Recent leadership gatherings of Socialists and Democrats have included Alexis Tsipras, prime minister of Greece and leader of SYRIZA. SYRIZA is a self-proclaimed radical leftist party in a governing coalition with Independent Greeks (ANEL), a radical right-wing nationalist party. To many of us, such an invitation raises serious doubts regarding the protection of the deeply rooted and long-held values and principles of social democracy. SYRIZA’s participation, even as an observer, sends out disturbing key messages to public opinion:
1. Electoral victory is not subject to ethical political rules and systematic lies are acceptable. A plethora of lies and/or broken promises catapulted SYRIZA into power: abolition of the bailout agreement, expulsion of the troika from Greece, raising the minimum wage and pensions to pre-crisis levels, annulling agreements signed by previous governments, and many more unattainable and false pledges. The (disastrous) referendum and the second round of the 2015 elections reaffirmed SYRIZA’s dominance, finished off an already ruined economy, and cynically exploited voters’ raised hopes and expectations. Conclusion #1: Radical left-wing populism gains ground in the name of the poor and desperate only to completely betray them immediately after.
2. The quest for power is not inhibited by ideological boundaries. The sitting Greek government is dependent on an alliance with the nationalistic right-wing populist party. This alliance is not backed by any programmatic agreement; it merely rests on sharing power by offering ministerial positions. Conclusion #2: Nationalistic populism is settled comfortably in government wearing both its right- and left-wing faces.
3. The SYRIZA-ANEL government’s domestic strategy follows all rules of demagogy by the book; it aims for party-led control of the state and its institutions; democracy is already sliding off the edge. The prevailing norm is systematic propaganda about the threats from external and internal enemies of Greece – the former being “neoliberal” Europe and the latter the entire entrenched political system. Clientelism is strengthened instead of confronted, a not-so-subtle effort is under way to secure control of three pillars: the state, justice and media. Concurrently, any proposal made by the troika is eventually accepted even when it is evident that it will not deliver. Conclusion #3: “Progressive” leaders do not seem to be concerned with respect for democracy’s core values and principles, perhaps not even at face value.
In what context is this occurring? We are uncomfortably concerned and, I dare say, rather passively witnessing the transformation of the European Union’s political landscape. Populism is resurging and consistently becoming a rising force across Europe, as well as leaving an imprint in the US, regardless of the election outcome. It is manifested across the political spectrum, with left- and right-wing varieties, adapting its message accordingly. It either “defends” the poor revolting against the elites and neoliberalism, or the country’s national identity against Islamists and foreigners by thriving on xenophobia and isolationism. A simplistic view and exploitation of stereotypes, cultivation of fear, enemy creation and hatred, nostalgia for a beautified past and consistent blaming “others” for any ills are shared attributes of both sides.
Traditional European parties have been losing ground on both the right and the left. They failed to sustain their balanced mixture of inclusiveness and versatility. They failed to continue on a path of prosperity for all as rising income and wealth inequalities have squeezed the middle class. Traditional politics are no longer immune; there is a danger of increasing disrepute and discredit across the whole EU. The citizens’ vote is increasingly becoming an “anti-establishment vote.” It is rage and punishment that guides choices, not political affiliation. Demagoguery at its best.
There is no doubt that the job of politicians is becoming more and more challenging as we are truly entering a new era in democracy’s function. A function shaped by new stakes, different dividing lines and new narratives against a background of globalization, multiculturalism, security fears and technological advances that will unleash new opportunities while redefining work and consumption. Progressive leaders have so far failed to devote even a whisper to the new era we are entering, its challenges and consequences. Instead, narratives of past eras are merely reiterated without any attempt to offer any fresh proposals to address those challenges.
Greece is at a defining turning point. The country needs to face the reality of its situation, unite and mobilize its best available human capital and follow a rational and yet a vision-inspired path. A revitalized, new political system has to devote time, commitment and effort to rebuilding credibility, fully restoring democratic function, and igniting and sustaining growth and prosperity. First and foremost though, the monster of populism must be crushed for good. Now, it is continuing to feed on mistakes of the past, the failures of the reform program and the desperation of the people after the prolonged period of austerity. As long as populism remains powerful it will continue to appeal to people and attract more followers, eventually fatally poisoning any healthy prospects for the country’s future.
Our natural allies in this effort, progressive parties are sending mixed signals by embracing disguised populist radicals of the left. We should be clear and make an important distinction: Governmental cooperation within the EU Council is required and should be sought. However, integration and political cooperation within the progressives’ family is a quite different thing.
European social democratic leaders should seriously consider how looking the other way undermines their credibility in the public eye. They should be concerned about the damage inflicted on the prospects of reviving a viable and vibrant Greek political system. And, at the end of the day, they should also consider whether such an approach encourages and strengthens potential populists across the EU.
Europe’s progressive forces will be judged by their ability to set the new agenda and by their power to protect democracy’s core principles and values against the rise of populism. This is becoming an absolutely vital task. Populism has always been far more than just a threat – it is an executioner, of democracy, societal development, and of peace.
* Anna Diamantopoulou is the president of Greek think tank DIKTIO, for reform in Greece and Europe (www.todiktio.eu).