The results of Greek national election on January 25 were clear: the Greeks are fed up with the austerity program imposed on them in 2010 by the International Monetary Fund, the European Central Bank, and the European Union, also known as the troika.
The Coalition of the Radical Left, or more commonly known as Syriza, won a decisive victory by promising to end the austerity program that during the last five years has caused widespread misery and eviscerated the Greek economy.
Syriza won 36 percent of the vote, well ahead on New Democracy, the conservative party that has ruled Greece since 2012.
Addressing an election night audience in Athens, Alex Tsipras, Syriza’s leader, told supporters that Syriza’s election means that “Greece has turned a page. Greece is leaving behind destructive austerity, fear and authoritarianism. It is leaving behind five years of humiliation and pain.”
The atmosphere at Syriza’s post election rallies was filled with jubilation and optimism, but the new government will be inheriting an imposing set of problems.
In 2010, a financial crisis caused the Greek government to seek loans from the European Union to keep the Greek economy from cratering.
The loans came with a high price. The troika, demanded that the government reduce spending on social services, privatize government owned assets, reduce the public sector, reduce the minimum wage, cut pensions, and revise labor laws to reduce the power of unions.
The so-called reforms were supposed to produce investor confidence and get the Greek economy on the road to prosperity.
Five years later, almost one-third of the Greek population live below the poverty line, one-third have no access to health care, 18 percent can’t afford to pay for basic food needs, the unemployment rate is 25 percent (50 percent among young people), and the national debt is 175 percent of Gross Domestic Product.
In his victory speech, Tsipras said that he will enter into negotiations to rewrite the terms of the loans that have left his country in shambles, but he will likely encounter stiff resistances from Greeks debtors.
Should the debtors balk at restructuring the loans in a way that allows the government to make the public investments needed to alleviate Greek misery and kick start the moribund economy, Syriza will have a tough choice to make–agree to a loan deal that keeps the current austerity measures in place or default on the loans.
A default would likely lead to Greece exiting the eurozone, the countries that use the euro as their currency.
Exiting the eurozone would have immediate repercussions on the Greek economy, but it may be the price that Greece will have to pay to get out from under the thumb of the troika.
Syriza is also offering an economic program that breaks with neoliberal orthodoxy. It wants to increase the minimum wage, rebuild the country’s health care system decimated by austerity cuts, return the country’s social security system to pre-austerity levels, eliminate unfair taxes dictated by the troika, restore electricity to all homes whose power was cut because they couldn’t afford to pay their bills, and restart the economy by expanding public investment.
Unlike the neoliberal orthodoxy, which holds that public policy should only consider the needs of business, Syriza wants to “relaunch the economy in a way that suits social and environmental needs,”said Syriza Central Committee member Stathis Kourelakis .
Doing so, “will not be easy and we should be prepared for a serious battle,’ said Kourelakis in an extensive interview with Jacobin.
Syriza’s success will likely depend on its ability to keep its internal components united and to mobilize grassroots support for its ambitious program.
As its name implies, Syriza is a coalition of radical left groups that have united as a political party.
These groups include eurocommunist and other groups that broke away from the Communist Party of Greece such as Synaspismo and Renewing Communist Ecological Left as well as Maoist and Trotskyist organizations.
An equally important component of the coalition are groups from the social justice movements, including those of environmentalists, lesbians and gays, feminists, immigrants, and minority rights groups like those of the Muslims and Turks in Thrace.
Syriza gained prominence in 2008 when its members joined the poor and young people of Athens demonstrating in the streets too protest the police shooting of a 15-year old boy.
In 2011, Syriza joined the Occupy protesters at their encampments where protesters called for an end to the rule of privilege by a self appointed elite.
During the austerity crisis, Syriza established solidarity networks to help the working class deal with the savage impact of austerity.
Through these networks, people in need received health care, low-cost food, legal advice, education, help starting collective businesses, and cultural activities.
The combination of these solidarity networks, Syriza’s work with social movements, and its anti-austerity message gave Syriza a mass following.
In the 2012 elections, it came in second and was the leading opposition group in Parliament.
In 2013, the coalition formally constituted itself as a political party.
After becoming a political party, it retained many of the features of the coalition that preceded the party.
The parties that came together as a coalition maintained their own identity and status. The social movements did so as well.
Instead of trying to incorporate the social movements into Syriza, Syriza recognized and encouraged the autonomy of these movements.
While Syriza’s election victory is not without peril, it is also not without hope–hope that not just a better Greece but a better world can be created.
“Greek democracy today chose to stop going gently into the night,” writes Greece’s new finance minister Yanis Varoufakis on his blog. “Greek democracy resolved to rage against the dying of the light. Fresh from receiving our democratic mandate, we call upon the people of Europe and, indeed, the world over, to join us in a realm of shared, sustainable prosperity.”