Syriza won the general election in Greece yesterday with 36.3% of the vote and a projected 149 seats in the 300-seat parliament, signaling a likely end to country’s disastrous era of austerity. Alexis Tsipras, the leader of the radical left party, took his oath as prime minister today and is promising to renegotiate the bailouts–worth $268 billion–that left the economy looking like Greek ruins.
For the past five years, Greece has been suffering high unemployment (26% overall; 50% among youth) and drastic social spending cuts which their creditors instituted. The recession (well depression, depending on whom you ask) can be traced back to the post-2008 debt crisis, during which public debt skyrocketed and credit agencies downgraded Greek government debt to the level of junk bonds.
The so-called “troika” of the IMF, the European Commission, and the European Central Bank offered bailout loans to the struggling country, but with a catch. Greece, like previous victims of so-called “shock therapy,” would have to make drastic cuts in its social spending in order to pay back the loans. The reduction of public sector jobs, salary cuts and overall screwing-over of the working class led to massive protests starting in 2010. Tax avoidance by Greek oligarchs, who remained exempt from the fiscal belt-tightening imposed on the working class, also contributed to the crisis.
Formed from a coalition of various leftist parties in 2004, Syriza steadily gained popularity during the past several years and managed to eclipse the Communist Party (KKE) as the most vocal opponent of the country’s austerity measures. Prime Minister Tsripras has demanded that creditors cut the country’s public debt in half–a demand that hasn’t appeased the world’s finance markets. Yet despite any outside criticism, the party’s opposition to austerity increased its popularity within Greece and doubled its membership. Pledges to re-hire laid-off workers, raise the minimum wage, and expand access to healthcare found a natural audience in a country where a third of the population lives in poverty.
Despite Syriza’s socialist stance, parliamentary politics necessitates coalition building, and to that end they have already made an alliance with the right-wing Independent Greeks party led by Pamos Kammenos. The coalition will give the parties a majority in the Greek legislature and provide a much-needed counterbalance to the alarming rise of the ultra-nationalist and openly neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party, which sought to channel Hitler’s ghost by blaming the crisis on a Jewish banking conspiracy.
Stahis Kouvlakis, a member of the central committee of Syriza, recently gave a lengthy interview to Jacobin magazine in which he outlined the goals the new socialist government. He claimed the main four priorities as instituting emergency measures to help those most affected by the crisis (such as reconnecting the electricity supply to all homes), restoring the minimum wage and collective bargaining agreements, negotiating the debt, and rejuvenating the wrecked economy with public investment.
Their first challenge comes this summer, when Greece is expected to pay back €7 billion in bonds to the European Central Bank. But considering that Greece is broke and that election of Syriza represents a raised middle finger to the predatory lenders who plunged a nation into poverty, the ECB shouldn’t hold its breath.