Optimistic and hopeful - but can they withstand the pressure? Flickr/Mirko Isaia. Some rights reserved.On December 28th, only hours before the crucial presidential vote that led Greece to snap elections, riot police beat up and arrested infuriated strikers in central Athens. Hardly news, is it? Excruciating austerity and ever-rising social tension have astronomically increased the volume of such images across the country. By now, these are surely on par with the cobbled island alleyways, romantic sunsets over the Aegean and all clichés imaginable before Greece landed itself in the eye of the latest financial storm some four-and-a-half years ago.
But here is some worrisome news for those inspired by a plausible Syriza victory ahead: this time around, the riot police had been called in to protect an event co-organised by the party's official radio station, Sto Kokkino (At Red) Fm. The station hosted the event in a central Athenian bookstore on a Sunday, even though the recently introduced law allowing Sunday trading was seen as a market deregulation brought in under pressure from the country's international creditors. Syriza had so far supported mobilisations against the measure, which was feared to massively favour bigger stores at the expense of small businesses. But not this time around. On the day, the grassroots book workers' union of Athens called a strike and a sit-in outside the bookstore. Its owners called the police ― and the rest is history.
For the party aspiring to win next month's snap polls and to form the first ever left-wing government in the country and in the EU, this doesn't put its best foot forward. Sure enough, international pressure to harmonise the party politics in line with the dominant austerity ideology in Europe has been immense. And in many ways, the task at hand has been unfair to Syriza. This was a small, mostly intellectual leftist party that would struggle to enter parliament as late as five years ago. Now, it has been catapulted into the pole-position for government at a moment when the stakes could not be higher. Perhaps understandably, hopes are high too.
A Syriza victory would rid the Greek public of the most conservative government since the end of the military junta back in 1974. The establishment of migrant detention camps, the eviction of political squats in the country and under-the-table dealings with the notorious Golden Dawn are a tiny sample of its ideologically inclined (and deeply conservative) moves that have gone far beyond tackling the country's financial woes. But can Syriza successfully carry the weight of bringing a tangible alternative? It is not by any means certain whether a critical mass exists inside the country to back this change. Even if Syriza does win the January election, a vote for the party will have been driven primarily by exasperation, despair and a desire to see anything different from the austerity-abiding governments of the recent past.
That is not a blank slate for Syriza, nor does it necessarily constitute a progressive shift in Greek society – the shift so far has been dramatically to the right. The rise of Golden Dawn, xenophobia and political apathy show us there are some who simply don't want to be saved. But even for those who do, resting our hopes on the electoral victory of a party under pressure to provide a viable safety valve for the Greek status quo is not very wise. The Syriza radio station did issue an apologetic statement concerning Sunday's events but this was too little, too late. It was also thankfully an early enough reminder that no long-term change may possibly ever come from political parties alternating in power.
Those of us exasperated by policies of austerity and their adjunct far-right politics spreading across our continent would be wiser to strengthen and build economies and structures of solidarity that will outlive swings inside the mainstream political scene. Syriza may be saving us some time, but it will not save anybody ― that is for each and every one of us to take on.