Exclusive: The Greek election of the left-wing Syriza party sent shock waves across Europe with establishment parties fearing more populist resistance to years of austerity and to putting bankers first. The question now is whether European voters will follow Syriza’s lead, says Andrés Cala.
By Andrés Cala
Traditionally “democracy” has meant government by the people, particularly their ability through voting to make their societies bend to their needs and interests. However, in recent decades, the word has undergone a significant redefinition, made to mean the right of business elites to operate with relative freedom.
That is why “democratic reform” in Eastern Europe has referred to the opening of former communist societies to “market forces,” even if that means the demise of popular safety-net programs. The same has held true across Europe during the Great Recession. What the powers-that-be have insisted on is repayment of debts owed to banks, even if that requires painful austerity and unemployment for average citizens.
What happened in last week’s elections in Greece was, in many ways, a reclaiming of the old definition of democracy, which, of course, the Greeks are credited with inventing around the Fifth Century B.C.
Tired of an economy crippled by austerity — and frustrated by moral lectures about the responsibility to pay creditors — the Greek voters threw out the old political establishment and elected the leftist Syriza party which had highlighted popular demands for more economic stimulus and fewer cuts to government spending.
In effect, what the people of Greece were saying was that they want their political system to work for them, not for the banks and other elites. It is a message with strong appeal across other parts of Europe where the Wall Street collapse in 2008 and the ensuing Great Recession have caused years of suffering and despair.
The ruling elites and their supporters now worry that Syriza’s ascent is the inflexion point that may usher in popular resistance to the European Union’s austerity programs that will spread through Italy, Spain, Portugal, Ireland and other countries tired of joblessness.
“The winds of change are blowing in Europe,” Pablo Iglesias, leader of the Podemos told Syriza supporters in Greece ahead of the election. “In Greece it’s called Syriza. In Spain it’s called Podemos” — “We can” in English.
Though Greece itself is small with a modest-sized economy and limited political influence, the message that Syriza is sending is potentially Continent-shaking. Syriza’s leaders are determined to renegotiate Greece’s credit terms, but they also are at pains to show they can govern responsibly and avoid radical moves that would do more damage to the Greeks than to the Continent’s elites.
A Continent-wide Revolt?
Yet, while Syriza may have many sympathizers especially around Europe’s long-suffering periphery, the populist anti-austerity drive has many powerful opponents, too. Germany, with its strong economy, has been most insistent on the poorer countries repaying their debts but Germany’s position is also supported by conservative governments ruling Spain, Portugal and Ireland that have humbly accepted austerity.
Those governments, which are facing their own challenges from Syriza-like movements, were the first to deny Athens any flexibility. These conservative parties are worried less about Greece than empowering their own anti-austerity challengers by admitting mistakes.
Other European leaders, along with most of the media and international institutions such as the International Monetary Fund, are resorting to fear-mongering by grouping this new, still undefined Left in the same basket with extreme-right, ultranationalist, anti-immigrant political movements, creating a frightening image of these populist parties.
Such tactics have worked in the past with many Europeans cautious about appeals for radical change because of the Continent’s troubled history with extremist movements over the centuries. The European establishment offers a comforting sense of order but that appeal has eroded along with the living standards of millions of citizens and popular patience is growing thin.
And, though Syriza is regarded as a leftist party outside of Europe’s recent mainstream, it represents an anti-austerity bloc that is actually rather moderate, pro-European and inclusive. What this bloc is demanding is serious reform in how the Continent’s economy is managed to concentrate on making life better for average people rather than comfier for the rich and powerful.
Europe’s Right has exploited the economic pain in another way, by focusing on how immigration from the Middle East and poorer parts of Europe has taken jobs from the white traditional citizens of European countries. But those messages from extreme-right parties, like UKIP in the U.K. and the National Front in France, represent a lesser threat to Europe’s establishment because most Europeans don’t favor these extremist appeals.
The European establishment is more worried about the anti-austerity bloc. Germany and northern European countries along with the Continent’s business elites are alarmed that the anti-austerity parties will unite into a bloc able to disrupt first the politics in various nations and then elections in the European Union.
These anti-austerity forces could appeal to centrist voters as Syriza’s victory in Greece and polls in other countries have shown. The internal politics in Spain, Italy and France much larger countries than Greece could lead to an alliance that, given their economic weight and population, could push back on austerity in the 19-member Eurozone.
Parties like Syriza and Podemos have surged in popularity by siphoning off votes from traditional center-left, social-democratic parties, which have generally accepted the austerity demands. To a lesser extent, some center-right fence-straddlers have also switched to these new populist movements.
In Spain, Podemos is edging ahead in a three-way sprint with the ruling conservative Popular Party and the Socialist Party, with municipal, regional and national elections starting in March and ending in December. The Podemos base is young, including activists who ignited the global “Occupy” movement in May 2011 when protesters spontaneously took over Madrid’s most important squares.
The party was started less than a year ago by a group of university professors who were involved as advisers in Latin America’s Bolivarian movement, especially in Venezuela. Traditional parties, even those to its left, accuse Podemos of being Chavista, i.e., inspired by Venezuela’s late President Hugo Chavez.
But Podemos’s broad proposals (details are still pending) are not so radical. They reject the notion of a Chavista-like regime in Spain and don’t intend to flout the country’s financial obligations. But they do want an overhaul of economic policies. And despite mounting attacks from Spain’s establishment, Podemos appears to be gaining momentum after Syriza’s victory.
The Irish cousin of Syriza and Podemos is Sinn FÃ©in, which has recently taken the lead in opinion polls. In Italy, the center-left government, which until now has been the most vocal in the EU against German-imposed austerity, is facing an internal rebellion from those who want it to take an even harder line.
The situations in France and Portugal are more fluid with the Socialists discredited and the Left splintered but increasingly anti-austerity. Perhaps the biggest uncertainty is France. It won’t hold elections any time soon, but the Parti de Gauche is rising. If Podemos gets enough leverage in Spain and Italy’s government moves further to the left, there might just be enough political muscle to confront Germany and offer an alternative to its austerity policies.
“The German risk is a new form of conservatism which is the fetishism of budget balance, the fascination for debt reduction, which is also the symptom of an aging country,” French Economy Minister Emmanuel Macron said, signaling the French Socialists might climb on the anti-austerity bandwagon.
But Berlin and northern European capitals are going through opposite political realities, with their constituents demanding more austerity from the rest of Europe. This bloc remains the most powerful when it comes to decision-making, among other things because it has the support of the conservative governments in Spain, Portugal and Ireland.
A Edge to the Populists
Over the next year or so, the electoral cycles also favor the anti-austerity parties, though perhaps not enough to oust the ruling elites and replace the current mindset but still enough to force greater flexibility on debt and budget issues.
This idea of making governments serve the people’s needs rather than the interests of the creditor class is spreading outside the Eurozone as well, including the U.K., the Democratic Party in the U.S., and even in the EU Parliament and among some IMF economists.
The democratic sea change that appears to be sweeping across Europe is also the result of an ongoing generational change as well as a sign of deep divisions in the establishment that have been exposed by the Great Recession. In essence, this movement is calling for Europe’s democracy to be more populist, more direct, more in the service of the people, less obedient to the ruling elites.
While the resistance to austerity arguably started from isolated flickers across the Continent resentment toward the harsh cuts in the welfare state and the stubborn levels of record unemployment it has grown into a political firestorm across southern Europe.
But the demands of this nascent anti-austerity bloc are not revolutionary. In short, it seeks to reboot the system, not to replace it. The leaders don’t pitch an alternative order, but rather ways to correct how policies under the existing framework are implemented, with the ultimate goal of rebuilding a system in which governments care more for the common citizens than the banks and the well-to-do.
The movement favors paying back debts, but not at the cost of economic growth, suggesting that payments be stretched out so more public monies can be spent on stimulus to get Western economies out of the prolonged slump that followed the Crash of 2008.
Or as Thomas Piketty, the star economist and best-selling author of Capital in the Twenty-First Century, said in an interview: “It’s an act of historical amnesia to tell southern European countries that they have to pay all their debt, down to the last cent, with zero inflation.”
Of course, Europe’s establishment is hoping Syriza’s victory and the burst of enthusiasm for similar movements is just a fad and that the long-awaited economic recovery will finally arrive and begin to trickle down to average Europeans with everything going back to normal. But these elites may be underestimating just how deeply rooted this democratic awakening is.
When one of the top Podemos leaders was asked about the durability of this movement, he said: “If we disappear tomorrow, we will have taught the elite a good lesson. They will be afraid. Just by existing, Podemos has demonstrated the peoples’ desire for a democratic regeneration, it has unearthed like never before the need for rulers to be held accountable.”
Andrés Cala is an award-winning Colombian journalist, columnist and analyst specializing in geopolitics and energy. He is the lead author of America’s Blind Spot: Chávez, Energy, and US Security.