Can Europe Make It?

Can Syriza break Merkel's popularity and reanimate the German left?

Contrary to popular perception, not all of Germany is behind Merkel's hardline towards Greece. Can the victory of Syriza challenge the "no alternative" dogma and galvanize the German left?

Marius Hasenheit
4 February 2015

Angela Merkel. Flickr/EPP Official. Some rights reserved.

Imagine this: The year is 2015 A.D. All of Germany is occupied by the Merkelians. All? Not quite! A village inhabited by indomitable Merkel-critics is holding out, stronger than ever before, against the invader.

This intro from Goscinny's and Uderzo's comic Asterix and Obelix matches frighteningly well with the current situation in Germany. The widespread popularity of German chancellor Angela Merkel remains unflinchingly high. In January, when Spiegel magazine asked the general populace which politician should play “a more important role” (in leading people), 75% of participants stated Angela Merkel - which was the highest rate amongst European leaders. She appears to be unassailable, a bit like the late Margaret Thatcher even. So it’s no wonder that non-German media often describe Germany as “Merkel-land.”

But in reality, this is an incomplete picture. Much of her popularity stems from the promise of stability in time defined by instability. This is acknowledged by a large portion of the German population. However, when it comes to specific austerity policies, namely her position on Greece and Tsipras, public perception shifts quite significantly.

As analysts, politicians and journalists have to come to realise the devastating consequences which austerity can have, more and more agree that this no remedy for struggling countries.

Unsurprisingly, the left party Die Linke very much welcomed the election of the Greek leftist Alexis Tsipras and his party Syriza. The party leader Bernd Riexinger labelled his election as a "rebuff to Merkel". However, after Tsipras’ coalition with the right winged party Anel (Independent Greeks), the left wing enthusiasm was immediately curbed.

Though the deputy leader of Die Linke, Sahra Wagenknecht, stated,“You cannot compare apples with oranges” when making comparisons of Anel in Greece and Front National in France. The party leader Gregor Gysi conceded that he had “considerable difficulties” with the coalition in Athens.

But, at the same time, he called for solidarity and stated that he would not “claim himself to have a mentor role.” The chair of the party Katja Kipping reacted in a similarly ambiguous manner. On the one hand, she pigeonholed Anel as a “kind of CSU”, the most conservative party in Germany, and tried make the name “Anel” sound less scary than it actually is. On the other hand, she clearly stated that such a coalition would not be acceptable for Die Linke, both in Germany and in the European Parliament.

Still, the criticism of the austerity policies by Die Linke remain audible nevertheless, just as their calls to cut Greece's debt. One could call this “critical solidarity.”

There are more people in Germany who, at least partially, agree with this claim to cut the Greek debt, besides the folks who vote for Die Linke (which are roughly 9% of the whole population). In a recent survey 16% wished to accept a partial remission of the Greek debt. In the same survey, 33% reported that they would extend the repayment period, while 43% favoured following a hard line.

The Green party Bündnis 90/Die Grünen also supports a new debt cut. Green parliamentary group leader, Anton Hofreiter, clearly states that a debt cut would be desirable, if the Greek structural program is changed to a more socially equitable system.

There were a great deal of threatening statements before and after the Greek election by politicians of the German conservative parties CDU and CSU. At the same time, these statements were also criticised by several commentators as being rude and disrespectful to national sovereignty.

The announcements, made by conservative politicians, that there is no possibility to cut the debt further is clearly just an argument for upcoming negotiations and at the same time corresponds to the atmosphere of German domestic politics. While the finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, and other party colleagues often find clear words when demanding the payback of the debts, Merkel herself is rather reserved in her statements. Her cautious behaviour and the pressure from many Germans for stability limit the ability of the left to criticise Merkel.


Alexis Tsipras. Flickr/Piazza Del Popolo. Some rights reserved.

Might Syriza now reanimate the German left?

In Germany, the effects of a Syriza government to galavanize the left are complicated by the solid economic situation. In 2014, there was a record high in employment: 42.6 million people in work. This year an increase in employment is expected. However, such high levels of employment, of course, are also rooted in low average wages combined with an export-oriented industry. At least Germany finally institutionalised a minimum wage this year.

In spite of all the talk of stability and the generally good economic situation, a large part of the population is filled with a general sense of insecurity. Many attribute this sentiment to rising inequality. At the same time, the introduction of the minimum wage is a slow process, with many exceptions during the interim phase.

But, instead of rallying for higher wages in the short term, or even making adjustments to the tax systems to enhance social justice, people took to the streets as “Patriotic Europeans against the Islamisation of the Occident” (PEGIDA) to protest the ultraconservative or neofascist claims of fighting “Islamisation” and an “asylum flood.”

With the exception of Dresden, PEGIDA demonstrations were outnumbered in all German cities by counter demonstrations from the outset. However, big demonstrations like these to tackle the roots of inequality seems to be unimaginable by now. The political atmosphere in Germany appears to be cemented under a crumbly layer of stability, while socially vulnerable people who fear social decline rather “bully the underlings” instead of demanding social justice. 

Syriza could now show that there are possibilities to enhance social cohesion and stabilize social welfare, while increasing tax for upper classes and fighting tax evasion. Their policies are well observed, now they have the chance to prove that societies can tackle the causes of declining social cohesion – even with a public purse which is pretty empty.

Interestingly, there might be a new common ground between parts of the German public and Syriza other than austerity: Putin and Russia. Putin is perceived as “threatening” by parts of the German public, but at the same time other parts of the German society criticise sanctions and there are many who fraternise with Putin.

They might welcome Tsipras’ signals to not automatically maintain EU unity when it comes to foreign policy regarding Putin. Additionally, many people will welcome Syriza’s announcement to “never ratify” the free trade agreement TTIP.

How these proclamations will affect the political atmosphere in Germany is highly speculative and also dependent on numerous other factors. However, one fact cannot be denied: Tsipras finally broke the slogan “There is no alternative”, perfectly incarnated by Merkel.

The German left wing movements will not benefit from Syriza as much as Southern European countries and movements, like Podemos in Spain, but at least Europe is unburdened from the omnipresent credo of “There is no alternative”. This became not only evident for the left, but for all parties and groups. There will not be an earthquake-like rise of the left, but the potential for a movement of several parties a bit to the left might be possible, since social politics might return as a concrete alternative.

And something else might become clear soon: There is not only one alternative, there are many. Syriza did not automatically bring a strong upwind for the left, but opened up the debate. Now we can discuss how we want to form our societies and how we want to shape Europe into a real democratic format.

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