Can Syriza change the Austerity Status Quo in Europe?

For the first time in Europe’s post-WWII history, a radical leftist party has taken the reigns of government in opposition to mainstream center-left and center-right coalitions that traditionally dominate the electoral sphere. The mobilization of lower-stratum social movements, combined with party organization, and energetic leadership from 40-year-old Tsipras have delivered Syriza a sweeping victory in Greece’s election.

A party that stands by and turned out feminists, the youth, minorities, LGBT, and working class people, increased its parliamentarian position to 149 seats out of 300, just shy of a unilateral majority, but certainly a plurality, with 36.4 percent versus 27.8 percent for Prime Minister Antonis Samaras’ conservatives.

The origins of Syiza are essentially rooted in class struggle.”That is, Syriza and Synaspismos see themselves as class-struggle parties, as formations that represent specific class interests” (Budgen & Kouvelakis, jacobinmag). Understanding both how this coalition emerged from a series of splits in the Communist Party, and shaped a unity front of the Greek far-left is key to identifying how radical a break this is from PASOK, the center-left government leaving office, that cooperated with the Troika and its international backers in the banking and finance sectors.

The effects of the financial crisis and subsequent austerity measures don’t need to be recapitulated in detail, suffice it to say that GNI per capita, after reaching a high of $29k in 09′ plummeted to $22k, a nearly $7k per capita drop in four years; Unemployment is nearly 30 percent on average and 50 percent for youth; and harsh loan payments have to be made, suffocating any chance of implementing a pro-growth and employment policy while simultaneously demanding serious cuts in the social safety net. “The violence of the social and economic crisis in Greece…with the austerian purge that has been inflicted under the infamous memorandums of understanding (the agreements the Greek government signed with the troika in order to secure the country’s ability to pay off its debts)” (Budgen & Kouvelakis, jacobinmag)

The effects of these measures, and the opaque manner in which they were thrust down the Greek peoples throat, revolted PASOK’s traditional voting base– moderate income wage-earners — leading them to shift to Syriza, which had decided deliberately to abstain from a PASOK coalition government and maintain its anti-austerity, anti-capitalist platform.

A crucial question now that Syriza has taken power is, what policies will they implement and to what degree will those policies be compatible with the Eurozone. Restoring the minimum wage to its pre-2010 levels is crucial. Additionally, empowering trade unions through reestablishing collective bargaining will deliver to the class that put Syriza into office. Repealing these memorandums signed by past Greek governments with the Euro-zone could trigger sweeping social mobilization, in effect protecting the new government with popular support from the immense pressure that will come from external sources.

Tough negotiations over Greece’s debt payments and the privatization schemes of international lenders are about to begin. That is where the experiment of Syriza could kindle something greater in the Euro-south, or fall apart for a generation. But this is the issue that the Greek constituency brought them into power for. The Greek economy has been put on the auction block. Privatization is costing tax payers billions by awarding infrastructure and land to the super wealthy. It is Syriza’s modus vivendi to push back against capitalist currents suited to maximize the wealth of the elite at the expense of the working and popular classes. Cancelling the greater part of the debt is one option the new government may look to implement. “Russia in 1998 and Argentina in the 2000s are proof that a unilateral suspension of debt repayment can be beneficial for countries that make this decision: “Both theory and evidence suggest that the threat of a cut-off of credit has probably been exaggerated (p.48)” (Stiglitz, CADTM). If no agreement that satisfies their supporters can be reached, Greece could move towards an exit from the Euro-zone.

What is occurring in Greece gives hope to other popular movements across Europe looking to reform how and for who the European Union works. But “the balance of forces internationally is at Syriza’s disadvantage, despite the recent developments in Spain. Overall, in Europe, it’s quite clear that a Syriza government will be quite isolated”(Budgen & Kouvelakis, jacobinmag). What happens at the peripheral of the EU still has an ability to impact the core, but even if not, the core would be in a defensive position if the peripheral nations mobilize to renegotiate the inequality structurally rooted in the European economy, which gives unfair currency advantages to Germany, at the expense of smaller nations like Greece and Spain, and transfers vast power to technocratic and financial institutions outside of democratic mechanisms of control and transparency.

The Spanish people, with the Podemos Party and its leader Pablo Iglesias at the forefront, will seek to replicate Syriza’s electoral victory, and like Greece, translate political power into transformational reform that overcomes the unlivable status quo of austerity politics.

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