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Can Syriza actually govern Greece?

- January 24, 2015

Joshua Tucker: Continuing our series of Election Reports, we are pleased to present our second of two previews of Sunday’s Greek parliamentary election and its potential consequences (read Part 1). This report is from political scientist Dan Hough of the University of Sussex in Britain.
Sunday sees Greece go to the polls. And, once again, the rest of the European Union is looking on with bated breath (see here for a nice summary of what may or may not happen on Sunday and why). The center-right ‘New Democracy’ party is fighting to retain its hold on power, while Syriza, a new, prickly leftist upstart, is looking to enter government for the first time. As things stand, Syriza’s position looks marginally stronger.

What would it mean for Greece if a radical left party were indeed to come out on top? What, indeed, would it mean for the other countries of the European Union, worried as they are about stability in the Eurozone? Syriza’s socioeconomic agenda is markedly different from any of the other mainstream Greek parties, and fears exist that the party might ultimately not just drive Greece out of the eurozone but cause a(nother) Europe-wide financial crisis.

While political scientists are clearly not fortune-tellers, they can still look at past behavior for indicators of what might happen. In research that Jonathan Olsen, Michael Koβ and I led in 2010 (see here) we looked at the performances of left parties — defined as parties to the left of the main social democratic party in a party system — in Western Europe in national government.

We analyzed not just under what circumstances they opted to take the plunge and take power, but also what happened to them once they got there (and also what happened to them when the next election came around). Our analysis shows that while parties such as Syrzia can talk radically, they tend to behave rather differently when in government. And that looks very much on the cards this time round in Greece, too.

Most left parties are policy-orientated (as opposed, to use the political science jargon, to those that are more office- or vote-seeking. See here for more on these categories) and they tend to remain so throughout their time in office. “Successful” government participation — defined as implementing significant parts of a policy-agenda — subsequently becomes even more important than it is for other political actors. It isn’t just about gaining power; it is about doing something substantial with it when you get there. The perception by many within left parties that their time in government will be seen in a less-positive light is therefore almost preordained, largely on account of the inevitable compromises that governing demands.

On account of their more radical positions, left parties in power are often viewed by others with suspicion. However, although these parties have found governing hard, they are by no means alone in this. Left parties’ policy decisions generally haven’t rendered them “unelectable” next time, and they certainly haven’t fallen apart. Left parties, in other words, have behaved in remarkably similar ways to parties of other stripes. Given what we’ve seen elsewhere, this would indicate that Syriza is likely to move more in the direction of the mainstream, taking tough decisions and then struggling with the consequences. If there is a self-destruct option, Syrzia is very unlikely to take it.

The effect, and indeed sometimes the trauma, of taking over the reins of power is nonetheless politically chastening for left parties. It can also cause serious divisions and divides that have the power to develop in to major crises. For one thing, left parties’ participation in government has led more or less across the board to (often considerable) election losses when voters next go to the polls. Our data showed that for the 20-year period between 1990 and 2009, where left parties participated in government on average they lost 25 percent of their vote the next time. Electoral loss appears to be especially pronounced in countries with numerous “outsider” parties (of both left and right) to which protest voters can turn (Italy and France are good examples) or where the electoral system has traditionally discriminated against them (such as Spain).

However, it is far from clear that participation in government is the only — or even the most important reason for electoral decline, a point brought home in a range of countries (such as France, Italy, Finland and Sweden). Whether left parties bounce back depends on the lessons that they draw from their experience in government. For some (such as the PCF in France), the lessons are that governing is simply too costly as the experience brings too few benefits and a great deal of internal discord. For others, being in government is seen as a positive good, even if that means dealing with some (inevitable) disappointments along the way. Norway and Denmark are good examples there.

In terms of Greece’s immediate future, a Syrzia-dominated government is unlikely to live up to the often radical pre-election rhetoric. Syrzia is likely to take decisions that supporters find very difficult; but it will take them nonetheless. Whether it gets any credit for them when Greece next goes to the polls is an altogether different matter.