Kasselakis Ascendant

Few people would have imagined that, by autumn 2023, Greece’s Syriza would no longer be led by Alexis Tsipras, nor any other high-ranking party official, but by a centrist business magnate who has spent most of his adult life in the United States – a man who is not a member of the Hellenic Parliament, who has no history of progressive activism (unless we count volunteering for one of Joe Biden’s Senate campaigns), and who was not even involved with Syriza until the moment he decided to become its leader.

Yet this is the story of 35-year-old Stefanos Kasselakis, who was elected last month after a democratic process that included more than 140,000 party members and supporters. A graduate of UPenn’s Wharton School who worked as an analyst at Goldman Sachs before founding three successful shipping companies, Kasselakis was keen to stress his entrepreneurial experience during his campaign. He also emphasized that, in a country which has seen three prime ministers from the Papandreou family, two from the Karamanlis family and two from the Mitsotakis family, he does not come from a political dynasty. This combination of ‘expertise’ and ‘outsider status’ was enough to convince the Syriza faithful.

How did this happen? Why did a party supposedly rooted in the traditions of the left anoint someone to whom they are entirely alien? According to opinion polls, Syriza voters wanted a leader who could stand up to Kyriakos Mitsotakis’s New Democracy government, whose current popularity outstrips that of the opposition by more than twenty percentage points. They came to view Kasselakis – openly gay, photogenic and social-media savvy, adept at attacking the incumbent while avoiding the langue de bois of the traditional left – as the best option. Yet this was also thanks to the flat-footed performance of his rival, Efi Achtsiouglou, the former Minister of Labour who was widely believed to be Tsipras’s heir apparent. Though she made a last-minute attempt to frame the contest as a face-off between the centre and the left, she otherwise ran a moderate, timorous campaign – insisting that regaining power meant relinquishing any pretensions to radicalism. If Kasselakis’s politics are roughly equivalent to Biden’s, Achtsiouglou styled herself as something like the Greek Sana Marin.

Under Kasselakis’s leadership, Syriza will move even further to the right. He will be aided not only by the cadre that rallied around his candidacy from the beginning, who believe that Syriza needs to blend populist rhetoric with a centrist strategic orientation, but also by former allies of Tsipras, such as the former Media Minister Nikos Pappas, who have decided that the party must slowly rebuild its electoral credibility by presenting Kasselakis as the ‘anti-Mitsostakis’. Yet Syriza’s rupture with left-wing politics has a much longer lineage. Ever since 2015, when it capitulated to the demands of the Troika despite the tremendous popular defiance expressed in the bailout referendum, the party’s leftism has been exclusively cultural, rather than political or ideological.  

This disjuncture between ‘identity’ and praxis was the trademark of the Syriza government. Ministers and MPs would insist that they were ‘on the left’ while implementing aggressive neoliberal reforms. Euclid Tsakalotos, who served as Finance Minister from 2015 to 2019, embodied this contradiction most clearly. On the one hand, he ratified the infamous ‘Memoranda of Understanding’ imposed by the EU, IMF and ECB, meeting all of their punitive demands without exception. On the other, he remained the leader of the party’s putatively left faction, running as its standard-bearer in the recent leadership election. Many commentators have scolded Kasselakis for elevating image over ideology; yet it was Tsipras’s administration that emptied its ideological reference-points of their political content or practical consequence.

This was reflected in Syriza’s declining popularity and eventual defeat at the ballot box. In 2019, after four years of brutal austerity, it won 31.5% of the vote compared to New Democracy’s 40%, and was duly ejected from office. In 2023, the party’s fortunes sank further still, picking up only 20% in the 21 May election and 18% in the rerun on 25 June. Though it was initially unable to form a majority, New Democracy ultimately triumphed over Syriza with a margin of almost 23%, the largest gap between first and second party in recent history. The latter was hit especially hard in predominantly working-class constituencies.

These results are even more stark when we consider the many potential reasons for discontent with the Mitsotakis government. Because of its understaffed and underfunded public health system, which was bled dry during the Memoranda period, Greece had much higher Covid-related mortality rates than most European countries, including the UK, despite harsh lockdowns and restrictions. In March, a deadly train wreck – the result of a long delay in implementing adequate safety measures – led to a wave of protests across the country. Unrest was fuelled by authoritarian crackdowns, including the deployment of so-called ‘University Police’ to campuses. Meanwhile, a cost-of-living crisis erupted, with working-class households spending an unmanageable portion of their income at the supermarket. Following the 2023 election, the government’s failure to prepare for climate change became blindingly apparent amid the floods in Thessaly, prompting assessments of Greece as a failed state.

At each of these junctures, Syriza did nothing to capitalize on popular frustration. This was partly because it had not developed ‘organic’ connections with the majority of the subaltern classes, failing to establish a significant presence in the trade unions, play a leading role in the student movement, or embed itself in local democratic structures. The party had an electorate, but never a base. As a result, it did not exercise a hegemonic nor even a pedagogic function for the lower strata. This rendered its relations of representation weak, its voters liable to become fickle or disengaged. Unable to cohere anything like a left-wing ‘common sense’, Syriza remained a detached parliamentary vehicle, associated with the betrayal of 2015 and the austerity that followed. Its refusal to participate in any meaningful self-criticism made matters even worse.   

Consequently, large segments of the subaltern classes could be influenced by the rhetoric of the government, or, even worse, that of the far right (whose parties won 13% at the last election). Once in power, New Democracy positioned itself as the voice of ‘stability’ – putting things ‘back to normal’ after the trauma of the Memoranda period and the pandemic. It benefitted from the fact that some economic indicators had improved since Syriza was in office. The unemployment rate is now at 10.9%, whereas in the summer of 2019 it exceeded 17%, and wages have increased somewhat despite rising inflation.  

But New Democracy’s success was also the result of Syriza’s abandonment of any strategic orientation. Its ‘left identity’ never translated into a coherent plan for government – not even a reformist one. Towards the end of its tenure, it refused to chart a new course following the nominal conclusion of the Memoranda. It made general references to moving beyond austerity, maintaining some public control over certain utilities and reinstating parts of labour legislation that had hitherto been suspended – but none of this amounted to a forward-looking policy platform. The party’s ‘Green Transition’ rhetoric was easily appropriated by Mitsotakis. New Democracy could thereby present itself as the only credible party – while Syriza, having failed to present an alternative programme during its years in office, failed to convince the public that one was possible.

In a party which has created an audience rather than a base, which has repudiated organizing from below, and which lacks a clear legislative programme, the role of the leader is transformed: he is no longer the expression of a collective political will, but rather an image or an avatar. His primary purpose is to use his personality – or ‘brand’ – to halt the process of electoral decline. This is the shift that Kasselakis represents. He has already suggested moving away from key policies such as opposition to private universities: the issue that ignited the student movement in 2006 and allowed Syriza to make initial contact with a generation of young activists. Addressing the annual assembly of the Hellenic Association of Enterprises, Kasselakis thundered that ‘the word “capital” should not be demonized.’ His emphasis on social media rather than interviews or public speeches, as well as the fact that he is not an MP, enables him to mask his political inexperience. It also prevents him from being pinned down on specific policies, creating a deliberate ambiguity about Syriza’s platform which facilitates its rightward drift.

Could Kasselakis’s ascent cause a split in Syriza that might liberate its left-wing forces? It is indeed the case that many members suggested leaving the party after the leadership election. The former MP Nikos Filis, who once ran the party newspaper, has excoriated the new leader as a ‘post-political’ demagogue reminiscent of Beppe Grillo or Donald Trump. For the time being, Kasselakis’s opponents are hoping that the upcoming Party Congress will allow them to win the party back. But, failing that, one should not rule out the possibility of a new left formation emerging in the near future – hopefully in time to contest the June 2024 European Parliament elections.

With each day that passes, the Greek government sinks further into its morass of authoritarianism and incompetence. Across the aisle, what was once Europe’s most promising experiment in left-wing governance has become the testing ground for a vacuous ‘progressivism’ spearheaded by an ex-banker. Meanwhile, the subaltern classes remain fragmented and disaggregated, with strong pockets of resistance but also large segments that are aloof from collective politics. The cycle that opened with the Memoranda and the movement against them is now closed. It is unclear what forms of opposition will emerge in its wake. But one thing is certain: Syriza can no longer be their catalyst.

Read on: Stathis Kouvelakis, ‘Syriza’s Rise and Fall’, NLR 97.