With Sunday’s elections, the Greeks sent a message to Europe’s austerity-peddling elites of the so-called troika of the International Monetary Fund, the European Commission and the European Central Bank negotiating their country’s debt: You don’t own us.
While it is true that Greece is a small country of 10 million people that represents a mere 2.5 percent of Europe’s economy, the elections could have big consequences well beyond the country’s borders. Now that Greece’s left-wing party Syriza has emerged as the winner and has formed an anti-austerity coalition with a center-right party, the Greek Independents, you can be sure that the populations of economically distressed countries such as Spain, Portugal, Italy and even France are recalibrating their stances toward officials and policymakers who insist that there is no choice but to accept austerity.
Greece’s elections represented the bubbling over of rage from a population that has suffered the most from the eurozone’s “Hunger Games” approach to the 2007 global financial crisis. Struggling countries have been forced to impose savage cuts on their worn-down populations and pursue competitiveness through reducing wages, decimating worker protections and slashing social safety nets. The choice of the charismatic 40-year-old Alexis Tsipras as prime minister— a man who believes in economic policies linked to the needs of ordinary people rather than the desires of bankers — marks a radical change in tone for Europe.
For starters, Syriza’s victory announces the failure of austerity policies that produce misery rather than growth. By now there is wide consensus among economists that if Europe had passed a robust stimulus plan designed to put enough money in the pockets of ordinary people to drive demand and adopted a bolder monetary policy aimed at boosting the economy, Greece would not have ended up with a crippled economy, disastrous unemployment (currently more than 60 percent among youths) and a pervasive sense of desperation among the masses. Nearly a third of Greeks are living below the poverty line.
Despite the caricatures of Tsipras as a wild-eyed radical, he actually comes across in person as amiable, serious and pragmatic, as I found when I interviewed him in 2013. His proposals are hardly extreme: He is out not to void the current agreement between Greece and its European lenders but to renegotiate the country’s debt burden to the point that it doesn’t keep Greece’s economy in a downward spiral. In response to what has clearly become a humanitarian emergency, he proposes to raise the minimum wage and reverse some pension cuts and tax hikes on regular people. These may not be earth-shattering changes, but even a small amount of relief is big news to people on the brink of despair.
Syriza will face enormous challenges, however, in trying to uphold its promise to push back on austerity while operating within the architecture of the eurozone. A movement toward focusing on a human crisis in which children go hungry and suicide rates surge over a financial crisis in which creditors take losses is a key shift in priorities that the world is watching. Ordinary Greeks have seen private profits bolstered at the expense of their jobs, their public assets and their health and well-being. They have watched politicians cut deals with unscrupulous financiers while formerly middle-class people pick through garbage cans for food. They have witnessed widespread corruption and plans to pay off the banks at any cost to the people. And they have noticed the former regime (the center-right New Democracy party) do little to address rampant tax evasion among Greek oligarchs.
Syriza, the party that rose to prominence after the 2008 Greek riots, was able to attract both working-class and middle-class voters with a call to shift more responsibility to those who caused the crisis — the oligarchs, financiers and proponents of misguided neoliberal policies. Greece’s citizens have spoken: They will not cede the fate of their country to European authorities who seek to punish and intimidate them, and they will no longer tolerate a parasitic and irresponsible wealthy class.
Alarmists have warned that Syriza’s victory will ignite instability and economic disaster, but that threat sounds hollow to a country already laid to waste by flawed policies. Much will be determined in the coming months as the new government negotiates its next steps. Syriza’s critics who worry about political, economic and social stability should consider the threat of continued economic desperation, which may turn many people toward the far right and its fascistic and racist rhetoric. Greece’s Golden Dawn and European figures such as Marine Le Pen, the head of the National Front party in France, continue to gain support.
The moment now belongs to Syriza. The idea that the radical left can have a viable and positive impact on Europe’s future just became a whole lot more concrete. Progressive hopes for more equitable treatment of Europe’s poorer countries and people have risen. Austerity is no longer the unopposed law of the land.