The recent electoral triumph of Syriza in Greece’s latest general election, in spite of its turncoat bravado, has foreign commentators bewildered. When a party abandons its raison d’être and breaks its promises so brazenly, anywhere else in the world it would mean complete electoral annihilation. A cursory glance at the pitiful performance of the Liberal Democrats in the UK’s last poll is enough to confirm this.
Yet Alexis Tsipras somehow managed to surrender his principles, to sign up his country to the most brutal memoranda yet, in direct defiance of the popular will, and still return to the corridors of power. Cause for confusion though this may be, it is no more and no less than a reflection of the contradictions inherent in contemporary Greek society.
Since the beginning of the crisis in 2008, there has been social upheaval in all the so-called ‘PIIGS’ countries.They have all had crushing austerity imposed upon them by the Troika – now politely called ‘the institutions’ – of the EU, ECB, and IMF. Each has seen the de-legitimisation of political elites, the re-emergence of political extremism, and the growth of ‘anti-Establishment’ parties. But it is in Greece and Greece alone that the white heat of neoliberalism has liquified the bedrock of society and transformed the nation into a crucible.
The resultant volatility has catapulted neo-Nazis into the Hellenic Parliament. It is very easy to forget this and very easy to become de-sensitised to it. As if this were not cause enough for concern, as it would be in any other democracy, Golden Dawn has benefited substantially from Tsipras’ capitulation and is now the third largest party in parliament. This is a party not only virulently anti-immigrant and passionately nationalist, as one would imagine, but also vehemently opposed to austerity.
Given this context, the Greek populace, writhing under the dual burden of enforced public sector cuts and a decimated economy, were faced with an unenviable dilemma. They could grant their vote to an old-guard party, the lapdogs of Europe and capital, and consign their dignity to oblivion. They could, in desperation, endorse a party which has often proven adherence to its own, however repugnant, principles. They could decline to exercise their democratic right, as nearly half did. Or, they could choose the least worst option.
Syriza did not win because it offers any hope of ridding Europe of austerity, but because for the majority of Greeks – and let us not forget a majority voted OXI to austerity – there was, in the ludicrously short run-up to the election, no other choice.
The danger now is that the ruling party of the ‘radical’ left in Greece is bound to implement – albeit under duress – measures that the majority reject. This cedes political capital to the far-right and unless the Greek economy improves rapidly (a very unlikely prospect), sooner or later the tensions on the street will explode once more, and the tremors we have felt thus far will seem as nothing compared to that political earthquake.
As with the ‘migrant crisis’, the solutions to the broader European malaise, of which Greece is the unfortunate exemplar, lie at the European level – at least while the Greek government is committed to staying within the EU. However, until the richer countries realise the the urgency and necessity of debt write- offs and of some Keynesian measures, the very fabric of the European Union itself will continue to hang by a thread, even if it holds out longer than Greek society. And we need no reminding of the consequences of a divided Europe.