Greek ElectionsJanuary 29, 2015 in Greece
For the first time since the collapse of the military junta in 1974, Greek people decided to put an end to the domination of the two principal parties, New Democracy and PASOK. Syriza, a radical left wing party, won 36,3 per cent of the votes, surpassing New Democracy’s 27,9 per cent. Syriza, won 149 seats in the parliament, just two short of an overall majority. The new government is a coalition between Syriza and the right-wing populist party Independent Greeks. After the end of the elections, Syriza’s leader, Alexis Tsipras, reconfirmed his party’s intent to reject the TINA argument (There is No Alternative) that previous Greek administrations used to justify the imposed austerity measures. However, Syriza’s win was not the only note-worthy event during the Greek elections. The neo-Nazi party, Golden Dawn, came third with 6,3 per cent of the votes. The party is politically isolated, with its leadership and many of its members in prison with no access to mainstream media. Golden Dawn’s electoral results follow the general rise of far-right parties across Europe.
The rise of Syriza has been fuelled by the economic crisis. After the 2008 economic crisis, Syriza had a steady rise on the electoral rounds that followed. On the 2009 elections it won 4,6 percent of the vote, and after the two electoral rounds in May and June of 2012, it succeeded in winning 26,8 percent of the votes. It surpassed the governmental party, New Democracy, for the first time during the European elections in May 2014 where it won 26,6 percent of the votes, against New Democracy’s percentage of 22,7 per cent. Syriza’s meteoric rise reflects Greek people’s indignation with the choices of the previous governments and the austerity measures that they imposed. It is quite possible that this win is going to affect Syriza’s relationship with its supporters and change the dynamics between the party. Up to 2012, Syriza was a coalition of left parties and organisations. Its history contains a series of splits and consolidations involving numerous left-wing political formations that, in many ways can trail their origins to the Communist Party of Greece (KKE). In its current formation it is a strategic coalition comprising of a wide spectrum of political platforms that include social democrats, radical socialists and communists, environmentalists, anti-globalisation campaigners and human rights advocates. Its synthesis creates friction between the members and could affect its ability to implement a unanimous policy.
Syriza promised to rescind many of the austerity measures that the previous governments signed with the EU and the IMF. Since 2010, and partly due to the austerity measures, the country has seen its GDP shrink nearly a quarter, its unemployment rate reached a third of the labour force (26%) and almost half of its population fell bellow the poverty line. The national debt instead of decreasing has risen to 175 per cent of the annual GDP. Due to these factors, and despite the governmental change, the political system in Greece remains extremely vulnerable. Syriza’s position differs from the previous governments’ positions in two key factors. First, Syriza believes that the only way of making the European Union treat Greece reasonably and limit the austerity measures is to spearhead an immediate re-think of the Greek bailout program through the suspension of the policies demanded from the Troika and through the threat of using its veto power in the European Council. Secondly, Syriza wants to apply a tough bargaining line with a radical agenda that will entail a deep social change in Greece, including a big swift in the tax base, the re-introduction of a decent minimum wage – currently the minimum wage in Greece is 586 euros – and increase the funding for social security and public health provisions.
At the same time, it is quite possible that Syriza’s election is going to be a jolt in European politics. The people from the crisis-plagued countries of the South can identify with the win of a pro-European party that is committed to the European dimension of its country, but also a party that, due to its radical disposition, is ready to pressure the European Council to address the problems they have been ignoring over the past five years. Syriza’s biggest threat is the path of compromise that may be pressured to follow. For Greek people Syriza represents their last hope after a series of betrayals from their governments since the crisis started. Its political battle could reignite other similar anti-austerity movements across European countries that face economic problems, namely Spain, Italy, Ireland and Portugal. Like Greece, these countries were pressured to implement strict fiscal programs. Even though the measures proved to bring positive results in the macroeconomics sector, the economy’s growth halted and the economic crisis was combined with a big humanitarian crisis. Nevertheless, if Syriza fails in fulfilling its promises against the Greek people and does not improve Greece’s performance both internally and at the international forums, similar European anti-austerity parties that now benefit from Syriza’s political dynamic could be negatively affected. Spain, Ireland and Italy are due to hold elections over the next two years. In Spain, the anti-austerity party Podemos continues to gain popularity as the country moves closer to the December 2015 elections. Spain is battling a 24 per cent unemployment rate, second only to Greece’s 26 per cent. Similarly, in Ireland the Anti-austerity Alliance party has increased its power since the 2009 elections, amid protests against the new austerity measures implemented by the government. Italy faces similar problems that underline the people’s dissatisfaction with the high rates of unemployment, the lack of healthcare and the increase of poverty rates.
Syriza does not promote Greece’s exit from the Eurozone. What it aspires to do is to create breathing room from the imposed fiscal programs to undertake basic restorative policies, and to lay the ground for a more cohesive and long-term economic strategy. Syriza’s leader has explicitly stated that his party does not intend to destroy the euro or to force Greece out of the Eurozone. Nevertheless, he has mentioned that he is not willing to keep Greece in the economic alliance under any cost. If Greece follows that path it will not be voluntary but a choice forced to make. This attitude allows him to appease Greek people internally, and promote the image that he is willing to negotiate with his European partners externally. By generating a campaign that focused on change not only for Greece but for Europe as a total, he succeeded in deflecting the narrative of Greek exceptionalism regarding the sovereign debt. Using the widespread crisis and the struggle of many European countries, he makes the case that the issue of the Greek debt must not be regarded as an isolated problem, but as a variable of a wider issue that has at its core a problematic European economic governance.
Syriza’s win rekindled the ‘’Grexit’’ speculations. However, that does not seem to be the case. The various EU Treaties do not include a clause regarding how a country could leave the euro. Currently there is no treaty provision that legally contains the requirements for a member state to be expelled from the EU or EMU. Even though a withdrawal from the EU is not legally impossible, the exit clause itself is, prima facie, not in harmony with that rationale of the European unification project and can create many legal problems, as an exit from the EMU without simultaneous exit from the EU is legally inconceivable. At the same time, even if a negotiated exit can be achieved and the European economy can limit its losses considerably, which is dubious at best, a member’s exit will provoke a general vulnerability at the core of everything the EU represents. The EU’s existence can come into question, due to the fact that there are going to be no guarantees for countries that face similar problems, such as Spain and Italy, that they will not have to follow Greece’s path.
Despite Syriza’s aspiring announcements, a radical revolution both in Greece and in Europe does not seems to be in the cards. The most possible scenario is that Syriza will succeed in finding a more flexible financial agreement, which is not going to deviate substantially from what the previous government agreed to. An agreement is necessary for the new government to continue receiving financial aid in form of loans from the IMF and European partners, and include Greece in the new program of quantitative easing that the European Central Bank announced recently. Syriza’s win represents the need for change in Europe, especially in the European South. Mostly, it reflects a reality that most European governments do not seem to fully comprehend and be prepared to address effectively. This change is expected to further challenge the European cohesion amid the multiple security, economical and political problems that the EU currently faces.