nor-right-but-little-people-first message could win support in the confusion produced by the imposition of the third memorandum.
All the other parties, including those whose share of the vote increased, received less votes at this poll than on January 25. The neo-Nazi Golden Dawn, whose share increased from 6.28% to 6.99% (up from 17 seats to 18) even as its total vote fell from 388,000 to 379,500.
It would have been surprising had abstention not risen. The euphoria of the overwhelming victory for the “No” vote in the July 5 referendum on the “final offer” of Greece's creditors' turned into confusion and demoralisation once the SYRIZA-led government — facing European Central Bank threats to turn off liquidity to Greece's insolvent banks — accepted the harsh conditions of the third bailout.
In the run-up to September 20, media coverage on the mood among SYRIZA's most active supporters, especially the young, stressed feelings of betrayal, tiredness and disgust with politics.
Nonetheless, despite the rise in apathy, the turmoil and membership loss within SYRIZA, pre-election polls showed the left coalition was maintaining the support of at least 85% of those who had voted for it on January 25.
There are three basic reasons why. Firstly, the government's six-month-long struggle to win an acceptable deal was seen by many as the best that could have been achieved in the face of the blackmail of the European Commission, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund (the “Troika”).
The argument that an alternative course was possible without sooner or later ending in “Grexit” seems not to have convinced many, if the vote won by PU and the KKE is an accurate indicator.
Secondly, the SYRIZA-led government at least started to implement some aspects of the “Salonika Program” on which it was elected.
These measures included free electricity for more than 200,000, food vouchers for 350,000, an accommodation program with rent subsidy for 30,000 families and cuts to various health care and hospital payments.
The government also provided tax and social security contribution relief for 750,000 individuals and small businesses, reopened public radio and television, and started to go after the big tax evaders.
According to Leo Panitch, co-editor of the Socialist Register and a close observer of Greece: “The humanitarian stuff they introduced immediately in February, right after they were elected, has not been pulled back, and it's had an enormous impact on the people who are suffering the most.”
Thirdly, the SYRIZA government is still regarded as the first honest administration in contemporary Greek history. Despite its defeat in the battle with “Brussels”, SYRIZA is still viewed as a break with traditionally corrupt Greek politics as represented by ND and PASOK.
A secondary reason, according to Channel 4's Paul Mason on September 21, was SYRIZA's policy of closing refugee detention centres and helping refugees to move through Greece to destinations in northern Europe: “I got the a sense last night [at a dinner with some SYRIZA voters] that even people disgusted with the party's climb-down over austerity voted left because they wanted to avoid the conservatives taking charge of Europe's front line.
“Any return to tight border policing, round-ups and preventing migrants from moving out of Greece would have plunged this country into immediate chaos.”
[Dick Nichols is Green Left Weekly's European correspondent, based in Barcelona. A much longer version of this article can be read at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal.]