After weeks of hype and hubbub, Greece’s Coalition of the Radical Left, SYRIZA, secured a majority in parliament and an opportunity to make good on its campaign promises to “open a way to hope” (the party’s motto) and to roll back many of the more onerous terms of Greece’s austerity measures. Alexis Tsipras, the country’s new prime minister, is forming an awkward coalition government with the right-wing, but also anti-bailout, Independent Greeks of ANEL.
Unfortunately for Greece, SYRIZA is likely to fail in both its attempts to roll back austerity and to establish an effective government. Unfortunately for Europe, the election is likely to mean increased market turmoil in the near future and pervasive left-wing populism directed against widespread austerity and economic malaise across the continent.
SYRIZA’s victory represents the denouement of the collapse of the traditional party system in Greece in which power alternated between the center-left, represented by PASOK, and the center-right, represented by New Democracy (ND). Those establishment parties were the big losers in Sunday’s election. The pro-European center-left party, Potami (The River) cannibalized what remained of PASOK and secured 17 seats in the new parliament. ANEL, a right-wing party of euro-skeptics took another 13 seats with 4.5% of the votes and will be SYRIZA’s governing partner. Even the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party secured 17 seats, although they will not find a home with either the government or the official opposition.
Voters from across the political spectrum have turned to SYRIZA (and other radical alternatives) out of desperation after the economic contraction, massive unemployment, government corruption, and austerity which have defined the previous seven years. Even the glimmer of hope offered by estimates of modest growth in the second half of 2014 were not enough to prevent a massive defeat for New Democracy under the leadership of Antonis Samaras. For Greek voters, the situation is simply not improving quickly enough.
But will SYRIZA deliver?
There are enormous obstacles. First, SYRIZA has promised too much. It has pledged an end to austerity, writing off much of Greece’s massive debt, economic growth, and the restoration of jobs, salaries, and benefits to those who lost them under the terms of the austerity policies all while keeping the country in the Eurozone. Its platform is as ambitious as it is unrealistic. But like all parties which shift from campaigning to governing, sacrifices and practical choices will have to be made.
Second, SYRIZA’s grip on power is precarious. For much of Greek history, governments have failed to serve their full term of office. Unwieldy coalitions, international crises, and domestic scandals have been omnipresent. In the 193 years since the founding of the Greek Republic, there have been 187 governments. This is an opportunity for SYRIZA, but also a warning. ANEL will be a difficult coalition partner to manage. Its founder, Panos Kammenos was formerly a member of ND. Having already defected from one party, he cannot be considered completely dependable as a coalition partner. It is unlikely that this marriage of convenience will prove resilient. Fissures between the two parties are likely, and when they emerge, Tsipras will need to hunt for votes in parliament to pass legislation just like his predecessor. This could lead to the need for new elections in Greece sooner than expected.
ANEL is also in a precarious position. It has seen its vote totals decline since its formation in 2012. In the May election of that year, ANEL secured 10.6% of the vote and a total of 33 seats. In the June re-run, its total dropped to 7.5% and 20 seats. In this election, ANEL appears to have gotten only 4.5% of the vote and 13 seats. By becoming the only party willing to work with SYRIZA (although Potami has said their support is possible) ANEL has put itself in a delicate position with its supporters. If they see it falter on core issues like immigration, multiculturalism, or the role of the Church within the Greek state—all issues where ANEL and SYRIZA are at odds—their support will likely melt away.
Third, the international community is not likely to show SYRIZA any more mercy than they showed the previous governments. If Greeks are tired of austerity, European lenders are tired of massive debt and market uncertainty. Substantive reform measures still need to be taken in Greece if the country is to be both functional and economically viable in the long-term.
But this mutual bind provides a potential silver-lining. Both the Greeks and the Europeans want the problem of Greece’s debt to finally end. And there are face-saving compromises available to each of parties involved. If cool heads prevail, there might yet be progress. The European Commission, the IMF, and the European Central Bank, could negotiate a lower interest rate for Greek debt, or restructure the timeline for repayment. They could use the opportunity presented by GDP growth (however modest) in late 2014 to undo some of the harsher aspects of austerity, or even direct new spending to helping those most in need. SYRIZA, in turn, could drop its advocacy for Germany to repay the infamous “war loan” extorted from Greece during the German occupation of the 1940s. They could also soft-pedal or rethink their promise to return salaries, benefits, and public sector employment to pre-memorandum levels.
Europe and the rest of the world will be watching carefully for the next few months as negotiations take place. In the meantime, SYRIZA’s victory will provide hope not just to anti-austerity Greeks but to leftist parties throughout the European Union. In Portugal, Spain, France, Italy, and Cyprus—in every country stuck in the doldrums of Europe’s economic malaise—the radical, Euro-skeptical left will receive a fillip from this unprecedented victory. Both the traditional parties within those countries as well as the Troika should take note of the change.
Out of desperation, the Greek electorate has voted to give hope a chance. Hope, as they say, is last to die. So if SYRIZA fails to bring Greece back to economic solvency few choices will remain—choices even less appealing and more radical than SYRIZA. Hope has come to govern Greece, but whether change will come, and come for the better, is another matter.
Novo’s opinions are his own and do not reflect the official policy or attitude of the United States Government or the Department of Defense.
A complete list of the members of the Greek Parliament and their parties can be found here