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Syriza and the Paradox of Populism

It has been only a few weeks since Syriza declared victory at the polls forming an openly anti-austerity government in Greece. Already its populist programs are beginning to unravel. The new government, headed by Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, came into power attempting to roll back several of the austerity measures imposed on Greece by its creditors in a previously negotiated bailout deal. In Syriza’s first days in power they halted the privatization of several nationally owned enterprises, contrary to the terms of the bailout. However, on February 10th senior Greek officials stated that the main port of Piraeus would indeed be privatized which was previously inacceptable just a few weeks ago according to the Wall Street Journal.

The abrupt change in Syriza’s policy highlights a problem inherent to populist parties. Populism is characterized by the mobilization of the masses, many of whom feel they are outsiders in the political system, they are led by charismatic leaders who promise radical change.

As such, populist parties, appealing to the masses, promise the people what they want to hear. These promises often include contradictory demands or solutions to problems that a government has little or no power over.

Syriza seems to be juggling several contradictory demands that are popular with Greek voters. It has announced more social programs and pension reforms, while promising to abolish a property tax. This is an all too familiar situation across the globe. Voters simultaneously demand more services but refuse to pay higher taxes to raise the revenue. Syriza is also trying to reconcile its anti-austerity position with its desire to remain in the Eurozone. According to a study conducted by the Pew Research Center, 69% of Greeks support keeping the euro. Mr. Tsipras has stated his intention to remain in the common currency.

Yanis Varoufakis (right) and Wolfgang Schäuble disagreed on whether or not to agree to disagree. (Corbis)
Yanis Varoufakis (right) and Wolfgang Schäuble disagreed on whether or not to agree to disagree. (Corbis)

However, the anti-austerity measures of Syriza are at odds with the current bailout program which was designed to keep Greece in the Eurozone and about which the EU remains adamant. The EU seems to show no signs of capitulating to Syriza’s demands, as on February 4th the European Central Bank announced it would no longer accept Greek bonds as collateral. Moreover, it is becoming increasingly evident that Greece has little negotiating power versus its creditors, as some German officials have hinted that a Greek exit from the Eurozone, although not an ideal situation, might not be cataclysmic.

Historically, recognizing their unrealistic goals has caused European populist parties to moderate. In the 1980s the Socialist Party in France ran a campaign of economic populism, calling for nationalizations and redistribution, but shortly after taking power market forces forced the party to bring France more in step with the neoliberal model of the global economy, according to International Studies Quarterly. In 1996 the Italian populist party, the Lega Nord, campaigned for the farfetched goal of the secession of northern Italy. This move initially paid off electorally, as they received over 10% of the vote, the best performance in their history. Soon after it became evident that secession was not feasible and they lost support and moderated their demands after a poor performance in the 1999 European Parliament elections. Populist parties have a history of enticing the masses with grand promises which they are unable to deliver.

Syriza has already made its promises, but they have little leverage in negotiations to actualize them. If they continue their anti-austerity populist agenda they will likely be unsuccessful in their efforts and quickly lose support because of their inability to deliver. If they moderate their stance to a more pragmatic agenda of sticking to structural reforms in exchange for a modest amount of relief, then they will still likely face a backlash from voters angry that their campaign promises were not fulfilled. The party will be judged on its governing performance once elected. Voters are more likely to be satisfied with moderate victories rather than nothing. If the abrupt switch to privatize Piraeus is any indication, Syriza has already begun to realize the true extent of its bargaining power. However, if they do not continue to moderate they may find that their tenure will be short lived.