After a long build-up, unsurprisingly, Syriza swept Greek elections this weekend, taking 149 of 300 seats in parliament. The far-left party has formed a coalition with the conservative Independent Greeks, which took 13 seats, for a majority that has pledged a lifting of austerity measures and internal reforms in the struggling nation. Greece’s political future from here is uncertain, with a number of options on the table, and now that the business of the election is done, Syriza is forced with the task of living up to its promises, a prospect that may be more challenging than the party realises — not least because it chose to form a partnership with a potentially very dangerous ally.
The weekend’s snap elections looked like a cinch for Syriza, given the desperation and frustration expressed by numerous Greek citizens and the vision of political utopia advanced by the party. Struggling and angry under years of austerity forced upon them by the existing government to cover massive debt loads, ordinary Greeks are eager to see an end to austerity paired with better social services and a confrontation with the country’s considerable corruption. A complicated and interlocking network of officials are not being held accountable for their role in Greece’s economic crisis, much to the fury of Greeks, and, moreover, the wealthiest members of Greek society remain undisturbed by taxes and other mandates. Syriza has offered to address both issues, creating the prospect of justice in a situation many Greeks feel has not been rectified.
Formed as a coalition between a number of far-left political parties, Syriza started as a similarly leftist Greek party that has tempered its tone in recent months. While Syriza originally called for a complete abolition of debt, an escape from the yoke of the troika (the International Monetary Fund, the European Central Bank and the European Commission), and radical reforms within Greece including tackling tax evaders, fighting corruption, and improving social services, its claims have turned to the moderate. It seems likely that Syriza will be forced into compromise in coming months as it attempts to balance Greece’s budget and tremendous debts with its mandate from the people, who voted for the party because it pledged anti-austerity measures.
The Independent Greeks may have been an expedient choice of coalition partner, but they could be a poor choice in the long term. Like Syriza, the conservative party is opposed to austerity measures and wants to see a cancellation of European debt — and, in addition, it’s demanding repayment of a loan forcibly made to Germany in the Second World War. However, the interests of the two parties diverge radically from here. The Independent Greeks are anti-immigrant and anti-multiculturalism, and are interested in restoring the influence of the Greek Orthodox Church to Greece.
Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras seems to be realising the delicacy of his political position within Greece and Europe at large as he’s stuck balancing two fundamentally conflicting needs. Within Greece, he’s promised to do away with austerity measures and provide potentially costly public services, but the source of funding for both is somewhat unclear, unless the government can move quickly to hold wealthy Greeks accountable and address graft and corruption issues — without these measures, Greece will quickly run out of necessary funds and leave ordinary Greeks once more facing poverty and a poor standard of living. With feelings of betrayal, Greeks may turn on the new coalition government as quickly as they supported it in the election, and Syriza could find itself turned out of power before it has a chance to make any meaningful long term changes.
The troika and Europe at large, moreover, remain largely unmoved by the victory, though markets opened shaky on Monday and were unstable for several hours. European officials seem unconcerned by proposals from the new coalition government and appear determined to collect on Greek debt — a prospect they are already confident will happen, now that Tsipras has already extended an olive branch to discuss negotiating the debt down, rather than threatening to leave it unpaid altogether.
Threats of a Grexit are also dwindling, creating a complicated political snarl around a potentially powerful bargaining chip. Were Greece to abandon the Euro, and possibly the European Union altogether, it might be able to improve its political situation — but it might also find itself in deeper trouble than before. The government has threatened an exit, but if it fails to back up the threat with teeth, the EU won’t take it seriously, leaving Greece at an impasse — it will be at the mercy of EU negotiators, who will proceed with confidence knowing that Greece isn’t really prepared to leave.
Creating a more genuine threat could pose a true conundrum for the EU, as a Greece on its own could become vulnerable. There are some legitimate fears that Greece could ally with Russia, or develop closer political ties with the nation, which could cause problems for Europe as Russia becomes more restive under Putin. A Grexit offering opportunities for Russia to expand its sphere of influence would be a disaster for Europe — and the threat of same might force the troika to rethink Greece’s debt obligations and Syriza’s plans for anti-austerity reforms.
Tsipras needs to act quickly to form the government he wants to lead, and to maintain the confidence and trust of the Greek people. His waffling and conflicting statements during the campaign should be cause for concern, as they betray a young politician who may not be entirely comfortable in his own skin, or political power. If he isn’t powerful enough to develop and execute a plan for Greece’s future, he could be susceptible to the influence of Pannos Kammenos, leader of the Independent Greeks, who is interested in taking Greece in a very different direction.
In addition to the internal struggles the new coalition government is facing, Greece must also prepare itself for a complicated and lengthy negotiation with the European Union. While the EU may have a vested interest in keeping Greece and addressing the nation’s debt obligations, it’s also playing close attention to internal politics and it knows precisely how far it can push before Greece will really make good on its Grexit threats.