Building a counter-hegemony of the Left? First thoughts on the May 2014 European elections in Greece

by Giorgos Katsambekis

Sunday, May 25th, was definitely another landmark in Greece’s modern political history; another episode in the massive realignment of its political system that is still underway. It was the day that for the first time in its democratic history a political party of the radical left came first at a national poll. Syriza, the political party that emerged two years ago from the margins of the political system to become a legitimate contender for political power and a major inspiration for leftists throughout Europe, managed to surpass the governing party, New Democracy (ND), by 3.9%. The two coalition parties lost around one-third of their support.

However, this is in no way a sign that the Greek society is ‘leaning to the left’. A significant part of the electorate (around 9.5%) chose to vote for the extremist neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party, at a time in which its leader (along with several of its MPs) is in jail, prosecuted as the head of a criminal organization, and the extremist and openly violent character of the party is widely acknowledged. What is more, LAOS received nearly 3% of the voters, bringing back from the dead the extreme right-wing xenophobic party that had collapsed in the 2012 elections, after participating in an EU-backed government coalition with ND and PASOK back in 2011. In this context, Greece occupies now a peculiar place within the European landscape. While in many countries of Europe one sees an unprecedented rise of the extreme-right – with France being here the most emblematic case – Greece sees a party of the radical left leading the polls. But this is counter-balanced by the fact that the same country gives rise to the most extreme and violent neo-Nazi party throughout the continent; a party whose members are already prosecuted or convicted for crimes with racist incentive. How can we start to move around this political puzzle?

It seems safe to assume that the anti-status quo sentiments of a significant part of the Greek society, which were brewed by the crisis, are still very active and likely to guide their political choices. The fact that the country, after the harshest austerity programme of its modern democratic history, has seen no sign of actual improvement (the debt is still rising, unemployment is soaring at approximately 28%) is leading voters further apart from the parties that governed during those years and are identified with the failing austerity programmes. The only coherent narrative that combines a passionate rejection of the status quo with a strong demand for a fairer redistribution of wealth and power, purporting to return power to ‘the people’, is that of the left. And this is one of the main reasons why the left is gaining ground: because it is probably the only political party that patiently (and, certainly, not without contradictions and setbacks) has been trying to build a counter-hegemony; an alternative to the mainstream.

The results seem also to vindicate Mouffe’s claim that the only effective way to deal with the extreme-right parties in today’s Europe is through the cultivation of a left-wing populism that will claim ‘the people’ back from its xenophobic and anti-immigrant appropriations, channelling their grievances towards the radicalization – not the rejection – of democracy. This may also be the case in Spain, where we have seen the impressive rise of a novel party of the left (Podemos) born out of the movement of the indignados. For now, of course, this is just a hypothesis that we have to work upon. The transitional phase that Europe has entered still holds much in store.

First Published in Roman Gerodimos (ed.), First thoughts on the 18 & 25 May 2014 elections in Greece, GPSG PAMPHLET #3, June 2014, p. 29, (.pdf)  and ΧΡΟΝΟΣ 14 (06.2014)