Kira Gartzou-Katsouyanni, research assistant in European Studies, analyses the differences in views expressed by Syriza towards Europe, and in particular Germany, during its winning electoral campaign, and the views now portrayed in Syriza’s party newspaper since coming to power in January 2015. What implications may this have for the future of Greek negotiations with creditor institutions, and what is actually the mandate of the Greek government?
Over the last three years, I have been closely following the coverage by Syriza’s party newspaper Avgi of the Greek debt crisis, as part of a collaborative research project on the coverage of the Eurozone crisis by the Greek and German print media. The ongoing negotiations between the Greek government and the creditor institutions, as well as the prospect of a Greek government ‘rupture’ with Europe and exit from the Eurozone, today acutely raise the question of what the Greek people want. Can Avgi’s coverage of the crisis during last winter’s election campaign tell us something about the will of the Greek people that it could not explicitly express in the national elections held on 25 January 2015?
A shift to a more moderate rhetoric?
Since the start of the Greek debt crisis in late 2009, Avgi has held a combative stance towards the German leadership, the European Commission, the ECB and the IMF, accusing them of committing ‘unprecedented fiscal terrorism […] to impose extreme monetarist scenarios’ on Greece (Avgi, 11 December 2009). During the 2012 election campaign, the institutions were frequently accused of abrogating Greece’s national sovereignty in collaboration with the Greek government, including comparisons of the German leadership and Samaras-led government to Nazi occupiers and Greek collaborators during the Second World War.
After years of negative and at times highly controversial portrayals of Greece’s European partners, I was therefore surprised and heartened to see how Avgi had replaced negative images with positive ones during the pre-election period in early 2015. No more constant lambasting of supporters of the Memorandum in Avgi’s headlines. Instead of accusing Germany of ‘raw blackmail’ and the Greek government of ‘having given Merkel the right to address our country like a protectorate’ (Avgi, 19 May 2012), the newspaper’s front pages featured promises of change, growth, and a plate of food for every Greek family. This positive message characterized Syriza’s campaign more broadly, and was reflected in advertisement videos such as this one. Indeed, in the month prior to the election, there was a real sense of festivity, empowerment and hope in Athens, which was full of Syriza’s election campaign kiosks and pamphlets.
This is not to say that the references to German leaders as the apologists of extreme neoliberalism in the Eurozone were entirely absent, or that the language of resistance against submission to foreign imperialism was abandoned. But during 2015’s pre-election period, the newspaper featured more messages of support from German politicians, such as the SPD, Martin Schulz and die Linke, and other international actors for a break from austerity than anti-Merkel or anti-Schäuble headlines. This shift to a more moderate rhetoric before the election brought the newspaper closer to the mainstream Greek print media, which had maintained a more pro-German and pro-European stance throughout the crisis.
The Greek people voted for hope in a country within the European Union
The Greek people therefore voted for Syriza at a time when the party seemed to have transformed from a fringe Euroskeptic party on the far left to a party which, based on its election campaign, could be considered a reasonably Europhile harbinger of hope in an economically devastated country. This is something the current Greek government should not forget during negotiations with Greece’s creditor institutions: the Greek people voted for hope in a country within the European Union, and not for rupture and a wave of xenophobic populism in an internationally isolated Greece. Numerous opinion polls since the election have confirmed that the overwhelming majority of the Greek people are in favour of finding a modus vivendi with the creditors and wish to stay in the Eurozone.
A glaring problem with Avgi’s and Syriza’s shift to moderation during the election campaign was that this shift was not accompanied by a renegotiation of some of the substantive differences between Syriza members and European policy-makers. Instead, the shift was based on the fallacious claim that key German and European politicians had adopted Syriza’s viewpoint and would support the Syriza government’s policy for a decisive move away from austerity. This promise, which was based on a highly selective reproduction of the statements of international actors and a profound misreading of the international situation, has proven to be a mirage.
The danger of cultivating such illusions early on was that if Syriza were to win the elections and to find Greece’s European partners more intransigent than the party had proclaimed, the party might be tempted to switch back to an anti-German rhetoric, thus reducing the policy space for an eventual deal in both Greece and Germany. Unfortunately, this is exactly what has happened since February. Avgi has reverted to a language of war and anti-imperialism when referring to the negotiations with Greece’s partners and on 8 February, Avgi went so far as to publish a cartoon depicting Schäuble wearing a Wehrmacht uniform saying ’we insist on [producing] soap from your skin. We are ready to talk about [making] fertilizer from your ashes’.
The Syriza government doesn’t have the mandate to break away
On 16 June 2015, Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras declared that the government will never accept ‘blackmailing dilemmas’ and policies that harbour ‘ulterior purposes’ in a ‘political plot for submission’ not only of the Greek people, but of all the European peoples. During the first session of the new Committee of Truth about the Public Debt, in response to Commission President Juncker’s earlier message that the Commission is not asking the Greek government to increase VAT for electricity and medicine in contrast to what Tsipras had told Parliament, the President of the Parliament, Zoe Konstantopoulou, declared that Juncker is asking for ‘the submission of the Greek people’.
In the presence of this inflammatory rhetoric, the policy space for an agreement is rapidly dwindling and with it the likelihood of realizing Syriza’s moderate, European-oriented pre-election promises. Finance Minister Varoufakis argues that the Syriza government ‘doesn’t have the mandate to sign a prolongation of the crisis’. In fact, what the Syriza government doesn’t have is a mandate to bring about a rupture between Greece and its European partners. An examination of Syriza’s January election campaign makes this crystal clear.
Kira Gartzou-Katsouyanni is a former research assistant at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.
Note: The views expressed in this post are those of the author, and not of the UCL European Institute, nor of UCL.