What Syriza’s Victory Means for Europe

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.

Alexis Tsipras, leader of Greece's Syriza party. (Photo credit: FrangiscoDer)

Alexis Tsipras, leader of Greece’s Syriza party. (Photo credit: FrangiscoDer)

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.

How Radical?

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 Féin, 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.

11 comments for “What Syriza’s Victory Means for Europe

  1. Richard
    February 9, 2015 at 17:33

    “Traditional parties, even those to its left, accuse Podemos of being Chavista, i.e., inspired by Venezuela’s late President Hugo Chavez.”
    I’m confused. Who to the “left” of Podemos accuse them of being Chavista?

  2. James
    February 3, 2015 at 01:05

    This website publishes some outstanding articles but I stopped reading this one when it referred to UKIP as an “Extreme-right party”

    That one comment demonstrates a real lack of understanding of the political landscape in the UK and makes me question the rest of the article.

  3. James
    February 3, 2015 at 01:04

    This website publishes some outstanding articles but I stopped reading this one when it referred to UKIP as an “Extreme-right party”

    That one comment demonstrates a real lack of understanding of the political landscape in the UK and makes me question the rest of the article.

  4. George Vasilopoulos
    February 2, 2015 at 16:13

    Hello from Greece. I would like to comment about democracy. The greek concept of democracy is not to ellect a government that will rule the people four 4 or so years. Not even to rule for (or in the interest of) the people. It was a continouus process with very strict rules where most if not all matters where decided by the people themselfes. The closest system to greek democracy is implemented in switzerland nowdays. A few words about greece syriza greek society and the greek political system. In Greece for over 40 years we have (had) 2 ruling parties nea dimokratia and pasok. As they say power corrupts,and ultimate power corrupts ultimately. So those two parties dealed with the state as a feud whitch they rightfully inherited. So nobody saw what happened you may ask. Well it is very very strange but the word public debt came to the news in 2009. When it was allready too late. The two major parties where mostly corrupted and kept their rule by doing favours. To the elite and to the voters in a personal level. When the time of reckoning came,they still lived in another age. They tried to hold on to power by trying to save the elites and moving the debts to the weakest in the most profound way. But there where 2 major problems for them. While there is cairtenly a great amount of corruption in greek society (mostly in the form of nepotism) not all greeks where corrupted not even the most of them. (The “funny” thing about greece was that if you where not in somekind of under the table give and take you where considered stupid). So there where many who thrived for justice. Throughout modern greek history left was almost scandal free. Being in Greece I can assure you that this while it is an anti establisment victory,mostly it is a desire to have a leadership that is not on the take. The 2nd problem is that european elites and greek ruling parties implemented a policy not just of austerity but a policy which failed to understand how greek society works. We are a very old nation and this may be difficult to an american to understand. Houses and land is something that some families have for hundrends of years. The policy that was implemented was targetting houses. It taxed them heavily whether they produce wealth or not,creating debt in the process whitch would be used to annex the house by the state and then the banks. This touched a very sencitive nerve in the society. Old politicians used nepotism to stay in power but this could no longer work. We definately not in search of a miracle in syriza we know the sutiuation is really difficult but we definately expect them to fight injustice and nepotism. This is the bet for them and us. P.S. there is a certain amount of hypocricy on some europeans regarding corruption in greece many of them where doing bussiness with them,and many of them expressed great support to the previus corrupted to the core goverment in the past few months just prior to the ellections. Excuse my english and long comment. Thank you for keeping this site up and giving us an alternative to the mainstream media

  5. Joe Tedesky
    February 2, 2015 at 11:15

    Watch and listen to how this BBC interview host badgers Yanis Varoufakis Greece finance minster…..


    Read this of how Obama feels for the new Greek government…


    • George Vasilopoulos
      February 2, 2015 at 16:33

      The second link says that the greek debt was restructured by 100 billions but this is at least inaccurate. What really happened was that they restructured the debt which belonged mostly to greek banks hospitals and retirement organisations. Banks of course did not loose a penny. The took 50bn euros through a new loan whitch the greek taxpayer will have to pay. But the real drama was that the took the cash that retirement organisations ,hospitals and universities had in the banks. Tranformed it in to greek debt bonds 2 days prior to the “haircut” and then haircutted it. Nice huh. ? The total debt reduction of this process was about 30bn mostly from the above participants and those small guys who bought debt bonds as a lifetime investment and got nothing in return. They may call it debt restructure but it was a rape really, which left the country even worse than before.

  6. paul wichmann
    February 2, 2015 at 08:13

    “But the demands of this nascent anti-austerity bloc are not revolutionary. In short, it seeks to reboot the system, not to replace it.”

    I’m not so sure the anti-austerity bloc – its being not-revolutionary – is a credible course, though I don’t know enough about the state of Europe to make assertions. However, here in the United States, we are far beyond reform, were it trifling or semi-serious. That those who caused the 2008 financial melt-up were paid for it, and emerged stronger for it, and are now, predictably, dismantling the few hair-thin restraints (on them) consequently enacted, makes us know that we’re captives of inescapable, inevitable systemic risk and failure.

  7. Mark Thomason
    February 1, 2015 at 14:27

    This is a remarkable thought, that democracy has been redefined to mean the freedom of business elites to do whatever they want without reference to government or the effect on the population.

    I think that works as a real definition, to explain how the word is used in foreign policy. The original definition often makes no real sense as used, but this works.

    • Jay
      February 1, 2015 at 17:27

      That’s certainly what Fox News and the Koch brothers promote.

      So too a lot of the Davos conference types.

      Then there’s the whole preposterous idea that the only thing that matters regarding corporate behavior is profit, and nothing else.

      This is spoken of as established fact in many US business schools and on CNBC.

      It’s BS and of course leads to much cooking of books to increase corporate profits and hide liabilities.

    • paul wichmann
      February 2, 2015 at 08:27

      Fine comment.
      They’ve pretzeled and bastardized words and concepts into the opposite of their original meanings, and consequently won the ideological argument. On this they have capitalized so richly that even they – I do believe – are amazed at their success.

    • Joe
      February 2, 2015 at 18:32

      Plutocracy (noun): A government or state in which the wealthy rule.

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