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Syriza’s Victory: Hold the Champagne

Syriza’s electoral victory has been viewed as a historic turning point for Greece and Europe, but is this too much hype?

(Photo: bluto blutarski)

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It was October 1981 when “hope” and “change” first filled the air in Greece. The brash young socialist leader of the Panhellenic Socialist Movement (Pasok), Andreas Papandreou, was about to earn a historic electoral victory. His rhetoric was radical, calling for a Greek departure from the European Union and NATO. This rhetoric elevated Papandreou to achieve an electoral rout of the conservatives. His victory was marked as one of the “left,” with Time featuring Papandreou on its cover accompanied by the headline “Greece Swings Left.” However, in the years that followed, most of the radical promises were broken, and Greece remained in the EU and NATO.

Flash forward to January 25, 2015, the day that young Alexis Tsipras and the Coalition of the Radical Left (Syriza) emerged victorious in the Greek parliamentary elections. Across Greece, Europe, and the world, celebrations erupted. Global media coverage was hyperbolic, proclaiming the historic victory of the Greek left, the first “leftist” victory in modern Greek history (apparently 1981 is forgotten) and the Greek people’s “slap in the face” of austerity. Tsipras has been compared to Che Guevara and Uruguay’s “president of the poor” José Mujica.

The reality is that Syriza is “radical leftist” in name only. Its rhetoric has tempered considerably in recent years, and has continued to moderate in the aftermath of the January 25 elections. Emerging victorious with 36.34 percent of the vote and 149 seats in parliament (including the 50-seat “bonus” awarded to the victor), Syriza gained almost 10 percentage points compared to the June 2012 elections, winning most regions throughout Greece and particularly those that had once supported Pasok. Nevertheless, 149 seats are not enough for a parliamentary majority, and Syriza, on January 26, agreed to form a coalition with the Independent Greeks, a populist-right party, which has maintained a steady anti-austerity rhetoric since its formation in early 2012, and which was not projected to enter parliament according to pre-election polls, but which ended up attracting 4.75 percent of the vote – a decrease from the 7.51 percent they won in June 2012, but enough to win 13 seats in parliament and finish ahead of Pasok. Interestingly, Syriza’s decision to form a coalition government with the Independent Greeks was met with derision by some leftists, stemming from fears also shared by many immigrants in Greece that the party is far-right and anti-immigrant, despite the fact that such characterizations were not typically made of the party by Syriza members prior to the elections, and despite the fact that Syriza has absorbed former Independent Greeks’ MPs such as Rachel Makri, who was elected into parliament on January 25, without any apparent complaints from Syriza’s left wing.

New Democracy, the outgoing majority coalition partner, attained 27.81 percent of the vote, declining less than 2 percent from its performance in June 2012, while much of its “old guard,” from outgoing Prime Minister Antonis Samaras, to the far-right Sofia Voultepsi, Adonis Georgiadis and Makis Voridis, once again won parliamentary seats. On the other hand, Pasok declined almost 8 percentage points, while former prime minister and Pasok breakaway George Papandreou’s new party, the Movement of Democrats and Socialists, failed to enter parliament, earning an underwhelming 2.46 percent.

The far-right Golden Dawn’s third-place finish (6.28 percent) garnered justifiable outrage, but it nevertheless represents a decline compared to its 6.92 percent finish in June 2012. The communist party (KKE), which is renowned for its reactionary stance and refusal to collaborate with other left-wing forces, gained almost 1 percent compared to its June 2012 finish, earning 5.47 percent, but predictably refusing to discuss participation in a possible coalition with Syriza. The River, a party founded by celebrity journalist Stavros Theodorakis with no clear political platform but with the support of some of Greece’s major media barons (as evidenced by the excessive airtime it enjoyed on Greek television), was laughably appointed “kingmaker” by the foreign press prior to the elections (in a demonstration of their lack of understanding of Greek politics), but ended up in fourth place with 6 percent.

Notably, one of the strongest finishes of the election came from the minor Centrist’s Union party, which earned almost 2 percent of the vote in its best ever finish, despite being active in the Greek political scene for over two decades. Other former governing coalition partners, such as the Democratic Left (DIMAR) and the right-wing Popular Orthodox Rally (LAOS) were at or below 1 percent, having been punished by the electorate for their previous support for austerity. Numerous other smaller parties, many of which maintain an anti-EU and anti-euro platform, did not participate, having correctly calculated that the elections would be polarized and that the vote would largely be split between the two top parties, whose voters would, in large part, each seek to keep the other out.

The wildly inaccurate results of opinion surveys leading up to the elections, and the equally inaccurate results of the exit polls conducted on the day of the elections, are also notable. Prior to January 25, most polls showed Syriza ahead of New Democracy by merely 2 to 3 percent, showed The River hovering at around 8 percent, Golden Dawn at 4 to 5 percent, the Movement of Democrats and Socialists at 3 percent (enough to enter parliament), and the Independent Greeks at 1.5 to 2 percent (and shut out of parliament). In turn, the January 25 exit polls suddenly predicted a Syriza victory by 12 percent, a tie between Golden Dawn and The River, a Pasok finish ahead of the Independent Greeks, and a likely parliamentary presence for the Movement of Democrats and Socialists. In all cases, the polls fell woefully short, and indicated once again that they are likely to be motivated more by partisan interests and a desire to manipulate popular opinion, rather than a dedication to accuracy.

Perhaps the most significant, yet least talked-about, result of the elections was the high abstention rate, as 36.13 percent of registered voters (representing 3.5 million people, over 1 million more than those who voted for Syriza) didn’t participate. The low turnout indicates that a large segment of the population was not swayed by Syriza’s rhetoric of “hope and change,” nor by the previous government’s absurd talk of an economic “success story.” And even if one accounts for the many Greeks who have migrated and live abroad, 3.5 million abstentions represents an excessive number that should be disconcerting for all those involved in Greece’s political landscape.

What should be equally disconcerting, however, is Syriza’s marked move away from the left. Tsipras, in his victory speech on the evening of January 25, made numerous references to the future of Europe, but far fewer references to the future of Greece. He also said Syriza would follow EU directives, which do not permit member states to maintain a deficit that surpasses 3 percent of GDP. With a shrunken economy that has lost over 25 percent of GDP during the crisis, limiting spending invariably can only mean one thing: further austerity. This calls into question all of Syriza’s promises to roll back the austerity measures and cuts of the past few years, including restoration of the monthly minimum wage to 751 euros, an amount which was considered paltry at the time and led to the creation of the so-called “G700,” or “700 euro generation” of overeducated, underemployed youth. Syriza’s new cabinet, which was announced on January 27, features ministers who were previously members of Pasok, as well as economist Yanis Varoufakis as finance minister, who recently stated that the possibility of a “Grexit” (or Greek exit from the eurozone, perhaps Greece’s strongest negotiating weapon) will not even be raised as a negotiating tactic, and whose recent book was presented in Athens by a right-wing television personality who once suggested that New Democracy should not discount the possibility of co-governing with a “serious” Golden Dawn.

Syriza’s flip-flopping has not stopped there: Manolis Glezos, a member of the European Parliament with Syriza, stated prior to the elections that if Syriza was elected on the basis of the 50-seat bonus, the party would call new elections. After the fact, Giannis Dragasakis, who was named vice president of the new government, distanced Syriza from such statements. Economist Costas Lapavitsas, who until recently had been a strong proponent of a “Grexit” and who had recently presented his “radical economic proposal” for Greece, was elected to parliament with Syriza and stated recently that the party would follow a “moderate Keynesian” economic strategy. Constitutional lawyer Giorgos Katrougalos, who participated in the Greek “Indignants” movement in 2011 and who, at the time, spoke of the formation of a committee to audit Greece’s debt, recently distanced himself from such a possibility, as has Syriza. Notably, according to one economist’s analysis, Greece’s debt, if it was calculated by accepted International Public Sector Accounting Standards used by many other countries, would amount to 18 percent of GDP, instead of its current figure of 175 percent. This issue could be examined as part of an audit of Greece’s debt, but Syriza now rejects the possibility of conducting such an audit.

Perhaps most egregiously, Syriza, which is now tasked with nominating a candidate for the ceremonial post of president of the Hellenic Republic, is said to be considering “compromise” candidates from the conservative right, including former Prime Minister Kostas Karamanlis and former Defense Minister Dimitris Avramopoulos. This despite the fact that, according to the Greek Constitution, Syriza needs only 151 votes in the second round of voting, or a simply majority of those present in a third and final parliamentary vote, and therefore has no reason to compromise.

Meanwhile, there has been little or no talk of reversing privatizations; reforming the judicial system; restoring specific labor rights that have been stripped away; lobbying the EU to reform the failed Dublin II migration policy, which has heavily burdened Greece, including Germany’s unpaid war debts and reparations to Greece in a revised national budget (a former Syriza promise); reforming Greece’s electoral system and keeping its promise to eliminate the 50-seat bonus and restore a system of proportional representation; reforming Greece’s suffering educational system; and no clear position on the proposed Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) or on the approval of GMO crops; no talk of bank nationalizations, and certainly no talk of a Greek exit from the eurozone. Moreover, Syriza and many of its supporters have now adopted the fearmongering rhetoric of the outgoing government, regarding the “dire” consequences that would follow if Greece enforced a unilateral stoppage of payments or departed from the eurozone.

What is clear is that Syriza’s government is not on strong footing. Many of its votes were earned from voters who simply were sick of the status quo and who sought to punish the two political parties that had ruled Greece for the past 40 years, but who are not necessarily optimistic that Syriza will keep its promises. Failure to elect a president would lead to the collapse of the government, as might also be the case if Syriza succumbs to troika pressure or reneges on many of its promises. Already, leading European figures, including the president of the European Parliament, Martin Schulz (who recently stated that “we have to stick to agreements made to stabilize Greece and the EU”), Eurogroup president Jeroen Dijsselbloem (who stated that “there is very little support for a write-off”), and the head of the EU Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker (who said recently that Greece should not expect a debt reduction), are expected in Athens this week. The pressure from the troika will be intense. But public pressure is also likely to be intense. After all, Barack Obama and Francois Hollande also promised “hope and change” and their electoral victories also led to widespread celebrations, as did Andreas Papandreou’s in 1981. In all three cases, their “radical” rhetoric was quickly forgotten. Will Syriza follow along the same path?

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