Winds of change in Europe

Winds of change in Europe

The results of the parliamentary elections in Greece on Jan. 25 were not a surprise. As predicted, an umbrella coalition of the far-left, the Syriza Party, came at the top with 36 percent of the vote, obtaining 149 seats in parliament, two short of an overall majority. The outgoing Prime Minister Antonis Samaras’ New Democracy Party won 76 seats with 27 percent of the votes. Syriza speedily formed a coalition government with the right-wing populist Independent Greeks Party (ANEL), which got 13 seats with 4 percent of the vote.

Although not a surprise, the elections were watched intently beyond Greece and the results prompted excitement across Europe. The reason could be found in Syriza’s rhetoric and in the telltale signs for the future of Europe. During the campaign period, Alexis Tsipras, the 40-year-old leader of Syriza, focused on ending austerity measures, renegotiating Greece’s international debt with the Troika consisting of the European Commission, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the European Central Bank, as well as improving living conditions of those who have been living below the poverty line with free electricity, health care and raise in wages. As most of these promises are populist in nature, many will watch whether he can implement them with success. The results will have repercussions for most of the financially problematic Europe.

Since 2010, Greece has been implementing austerity programs and fighting with an economic crisis under the rather tight control of the Troika, whose heavy handed approach has infuriated most Greeks. However, the corrupt and oligarchic system of Greek politics, inherent in the New Democracy and PASOK parties, has neither allowed ending the bailout nor resulted in a recovery. In contrast, Greece’s gross domestic product has diminished by a quarter, household income by 30 percent and the unemployment rate has reached 26 percent. These brought about a powerful popular demand for change. Ordinary Greek citizens, who have shouldered the main burden of the crisis, rather than state elites, moved en masse toward anti-establishment parties to force a change in the system.

The rise of anti-establishment parties concurrently in several European countries first became apparent in the European Parliament elections in May 2014 and prompted concerns for the prospects of a united Europe and monetary union. The prevailing atmosphere in EU institutions to keep the pressure over troubled members has increased the popularity of these parties and movements across Europe.

The crucial question at the moment is whether Syriza will be able to continue with its rhetoric and keep its promises in practice. The external pressures by the creditors to sustain necessary reforms to secure the return of their loans and the overwhelming majority of Greeks to keep the single currency will be decisive for the new government. What is at stake in Greece is not only the future of Syriza, but also the fate of the country. It needs a comprehensive recovery plan; fiery rhetoric alone will not be sufficient.

Syriza’s success in Greece will have serious impacts for the Eurozone and the EU in general. Other disgruntled Europeans are watching the experiment closely. If successful, it could start a sea of change across European politics. Mostly for this reason, German Chancellor Angela Merkel has already warned Greece (i.e. Syriza) to take the responsibility for its debts and not encourage other countries to default. Yet, history is replete with examples, especially in Europe, of strong backlash and rapid moves toward extremes when governing centrist elites turn deaf ears to the winds of change and demands of their own citizens.

2015 will be an exciting year to watch Europe.