The victory of the left wing Syriza party in Greece’s national elections last week has given heart to many people across Europe who want to see an end to the austerity policies which have mired millions in deep poverty in recent times.
For the past few years, the party’s priorities have been dominated by measures aimed at stopping the slide into impoverishment for the mass of the Greek people, with the demand to renegotiate the terms of the European Commission and European Central Bank bail-out of the economy taking absolute central place.
But in addition, there has been a social dimension to Syriza’s political platform, with its 2014 ‘governmental programme’ listing 40 action points which included demands for equal pay between women and men, an end to state privileges for the Orthodox Church, and a guarantee of the human rights of migrants held in detention centres. In the context of the social conservatism of much of Greek society, assiduously protected over the years by governments of both the centre right and centre left, the programme clearly signalled the intention of the new party to come at a wide range of issues with radical, reforming intentions.
Unsurprisingly, Greece’s beleaguered ethnic minority and migrant communities and their supporters amongst the country’s citizens have been actively involved in building the wave of support that swept Syriza into its position of being the largest party in the parliament elected on 25 January. Severely battered along with most Greeks by the draconian austerity policies, visible minorities and migrants have also borne the brunt of the violence emanating from the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn outfit.
Given the role played by anti-racists in generating the social movement, which has brought Syriza into governmental office, there has been much concern expressed at the decision of party leader, Alex Tsipras, to choose the right wing Independent Greeks (or ANEL in its Greek acronym) as his coalition partners.
Tsipras has been open and frank in explaining his choice, saying that the priorities of the moment require a partner that is committed to opposing austerity. Maybe, but does this mean that other elements of Syriza’s social platform, such as gender and race equality, be the subject of negotiation in order to achieve solidarity between the government parties?
The early signs suggest that the left wing party intends to hold ANEL at bay when comes to these issues of principle. An indication of this came at the earliest moment after the election when Tsipras refused a blessing from a bishop, giving a strong signal that there would be no privileged relationship in dealings between the church and state under a Syriza-led government.
The allocation of ministerial portfolios has also provided the opportunity to make the point that the right wing party will be limited in its capacity to influence social policy. With ANEL ministers in charge of defence and tourism, there is a feeling that a cordon sanitaire will, for the time being at least, hold them back from undue influence over policy areas that really matter to progressives.
More concrete evidence of the red lines marking out the differences between the parties has come from one of the earliest legislative measures Syriza has submitted to Parliament. A long-standing bone of contention has developed around Greece’s nationality laws which are strongly skewed in the direction of an ethnic identity, which wraps around the sort of conservative Hellenic ‘values’, including commitments to the Orthodox religion and an outmoded version of family structure, which immigrants and other migrants have not wished to assimilate. Because of this, the country has a poor record with regard to the naturalisation of foreign-born residents and their children.
Syriza’s new immigration minister, Tasia Christodoulopoulou, has promised that under the proposed nationality bill, all children of immigrants would get citizenship. ANEL’s leader, Panos Kammenos, has made it clear that his party’s 13 MPs will not vote for this measure, marking the first major rift in the government coalition. Syriza expects to carry the day however, relying on the support of other left wing parties who are not members of the coalition.
Skirmishes of this sort are likely to work in favour of Syriza during the early days of its involvement in government for as long as the Greek public sees it as the best hope of negotiating down the austerity measures demanded of it by the ‘trioka’ of the European Commission, the European Central Bank, and the IMF – the bodies overseeing the bailout conditions imposed on the economy. But longer term problems will emerge if progress is not recorded on the anti-austerity front and the country’s politics revert to the right-leaning nationalism, which has its default position across the decades. As other commentators have noted, xenophobia and anti-immigration has mattered deeply to the parties of the right wing in Greece in ways which run much deeper than internationalism and anti-racism have meant for the left.
Progressively-minded people across Europe will be earnestly wishing the new government all the best in its campaign over the next few weeks to get the rest of the continent’s elites to back-off from austerity. But in any event Syriza will need to move fast to buttress its standing on the social policy issues that call for radical measures in relation to equality and anti-racism. Its anti-corruption stance and measures aimed at stamping out the levels of tax evasion which have swept in virtually the whole of the country’s middle classes will need to be pushed forward by a coalition that reaches deep into all those parts of society, which have been pushed to one side by the policies of previous governments. These will have to include people from the ethnic minority and migrant communities, who alongside the majority of ordinary Greek citizens, have the most reasons for wanting to see Syriza fulfil its radical mission.