After six years of a severe depression in which output has shrunk by 25 percent and unemployment went through the roof, rising from 9 percent in 2009 to 27.8 percent in the first quarter of 2014 before dropping to still unbearably high levels at 25.5 percent in the third quarter of 2014, the Greek electorate seems to have had enough with austerity, misery, poverty, authoritarianism and national humiliation. (1)
In the general elections held on January 25, voters resolutely turned their back on the two mainstream political parties – the conservative party of New Democracy and the center-left Pasok – that have functioned as servants to the troika of the European Commission, the European Central Bank (ECB) and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which has essentially ruled the nation since the introduction of a financial bailout agreement back in May 2010, (2) by handing power to the radical left Syriza party. Syriza won 36 percent of the vote (finishing eight points ahead of the conservatives) and will hold 149 seats (two short of an absolute majority) in the 300-seat parliament.
The decisive victory of the Coalition of the Radical Left, as Syriza is formally known, is a historic event for the Greek left, as it has never ruled Greece in modern history – although it has always been at the forefront of the struggle for democracy, freedom and social justice, with its leaders and many of its supporters ruthlessly persecuted by the right for nearly 30 years after the end of World War II.
Still, it would be a mistake to interpret Syriza’s victory as reflecting necessarily an ideological shift among voters. The majority of the people who voted for Syriza did not suddenly turn left but did so out of despair over their own predicament and from anger regarding the condition of the country. The policies of the troika have caused massive economic damage that will take decades to repair, and have produced untold social pain and misery, which in many cases can never be reversed. (3) The infamous bailout packages ensured the repayment of loans to Europe’s banks and preserved the euro at the expense of an entire nation, which became subject to inhumanly harsh austerity measures while the national interests and dignity of the country were shred into pieces by non-elected and unaccountable officials, neoliberal barbarians in the European Union and the IMF working at the behest of banks and the financial elite.
In the midst of this unfolding catastrophe, only Syriza challenged systematically and with courage the EU-IMF duo’s decisions and stood up to the lackey domestic governments that were enforcing its respective policies. Only Syriza was able to produce an alternative, even if rather moderate, economic program for dealing with the unfolding humanitarian crisis. Only Syriza created a vision for tomorrow and articulated it with passion and in a way that included all citizens irrespective of political and ideological differences. In the end, it was all these realizations that drove a significant percentage of Greek citizens to cast their vote for the left. The notion of a Greek recovery proved to be one gigantic lie. (4)
All this is not to say that Syriza lives in a dream world. Syriza is fully aware of the realities and challenges facing the party and a Syriza-led government. First, with the overwhelming majority of Greek citizens clinging almost irrationally to the euro, Syriza’s leadership abandoned talk of Greece leaving the euro and focused its rhetoric on changing Greece while simultaneously changing Europe with its post-austerity vision. The party leadership’s determination to rise to power apparently required the adoption of a “realistic” strategy, but one which is still injected with emotional, political rhetoric powerful enough to move the downtrodden and humiliated masses. What comes to mind in trying to provide a functional understanding of Syriza’s transformational vision is President Obama’s “Yes We Can” proverbial rhetoric. By the same token, Alexis Tsipras’ speech delivery pattern and body movement sought to imitate Pasok’s founder and longtime prime minister, Andreas Papandreou, who was by all accounts a magnetic orator. Hopefully, however, Syriza’s vision won’t have the same fate as Obama’s “Yes We Can” while it is virtually certain that Tsipras will not end up imitating Papandreou’s own politics, which relied mostly on lying, deception and the manipulation of public opinion.
Apropos of the above strategic outlook, Syriza retreated from its early, openly confrontational stance toward Greece’s international creditors, which called for a unilateral end of the bailout agreement; instead, the party opted for a policy of renegotiation of Greece’s debt, with an emphasis on the need for a significant write-down of Greek public debt, which has increased substantially since the introduction of the bailout agreement and most of it is held by European institutions. How Syriza’s leadership will react in the event (which is the most likely one) that Greece’s international creditors refuse to agree to debt relief is still something of a mystery. Realistically speaking, what will probably happen once such negotiations get under way is that Syriza’s government will be provided with more favorable debt repayment terms in a take-it-or-leave-it package. Both the IMF and the ECB have already emphasized that they won’t take any losses against Greek debt while the voices coming out of Berlin stress the fact that Greece must continue on the path of the already agreed terms.
In 2015, Greece has to repay in principle and interest loans, which amount to 22 billion euros. In the meantime, Syriza’s economic program – which involves (a) helping out those who have been hit hardest by the crisis and are in need of access to free electricity, food and rent subsidies; (b) restoring the minimum wage to 751 euros per month; and (c) creating 300,000 new jobs for the unemployed via the implementation of public employment schemes – is estimated to cost 12 billion euros, if not much more. According to Syriza’s calculations, the cost for these measures will be covered by cracking down on tax evasion, by issuing new Treasury bills that will be purchased by Greek banks and as a result of maintaining a not so large surplus account as a result of a write-down of Greece’s debt.
Unfortunately, Syriza’s financing plan for its economic program is as shaky as a three-legged giraffe. It is highly questionable at this point in the game that much money can be generated by cracking down on tax evasion while a write-down on Greek debt is a most improbable event as virtually all major actors inside Europe, but also certain parties inside Greece, such as bank analysts and mainstream economists, seem to be convinced that Greece’s current public debt-to-GDP ratio is sustainable even though it stands close to 176 percent. As for the issuing of Treasury bills to be purchased by Greek banks, it is highly doubtful that this can happen as Greece has apparently “already reached the issuance limit for its Treasury bills.” (5) Furthermore, Greece has been locked out from the ECB’s quantitative easing measures, which means the pressure on a Syriza-led government to stay the course on austerity and structural reforms will only intensify if it wishes to access the available liquidity. (6)
Having said all this, it should be rather evident that Syriza’s historic victory ensures that “interesting times” lie ahead both for Greece and Europe. Syriza’s debt renegotiating team will have its hands full with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and her finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, the ECB boys, and the hard-liners from Holland and Finland. Syriza’s mixture of Keynesianism and Marxism to economic issues also won’t sit well with institutions like the IMF in spite of the latter having advocated in the past the need for a restructuring of Greek public debt (although it is against a “haircut” involving its own loans to Greece).
In the meantime, Syriza leader Tsipras lost no time following the elections to form a coalition government with the party of Independent Greeks, a populist, right-wing political organization that has opposed austerity and the troika’s presence in Greece all along. This collaboration appears to have been in the making long before the outcome of the elections and in preparation of the eventuality that Syriza may fail to attain an absolute majority. The party of Independent Greeks has promised to provide unequivocal support to Syriza’s project for lifting the country out of its extreme crisis and, while in politics, everything is possible, the fact of the matter is that the junior coalition partner has nothing to gain by seeking to undermine Syriza’s hold on power when the tough gets going, as some on the left seem to be concerned about, given the obvious ideological gap that divides the two parties. The leader of Independent Greeks receives the crucial post of defense minister and there is also a role in the new government for a few other members of the party. In sum, this is a political marriage that should last for some time – at least as long as the struggle against the troika lasts! A Syriza-led government will restructure several ministries in order to make them more flexible and thus more effective, and promises to put its program into action without any delay.
Without a doubt, this is the first time in the country’s recent history that a political party takes the reins of power, which does not consist of political fraudsters and carpetbaggers. The people around Syriza’s inner circle have been for the most part long-time activists and true devotees to radical change, even if the party had to accept in its ranks various kinds of opportunists and former apparatchiks of the now virtually defunct socialist party as part of its strategy for coming to power.
Following its electoral victory, Syriza made history for a second time when Tsipras refused, as a declared atheist, to be sworn in as new prime minister of Greece by taking a religious oath and opting instead for a secular oath. This was in itself a bold, revolutionary act, if you wish, considering how conservative Greek society really is and how intertwined church and state have been throughout Greece’s modern history. This gesture is also probably suggestive of a logic that Tsipras will not compromise on values he holds dearly and when he knows that his non-compromising stand will not adversely affect the well-being of his people. As further evidence in his belief that “the heart beats on the left,” after he was sworn in as new Greek prime minister, Tsipras visited the National Resistance Memorial in the Athens suburb of Kaisariani and laid a wreath in memory of the hundreds of communist resistance fighters who were executed by the Germans on May 1, 1944.
Greece’s path to recovery remains long and steep. But with Syriza in power there is at least a fighting chance against the austerians and those who wish to keep Greece financially subjugated, forever under debt and locked inside the neoliberal prison. This is why Greek voters gave their consent to Syriza’s vision – out of awareness that the left’s history is about resistance, revolt and social transformation.
1. See C.J. Polychroniou, “Greece: A Nation for Sale and the Death of Democracy.” Truthout (July 31, 2014).
2. See C.J. Polychroniou, “A Failure By Any Other Name: The International Bailouts of Greece.” Public Policy No. 6, 2013. Annandale-on-Hudson, NY: Levy Economics Institute of Bard College. July 2013.
3. See C.J. Polychroniou, “The Tragedy of Greece: A Case Against Neoliberal Economics, the Domestic Political Elite, and the EU/IMF Duo.” Public Policy No. 1, 2013. Annandale-on-Hudson, NY: Levy Economics Institute of Bard College. March 2013.
4. See C.J. Polychroniou, “The Greek ‘Success Story’ of a Crushing Economy and a Failed State.” Truthout (January 19, 2014).
5. Stratfor Global Intelligence, “Greece’s New Government Faces Serious Discord Over Debt.” (January 26, 2015). http://www.stratfor.com/analysis/greeces-new-government-faces-serious-discord-over-debt#axzz3Q1M8OaeY
6. See C.J. Polychroniou, “ECB: The Ultimate Enforcer of the European Neoliberal Project?” Truthout (January 27, 2015).