Greece is on the world’s front page again. The headlines bristle with words like “crisis,” “instability” and “fear.” After parliament refused to endorse the ruling New Democracy party’s candidate for president, elections have been called for January 25; the left party, Syriza, has led in the polls for months. This time the fear of “contagion” is not so much financial as political. The markets have priced in the cost of a Greek default, the proverbial firewall has been built around Greek debt—and Syriza has underlined its wish to negotiate with the lenders and keep Greece in the euro.
But if Greece votes in a government committed to ending austerity, the whole European picture shifts. Anti-austerity parties elsewhere—Podemos in Spain, Die Linke in Germany—instantly gain conviction. The deep tide of resentment against scorched-earth neoliberalism dressed up as fiscal rectitude acquires a cutting edge.
This is Greece’s fourth election in five years. No government has been able to survive the cost of imposing the austerity program mandated by the EU and IMF. Like PaSoK Prime Minister George Papandreou in the autumn of 2011, ND’s Antonis Samaras himself provoked the vote that is almost certain to unseat him. Desperate to hold onto power but with no appetite left to govern, he has grasped at straws for months, peddling an ersatz “success story” to skeptical Europeans and incredulous Greeks; trying to exit the bailout program early, only to be rapped on the knuckles by the lenders; filling the streets of Athens with stormtroopers on steroids.
Faced with yet more weeks of negotiations with the Troika and more austerity measures to push through parliament, he gambled on moving forward the vote for a new president, due by the end of February. If he’d won, he could have postponed elections for another year. Having lost, he may be hoping to pass the poisoned chalice to Syriza, which will (or so the theory of the “Left Parenthesis” goes) implode under the strain, allowing the right an unimpeded return to power.
Syriza has grown up a lot since the summer of 2012, when its own members acknowledged that it wasn’t ready to rule. Its leader, Alexis Tsipras, no longer talks about “tearing up the memoranda” but about renegotiating the terms; he’s proposed balanced budgets instead of the surpluses demanded by the Troika and a partial write-down of Greek debt instead of the endless postponement of the soft default most economists see as inevitable. As the party’s right hand has tried (with limited success) to soothe the nerves of Eurocrats, investors and selected Greek oligarchs, the left has been busily watering the grass roots. From a rundown, poster-lined office suite in central Athens, an enthusiastic group of organizers are helping to coordinate the local relief and community projects that have sprung up during the crisis, without, they insist, trying to take them over. At the heart of Syriza’s campaign is help for those hardest hit (food, shelter, electricity for the poorest families) financed by better tax collection; public investment for growth and jobs; the restoration of employment rights like the old minimum wage. Tsipras has also begun to speak—more quietly, it must be said, than George Papandreou before him—of changing the culture of clientelism and favors that has corrupted politics and nurtured the labyrinth of Greek bureaucracy.
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As ever, the path to this paradise is beset with thorns. First Syriza must weather a fierce negative campaign, fought not only by New Democracy but by the financial markets and European leaders like Luxembourg’s Jean-Claude Juncker and Germany’s Wolfgang Schauble, who for some reason feel entitled to tell Greeks how to vote. Then it will have to negotiate with coalition partners: on current evidence it is unlikely to win an outright majority, and there’s a possibility that, as in 2012, there will have to be a second vote.
If it does win power, Syriza (and indeed any government) will have to confront a vertiginous fiscal cliff. Greece now has a primary surplus, but still owes 319 billion euros, of which 17 billion must be rolled over or repaid in 2015. The bailout program is due to end in February, and on current spending Greece will need to borrow 22 billion more in the next two years, probably from the European Stability Mechanism bailout fund and the IMF. Syriza plans to spend more, privatize less, and play hardball (or chicken) with the European Commission and the IMF.
The gamble is that the failure of successive Greek governments, mounting pressure in Europe for some form of quantitative easing and/or investment for growth and the rise of other European left parties will help to soften Germany’s hard line. But even if that bet pays off, a Syriza-led government will still face tremendous difficulties at home: opposition (by any means possible) from the Greek right, including its more unsavory elements; entrenched interests at all levels of the Greek state; the high expectations it’s raised among its supporters; the impatience of its own left wing.
So it’s a long, hard road, and the stakes are very high. Success for a Syriza administration depends both on shrewd management and on the alignment of the European stars; failure could be catastrophic. Last month I asked a former government employee, an honest technocrat, what will happen if a Syriza government implodes. His answer: Berlusconi. One dark scenario that nags at the edge of thought is that Greece may turn out to be the sacrificial lamb, shifting Europe’s policy only to sink in its own mire of debt, corruption and sclerotic failure to change.
And yet this is a moment of relief and hope. It’s not that Syriza inspires tremendous confidence beyond the party faithful; the response I’ve heard most often is, “We might as well give them a chance.” It’s that the current situation is untenable; there are no resources left. Behind the carefully maintained facades Greek lives are hollowed out, financially, emotionally and existentially. People are desperate for change. If those who are in all likelihood about to surrender power, as well as those who win it, have any care at all for the country they claim to serve, they will work together to build what Greece has lacked: a functioning state based on rights and responsibilities that’s run for everyone, not godfathers and clients; an independent justice system; a sense of the common good. But even though Greeks traditionally gamble on New Year’s Eve, I wouldn’t bet on it.