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ecent reporting and commentary on the coming Greek elections has concentrated on the country’s debt and its relationship with Europe and the Eurozone. What has been discussed less is the remarkable rise of Syriza, a small protest party hovering in the past around the 3% entry to Parliament election threshold. It is a story combining historic necessity, good fortune and a large dose of popular wisdom.
In a 2011 Guardian article entitled the ‘European elites should be wary of the Greek spring’ it was argued that the resignation of the Papandreou government hot on the heels of the Arab spring, should remind western governments that they too can fall ‘if they abandon basic principles of democracy, social justice and independence’. Just before the May 2012 general elections, which Syriza lost to right wing New Democracy with the smallest of margins after a huge campaign of scaremongering by European politicians and bankers, it was suggested that the election was the ‘start of the European spring’.
The penultimate step in the inexorable rise of the radical left came at the 2014 European elections. Syriza was 4% ahead of the New Democracy governing party giving a clear warning to those concentrating exclusively on fiscal deficits and bond prices that a major political earthquake was about to hit Greece. The political trend is now irreversible. No one doubts that Syriza will win the late January elections the only question being the size of its majority. What brought this small radical left party to the eve of a historic victory? Greece has been turned into a guinea pig for testing the most barbaric austerity measures in Europe. Salaries and pensions were slashed, the state silver was sold at bargain basement prices, a weak welfare state was starved of funds. Hundreds of thousand of public and private sector workers were fired leading to 26% unemployment, close to 60% youth unemployment and a 28% reduction of GDP. In late 2014, the government claimed that its Troika-dictated policies amounted to a ‘success story’ because the current account deficit was reduced and the five-year depression was coming to an end. It reminded me the recipe for the most successful and irreversible diet: the best way to lose ten kilos is to cut your leg off. In the medical terms politicians and economists used, people were thrown into the scrapheap in order to ‘save the nation’ which was in ‘intensive care’ and needed ‘surgery’.
What the Greek and European elites did not anticipate was that the guinea pig would rebel and eventually claim back its country from those who had governed it for forty years. The Greeks resisted longer and more intensely than any other South European people. National and sectional strikes, protests and demonstrations came to a peak in the 2011 occupations with Syntagma, the central Athens square, the longest and most symbolic.
Over a three-month period, the occupiers experimented with direct democracy methods in daily assemblies and specialist working groups, which provided efficiently many services of a functioning state. When the squares emptied following brutal police attacks, people returned to towns and neighborhoods and developed an elaborate network of solidarity and social economy initiatives helping the unemployed, the poor and the immigrants and taking key aspects of daily life under their control. The Greek people resolutely declined the medicine offered by the EU and were prepared to act on it. Three governments were indirectly overthrown as a result of resistances and were followed by two national and the European elections in which Syriza gradually climbed to power.
But why Syriza? It is a small party hailing from the now extinct ‘Eurocommunist’ tradition. Its members participated in resistances and occupations without attempting to lead or impose their ideology on the multitude. The party had adopted pluralism and direct democracy internally well before the crisis. Initially a coalition of smaller parties and groups, Syriza unified in 2012. It still allows organised tendencies to operate creating a climate of dialogue and agreement on principle and policy even though this occasionally leads to a confusing polyphony. When elections were called in 2012 and forming a left government became a possibility, the people adopted Syriza as the party closest to the ideals of democracy and equality that had dominated the protest movements. The encounter between people and Syriza was serendipitous. The people had abandoned the New Democracy and PASOK parties and were looking for an alternative. Syriza offers a new set of ideals and a political personnel unsoiled by endemic elite corruption and clientellism. In a rare act of reversal of the political establishment the people chose Syriza. It must now deliver on its historic mission. The pressure on Alexis Tsipras and its leadership will be hard and relentless.
The domination of the election debate in the media by economists misses perhaps the most important aspect of the Greek spring. In the coming elections, the winter of defeat for the left and popular movements of the last forty years may enter the beginning of its end. A Syriza victory will show that people who stand up and resist can occasionally win. A left government will confront the local version of a European problem created by neoliberal politicians and greedy bankers. It can only succeed with the support of European citizens. Democrats all over Europe must defend the Greek people from the scaremongering by Juncker, Schäuble and Merkel before the elections and any attempt to derail the government afterwards. If Syriza succeeds, the Greece of resistance may become the future of Europe.