Syriza’s victory in yesterday’s general election in Greece has predictably created a bit of a media frenzy. Shockwaves are apparently spreading out across Europe. While the success of a radical left coalition is welcome, we must be wary of expecting too much, too soon. First up it is worth reminding everyone that though Syriza “won” the election they did so with just 36.3% of the votes cast, on a 64% turnout. This is hardly a ringing endorsement of Syriza or their policies. Due to the peculiarities of Greece’s electoral system, this 36.3% share of the vote enabled Syriza to end up just two seats short of an overall majority in Parliament. They have though concluded a deal with another anti-austerity party, the small, right wing Independent Greeks, to form a government.
What will this new Syriza government do? With the Independent Greeks they have a majority for their anti-austerity plans and, with the support of other leftish parties, for their economic and social policies. The key issue though is can they deliver? It looks like everything will depend on reaching some kind of deal with theTroika – the EU/ECB/IMF – over the country’s massive debt. Syriza is proposing a massive debt restructuring, which would essentially involve a large write-off of much of the debt and would tie future repayments to growth in the Greek economy. All pretty reasonable and sensible stuff, which of course begs the question of why it has not already happened.
This is where Syriza will come up against the Troika and the rigidity of their policies – never ending austerity, with the clear underlying message that it is all the fault of the Greeks themselves – too lazy, too profligate and too corrupt. Channel 4’s economic editor, Paul Mason has been very good at trying to explain the issues at stake. His worry is that there may be an unbridgeable mismatch of expectations between the two sides. On one side, the largely largely centrist, or centre-right mainstream economic thinkers who favour continuing austerity and who dominate the thinking of just about all the governments of EU states. On the other side, and pretty much alone in the EU, Syriza, who want to end austerity, promote co-ops, rebuild the welfare state and workers’ rights, kick the IMF out of EU decision making and slash back the power of a political oligarchy that has gotten rich throughout every crisis. For more on this mismatch of expectations, visit Paul Mason’s blog here.
This does not meant that a deal is impossible. The EU and its member states try to avoid either/or clashes. I fully expect the EU, the ECB and even Germany, to engage with Syriza and seek some kind of compromise agreement. This is where it will undoubtedly get messy. Just how much is Syriza prepared to concede in order to stay in the EU and in the Eurozone? For all opinion polls show that a large majority of Greeks want to stay in both. Reaching an agreement could prove be very messy and very difficult for Syriza.
An inspiration to others? This is clearly what has excited so much of the media attention. Those on the right are fearful that Syriza emboldens other radical left groups and parties, while those of us on the radical left are hopeful that this is indeed what happens. All eyes will soon turn to Spain where a general election is due later this year. There, Podemos, another new party with radical left polices, is making all the running. In Spain there is the further complication of how the campaign for Catalan independence will impact on the results.
Though the success of Syriza is already an inspiration to others on the radical left, any kind of repetition elsewhere will very much depend on how successful the party proves to be in government. Governing is always a messy affair with all kinds of compromises. It is likely that Syriza will be put under some added pressure from both within and without Greece. Some people and businesses, banks in particular, will have a lot to lose if Syriza are even halfway successful. We wish them well – not only Greece depends on them.