While liberal and left-wing Americans stare distastefully and apprehensively at their pitiful choices for next year's presidential election, Greek voters are celebrating the victory of Syriza, the young, pragmatic, and popular left-wing party led by a young atheist ex-communist with a son named after Che Guevara. Let us guide you through Greece's election and the ramifications for Syriza's victory.
On Sunday, Greek voters—fed up with "austerity" measures imposed after the country's economic collapse—handed their government to Syriza. And while financial and business columnists wring their hands about Greece being cut off from the euro, lefties around the world are energized by the party's clear mandate.
The left-wing coalition Syriza won Greece's parliamentary elections this weekend.
Greece voted for a new Parliament, and the party with the most support—nearly 10 percent more than its next competitor—was the Syriza party, a coalition made up of Trotskyites, Maoists, other assorted communists, socialists, and left-leaning partisans. We're not talking "Obama socialism" or some other mealy-mouthed American-style left project here; as leading party member Stathis Kouvelakis tells Jacobin magazine, this movement is pretty radical: "Syriza has a strong anticapitalist line, and it has very sharply set itself apart from social democracy."
Something relatively new and weird may be tried in Greek and European politics now. The global economy has been slowly recovering for years, and populist anger in Europe (and the U.S.) has led to some political gains among conservatives, notably in larger E.U. nations like Britain, France and Germany. But Greece, whose economy is one of the worst, has turned sharply left, thanks largely to anger over deals that previous Greek governments struck over the country's high debt burden.
Syriza could provide a path for similar left-wing coalitions to take elected power throughout Europe.
This could open a new battle over what future politics and governments will look like and Europe, and across the rest of the world. For better or worse, a lot of leftists have more hope of political representation now than they have in a while. The lovable lefties at Jacobin magazine have called Syriza "the Left's best chance at success in a generation" and dubbed Greece "Phase One" of a larger ideological shift. Syriza's victory, then, is seen by many as the beginning of a larger movement away from the neoliberal, conservative-friendly free-market policies that have long dominated most of the Euro zone.
Here, for example, is an AP photo of some supporters of Germany's left-wing Die Linke party, rallying after the election Sunday night:
The German placard in the center—'This is really a good night, Mrs. Merkel"—conveys a double meaning: a celebration of the Greek victory, and a boasting that Angela Merkel, the right-center German chancellor who spearheaded the European debt deal that rankled so many Greeks, might fall next.
Syriza's victory is in part a reaction to punishing austerity measures...
Austerity is what happens when the free market's invisible hand punches an entire society in the neck. Without question, past Greek governments spent way beyond their means, all the way back to when democracy was established after the overthrow of a military junta in 1974. The spending problem worsened in the boom years of the 2000's. But when the global recession hit, it hit Greece especially hard; as tax revenues fell (and as more corporate taxpayers found new ways to evade their obligations), the government fell behind on its debt obligations.
An inability to pay back creditors could have crippled the global economy, so Greece's partners agreed to bail the country out—but only if it put the brakes on spending. The way it's tried to do that has been by slashing the hell out of workers' benefits. Those "austerity" cuts included:
- A 22 percent reduction in the minimum wage.
- 150,000 public-sector jobs to be lost by this year.
- Numerous pension cuts, including one worth nearly $400 million in 2012 alone.
- Laws to make it easier for businesses to lay off workers.
- Cuts to health and military spending.
But these measures not only cut operating costs: They wrecked the country's already-teetering economy, dropping its GDP by another 20 percent, leading some economists to argue the country's debt problem is even worse now than it was before. Jobs and profits dried up. Recent figures pegged Greece's unemployment rate at nearly 28 percent—more than the U.S.'s highest estimated unemployment rate ever during the Great Depression, and almost three times higher than the U.S.'s worst unemployment statistics during the recent recession.
...that hit working citizens especially hard.
The opinion of shrieky conservatives, like this dude at the National Review who compared Syriza's election to Alice in Wonderland and Dumb & Dumber, holds that austerity measures were a just punishment for a lazy, greedy Greece. Certainly, those Greek governments curried favor with citizens by splurging on vast benefits that American workers can look at with envy. But a lot of that borrowed dough didn't go to entitlements: Greece historically spent more on defense as a percentage of GDP than any other country in NATO except the United States. Even after austerity measures were imposed on the government and the citizenry, Greece kept spending defense dollars at a fast clip. And most of that cash went right back to the U.S., Great Britain, and France—some of the same wealthy countries that were setting austere terms on bailout loans to Greece.
Beyond that, it's difficult to say that the austerity measures and their effects on everyday workers were just deserts. Just as it promised to repay rich creditors, the Greek government also made promises to generations of its citizens—promises around which millions of people ordered their lives and for which they dedicated themselves to their jobs.
Imagine you are a worker who put in 30 years at a job and watched her pension rise the whole time, only to be told at retirement time that those savings are needed to pay central bankers. Imagine if the new scheme of pay cuts reduces your income to where it no longer pays for the house you and your family have lived in for a decade—and even if you or your loved ones are willing to take on extra jobs to cover the debt, you can't, because there are no jobs to be found. The very workers who create value in the economy suddenly found food, shelter and health care scarce because their promised benefits were needed to pay for decisions they never directly made.
Now, consider: When the world's powers really grew concerned about a Greek default in 2011, the country's prime minister resigned and was replaced by an M.I.T.-educated central banker who had never held office before, then an unelected judge, and finally a center-right party politician. So a banker, a judge, and a conservative helped the European powers gut Greece's social safety net. That's part of the reason that radical, workers-first alternatives appeal to so many Greeks now.
Syriza, led by 40-year-old Alex Tsipras, was formed in 2004 as a loose coalition of left parties.
Syriza—which is an acronym based on the Greek for "Coalition for the Radical Left"—was formed as a loose leftist coalition in 2004. "It emerged from a series of splits in the Communist movement," says party higher-up Kouvelakis. In addition to being friendly to socialism and antagonistic to private-market solutions, he says:
It is a party that's at ease among feminist movements, youth mobilizations, alter-globalization, and antiracist movements and LGBT currents, while also continuing to make a considerable intervention in the trade union movement.
Its leader, 40-year-old Alex Tsipras—who was sworn in as prime minister Monday afternoon—is a lifelong leftist activist who reportedly met his wife at a Young Communists meeting and named one of his sons Orpheus Ernesto, after communist guerrilla leader Ernesto "Che" Guevara.
Syriza's leadership is avowedly atheist.
While there are some Christian democrats in the Syriza coalition, its highest leaders—including Tsipras—are publicly avowed atheists, which is a rarity among leaders of non-communist countries. It's even more controversial in Greece, where the Orthodox Christian Church is given privileged constitutional status, prayers are organized at public schools, and priests are on the government payroll.
But despite misgivings about Syriza's attitude toward religion, leaders in the movement have appeared conciliatory recently. Tsipras met with Pope Francis last month in the Vatican, praising the Catholic Church's father as "the pontiff of the poor."
Syriza's victory isn't necessarily a clear victory for socialism.
The populist wave of Greek anger that Syriza rode to power has some sway beyond the left. Plenty of conservatives, for example, have praised the Greek party for what they see as its "Euroscepticism"—challenging a Europe-wide economic program that imposes conditions on its member nations. The disturbingly nativist right-wing French politician Marine Le Pen, for example, congratulated Syriza, calling its election "the start of the trial of euro-austerity." And Tsipras cemented power after Sunday's election by forming a coalition with the Independent Greeks party, a center-right outfit.
In a sense, there is nothing more libertarian or conservative than a group of citizens banding together to argue for their economic interests. And that's just what Syriza voters have done. Austerity might be good for the Euro zone; it might be good for central banks and their clients; it may be good for American workers' 401(k)s. But at the end of the day it means economic ruin for a large percentage of the Greek population. They didn't just lose government benefits, but also an infrastructure that enabled private citizens to build businesses, hire workers, and invest capital.
"The policies currently imposed upon Europe's periphery are worsening the crisis, threatening Europe's integrity and jeopardizing growth. A Greek government that rejects these self-defeating policies will do more help than harm," wrote economist James K. Galbraith and his University of Texas colleague Yanis Varoufakis in a 2013 New York Times op-ed titled "Only Syriza Can Save Greece."
For many Greeks, then, pushing back against the financial politics of strong European leaders like Angela Merkel and David Cameron isn't just an expression of left ideology or pure anger, but a calculation of personal interest.
The Greek election will increase economic uncertainty across Europe. That's why the UK must stick to our plan, delivering security at home.
— David Cameron (@David_Cameron) January 25, 2015
Syriza has the chance to be a stronger advocate for Greece.
The fearful delusions of some conservatives and naive hopes of some communists are probably equally wrong: Few experienced political and economic observers expect Greece to turn into a Marxist-Leninist state, or anything close to it. That hasn't stopped investors and markets from getting a little loopy—they fear that Greek repudiation of its debt deal could cause a domino effect on credit markets across Europe and the world—but those dangers may prove to be isolated. In all likelihood, the country won't even leave the Eurozone—but it may threaten to do so in order to negotiate a better debt-repayment deal from Europe's richer creditors.
Greece's new leaders won't get all they want, but they may get a little relief. Multiple members of the "Eurogroup" of national politicians that oversee the currency zone said Monday that forgiveness of more of Greece's debt was unlikely. (Several analysts have been saying the same thing.) But a restructuring of the current austerity-driven debt deal was possible. "We will not forgive any loans," one finance minister said. "However, we are ready to discuss extensions to [bailout] programs or extensions to loan repayment periods."
In terms of regional stability and governance, that may be a good thing: Greece gets a stronger advocate and a little more consideration from its creditors, while Europe gets guarantees that Greece won't pop the wheels off this sputtering macroeconomic vehicle.
On the other hand, as with Obama's 2008 hope-and-change voting bloc, some unemployed Greeks and far-left coalition members may get impatient with Syriza if it doesn't hold the line on some principled Left Platform demands. That could mean a defection from the coalition government down the line and another political crisis. "Hope has made history," Tsipras said in his Sunday victory speech. But whether hope has a future in Greece, nobody really knows.
[ Photo credit: AP Images]