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Crushed by the outright election win of conservative Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis in June, which sparked the resignation of its charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras, Greece’s main opposition party Syriza is now cracking up, with an exodus of dozens of members over the weekend.
The radical left-wing party gained Europe-wide notoriety at the peak of the financial crisis in 2015 when it looked as if Tsipras and his Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis were about to lead Athens out of the eurozone in a game of high-stakes brinkmanship with German-led debt hawks in the EU.
Eight years on, the party now appears to be on its last legs. The unlikely election of ex-Goldman Sachs banker Stefanos Kasselakis as Syriza leader has infuriated a large segment of the party core, which sees him as out of touch with Greece and its left. His meteoric rise from obscurity; his lack of a political agenda; the media tittle-tattle around his American nurse husband; the couple’s Cartier rings; and Kasselakis’ trips to the gym have all rankled his critics inside the party.
Greece’s left has already fragmented into several small parties, with two being founded by former Syriza officials, and that number now only seems destined to grow.
“The position of Syriza as the main opposition is already being undermined, it leads to a greater fragmentation in the opposition and strengthens the dominant party system,” said Costas Eleftheriou, assistant professor at Democritus University of Thrace. “Kasselakis is not the cause of the current crisis, it is a symptom of a long-standing crisis that Syriza has found itself in since 2015, when it came to power and transformed itself.”
Following several weeks of tensions, a left-wing faction within the party (called “Umbrella”) announced on Sunday it was peeling off, accusing Kasselakis of “Trumpian practices … right-leaning populism, shouting, fanaticism and hatred for the left’s historical trajectory.”
Umbrella is led by former Finance Minister Euclid Tsakalotos, the British-educated economist who ended up having to handle complex debt crisis negotiations with the EU after Varoufakis promptly quit after his theatrics in 2015. Tsakalotos had been Kasselakis’ rival for the party leadership.
“We feel our historic responsibility. We insist (on being on the) left and our vision is a socialism with liberty and democracy,” the Umbrella faction said in its valedictory statement.
Umbrella’s departure became increasingly likely after Kasselakis sought to expel prominent party dissenters. When it became evident his proposed expulsions might not be approved by the party authorities, he requested a referendum among all party members.
Several party heavyweights, including a former minister under the Syriza government, and two of its current MPs are among the 46 signatories of the Umbrella statement, following a two-day central committee meeting marred by yelling and bitter accusations.
One senior member targeted for expulsion, Stefanos Tzoumakas, also announced he was quitting on Sunday, while another in the firing line had quit on Friday.
Others hinted they could follow soon.
“Kasselakis consciously chose the path of constructing the ‘enemy within’ instead of the path of synthesis,” said a statement from a faction led by Efi Achtsioglou, his main opponent for the party leadership. “It is a dead-end choice that trivializes politics, democracy and the left.”
In response to the exodus on Sunday, Kasselakis said: “There are no longer expulsions. So, we no longer have a reason for a referendum.”
He also demanded that sitting MPs, who quit the party, should hand over their seats to Syriza politicians.
The way ahead?
Kasselakis’ election out of nowhere has mainly been attributed to a desperate need by Syriza supporters for new blood and renewal after the party’s bruising defeat.
The 35-year-old businessman with movie-star good looks was dubbed “the golden boy” due to his investment banking past and was based in the U.S. until this spring. In May, he was one of the “at large” candidates on Syriza’s ballot in Greece’s general elections, seemingly bound to fail because of his low ranking in the list. In late August, he presented himself to the public through a social media campaign, promising them the American dream, or at least a sort of Greek version of the U.S. Democratic Party.
So far, opinion polls show he has failed to re-energize support for the party. POLITICO’s Poll of Polls shows Syriza languishing on 16 percent, miles behind Mitsotakis’ New Democracy on 39 percent.
But whether he is a force for renewal or a catalyst for the end of a party in crisis remains to be seen.
According to said Nick Malkoutzis, editor and co-founder of economic analysis website MacroPolis, Kasselakis hopes that by pushing out dissenters, he will make the party stronger, which would allow him to shape it in his vision, but the risks are high.
“The turmoil within Syriza could benefit the third party, PASOK, but even following its recent rise in the opinion polls, the centre-left grouping is fairly weak and is a long way from being in a position to fully capitalize on Syriza’s crisis and to challenge Mitsotakis’s New Democracy,” he said.
“The Greek centre-left is facing an uphill struggle to gain a foothold in the country’s politics again.”