This month’s legislative elections in Greece were anything but a domestic leadership contest. The announcement in December of the early Hellenic elections cemented the broader implications of this vote for Europe. This entire saga came to a head at the conclusion of a large campaign rally in Athens Thursday, January 22. Proudly beaming and waving to an ecstatic crowed, Alexis Tsipras, the leader of Greece’s far-left Syriza party, was joined on stage by his Spanish counterpart Pablo Iglesias, the controversial leader of Podemos with ties to Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela.
The two leaders and icons of Europe’s resurgent far-left joined hands and waved at the hoards of supporters as Leonard Cohen’s “First We Take Manhattan” boomed from the stage’s speakers. Given the charged context of the election, a more appropriate song would undoubtedly have been “First We Take Brussels.”
As the polls closed on Sunday night, not only had Syriza won its long speculated victory, but it did so in an unpredictably overwhelming manner. With initial estimates giving the party 149 seats in Greece’s parliament – two short of an overall majority – the specter of a Syriza-led Greece has become reality.
The Greeks have spoken, but this election was never fully about the fate of Europe’s perennial sick man. Fundamentally, this was a contest between the two leading narratives about the future of Europe and the Euro. On one side, outgoing Prime Minister Antonis Samaras and his New Democracy party championed the kind of fiscal rigor and economic reform that led to Greece becoming one of the fastest growing countries in the Eurozone. On the other side was Tsipras, the charismatic young leader who pinned the total of Greek ills on “austerity politics” dictated by German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
The fundamentally opposed narratives of “austerity” versus “growth” have become entrenched in the European political psyche. Greece, as the hardest hit country in the Eurozone, has been particularly susceptible to a rejection of EU policies, or at least what they perceive to be EU policies. In recent opinion polling, 79 percent of Greeks stated that the EU should have less authority over the domestic budgetary and economic policy. Similarly, 42 percent of Greeks believe that EU Membership has not helped the country. Although this view is still in the minority, it was the highest prevalence of such positions of all polled countries.
Yet, in a seemingly paradoxical situation reversal, a majority of Greeks (over 60 percent) express support for a European economic union punctuated by the Euro. Most Greeks therefore believe that the European Union should have less control over their budgets but want a common economic policy with the Euro. This incongruence can only be understood in the context of the two predominant narratives.
Greece’s much-needed bailouts, which prevented default on the country’s debt, were given on the condition of strict economic reform. The liberal overspending the Greek government had undertaken since the 2004 Athens Olympics on artificially low interest rates was halted and a rigorous plan of spending cuts and tax increases were enacted. Although these policies were needed to prevent imminent crisis, they failed to address Greek society’s biggest problem: the unemployment rate.
Today, unemployment in Greece still hovers around 25 percent: more than two and a half times the EU average. More striking still, this number skyrockets to over 50 percent for young Greeks. Although both indicators have fallen slightly over the past few months – thanks largely to the policies undertaken by Prime Minister Samaras – the level remains alarmingly high.
Unemployment is an oddity in the world of economic statistics. Unlike the GDP growth or borrowing costs, unemployment exacts a great human toll. In the context of Greece, the abnormally high unemployment rate, particularly among the country’s youth, presents a tangible example of failed economic policies. It is therefore no surprise that over 95 percent of Greeks claim they have personally felt the toll of the economic crisis. This human dimension has personalized the crisis for many Greeks, creating a fertile breeding ground for narratives loosely based in political realities.
In the case of Greece, the policy recommendations of foreign creditors have combined with the social unrest driven by high unemployment to create the narrative of “austerity politics.” According to this narrative, austerity policies are the major source of problems within the Greek economy. An analogous counter-narrative has concurrently grown, which claims that a return to deficit spending will lift the Greek and European economies out of crisis.
Although both views are deeply flawed, they dominated and shaped this weekend’s legislative elections. Syriza’s main platform rests solely in a rejection of austerity and finding an elusive return to growth. Economists and political scientists alike have copiously criticized these policies, but the party’s resounding victory demonstrated its ability to leverage the austerity narrative to its advantage.
Syriza’s victory confirmed how effective distilling human emotions, aspirations, and sentiments can be. Unfortunately, the true test in governance is not merely appealing to the passions of the electorate, but creating effective policies that will address these concerns. Tsipras and Syriza are now faced with the difficult and unenviable task of delivering on their numerous campaign promises. Doing so will naturally place the new Greek cabinet on a collision course with major EU partners and creditors. On this new stage, the same narratives that swept the party to power have the potential to irreversibly damage the Greek economy and society. Syriza must now adapt campaign narratives to governing. Inevitably, this dichotomy will give rise to numerous problems as the economic and political realities become clear. This time, however, the stakes far exceed those of a Greek legislative election.