Can Syriza be a Beacon for Left Parties in Europe?

By Jason Iliou

Greece turned a major page in its political history electing the first radical left party in parliament after years of center and right-wing governments. But Sunday marked the day Greeks sent an angry message to bipartisanship for years of bad governing that led Greece into deep recession, the largest unemployment levels in the eurozone and a debt that has been characterized “not sustainable” by most eurosceptics. But also, this pendulum swing towards the left has more than one recipient. The International Monetary Fund (IMF), European Central Bank (ECB) and Europe’s leading economic power, Germany, have all pushed for further austerity in order to keep providing financial assistance to Greece. Syriza has vowed to stay in the Euro and negotiate with Greece’s creditors, but is not willing to implement any more measures demanded by Europe. It has aggressively condemned the Troika strategies and is hoping to stand tall towards anti-populist measures, that according to the party, only affect the lower and middle class, deepening the gap between rich and poor. The alternatives have not yet been laid out by the newly formed Greek government, but Syriza is hoping to find more allies against austerity in Europe, particularly in countries that have suffered severely from recession and bailout programs.

The first ally comes from Spain. Created just a year ago, radical-left and Syriza affiliated party Podemos is leading the polls in Spain, netting approximately 28 percent of the vote, leaving centre-left Spanish Socialist Worker’s Party (PSOE) trailing. Syriza and Podemos are not only compatible in their manifestos and their plans to re-shape Europe and its financial polices. Both parties are led by two young leaders who have become the voice of suppressed youth in Greece and Spain who suffer unemployment rates of more than 50 percent and have suffered most from austerity. Syriza leader Alexis Tsipras, 40, and Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias, 36, aim to represent the new generation and change the political landscape with a fresh rhetoric that is no longer undervalued by political nepotism and an old-fashioned, conservative ideology.

“The sovereign Greek people today have given a clear, strong, indisputable mandate,” Tsipras told the crowd that flooded Propylaia, near Syntagma following the results. “Greece has turned a page. Greece is leaving behind the destructive austerity, fear and authoritarianism. It is leaving behind five years of humiliation and pain.”

This victory is expected to bolster the image of Podemos in Spain and provide it with an extra cushion in polls as the left-wing air is travelling fast from Greece to Spain.

“Change in Greece is called Syriza, change in Spain is called Podemos,” said Iglesias, who joined a speech with Tsipras at Syriza’s pre-election rally Friday in Omonoia Square, Athens. “Hope is coming. Onwards to victory with Syriza-Podemos,” he added.

Italy is not far from jumping on the wagon. Beppe Grillo’s newly founded Five Star Movement came third in the European elections in Italy, not far behind Matteo Renzi’s centre-left Democratic Party and Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia. Although Grillo has a far more aggressive stance towards the EU, his party has vowed to issue a referendum on the Euro, should it take the reigns, arguing that the currency has favored big banks at the expense of small investors and that creditors have not provided the country with the support it needed to overcome its obstacles.

Also founded shortly before the European elections, Slovenia’s United Left Coalition, is the third most popular party and has enjoyed the support of both Syriza and Podemos. Renowned Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek has often argued that the Marxist rhetoric can bring a new change in Europe and put an end to austerity.

“The only true solution is thus clear: since everyone knows Greece will never repay its debt, one will have to gather the courage and write the debt off. It can be done at a quite tolerable economic cost, just with political will,” said Zizek in an article just days before the Greek elections. “Such acts are our only hope to break out of the vicious cycle of cold Brussels neoliberal technocracy and anti-immigrant false passions. If we don’t act, others, from Golden Dawn to UKIP, will do it.”

Portugal is also one of the countries that have endured heavy austerity measures since 2011 to sustain a 78 billion euro debt. Left and communist parties had never been particularly successful in the past, but they have managed to garner a lot of support in recent years. The Left Bloc has seen a particular rise after criticizing austerity measures and along with the center-left socialist party, which is leading the polls, they have developed a strong anti-austerity rhetoric. Portugal is expected to hold elections in the fall and the Socialists enjoy an 11 percent margin against the center-right government of Pedro Passos Coelho in polls.

The Greek result “is another sign of the political change that is happening in Europe, the failure of austerity and the need for new policies,” Socialist leader Antonio Costa said according to the AP.

On the other hand, Ireland has managed to endure its financial woes and can now dream of rebuilding its economy as several multinational conglomerates are currently investing deep into the Irish market. But six years of recurring bailout programmes have taken a toll on the economy and this has consequently lead to the rise of left-wing parties. Recent polls show that the left-wing Sinn Fein has found unprecedented support currently leading the polls with 26 percent while the coalition of Fianna Fail (21 percent) and the Labour party (6 percent) have fallen dramatically in numbers and are likely to lose the 2016 elections. Sinn Fein have been vocal supporters of the Syriza negotiation campaign and in a symbolic move, party members travelled to Athens to celebrate Tsipras’ recent victory in elections to show the Irish people that there is room for change in Ireland and Europe.

“Syriza’s victory is not just about Greece. It’s about Ireland, Portugal, Spain and Italy too,” Pearse Doherty, finance spokesman for Sinn Fein, told the AP.

Finally, a special mention needs to be made in French President Francois Hollande. Hollande started of his presidency in an effort to counterweight German’s rule in the EU and propose a different approach to battling recession in Europe. As the anti-austerity voices in Europe were meagre at the time, Hollande was forced to settle for Merkel’s social liberalism. Tsipras had met Hollande in 2012, hoping to find a strong anti-austerity ally in Europe in the famous gaffe where the Syriza leader urged Hollande not to become another ‘Hollandreou (reference to former Greek socialist PM Papandreou). Now, Hollande has been trying to bolster his image following the Paris terrorist attacks and renovate his image. Tsipras’ win could help the French President reinvent his anti-austerity rhetoric that he was forced to brush under the carpet after Merkel was not willing to budge. Should the anti-austerity voice become stronger, Hollande shows willingness to play along in order to get re-elected in the 2017 elections. This becomes apparent in the way the French premier welcomed Syriza’s win and expressed his “desire to pursue the close cooperation between our two countries in service of growth and the stability of the euro zone, in a spirit of progress, solidarity and responsibility that is at the heart of the European values we share.” Hollande also invited Tsipras to Paris to hold separate talks regarding the future of Greece and Europe.

This sudden change of tides from center-left, socialist governments towards a more leftist rhetoric could surface as many fear that the dramatic rise of the far-right, which also develops anti-austerity sentiments among others, could be extremely dangerous for the cohesion of Europe. It is integral to look at how Marine Le Pen celebrated Syriza’s victory. The European far-right has been trying to cloak radical fascist ideologies under the mantle of a financial apartheid to appeal to general audiences who do not necessarily harbor nationalist ideals. This is also the case in Greece, Netherlands, Austria, Hungary and many other countries that have had a strong far-right presence in parliament and society as the recession has unearthed an anti-immigration and anti-tolerance debate.

For all these reasons, left-wing change is not only echoed in the financial worries of Europe. Voters also expect left-wing parties to tackle issues on tolerance, immigration, gay rights and social class. But left-wing parties will have their hands tied in the beginning of this long road. Syriza has been forced to form a coalition with right-wing Independent Greeks (ANEL), who are not likely to offer their support in radical social reforms. Particularly gay rights and immigration are expected to take a rain check for the time being, as such issues are poised to be the ‘red line’ for Syriza’s right-wing counterpart. Likewise, Podemos’ lead in polls does not seem to be a comfortable one and a lot will depend on the alliances that Iglesias would form the day after. The winning card for left-wing governments has to be focused on bold economic reforms in order for them to fully gain the public trust and start claiming supermajority in parliament.

But apart from dealing with tricky alliances, left-wing parties have several more obstacles to overcome. The road to power is paved with a perennial comme-il-faut behavior towards religious institutions and entrepreneurial elites. Radical left parties have a moral responsibility towards their voters to diminish the relationship between state and religious institutions, as well as with social elites that are knee-deep in corruption. It is integral for left-wing parties to overcome these obstacles in order to preserve their populist image and avoid the ill-intended characterization of “social-democratic.”

Be that as it may, Syriza and possibly Podemos, will severely diminish conservative economic policies spearheaded by Germany, and even if Greece is too small of an economy to be able to stand tall, Spain isn’t. The wave can grow bigger and German Chancellor Angela Merkel is gradually running out of allies as eurosceptics from both left and right are piling up pressure. The dynamics within Europe are currently on a thin line and a lot will depend on Syriza’s first months in government. It’s a double-edged sword, but it’s certainly a call for change in economic policies and the need for Europe to redefine itself through them, becomes stronger and more relevant than ever.

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