Chronicle of a victory foretold in Greece – now to the hard part of governing

Chronicle of a victory foretold in Greece – now to the hard part of governing

Dimitrios Triantaphyllou
On Sunday, Jan. 25, Greece was a showcase of contrasts. The image projected throughout the world was that a revolution of sorts had just taken place and a political party, Syriza, which identifies itself as belonging to the radical left, had just won the national elections for the first time in the country’s history. Led by Alexis Tsipras, a charismatic 40-year-old with a better-than-average rhetorical flourish, has also helped. A cursory look at the press would suggest that the belittled Greece is on the cusp of change, with Tsipras and his comrades promising a return to honor and hope and the beginning of a change in Europe away from austerity to some model of people power and social democracy.

A careful look at the results, however, shows that Syriza did not have an overwhelming victory, as it received only 36.35 percent of the popular vote and 149 seats in the 300-strong parliamentary chamber, two short of an outright majority. Nevertheless, Syriza has managed to improve its numbers by some 10 percent since the last national elections of June 2012 by receiving around 400,000 more votes, although voter turnout was no higher than in the 2012 polls (almost 64 percent). Syriza also won the popular vote with a 9 percent difference over New Democracy, the majority partner in the outgoing coalition government.

On the other hand, New Democracy, bearing the brunt of popular discontent, only lost 2 percent of its strength since the June 2012 elections when it came out on top. This mitigated result is impressive considering that New Democracy presided over many of the tough austerity measures Greece has had to undertake to meet its reform agenda and the demands of its creditors.

Yet, for all the exultations that democracy won on Sunday, democracy failed to halt the rise of the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party, which became the third largest party in parliament. This is all the more troubling in the knowledge that most of its leaders are behind bars awaiting trial on the charges of belonging to a criminal organization.

In this era of the carnivalization of politics, where populism reigns supreme, the results of the Greek elections should give one pause for thought. Of the seven parties that crossed the 3 percent threshold to enter parliament, three are populist parties. Though the roots of populism are albeit different when they come from the right or from the left, (and including Golden Dawn in this context might raise some eyebrows), a rough count of populist parties (either coming from the left or the right) making it to parliament – Syriza, Independent Greeks and Golden Dawn – adds up to over 47 percent of the popular vote and 179 seats in parliament.  A rough calculation of the anti-austerity parties – Syriza, the Communist Party, Independent Greeks and Golden Dawn – shows that they make up over 52 percent of the popular vote and 194 seats in parliament. We also need to account for the fact that New Democracy has its own populist and anti-austerity wing, as does Pasok, which became more insignificant with these polls. The populist and anti-austerity message becomes even more relevant as Syriza is set to count on the support of the rightist populist anti-austerity Independent Greeks party to support the new government in parliament.

The hope in Greece today is that a Syriza-led government can overcome the challenges at hand and lead the country forward. But the going is going to be tough. In a country where the unemployment rate is over 25 percent and youth unemployment stands at 58 percent, it is no surprise that over 45 percent of the unemployed voted for Syriza. On the other hand, there is a direct correlation between the decline of Pasok (and to a lesser degree, New Democracy) and the rise of Syriza, as civil sector employees see in Syriza as the only viable political force able to protect their jobs. In other words, Syriza represents hope for those with nothing to lose and guarantees for those who depend on the state. This contradiction will be hard to maintain for long.

While all Greeks hope that the new government will rationalize its contradictions as it assumes the mantle of power, the onus of the test of governance now falls upon the winner as it attempts to pick up the pieces of a broken political system and a broken economy.

Dr. Dimitrios Triantaphyllou is Director of the Center for International and European Studies (CIES), Kadir Has University.