The beginning of the end or the end of the beginning?

Syriza’s recent electoral victory attracted global attention. One of the most surprising developments was Syriza’s move to form a coalition government with the far-right party ANEL – but, as we shall see, there is a strong rationale for their co-operation. 

Syriza is a far-left party with a socially progressive agenda favouring integration of immigrants, secularism, and human rights. By contrast, ANEL is a nationalist party which holds deeply xenophobic, anti-semitic and homophobic views. Tellingly, ANEL was the only party that objected to the prosecution of the Golden Dawn MPs.

Yet, both parties seemingly share a broader worldview which makes them ideal partners. First, they both argue that Greece’s economic troubles stem from the Troika-imposed austerity because of the subordination of New Democracy (ND) and PASOK to the EU and especially Germany. Second, they accuse Angela Merkel of masterminding Greece’s woes (Syriza alleges she caused a humanitarian crisis, while ANEL has referred to neo-Nazi Germans governing Europe). Third, they both express anti-western and pro-Putin views (Syriza opposes the West’s supposed neo-liberalism, and ANEL prefers closer ties to Russia because it is an Orthodox country). 

Remarkably, the new Foreign Minister, Nikos Kotzias, and ANEL’s leader Panos Kammenos reportedly have direct links to the Kremlin’s inner circle – a claim denied by Kotzias. Kotzias has also written a book on how Europe made Greece a debt colony (a view shared by Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis).

This shared worldview is linked to Greece’s ‘underdog culture’, whereby Greece is suspicious of the outside world, the West is considered a threat, economic liberalisation and modernisation are undesirable, and Greece belongs to the East. This sub-culture has been represented before in Greek politics, so it is not surprising that Syriza mimics the PASOK of the mid-1970s to 1980s and ANEL the conservative siege mentality of the 1967-74 Junta.

Both parties employed a populist anti-austerity/anti-German discourse to exploit this cultural cleavage within Greek society and portrayed themselves as the defenders of ordinary people against the mainstream yes-men – a strategy reminiscent of the anti-mainstream discourse in the Weimar Republic. Syriza legitimised this discourse as an anti-austerity rally and ANEL as defending the motherland. The economic freefall and poor management of the crisis by ND and PASOK due to pervasive clientelism persuaded the Greeks to give a chance to Syriza’s promises of reversing austerity while keeping Greece in the Eurozone.

However, with the majority of Greeks favouring Eurozone membership, a potential clash with the EU may signify the end of the beginning for the Syriza-ANEL government. Moreover, a Syriza-ANEL U-turn is also likely due to Greece’s desperate need for external financial support – something that only the much-criticised Troika has provided so far.

In other words, Greece’s new government is threatened by its own populist agenda vis-a-vis its Western partners and its voters. Its fate will be the benchmark for other populist anti-systemic parties throughout Europe. Sadly, Churchill’s quote about El-Alamein feels dangerously appropriate for Europe once again. 

Dr Sotirios Zartaloudis, Lecturer in Politics, University of Birmingham