Op-Ed: Nowhere left to go – The rise (and fall) of the ‘radical’ left in Europe

Op-Ed: Nowhere left to go – The rise (and fall) of the ‘radical’ left in Europe

Somewhere in Athens is a little mound of earth, beneath which Loukanikos, or the legendary Riot Dog of Syntagma Square, is playing “roll over.” Policy has been banished from politics, and only spin remains. In the short term, a major shock to the system appears to have been avoided, but the long term prospects look bleak. By TIMON WAPENAAR.

Loukanikos is dead. The mongrel stray, better known to English speakers as Riot Dog, was a fixture in Athens’ Syntagma Square during the heady summers of 2010 – 2012, when clashes between disaffected Greeks and riot police were a weekly affair. Adopted by the feral outcasts of Athenian society, Loukanikos (the name refers to a kind of Greek sausage) passed away last year, after complications arising from long-term exposure to tear gas.

In many ways, Loukanikos was the perfect symbol of the force which would emerge to govern Greece. Syriza’s victory was the triumph of the feral underdog, a political pavement special, with its roots in the coalition of over a dozen left-aligned political formations, from common social democrats to pedigreed Maoists.

The eventual election of Syriza to power sent shockwaves across the desks of newspaper subeditors throughout Europe and the US. “Radical,“ “far-left,” and “radical left“ were the preferred classifications. Syriza, after all, is an acronym which stands for “Radical Coalition of the Left,” so one can hardly accuse the press of being alarmist on this count. Nonetheless, an atmosphere of breathless anticipation was created: what would these “radicals” do? Was this the end of the Euro (again)?

Initially, Syriza lived up to expectations: Prime Minister-elect Alexis Tsipras formed a government in record time, and the appeared at his swearing-in ceremony without a tie! For a week, the Greeks talked tough, with their media-savvy Finance Minister Yannis Varoufakis leading the charge, in boots and a Barbour jacket! Without a tie! No one could really make head or tails of the negotiations, which had been reduced to soundbites and chunks of emotive euro-jargon. At a Brussels press conference, Geroen Dijsselbloem, the Dutch chairman of the Eurogroup, became visibly enraged with the silk shirt-wearing Varoufakis. Having fed the press the usual soup of Euro-platitudes and catch phrases, the two had risen from their chairs, at which point Dijsselbloem leaned into Varoufakis and allegedly whispered “You’ve just killed Troika.” Varoufakis replied with a laid-back “Wow.”

In Germany, the German Finance Minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, and Varoufakis tried to out-newspeak each other, resulting in a round of semantic nihilism. “My press secretary has instructed me to tell you that we agreed to disagree,” said a tight-lipped Schauble. “We didn’t even agree to disagree,” was Varoufakis’ reply. The sense of the negotiations remained obscured behind a veil of diplomacy, which, though it sometimes afforded a tantalising hint at someone’s real position, never really revealed more than what we knew already. The action seemed to have shifted 60 years into the past and 1,000km to the north-east, when American analysts sought clues as to the outcome of super secretive Soviet Politburo meetings by studying how Kruschev had chosen to style his Homburg hat. The Italian prime minister, seeming to understand this game better than any of his peers, gave Tsipras a tie.

The dance continued for a week, and then the veil fell. Syriza reneged on several of the promises central to its January campaign, and made straight for the political centre. The scale of the betrayal is large. Syriza, while careful to soft pedal its economic promises during the election campaign, had nevertheless openly called for a 50% debt haircut, a cessation of the “reforms” which were agreed to (by previous governments) as part of the bailout package, a reversal of the process of privatisation, and an increase in infrastructure and social expenditure. In the deal struck with the Eurogroup this week, Tsipras has walked back on every one of those promises, except the last. Last Friday KKE, which is the revolutionary Marxist-Leninist formation within Syriza, held a rally against the government in Syntagma Square.

All of this is not as surprising as it is made out to be if one looks at the rest of Syriza’s campaign platform. Syriza ran on a promise to keep Greece in the Euro, and was actively calling for the ECB to purchase sovereign debt. Greece’s continued use of the Euro would bind it to negotiating from a quasi-sovereign position, as Eurocrats in Brussels and the leaders of other Eurozone countries have repeatedly made the point that if Greece wants to remain in the club, it has to abide by the bailout conditions. The purchase of sovereign debt by the ECB went ahead in January, and was welcomed by voices from both the “right and the ‘left’.” In other words, Syriza’s European and macroeconomic policy positions are hardly “radical.”

* * * *

From directly across the Mediterranean, the Spanish are watching the situation with more than casual interest. Especially interested is a young Spaniard whose political history might sound familiar to South Africans, combining Jujuesque left-wing street cred with a family background in the revolutionary nobility.

Pablo Iglesias Turrión came to politics young, and at 14 was already “politicised“ and rallying the masses at university demonstrations, megaphone in hand. Born in 1978, his early affiliations were with the youth wing of the Spanish Communist Party, and he is named after Pablo Iglesias Posse, the founder of the Spanish communist movement. Young Pablo’s father, Javier, was a member of FRAP, the “Revolutionary Antifascist Patriotic Front”, which included whole scale nationalisation of industry and “land reform” as objectives of a putative Spanish revolution.


Photo: EU MP and General-Secretary of the Spanish party Podemos, Pablo Iglesias (2-L) attends the ‘March for change’ in Madrid, Spain, 31 January 2015. The protest march was organized by Spanish Podemos party to claim a political change in Spain. EPA/CHEMA MOYA

Pablo went on to teach film from the post-Marxist perspective at Madrid’s largest university, where he met the other founding members of the political movement which has turned Spanish politics on its head: Podemos (Spanish for “We Can“). After sending five of its members to the European Parliament in 2014, Podemos briefly surged to the front of the opinion polls without even having completed a year as a political party, stunning its established rivals.

As in Greece, the size of the gatvol vote was putting established parties in a precarious position. When Syriza won in Greece, pundits wondered how it would aid Podemos in Spain, and whether the whole of Southern Europe would succumb to the domino effect.

Unlike Syriza, which has roots in fully-formed, though numerous, political groups, Podemos began life as a “social movement,“ utilising the organisational techniques honed during the mass protests of 2010 – 2012, as well as techniques imported from Venezuelas Chavist movement. As such, the party had no fixed platform, and tries to avoid “horizontal” power structures. It wasn’t until early 2014 that a written policy document emerged, and much of the debate around the party’s position focuses on the views expressed publicly by the party’s ‘Top 3” members.

Looking at the trajectory of those views, we see that much of the speculation over the “radical left” tendencies of the party might be misplaced. To be sure, Pablo Iglesias and the other two members of his triumvirate, Juan Carlos Monedero and Iñaki Errejon, started out their political lives somewhere to the left of Floyd Shivambu. These days. they seem to be heading at warp speed for the safety of the “centre-left”. Wherever that is, these days.

As in the case of certain prominent ex-youth leaders in South Africa, there is also a Venezuelan connection. The party’s “Top 3” made several trips to Venezuela during the Chavez presidency, and Iglesias used his own television show, which aired on a station owned by the government of Iran, to talk up Venezuela as a glowing example of democracy and a role model for southern Europe. Iglesias and other Podemos leaders were engaged as “consultants” by the Venezuelan government, for which they were paid substantial amounts of money. It later emerged that the party’s number two man, Monedero, had tried to cheat the tax man of money paid to him by the Venezuelan government by hiding it in a shell company.

Nowadays, the subject of Venezuela is banished from the party’s rhetoric, and understandably so: it demonstrates how far Podemos has moved from the left towards the centre, and just how quickly. Watching Monedero claim, on Venezuelan state television, that the character and appearance of the villain Scar in Disney’s The Lion King is actually modelled on Ayatollah Khomeini (as part of an alleged American propaganda war against Iran), or listening to Iglesias speak glowingly of the guillotine in 2012, one wonders how sincere their current position really is. Just last week, Iglesias told a crowd that “Spain needs rich people.” All of this has happened so fast that Podemos now finds itself on the wrong side of both the Venezuelan government and the Venezuelan opposition: the former has made it publicly known that Caracas feels betrayed, while the latter is trying to prove that the Chavez government illegally provided secret funding to Podemos.

Podemos is now looking north for inspiration: Denmark is the new Venezuela. Comparing the two goes straight to the heart of the financial miasma which has given rise to Podemos and Syriza. In Denmark today, negative interest rates mean that the bank charges you, the depositor, a fee for the privilege of loaning the bank your money. Danish banks then pay you to borrow from them. In Venezuela, on the other hand, the annualised interest rate is 63%, and the government is forced to limit purchases and prices since people are desperate to spend their cash before it loses value.

Neither the speed of Podemos’ political about-turn nor the very definite whiff of financial impropriety emanating from the top seems to have translated into a loss of support. The rest of the Spanish political scene is that dire. In that respect, there is one huge difference between Spain and Greece: Podemos did its U-turn before the elections. This is a clear signal to Brussels and the rest of the EU that Podemos will play ball. Just as well. It was only a year ago that Iglesias was calling for Spain to dump the Euro, for the institution of capital controls, the nationalisation of banks…

* * * *

Somewhere in Athens is a little mound of earth, beneath which Loukanikos, canine hero of Syntagma Square, isn’t playing dead so much as playing “roll over.” Policy has been banished from politics, and only spin remains. In the short term, a major shock to the system appears to have been avoided, but the long term prospects look bleak. It was, after all, frustration with the intermingling of centre-right and centre-left which was supposed to have forced Greeks and Spaniards towards the extreme right and left, hence Podemos and Syriza (accompanied by a swell in support for the fascist Golden Dawn in Greece, and the fascist Falange in Spain). The frustration in Greece is acute, and pressure from the electorate is likely to make negotiations with Europe messier. In Spain, it is likely that Podemos will end up occupying much the same political space as the traditional Socialist party (PSOE). It will take longer for the same frustration to be felt, but the end result will be the same: disenchantment, a swelling of the ranks of the Falange and the Fascists, and cynicism. Cynicism, of course, from the Greek “kynikos”, which is “dog-like” to you and me. DM

Photo: Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras speaks during a press conference at the end of a European Summit of Heads of States and governments at the European Council headquarters, in Brussels, Belgium, 12 February 2015. The European Union leaders were meeting to discuss Greece’s economic crisis, EU counterterrorism efforts and the situation in Ukraine. EPA/ORESTIS PANAGIOTOU


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