Greece's Political Chimera

In the past few weeks, as the radical leftist party Syriza barreled toward victory in Greece’s early national elections, it became a symbol both inside and outside the country: Everyone seemed to see what they wanted in the formerly marginal party that promised to reject the international bailout agreement that has kept Greece on life support for nearly five years.

For a growing number of Greeks, exhausted and desperate after six years of recession and insecurity, Syriza’s anti-austerity platform was seen as a promise of salvation and an effort to reclaim the country’s sovereignty; others saw the impending clash with Greece’s European Union partners as a deadly threat to an economy that was just beginning to show signs of growth.

Many foreign observers, on the left and the right, saw Syriza’s rise as a rebellion against austerity and the economic and political orthodoxy of the European Union, a revolt that could spread to other debtor nations. European Union governments, which had lent Greece money (along with the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund), worried that their taxpayers would foot the bill for Greece’s voters and that this would inspire populist revolts in other countries.

Members of the new government taking a religious oath during a ceremony in Athens. Credit Louisa Gouliamaki/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
Members of the new government taking a religious oath during a ceremony in Athens. Credit Louisa Gouliamaki/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

In the first days after the Jan. 25 election, Syriza remains a chimera, an unpredictable hybrid. The party is a coalition of several factions and viewpoints, with cabinet members ranging from garrulous, cosmopolitan academics to former Communist trade-unionists with limited experience of the outside world. Adding to the puzzle is the fact that the party leader, Alexis Tsipras, the new prime minister, formed a coalition with a small, extreme right-wing party — Independent Greeks — in order to hold a majority in the 300-member Parliament. This decision puzzled local supporters as well as foreign analysts. The two parties have in common their virulent opposition to the bailout agreement, and this was one more way for Mr. Tsipras to show that his pre-election rhetoric was no bluff.

The government is clearly heading for a clash with Greece’s partners. It is pushing for a large reduction of debt and the annulment of various structural reforms carried out (halfheartedly) by previous governments. In their first comments, new ministers have announced cuts in the privatization program and the recall of public sector employees who were laid off — canceling measures demanded by creditors. Several European leaders have reminded Athens that Greece is committed to the bailout agreement and that Europe cannot write off loans their taxpayers provided. Greece’s financing expires in February, unless bailout monitors from the troika (the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund) complete an inspection suspended in November.

Syriza declares that it does not recognize the troika and will deal only with European decision-making bodies. Mr. Tsipras stresses that he wants Greece to remain in the eurozone. But with Greece shut out of capital markets, and with its partners not about to give in to Syriza’s demands, it is difficult to see how the economy will function if funds run out.

The showdown over the bailout is extremely dangerous, and obscures many serious issues that need to be dealt with in Greece and in the European Union as a whole.

Greece is the first European Union country in which a party from the political fringes has ridden a wave of popular anger against economic hardship to provide a direct challenge to policy makers in European capitals. The program of loans in return for austerity and reform has not gone according to plan and needs fixing. In turn, Greece must make a huge effort to create a viable economy that will not need further bailouts.

Syriza, not being part of the political mainstream that governed Greece over the past four decades, is in a unique position to cut down on the corruption, tax evasion and inequality that plague Greece. But at the same time, the party also shares a dominant mind-set that holds back progress, such as devotion to a huge state and an economy and education system in which politics play a destructive role. Syriza represents the potential for change as well as the danger of rolling back reforms of the past few years.

The “marriage” with the Independent Greeks, whose 13 Parliament members are now added to Syriza’s 149, reveals another aspect of Greece’s politics. The smaller party represents the opposite of Syriza’s liberal social platform, which includes expanded rights for immigrants, recognition of same-sex marriage, separation of church and state, and protection of human rights.

Apart from their rejection of the bailout agreement — the Independent Greeks’ leader, Panos Kammenos, is even more vocal than Mr. Tsipras in his attacks on Germany — the two party leaders have something else in common: Mr. Tsipras, who is 40, and Mr. Kammenos, who is 49, both cut their political teeth during years that Greece experienced unprecedented growth, stability and prosperity.

As a student activist for the Communist Party, Mr. Tsipras learned that the way to get things done was by confronting authority while making maximal demands; Mr. Kammenos, the son of a wealthy businessman, entered the cocoon of mainstream politics early and was deeply embedded in the establishment, serving in a previous conservative government before forming his own party. So Syriza has chosen a coalition partner that will not temper the government’s stand against its European Union partners but will probably try to outdo the leftists on rhetoric and actions.

The confrontation with Greece’s creditors can be seen as a clash between populism and dogma: on one side, a government that gained power by exploiting anger and despair; on the other, the creditor countries and organizations that insist on austerity even in the face of evidence that it is destroying a country and its people.

But it also raises the issue of democracy, and how the rights of one nation can clash with the rights of others. If the democratically elected Greek government reneges on the country’s commitment to repay its debt, this will be at the expense of taxpayers in partner countries. If the European Union pushes Greece hard for further austerity to get back the loans, this may crush the will of Greek voters. And if the European Union leaves Greece in its proud isolation, where its economy will most likely collapse, will all Greeks be forced to pay for the mistakes of a government elected by 36 percent of them (along with the less than 5 percent who voted for its partner)?

Political developments in Greece now demand a serious discussion on the relationship among Europe’s peoples, and on the need for reform to spring from hope, not punishment.

Nikos Konstandaras is the managing editor and a columnist at the newspaper Kathimerini.

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