The results of the May and June 2023 elections no doubt have a historical dimension. The difference between the first two parties is the second largest recorded in the years after the regime change of 1974 -known as Metapolitefsi-, and for the first time since 1981, the Right-wing political bloc is in the majority, thus overturning a constant in the Greek electoral system.
This condition has left many feeling surprised or, even more so, with a sense and a concern that they have lost “touch with reality” or with “society out there”. There have been discussions about social media bubbles and the social and political echo chambers in which we live in. But this did not just happen to individual citizens or analysts. It ultimately also affected an entire political party. SYRIZA was faced with a crushing defeat. A defeat of its strategy as well as a strategic defeat since its role within the party system -as the opposition and an alternative government option- was challenged.
When trying to understand what really happened, two paths emerged: was it a communication issue or a political one? Usually, the answer to such dilemmas is: both.
By all accounts, the party’s campaign was a distinctly negative one. The overall communication campaign seemed to have problems in terms of its targeting and quality of implementation, which became even more apparent in the digital sphere and social media.
At a political level, the main issue was ambiguity. There was a lack of clear positions on a number of issues, plus sometimes party members expressed two different opinions on one issue and there was often an attempt to simultaneously satisfy both sides on certain given topic (for example: taxation, immigration, the Evros fence, armament plans). As a result, a share of the voters either did not know what SYRIZA’s position was on a number of issues or believed the party’s position to be different from the one officially advocated by SYRIZA. The responsibility for such situations never rests solely on the receiver of the message.
How were these two issues combined? The parties’ fundamental role is representation. This requires a two-way feedback process between the party’s base and its leadership. In order for it to fulfil its purpose, the base needs to be representative of the social strata that make up the party’s voters or of those that the party seeks to represent while also being active in those respective fields. The organisational framework and internal procedures adopted by a party must support this dual function of communication and responsiveness, which leads to the shaping and updating of the political discourse. The failing of this system has not been able to prevent the political and communication missteps mentioned above. But, what was it that caused them in the first place? Is there something deeper?
SYRIZA was operating as if it was part of a different political cycle than the one we are currently in. The party itself was instrumental in closing the previous cycle, with the formal exit from the memoranda and the Prespa Agreement, but it did not acknowledge this fact, didn’t accept it and did not adapt its discourse and actions accordingly. Ultimately, SYRIZA as a collective body could not clearly and convincingly express how it perceived its identity in a new political period with which it did not seem to be in sync.
All this is taking place in a political environment where parties are for various reasons losing their ability to adequately represent voters. When addressing this issue 1 – among others – Peter Mair resorted to the distinction between voters whose aim is to elect a government and those who wish to express their preference through the election process. In a multi-party setting – and especially within the simple proportional representation context – where a party has lost the will or ability to represent broad parts of society, voters either turn to an instrumental vote, or seek representation in smaller parties that are a similar or an alternative option outside the mainstream options, or ultimately abstain. The so-called “defeat of simple proportional representation” can’t be properly grasped outside of this context.
The assessment and/or thoughts regarding possible causes for the above can be combined with reflections on possible responses to it. One of the suggested solutions is “adaptation to reality”. This perspective sees “reality” as something that is independent of political action; something that is objective and calls for the adoption of a pragmatic attitude. In short, it is a call to accept the existing ruling framework. This kind of discourse has also existed in the past, based on the core notion of the “responsible governing party”.2
There is also, however, a different kind of “adaptation to reality” that is an adaptation based on reading the current conjuncture and the changes that have taken place and deciding to design alternative policies that respond to the demands and expectations of the people today. This is the way to shape an anti-hegemonic strategy.
Another possible solution is linked to the criticism of “human rights-ism”, i.e. the discourse in favour of social rights and freedoms, the anti-nationalist position, the emphasis on the planet’s future. This criticism is based on a presumed problems’ hierarchy, according to which such issues are not considered to be of the highest priority and instead sometimes they’re blamed for the alienation of a part of the electorate. This position should be addressed rather than discredited because, whatever the motive behind its expression, it touches on the issue of the transformation of left-wing parties into parties focusing exclusively on post-materialist issues.
However, avoiding this route is not the same as giving in when it comes to rights, especially at a time when the far right is on the rise and its discourse and arguments are increasingly being normalised. The answer is a perspective that sees the various demands, the environmental and climate issues, authoritarianism and democratic freedoms, minorities and social rights, economic demands and class struggles, as links of the same chain. 3
The Greek Left is at a crossroads. Alexis Tsipras’ stepping down from SYRIZA’s helm closes a historic circle and opens the discussion on the reconstruction of the broader political field of the Left, with a number of possible outcomes. The first step is the rejection of the logic of necessity and automatic developments. No political development has to occur or is bound to happen. Political action and intervention is what’s required.