Will Greece Drop the Mic?

(AP Photo/Petros Karadjias)

The head of Greece's radical left-wing Syriza party Alexis Tsipras waves to his supporters during a rally at Omonia square in Athens, Thursday, June 14, 2012. Greece faces crucial national elections on Sunday, that could ultimately determine whether the debt-saddled, recession bound country remains in the eurozone.

“Not a step back: End the troika and the memorandum.” Thus read one of the placards hung up on a lamp post close to Omonoia Square in downtown Athens, where Syriza—the surging left-wing party led by Alexis Tsipras—held its major pre-election rally last night.

The mood in the densely populated square was equally defiant. “It’s not Syriza’s policies that will lead us out of the euro. It’s the policies of the memorandum [signed between Greece and the International Monetary Fund]. They lead to exit with mathematical certainty,” says Panagiotis, a retired banker and self-described “troubled Greek,” referring to the demanding terms of Greece’s bailouts. He concedes that the brinkmanship between Brussels, Berlin, and Athens that may follow a Syriza victory in Sunday’s election could also lead to the painful outcome of a reversion to the drachma, but he is unfazed by the prospect. “It’s better to live with dignity, even if we are poorer,” he says. At the podium, Tsipras, 37, is riling up the crowd. He refers to Sunday’s election as “a referendum between the memorandum and hope,” to which, he says, the Greek people have already given their verdict: “They are for hope, for Syriza, for popular sovereignty and democracy.” Why, he asks, was Spain allowed to receive bailout money without the harsh terms of an austerity memorandum of its own, while Greece was forced to submit to the draconian will of its official creditors?

The answer in the gospel according to Tsipras is clear: It is all the fault of the leaders of the New Democracy and Pasok parties—until six weeks ago the two parties of power—who “sold out the country.” “We will not betray you. We will not say one thing before the election and do otherwise after,” he says, in another clear dig at his opponents in the political mainstream. In quasi-Churchillian language, he adds, in reference both to the Europeans and to New Democracy and Pasok: “They try to frighten you, but they forget: This is a people that was never broken, that never surrendered, even when conquerors invaded its soil.”

Because of a law imposing a poll blackout for two weeks prior to the election, uncertainty about the outcome is high. Most of the last published polls gave New Democracy a slim single-digit lead over Syriza, and there were a couple that put the leftists on top, polling as high as 31 percent. These are remarkable numbers, considering that in the 2009 parliamentary election, before the onset of the crisis, the party received less than 5 percent of the vote, and that even in its breakthrough performance in May, it got no more than 17 percent.

On a first reading, Syriza’s rise is the direct result of widespread anger at the continuing austerity that has been imposed on Greece. Partly as a result of the measures demanded by its creditors, the country is now in its fifth year of recession (its economy was already shrinking before the crash, but the adjustment programs of 2010-2 have dramatically exacerbated the problem). According to the latest figures, unemployment has reached 23 percent. People are desperate.

The obvious problem with Tsipras’s approach, at least if we take what he says to his domestic audience seriously, is that it buys Greece a one-way ticket out of the eurozone. By pledging to “reject” or to “put an end” to the memorandum, he is inviting the Europeans to do something that some of them have been dearly wishing to for at least a few months now: to cut Greece off, stop lending it money, thus forcing to print its own currency to prevent the cessation of payments and the sudden death of economic activity.

Tsipras’s opponents, in particular Antonis Samaras, the head of the conservative New Democracy, have sought to highlight the dangers posed to Greece’s membership of the euro by his proposals. They know that Greeks, in every published poll, declare themselves to be overwhelmingly in favor of the euro—as does the leader of Syriza himself, who repeats at every opportunity that his party opposes withdrawal from the common currency.

Given the very real threat of a Greek exit that stems from Tsipras’s hardline stance, this line of attack should have proved more effective. The reason it hasn’t is that its main advocates, the top officials of New Democracy and Pasok, are pretty much universally reviled by the Greek public. They are thought of at best as incompetent and at worst as self-serving crooks who lined their pockets while public finances sank ever deeper into the red.

Syriza, having never governed, is given the benefit of the doubt. As Angeliki, a nurse in a public hospital in her early forties, puts it: “Syriza are the only ones who are clean enough to negotiate with Europe. The people who will vote for them are those who still have moral principles.”

Therein lies the rub, of course: If Tsipras is elected prime minister—on June 17 or in the next election—he will have to make the hard choices that constitute governing, and his policies will fall way short of his populist promises. If the country remains in the euro, it will be under some form of austerity for a long time to come. If it leaves, the government will be forced into a much more brutal fiscal retrenchment, because no one will lend it the money to cover its primary deficits and the budget will have to be balanced immediately. In either of these two eventualities, Greeks will feel cheated again, and there is no telling what they will do. Panagiotis, the retired banker, offers an ominous glimpse into the future: “if they”—meaning Syriza—“betray us too, there will be no choice but to take up arms.”

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