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Greece’s radical left could kill off austerity in the EU



If Syriza wins a possible snap poll in the new year, positive repercussions could be felt across Europe

Another war looms in Europe: waged not with guns and tanks, but with financial markets and EU diktats. Austerity-ravaged Greece may well be on the verge of a general election that could bring to power a government unequivocally opposed to austerity. Momentous stuff: that has not happened in the six years of cuts and falling living standards that followed the collapse of Lehman Brothers.


But if the radical leftist party Syriza does indeed triumph in a possible snap poll in the new year, there will undoubtedly be a concerted attempt to choke the experiment at birth. That matters not just for Greece, but for all of us who want a different sort of society and a break from years of austerity.


What misery has been inflicted on Greece. One in four of its people are out of work; poverty has surged from 23% before the crash to 40.5%; and research has demonstrated how key services such as health have been hammered by cuts, even as demand has risen. No wonder the country has experienced a political polarisation that has prompted comparisons with Weimar Germany. The neo-Nazi Golden Dawn – which makes other European rightist movements look like fluffy liberals – at one point attracted up to 15% in the polls; though still a menace, its support has thankfully subsided to half that.


But unlike many other European societies – with the notable exceptions of Spain and Ireland – fury and despair with austerity has been channelled into the ranks of the populist left. After years on the fringes of Greek politics, Syriza only became a fully fledged party in 2012, and yet it won Greece’s elections to the European parliament earlier this year. The latest opinion polls give Syriza a substantial lead over the governing centre-right New Democracy party. A radical leftwing government could well assume power for the first time in the EU’s history.


After years of social ruin, Syriza is offering Greeks that precious thing: hope. Although it has shifted from demanding an immediate cancellation of debt, it is demanding a negotiated solution. It has conjured up the example of a European debt conference to wipe away a portion of the debt, as happened with Germany in 1953. Syriza’s manifesto proposes that repayment of debt could come through economic growth, rather than from budget cuts. It wants a European new deal backed up by an investment bank; an all-out war against the tax avoidance endemic in Greek society; an emergency employment programme; a raised minimum wage; and the restoration of collective bargaining. In alliance with anti-austerity forces such as Spain’s surging Podemos party, Syriza wants the EU to abandon crippling austerity policies in favour of quantitative easing and a growth-led recovery.


There’s one small catch: the determined opposition of the establishment in both Greece and the EU. Greece was ruled by a hard-right junta, the colonels’ regime of 1967-74, and there is still clearly anti-leftist sentiment deeply embedded in the state. The police have been infiltrated by Golden Dawn elements, with accusations that they have tortured anti-fascist protesters. The head of the bank of Greece has warned of “irreparable damage” to the economy if there is a change of course. Some form of coup – even if more subtle than that executed by the colonels in 1967 – cannot be ruled out.


And then there’s the president of the European commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, a man who hardly has an inspiring democratic mandate and is best known for questions over his former country’s tax avoidance policies, who has already made it clear that the Greek people should not vote the wrong way. “I think that the Greeks – who have a very difficult life – know very well what a wrong election result would mean for Greece and the eurozone,” he has said. “I wouldn’t like extreme forces to come to power.” There are rumours that, if Syriza does win, Greece could be deprived of all EU funding. Apocalyptic talk of capital flight and bank runs abound. Markets and elite politicians alike have their guns pointed at the Greek electorate.

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