The headquarters of the Greek left-wing party Syriza is a small, drab, gray building on a corner of Eleftherias Square in downtown Athens. Only the party’s banner and a small police presence outside hint that this isn’t just another aging office block in a rundown part of town. Two blocks away, a city-run soup kitchen is bustling with people who never dreamed, five years ago, that they would need such a thing. But this unprepossessing base is home to a diverse group of politicians, academics and activists who now look poised to win Greece’s snap election on January 25. As the left’s first anti-austerity party to come to power in Europe, Syriza may be about to change much more than Greece’s future.
Mercilessly beaten down by both the debt crisis and the medicine prescribed to cure it, and despite the anemic signs of recovery, Greece appears to be trapped in an L-shaped recession—scraping along the bottom after a very steep fall with no prospect of a meaningful rise. Almost all of the projections made by Greece’s lenders (the International Monetary Fund, the European Commission and the European Central Bank) have proved outrageously off. After two bailouts and one debt write-down, unemployment is hovering around 26 percent (60 percent for the young), the country has lost a quarter of its gross domestic product, and public debt is as high as it’s ever been.
Crippling austerity enforced first by the Socialists under George Papandreou, and then by the conservative-led coalition government of Antonis Samaras, has left the country poorer, disillusioned, exhausted and angry. Pasok and New Democracy, the parties that have alternated in power for forty years and are arguably responsible for bringing Greece to this pass, have more or less imploded under the pressure. It is from this same melting pot that Syriza has emerged as the frontrunner in the election, building its base among those who have suffered the most from austerity, supporting community projects, and speaking the language of protest and the “movement of the squares.”
Syriza, or the Coalition of the Radical Left, is the product of a turbulent series of realignments on the Greek left outside the ranks of the KKE, the veteran Moscow-oriented Communist Party. Its origins can be traced to the coalition that was formed in 1989 between the Communists and the reformed left wing, which (after the Communists’ departure) joined with other Marxist, Trotskyist, Green, feminist and independent groups. Popular in intellectual and cultural circles, it had little success at the polls until the crisis propelled it to second place in the elections of 2012.
Syriza still has many Marxist voices among its active members (including the party’s head of economic policy), and the red flag and five-pointed star in its logo will forever scare away the anticommunists. But its internal debate about whether to stay in the eurozone was largely settled by 2012; since then, its rhetoric has been both softened and streamlined. The party that once vowed to tear up the bailout agreement and nationalize the banks now speaks in a more unified and conciliatory voice, affirming its commitment to Europe while promising to open tough new negotiations with the lenders.
Syriza’s core argument, though, has remained the same: austerity has proved catastrophic; Greece’s debt is insurmountable and must be written down; the EU (and especially Germany) must change its approach and respect the sovereignty of its member states. Syriza, said leader Alexis Tsipras in his barnstorming speech kicking off the election campaign, is the Europe that is changing. The growing consensus among financial and political analysts that there’s no way out of Europe’s crisis without debt forgiveness and investment for growth makes this much more than a slogan.
In September, Tsipras laid out his party’s first priority: to alleviate Greece’s humanitarian crisis. A Syriza government would provide free electricity and food stamps for 300,000 poor families, housing subsidies, extra support for pensioners, and access to healthcare for everyone. It would also cancel an outrageous tax on heating oil that not only had people burning furniture to keep warm but also hurt state income by cutting down consumption. Although critics decry these promises as empty words without the money to back them (in a country where tax evasion has been almost endemic, the vow to eliminate it doesn’t really fly), these measures are also seen as the bare minimum needed to halt the poorest Greeks’ slide toward destitution.
Syriza’s economic policies in fact owe more to Keynes than Marx: Tsipras has vowed to protect public investment and has proposed linking debt repayments to Greece’s growth rate, while committing his party to balanced annual budgets. The party has also promised to reinstate the labor rights abolished in one fell swoop—a crucial precedent for Europe as a whole—and return the minimum wage to approximately €750 ($890) per month, up from the €585 ($695) set by the bailout agreement. Nudging consumption back up from its 40 percent collapse is seen as key to jump-starting the economy.
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Apart from its economic policies, what distances Syriza from traditional left-wing values is the issue of sovereignty: infusing patriotism into its rhetoric has earned the party a large measure of its popularity and has helped to attract confused, disillusioned voters normally drawn to right-wing Euroskeptics or even the neofascist Golden Dawn. Syriza’s emphasis on claiming World War II reparations from Germany is part of this strategy.
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All bets are off as to whether Syriza will be able to implement these promises: the country’s creditors insist they will oppose any attempt by Greece to backtrack from its commitments. But in the eyes of Greek voters, that’s not the biggest wager Syriza has to win. In his televised speech, which was attended by thousands of cheering supporters, Tsipras promised to “cut with a knife” the strings that bind big business to the political establishment. It was one of the many sharp phrases that the party has been using to emphasize its readiness to take on the deep nexus of power in Greece: the oligarchs intertwined with the political class, the banks and the media. Every sale of public assets under the privatization plan mandated by the lenders will be scrutinized. Major weapons contracts will be investigated, as well as an old scandal involving millions in bribes given to Greek politicians by the German telecommunications company Siemens; so will the sudden shutdown of the national broadcaster in the summer of 2013.
This is an explosive shopping list: the business elite in Greece is so profoundly linked with the political class that holding power without its support has been almost unthinkable. At the same time, such a clash with vested interests should have been at the center of the bailout-dictated reforms in the first place. Tsipras might find unlikely allies among Greece’s creditors, should he attempt to put his money where his mouth is.
In 2012, Syriza almost scored an election victory despite the intense fearmongering by Greece’s European partners, who bluntly threatened ejection from the monetary union if the left wing came to power. Two and a half years later, after what party officials have called “a violent coming of age,” Syriza is due to face the voters once again. Both foreign and domestic media have described Greece’s early election as a catastrophe in the making: a return to political uncertainty and a rekindling of the European crisis just when financial indexes had begun to turn around.
But if the polls are any indication, the Greeks are not about to flinch this time. After two more years of austerity and tax increases, imposed with less and less regard for the democratic process, there’s a feeling of having nothing to lose, as well as a desire to call Europe’s bluff at last. The fearmongering is back—European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker warned the country against “voting the wrong way,” while German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble noted that any future government will be strictly bound by its predecessor’s commitments—but that too seems to be backfiring this time. The idea that the rest of the EU is now protected against a Greek collapse (which would undermine Tsipras’s leverage) has been met with a counternarrative warning that talk of “Grexit” is risky for the whole European establishment. Europe’s leaders, it seems, are more concerned about the challenge that a Syriza win would pose for the doctrine of austerity—or, as a Financial Times headline put it, Eurozone fears a deal with Tsipras more than Grexit, because that would spark a larger debate about where the union is headed.
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Growing up so rapidly has its consequences. Syriza’s election ticket shows diversity, but some choices—such as Rachel Makri, formerly of the right-wing populist Independent Greeks—raise concerns about Tsipras’s political opportunism. The inclusion of fervent Euroskeptics like the economist Costas Lapavitsas could further complicate negotiations with the lenders. Though the leadership has mostly quashed the party’s public polyphony, containing dissent without crushing internal democracy may still prove difficult. Last but not least, it remains to be seen whether Syriza can win an outright majority; if not, it will have to form a coalition government, for which no obvious partner exists. Failure to form a government—or a Syriza government that fails—could plunge the country into deeper and more dangerous waters.
But Syriza is no longer alone in Europe. The young Podemos party in Spain is also topping the polls; its lines of communication with Syriza are wide open, and Spain is holding its own national election at the end of 2015. Meanwhile, the Italians and the French are protesting against more Brussels-dictated belt-tightening, with the extremist shadow of Marine Le Pen hanging over France’s future. A left anti-austerity bloc formed in Southern Europe could be enough to tip the balance, especially in the face of rising right-wing populism. As Nikos Xydakis, a Syriza candidate and popular columnist for the mainstream daily Kathimerini, put it: “In this context, even the likes of [German Chancellor Angela] Merkel are likely to choose a Tsipras bloc rather than a right-wing populist Euroskeptic one.”
No member of the EU has ever come so close to electing a left-wing government. The example of Greece has taught us that all of Europe is affected by a tiny member’s troubles—and also that all politics are local. The urgent questions brought to the fore by the Greek crisis have less to do with how Tsipras and his band will perform and more with the future of the whole continent. Is this a union of member states where people can determine their own fates? Where democracy can prevail against the invisible ghosts that are the financial markets? Are politics exercised to find solutions for the people? If Syriza wins on January 25, we will begin to find out. The celebrations in a tiny gray building in Athens will send tremors all the way to Brussels.