How Greece's Left-Wing Election Win Could Reverberate Around Europe

Syriza's win on Sunday was a historic moment for the European left, but it remains to be seen what the legacy of this victory will be.

|
Jan 27 2015, 7:00pm


Alexis Tsipras giving his celebratory speech in Athens's Propylaea on Sunday. Photo by Dimitris Michalakis

This article originally appeared on VICE Greece.

Greece on Monday was in party mode as the country made headlines for bringing a radical leftist party to power for the first time in the history of Europe. Syriza got 36.3 percent of the votes on Sunday's general election, prompting its supporters to dance on the streets for hours and Hugh Laurie to congratulate them via Twitter.

For young Greeks, the changes that Syriza has promised are long overdue. These include gender equality, LGBT rights, the secularization of the state, the decriminalization of certain drugs, and an end to police brutality. For an older generation of Syriza supporters, the vote was a protest against the crippling cuts imposed by the Troika (the European Central Bank, the IMF, and the European Commission). The left's win signals the failure of the austerity strategy. The party's young leader, Alexis Tsipras, is set to become the first prime minister in the history of the Eurozone to reject austerity measures taken in light of a 240 billion euro ($270 billion) bailout loan.

With that in mind, Syriza's victory could make waves throughout the rest of Europe. Let's take a look at how Greece's voters could have changed things for everyone.

The future of Greece in Europe

Understandably, the European political elite is not taking recent developments well. David Cameron tweeted that "the Greek election will increase economic uncertainty across Europe. That's why the UK must stick to our plan, delivering security at home." Meanwhile, Germany's Central Bank chief Jens Weidmann noted: "It is clear that Greece will remain dependent on support and it's also clear that this aid will be provided only when it is in an aid program." Basically, saying that Greece is still in thrall to European austerity, Syriza or no.

It's unlikely that these words did anything to intimidate Tsipras, who pretty much won the election by using the constant threats made by European leaders to his favour. In a few days, the young leader will be attending an EU summit in Brussels and sitting next to chancellor Angela Merkel, David Cameron and Francois Holland. With a fresh victory in his pocket, he should be able laugh off anyone suggesting further austerity measures for Greece. The measures on the table are so radical not even the former Greek PM, the conservative Antonis Samaras, would agree to them.

Despite lots of establishment head-shaking, Syriza's economic point is valid. According to Stavros Drakopoulos, Professor of Economics at the University of Athens, "the fundamentals of the Greek economy show that the basic position of Syriza for a comprehensive discussion about the sustainability of Greek debt makes sense ." Drakopoulos notes that "most economists agree that the level of Greek debt is unsustainable and needs some form of renegotiation... The huge amount of debt hampers and drags on long-term economic growth that will bring a reduction in unemployment and an increase in per capita income. The need to provide debt relief, which is very likely to bring economic relief, is in the interest of the EU too."


Syriza supporters celebrating in Athens on Sunday. Photo by Dimitris Michalakis

"Kammenos" in Greek means "burned"

However, Tsipras's decision to form a coalition government with the right-wing populist party Independent Greeks complicates things. A few days ago, their leader, Panos Kammenos, said that Greek debt should be audited and its "odious" part written down, whether creditors like it or not. "Europe," Kammenos said, "is being governed by German neo-Nazis."

This alliance with the less than diplomatic Independent Greeks is a cause for concern. "I think the chance of failure is growing rapidly. Imagine the kind of negotiations such a government is going to have with the Troika ," Aristides Chatzis, Associate Professor of Philosophy of Law at the University of Athens told VICE. "For a party with the slogan 'Left for the first time' to form a government with a populist right-wing party is a very bad start, which gives the message to both Greek society and Europe that Syriza belongs to Eurosceptics."

The other side of the negotiating table won't want to budge either. So far, both the IMF and the ECB deny the possibility of writing off much of the Greek loan. Angela Merkel hates the idea too; she seems to fear it will become a pattern for other failing Eurozone economies and that it will boost Germany's own growing anti-Euro movement.

Rejecting that notion means a new dilemma for the rest of Europe. If Greece is pushed out of the Eurozone and the Euro, that would be a huge test of the strength of the European Union. On the other hand, if Tsipras's demands are met, other radical parties will emerge in countries with similar problems to Greece—like Spain, who will be holding a general election later this year. Large swaths of Europe could turn red.

Could there be a domino Effect in Spain, Italy, and Ireland?

Last Thursday, Pablo Iglesias, leader of the Podemos movement in Spain, joined Tsipras at Syriza's political gathering in Athens. "A wind of democratic change is blowing in Europe," Iglesias said. "The change in Greece is called Syriza. The change in Spain is called Podemos. Hope is coming. To victory! We will overcome."

Spain and Greece aren't the only EU countries with strong anti-austerity political movements. In Italy, Beppe Grillo's Five Star movement surprised Europe in the last EU Parliament elections, gaining 20 percent of the vote. In Ireland, Sinn Féin's Gerry Adams wished Tsipras good luck before the elections, while another Member of the European Parliament (MEP) for the Midlands North West Constituency, Matt Carthy, stated that victory for left-wing party Syriza could improve Ireland's chance of obtaining a better debt deal from the European Union.

And according to Chatzis, Tsipras has every motivation to win the kind of concessions that could set off that domino effect. "Tsipras's win limits him," he pointed out. "It doesn't allow him to compromise easily, even if the negotiations present him with improvements in the overall package for Greece. He knows that such a compromise will have a great political cost."

Syriza supporters celebrating in Athens on Sunday. Photo by Dimitris Michalakis

Fascists are pretty happy

Were Tsipras to fail to meet his promises could be even more catastrophic to Greeks than just leaving the EU. It could mean an even greater rise of extremism and fascism locally, as well as internationally. Syriza's voters were largely people who have been socially exhausted by austerity. If they end up feeling betrayed, some suggest they will turn to more extreme political forces, such as the Golden Dawn, which on Sunday got 6.28 percent of the vote and 17 seats out of 300.

Marine Le Pen, leander of the far-right French Front National, is thrilled by the coalition between Syriza and Independent Greeks: "I am delighted at this massive democratic blow the Greek people have delivered to the European Union... This is the moment euro-austerity and the constraints imposed to save the Euro go on trial," she said. The vultures are already circling, looking to pick on the carcass of a Syriza's support, should the party fail.

Which in turn raises questions about Syriza's immigration policy. The Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy (ELIAMEP) notes that previous governments in Greece have been working irregularly "in terms of control and deterrence" of illegal immigration. Generally speaking, the last government's irregular migration policy could be summarized as follows: arrest, detain, return.

Syriza has pledged to change this situation radically. Aggeliki Dimitriadis, key researcher on immigration at ELIAMEP seems to think this is easier said than done: "These changes will take time. Greece's immigration policies are decided on a European level—this is not a domestic policy issue. For that reason, Greece should firstly try to open a dialogue with Εurope, in a way that stresses the fact that altering these policies is in our mutual interest. It is also important, however, to broaden the discussion on migration to include issues that go beyond equating migration with security."

This leads us back to where we started. The changes Tsipras wants to make in Greece rely on him getting Europe's leaders to respect him and lighten their stance. And if he achieves that, his negotiations will have repercussions beyond Greece.

Stories