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Hope and its Discontents in Greece

The impressive victory of Syriza in the January 25th Greek elections was the direct result of increasing popular discontent with the Greek political elites and years of self-defeating austerity. The party, which symbolized a break with the past, ran on a platform based on hope, in contrast to the campaign of fear waged by the center-right government of New Democracy. “Hope is under way” was the main slogan, reverberating the famous Chilean “La alegria ya viene” from the referendum on Pinochet in the mid-1980s. Syriza played well on that terrain, promising to the people radical change, including the drastic restructuring of the debt through a 1953-style international conference, and the rejection of the memorandum of agreement with the “troika” of bailout monitors.

Unfortunately, none of these promises materialized to this moment. Syriza did negotiate hard with Greece’s European partners and lenders, but it did not manage to deliver. Despite a considerable change in style and the fact that Greece has, for the first time since the onset of the crisis, resorted to hard talk tactics, it did not translate into considerable changes in policies. It remains to be seen what the impact of this volt-face on Greek voters will be, even though for the time being the party continues to enjoy very high levels of popularity. So one issue is how this can be explained to an electorate galvanized all these years with the idea of spectacular change. Syriza argues that it has been trapped by the previous government and that even so it did manage to obtain some results — such as the abolition of the “troika” as a body of technocrats who negotiated in a colonial manner, and a slight lessening of the surpluses that Greece is required to produce in the time to come. Even so, the effect of disillusionment is probably going to hit hard soon.

Even more difficult will be for the party to stay united. Syriza is already suffering from sectarianism — and now internal opposition seems to be turning solid, with people like economist Kostas Lapavitsas, who is in favor of the return to the drachma, and Zoe Konstantopoulou, the president of the parliament and potentially rival to PM Alexis Tsipras, on the lead. This internal opposition seems to be in favor of either new elections or a referendum on Greece’s course as soon as possible. Tsipras, on the other hand, a masterful tactician, has demonstrated in the past that he can outmaneuver his party rivals — but this time the clash is going to be harder than ever before. Not to mention, the party’s minor partner in the government, “Independent Greeks,” a nationalistic party of the populist right, that is bound to turn into a major headache for the Prime Minister. It is hard to imagine how Syriza can go on reconciling different tendencies within and outside the party at a point where all sides are turning increasingly intransigent.

Democracy vs. Austerity

Intransigence might be the term to describe the stance of Greece’s lenders, and in particular of Germany, the reluctant, uneasy or clumsy hegemon of Europe. Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis once correctly argued that Germany should acquire a vision for Europe, becoming the locomotive behind this Union and this currency. But it doesn’t, at least for now, and it seems to be exercising its hegemony without grace, lacking flexibility and vision. What happened two weeks ago showcased this problematic stance: the Greek government after a very tough negotiation submitted a request for the prolongation of its program. And while Jeron Dijselbloem, the President of the Eurogroup, and Jean-Claude Juncker, the President of the European Commission, greeted it with enthusiasm, Berlin rejected it blantly, less than an hour after the request was formally made. This very unproductive attitude shows disregard for the European institutions, a brutal display of force, and a serious lack of precisely the capacity to be a smart hegemon. It further reinforces stereotypes in Greece — and not only — against the Germans and above all it condemns the European ideal to a historical low in Greece at present — and maybe rightly so.

Were, on the other hand, the actual demands of Syriza intransigent too? They seem to have been actually anything but this. Rather than far-left, one could argue that the government’s demands were of a social-democratic or Keynesian nature, with a goal of boosting growth and creating jobs, instead of slashing on employment and cutting on wages and pensions. But with almost the entirety of Europe having been pushed to the right, such a stance may indeed look radical. When austerity is the only game in town anything that seems to be different becomes demonized as “ideological,” “unrealistic” and, in fact, “intransingent.” Still, Syriza seems unwilling to play the game of numbers and budgets, trying to render the negotiation political rather than technocratic — thus both sides seem reluctant to change their tactics.

What we are witnessing is the chronicle of a “slow death” instead of an immediate one — and in fact, a death foretold: the painful strangulation of the Greek economy, which will shake the Eurozone beyond repair, and will seriously undermine democracy within Europe as a whole. As political scientists Mark Blyth and Cornel Ban have convincingly argued in a recent article in Foreign Affairs, the real battle at this point is not between austerity and anti-austerity in Europe; it is, rather, between austerity and democracy. When a newly elected government which ran on an anti-austerity ticket, with such a fresh mandate and a strong willingness to enforce its program, cannot make any progress this means that there is something seriously wrong here. ECB’s role in this “financial waterboarding,” to quote Varoufakis’ inventive term, highlights this fact.

But such an eventuality could prove, in fact, fatal, for Europe as well. Had the European players wanted to save democracy in the continent they should have been more forward-looking. A much more gracious deal with Greece would later on lead to a more benevolent deal with Spain and beyond, paving the way for a more democratic, albeit left-wing, Europe. An intransigent European stance vis-à-vis Syriza, on the contrary, will have grave consequences on the former’s future. The alternative response to an inflexible Europe, would promote a different political, and in fact anti-Europeanist agenda altogether. If the Syriza government collapses, the Nazi party Golden Dawn will be alone playing in the so-called anti-austerity camp. But one should neither lose sight of the French Front National and the British UKIP. These parties are going to brand themselves as the only genuine anti-systemic, anti-austerity parties in Europe, and, with a defeated left, we could expect the worse of their harvesting the results of an eventual humiliation or collapse of the Greek government.

But what about the hope that Syriza promised? The hopeful outcome would be for Syriza to manage to keep its head above water in these crucial four months, buying precious political time and allowing for different sets of reforms to take place, in particular in the area of tax evasion or a battle against the country’s oligarchs, in which, unlike corrupt previous governments, it is very much invested. But it has to strike swift and hard, without wasting time and political capital. A not very likely, but not entirely impossible, success story on this front would consolidate the party, probably on the expense of its internal opposition, and it would allow breathing space to left-wing parties cut from the same anti-austerity cloth as Syriza, such as Sinn Fein in Ireland and above all Podemos in Spain. For, if Podemos manages to win the November elections in that country it will be a real game changer in terms of European politics, due to Spanish economy’s sheer size. Is something like this plausible? Would a Southern European coalition of parties — a professed claim of Syriza — come to fruition? Can an early 1980s-like understanding between kindred left-wing parties — such as Papandreou’s Greece, González’s Spain, Craxi’s Italy and, above all, Mitterand’s France — be replicated, in some way? This eventuality is precisely the reason why both Spanish President Mariano Rajoy and Portuguese Prime Minister Pedro Passos Coelho, two conservative figures at present, are currently the toughest opponents of Syriza, alongside the unwilling hegemon. If this comes true, then hope for real change might be on its way.

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Kostis Kornetis

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