While European governments breathed a sigh of relief as their preferred candidates won, Syriza will continue to haunt both Greek and European politics as an advocate of a real alternative to EU-imposed austerity.
Syriza, the Coalition of the Radical Left, came second in the Greek elections on 17 June with some 27% of the vote, narrowly losing to the right-wing New Democracy. But while European governments breathed a sigh of relief as their preferred candidates won, Syriza will continue to haunt both Greek and European politics as an advocate of a real alternative to EU-imposed austerity.
Syriza, the ‘Coalition of the Radical Left’, came very, very close to winning the elections on 17 June 2012, falling short by 2.6% of becoming the first party, in the end losing out to the two traditional Greek mainstream parties New Democracy and Pasok, who got enough seats to form a government supporting austerity, and continuing with EU-imposed cuts. European governments were afraid enough of a Syriza win that they reminded the Greek electorate loud and clear of its potentially ‘catastrophic’ consequences, and called on them to be ‘responsible’ and ‘sensible’. This kind of EU blackmail probably helped to narrowly drive a plurality of Greeks back into the arms of the same parties who are largely responsible for the dire situation Greece finds itself in, and under the wings of a prime minister, New Democracy’s Samaras, who is as divisive a figure as he is inconsistent, flip-flopping between opposing austerity, supporting it, and now again wanting to re-negotiate it.
Clearly, the Eurocrats, and the Eurozone governments are not living in the same world as those nearly 27% of the Greek populace, for whom Syriza was no longer a ‘protest vote’, but a choice of hope. Yes, Syriza’s chairman Alexis Tsipras threatened to rescind the rescue package for Greece, to nationalise banks and to suspend the servicing of the debt, in one word: to resist the pressure from Brussels. But given the failure of the prescription of the troika, what was until formerly decried as unrealistic and crazy, now appeared as the most sensible and realistic approach.
In discussions with Greeks in Athens, the truth with revolutionary potential that is behind Syriza’s quick rise in the polls keeps coming back: What good is a shrunk deficit, when society shrinks away before it? This rejection of the false dichotomy of choices, the rejection of 'economic rationality' in the face of real existing people, is what made Syriza, formerly denounced as a radical, extreme-left alliance, find itself in line with US economist Paul Krugman. This explains how even the president of the Federation of Greek Taxpayers, Yannis Siatras, a right-wing liberal economist, would welcome Syriza as precursor of a shift away from pure European austerity. This explains how the alternative embodied by a party like Syriza was perceived by more and more people as basis for hope. But what will the party, and the choice it came to represent, now do, since the elections produced ‘more of the same’: Same parties, same policies, the same austerity will continue to produce the same hardship for millions of Greeks?
Syriza’s growth was so fast, so meteoric, that there is a possibility that it might implode just as rapidly, although that seems unlikely, as the party has now become for the next few years the main opposition to the ‘government of the same’. Founded as a coalition of several left-wing, different Marxist and ecologist parties and groups ahead of the 2004 elections, Syriza won between 3.2% and 5% of the vote until 2009, establishing itself as one of the small alternative parties to the left of Social Democratic governing Pasok and to the right of Greece’s pretty orthodox Communist Party. Only when the Greek party political system of alternating Pasok and ND governments imploded as a result of the incredibly harsh cuts imposed by the conditionality attached to two successive EU and IMF sponsored bailouts, did Syriza rapidly gain in consensus, going from 16.8% of the vote in May to 26.9% in June 2012.
It seems clear that a considerable share of its votes come from state employees, pensioners and civil servants, whose very jobs were created by successive Pasok governments and who in turn would vote for Pasok for decades. Now Pasok, together with ND, was threatening their own constituents with 30% wage cuts, some 150,000 lay-offs in the civil services, cuts to pensions and unemployment benefits. By voting for Syriza, who promised a halt to job cuts, and a reinstatement of the minimum wage to its previous levels, those same workers were voting for their own economic survival.
At the same time, many voters of Syriza were young Greeks who saw no perspective for them in an austerity Greece, with youth unemployment of more than 50% and little chance of a career other than through emigrating. For them, Syriza might previously have been a party of radical opposition, but now, in the face of catastrophe, it was holding out the possibility of a different future from the one the political and economic powers had agreed was Greece’s only possible path.
But what will happen now, after EU-sponsored ‘realism’ won over hope? Depending on how much they manage to renegotiate Greece’s austerity pledges (which re-negotiation itself largely forced on the government’s agenda by Syriza), the government parties will still have to continue and even deepen the Memorandum policies, if they want to keep EU support for public finances. As was the case under Papandreou’s government before its fall in 2011, what will probably be back is the quarterly cycle of Greece missing its deficit reduction targets, EU and IMF demanding further cuts to fill the gap, the Greek government pledging further measures, and the workers and citizens on the streets trying to resist them.
It seems clear that Syriza will win even more support while being the first opposition force, both inside and outside Parliament, with unions switching their allegiance form their historical party of reference Pasok, and Syriza supporting the campaign against austerity both through strikes and protests.
Many Greeks are anxiously watching as the new government is off to a bad start, struck by the illness of the PM, as well as his lack of a clear project, either vis-à-vis his European supporters or domestically, given the vested and diverging interests of parties representing different clienteles. Many fear that the government will fall apart as soon as this year.
Finally, the nature of this government as being one of ‘the lesser evil’ is likely to just perpetuate Greece’s current state, rather than solve anything. While this might lead to increased support for the Hitlerist extreme right party Golden Dawn, it is almost certain to also lead to growing support for the party that has come to embody a real alternative to the present, Syriza.