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Five things you need to know about Syriza’s win in Greece

European Union

Thierry Ehrmann under a Creative Commons Licence

They were partying all over Greece until the early hours – and rightly so. This is a historic moment for Greek and European politics.

Syriza, a broad coalition of left-wing social democrats, radical socialists and communists, environmentalists, anti-globalization campaigners and human rights advocates, won the general election with 36.4 per cent of the vote. They got 149 seats in the 300 strong parliament, just two seats short of an absolute majority.

Together with an anti-austerity, right-of-centre party called ‘Independent Greeks’, they will now form a government that will have the difficult task of re-negotiating bailout terms with the so-called troika (the EU, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund).

Syriza will also try to implement a programme of modest spending towards those hit the hardest by the recession and austerity measures and towards stimulating job-creation.

1. How bad are things in Greece?

As a result of austerity measures and the recession, Greece has seen its GDP shrink by nearly 25 per cent over the last five years, an economic performance worse than that of the US during the Great Depression of the 1930s.

At the same time, with nearly a third of the labour force unemployed and youth unemployment reaching nearly 50 per cent, many Greeks, especially those with an education, are leaving Greece to find jobs abroad in Europe and other parts of the world.

Finally, nearly half of the Greek population now lives below the poverty line as a result of the economy not generating new jobs. Hundreds of thousands of small businesses are closing down, while the publicly funded infrastructure is crumbling due to lack of investment. Thousands of public sector employees have been laid off due to cost-cutting measures.

In this context, it is not an accident that UN reports are characterizing the situation in Greece as a ‘humanitarian crisis’, a term which Syriza has itself repeatedly used.

2. How did Syriza win?

The 2009 elections in Greece brought PASOK (the main social-democratic party) to power, with nearly 43 per cent of the vote. PASOK was led by George Papandreou, an offspring of a long-established family of Greek politicians.

Fast-forward to 2015 and Sunday’s elections, where PASOK managed to get a pitiful 4.7 per cent of the vote, while ex-PM George Papandreou, who created a new political party a month before the elections, did not manage to get a single seat in Parliament.

This is the equivalent of a political earthquake and it has signaled the end of the two party political regime that has ruled Greece for the last four decades.

It is a remarkable victory which demonstrates how successful Syriza’s political rhetoric has been at capturing the anger and frustration of many left-of centre voters.

With the slogan ‘hope is coming’, Syriza, a party that prior to 2012 polled around 4.5 per cent of the vote, seems to have achieved the impossible: creating a broad coalition that, at least rhetorically, rejects the TINA argument (There Is No Alternative) that previous Greek administrations had accepted.

In its place, Syriza advocates a post-austerity vision, both for Greece and Europe, with a re-structuring of sovereign debt at its centre.

Syriza’s narrative also includes a strong reference to human rights, the ‘return’ of dignity, respect and solidarity in the place of ‘market talk’ and a strong emphasis on re-organizing the (corrupt) Greek state while re-affirming national sovereignty on economic affairs within a ‘different Europe’.

3. Is the coalition between Syriza and the centre-right party ‘Independent Greeks’ going to work?

The two parties have many differences, but they were both outside the political ‘establishment’, they share the same anti-austerity views and a discourse of patriotism vs what is perceived as the humiliation of a country run as a colony of the troika.

It is also clever of Syriza to make a political opening to the right, for it desperately needs to present itself as a government of all Greeks. It also needs to have a better relationship with the military and, to some extent, the police, who traditionally tend to vote more conservatively.

So, in some respects, it is probably better for Syriza to avoid the creation of a ‘left-right’ split among the Greek people and, thus, galvanize wider political support for the tough negotiations ahead.

4. Is the Syriza-led coalition going to take Greece out of the Euro zone?

Despite the scaremongering that often surfaces in media reports, it is clear that the majority of Syriza representatives want to avoid having to take Greece out of the common currency.

The leadership can hardly be characterized as anti-European, despite some eurosceptic voices in the party. In internal discussions, various factions within Syriza have argued for introducing a national currency, but these have remained, so far, a minority voice within the party.

Instead, the current leadership of Syriza has made numerous statements that it does not intend to destroy the euro or force Greece out of the eurozone. But they have also said that they are not willing to keep Greece in the eurozone at all costs. If Greece leaves the euro under Syriza, it will happen not because its leadership wants it to, but because it will be forced to.

This rather ambivalent message has served Syriza well, both externally and domestically, where it has alleviated the fears of many disaffected middle-class voters who are very sceptical about a return to the Drachma.

Externally, it indicates the spirit in which Syriza will approach any forthcoming negotiations with the troika. Namely, that Syriza does not share the same neo-liberal economic policy agenda as Greece’s lenders – and certainly challenges Germany’s insistence on a continuation of austerity policies – but it is willing to compromise over a mutually beneficial deal.

5. What are the implications for Europe?

Syriza has stated that its political ambition is to change Europe, as well as Greece. It has cleverly refused to accept the narrative of Greek exceptionalism when it comes to sovereign debt, while attacking the incompetence and corruption of the two-party establishment that has run Greece since the 1970s. Syriza has framed the issue of Greek sovereign debt as part of the wider issue of European economic governance and, most recently, promoted the idea of a European summit on debt.

This way, it has opened a political space both for itself and other European political forces to change the dominant economic narrative in the EU.

Although Syriza has no politically equivalent allies in Europe at the moment, it clearly brings a change in the political dynamics of Europe. Syriza’s sister party in Spain, Podemos, is first in the polls, while various social-democrats across Europe have declared their cautious support and willingness to co-operate with it.

This is a party advocating that ‘a different Europe is possible’, a Europe of solidarity, social justice and dignity. While challenging the neo-liberal pro-austerity rationale of the current economic governance in Europe, they also bring a message of hope away from xenophobia, phobic nationalism and jingoism.

The stakes are very high indeed. Syriza’s opponents (and there are many in Greece and Europe) would not like to see it succeed. On the other hand, austerity has clearly failed economically and socially; sovereign debt is rising and the costs of forcing Greece to leave the euro are impossible to calculate.

The weeks ahead will show how far Syriza’s ‘audacity of hope’ will translate into substantial change for Greece and Europe. In the meantime, at least for a day, smiles have returned to Athens and everyone knows that, politically, nothing will be the same again.

Theo Papadopoulos is a Lecturer in Social Policy at the University of Bath (UK).

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