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Expert Comment: Syriza and the Greek elections

Greek elections Monday 26 January 2015

Michael Holmes, Senior Lecturer in European Politics, discusses the result of the Greek elections and what this means for the country.

Syriza’s victory in the Greek election is one of those rare moments with the potential to change the face of politics. As I write, Syriza has emerged as the clear winner of the election, though it seems likely to fall just short of an absolute majority. First and foremost, Syriza’s triumph is not in itself going to lead to transformation. It is a bit like winning the first leg of a two-leg football tie – it puts you in a good position, but you are far from being guaranteed overall success. Syriza will now have to try to achieve a result in their second big challenge – bringing about a change in direction of the European Union.

For the past seven years or so, the EU has been grappling with the financial crisis and recession. Up to now, it has been blindly committed to policies of austerity and cut-backs – a very right-wing response to the crisis. And the catch-phrase throughout has been ‘there is no alternative’; a resolute refusal to countenance any other approach. But democratic politics must surely be about choice between alternatives, and Syriza’s victory shows that the Greek electorate believe that an alternative is possible.

 It will not be easy for Alexis Tsipras, the leader of the new party. He has called for a renegotiation of the EU’s approach to the crisis, but there are many groups and parties strongly opposed to such a move. It is perhaps a good thing that Syriza means, in its full English title, Coalition of the Radical Left, because they will need to build an even wider coalition on the European level if they are to turn the election win into a genuine change.

 There are other radical left parties doing very well in the polls. Some are radical coalitions like Syriza, such as Podemos in Spain. Others are well established parties, such as the Socialists in the Netherlands, The Left in Germany and even Sinn Féin in Ireland. But it is likely to be quite some time before they even have a chance of holding office. So perhaps more significant will be the extent to which they can drum up wider support.

 But the circumstances are not wholly set against Syriza. They might well find allies if they turn to some social democratic parties. Regrettably, I do not think the British Labour Party would be very sympathetic to Syriza. But the Socialists in France under François Hollande and the Democratic Party in Italy under Matteo Renzi could well be supportive. And the German and Swedish social democrats have already worked with broader left alliances involving radical left and green left parties.

 Maybe the best hope for Syriza is the fact that some of their ideas have found a response even on the right. Over the past few years, groups with impeccable capitalist credentials like the OECD have begun to argue that there must be an alternative to cutbacks. The centre-right Belgian government has already suggested that there is scope for renegotiation, and other right-leaning governments – particularly those in other bail-out countries like Portugal and Ireland – would be quite happy to see a relaxing of the stringent austerity conditions.

What does this mean for the UK? Actually, not a great deal. Syriza is very critical of the EU – but also very supportive of the principle of integration and cooperation. They want Greece to remain in the EU and the euro and to fight for their reform, which means they are nowhere near UKIP’s truculent hostility to anything European. The British party that comes closest to Syriza’s policies is the Greens – long supportive of the principle of European integration, long critical of the EU’s actual direction, but insistent on reform rather than rejection.

 The next few weeks are going to be very interesting in terms of the development of the European political landscape. But there is at least the prospect of a very different approach to political economy starting to emerge, one which says that the economy should be there to serve society, rather than vice versa.


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