Overall, the outcome of the Greek elections was not a defeat for the left. Syriza got 31.5% of the votes, which, together with the 3.5% that went to the party founded by Yaris Varoufakis, adds up to the same percentage of the vote they got four years ago, when this translated into an electoral victory that put them in government. Taking into account the fact that the policies of the Tsipras government have largely ignored the promises they had made, and that they passed a lot of unpopular measures under pressure from Europe, the steady electoral performance of the left is actually surprising.
Their defeat, however, came as a result of a great concentration of votes from the most conservative part of the electorate toward the New Democracy party (which got 40% of the vote), and, first and foremost, as a result of the suicidal division among the progressive forces (which, taken together, got over 50% of the votes). Thus, what has just occurred was not a betrayal of a leftist government by the people, nor can one speak of any “ingratitude” toward those who steered the ship on a steady course through stormy conditions. Arguably, what happened was precisely the opposite: the majority of the Greek people was not offered the representation it deserved, after years of enormous sacrifices which they bore with great dignity.
Greece is facing a serious risk at the moment: that the demagogue du jour, who can make fabulous promises in the current tranquil climate, might actually undo all the good that the leftist government achieved in the midst of the many deprivations the people had to endure, during the process of getting the country out from under the rule of the creditors. The defeat was therefore not an electoral one, but a political one. It came from the inability to turn the support of the voters into a transformative political project that would strike against parasitism and inequality and focus on three values, which are inseparable: the protection of the environment, culture and work.
There are two lessons we can learn from the Greek elections. The first concerns the eternal division among the forces of the left (which also cuts through SYRIZA itself) between the pragmatism of a “realistic” management of how things are, which loses sight of the connection to the future, and a utopianism that abandons reality as it is in order to build up an ideal future, which inevitably takes up the role of a consolation.
Both these extremes bring with them the death of hope. Even when the electoral support has been, on the whole, preserved, the political project is threatened by this core inconsistency. We often speak of the divisive narcissism of the left, by contrast to the cohesive selfishness of the right. It would perhaps be more appropriate to talk about the confusion between a dream—an illusion that is still in touch with reality—and a fantasy, an illusion that distracts us from real life. It’s a problem that anyone has to face if they want not only to preserve and protect things, but to transform them as well.
The second lesson concerns Europe. The European policies of austerity are producing inequality and insecurity, and are undermining the foundations of democracy and civil society. It is not a question of choosing between thriftiness and wastefulness, but of figuring out what one should cut and where to invest.
This is where the difference between the left and the right comes in, and it is a large and obvious one. The Greek elections have shown that it is not enough to just resist the pressures as far as one can while avoiding the worst-case scenarios—and they have also shown that the answer will not come from just one country. If a united Europe is to remain our necessary horizon—as otherwise we face the dissolution of democracy and the rise of authoritarianism (of which the sovereignist governments are the first warning signs)—the forces of the left in every nation have only two options before them: either they coordinate and unite with each other in a continent-wide political project, or they face certain defeat.