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This Man Will Make Greece Leave Europe

The victory of Alexis Tsipras and the Syriza party in Greek elections is the stuff that dreams are made of. But economies? Not so much.

01.26.15 9:07 PM ET

Remember the Eurozone? That 19-member conglomerate of nations that share a common currency and little else; where no one speaks the same language and few have the same perspective on, well, anything? It is safe to say that after Greek elections that vaulted the untested leftist leader Alexis Tsipras to power on Sunday, the Eurozone may never be the same again.

Tsipras led his radical left Syriza party to a punishing victory over the two centrist parties that have led the country for the last 40 years. He promised social justice and said he would end biting austerity that has drained the lifeblood out of ordinary Greeks.  Never, since the Great Depression, has a developed country suffered so much trying to get out of a recession.   And in the case of Greece, it is almost entirely due to bad financial management on a national level that seems to have constructed much of the economy on corruption and kickbacks. 

Optimists are quick to point out that Greece has shown faint signs of economic recovery since the last elections, but it’s hard to convince the average Greek that near-zero growth, unemployment averaging around 26 percent and a stark lack of basic social services—not to mention the inability to buy groceries —represents progress.   After the election, Greece’s new finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis, told the BBC that austerity has amounted to “fiscal waterboarding policies that have turned Greece into a debt colony.”

The statistics speak for themselves: the Greek economy shrank 25 percent since 2009 and more than 3 million people of a total population of 11 million live below the poverty line.  And those with an education and enough money to escape have done just that: more than 200,000 people have just given up and left the country for good in just five years. Most are now paying taxes somewhere else. “Austerity has proven to be an economic and social catastrophe,” Tsipras said last year. “A catastrophe for democracy. Austerity is the crisis itself— it is not a solution to the crisis.”

Unlike most of Europe’s recently elected politicians who campaigned on a wave of not-so-subtle anti-Europe nationalism, Tsipras did not win on promises of reform within his country, which is how his predecessor Antonios Samaras emerged victorious in elections in 2012.

Instead, Tsipras won on the wildly ambitious proposition that he would instead reform the so-called Troika, a trio of lending bodies made up of the European Union, the International Monetary Fund and the European Central Bank, to which Greece owes around $270 billion.  

First on the Tsipras agenda is to renegotiate the massive payback scheme that it simply cannot afford to pay without further sacrifices for a country already on its knees.  Greece’s debt load hovers around 175 percent of the national GDP.  Ideally, Tsipras hypothesizes, he’ll get the lenders to write off half or more of the heavy debt load.   Prior to the election Syriza spokesman Panos Skourletis told Bloomberg, “We will put on the table the force of our arguments and the experience of the total failure of the conditions attached to the Greek bailout.”

If he can do that, it could set a precedent for the other PIGS nations— a rather unsavory reference to Europe’s most troubled economies Portugal, Italy, Greece and Spain—which have all suffered over austerity measures demanded by their wealthier Eurozone partner Germany.

“This is obviously a huge victory for Syriza and for the anti-austerity bloc as a whole,” Roman Gerodimos, professor of global current affairs at Bournemouth University and founder of the  Greek Politics Specialist Group of the United Kingdom’s Political Studies Association, told The Daily Beast.  “Syriza’s win is due to the previous government’s inability to project a positive message of hope. As to Syriza’s own message of hope and change, albeit a very abstract one, no one really knows whether and how they will manage to secure those concessions that they’ve pledged to demand from lenders.”

Never mind that the Troika powers don’t exactly see social justice, corruption and bad financial management as a fiscal plan.  They have all said Greece will be held to its promises, leaving little wiggle room for Tsipras’s promised debt negotiation.  “The Greeks have the right to vote for whom they want,” Hans Peter Friedrich, a member of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s party in parliament told Bild. “We have the right to no longer finance Greek debt.”

Still, Gerodimos says that on a purely domestic level, the Syriza win will almost immediately depressurize the political system because it allowed Greeks to vent a lot of the frustration and anger that he says accumulated within a large part of Greek society because of austerity measures.  “It may also encourage other anti-systemic parties across Europe to pursue an agenda of radical changes to the E.U.,” he says. But it won’t be easy.  “It’s hard to see how Mr. Tsipras will be able to fulfill his promises given the unwavering stance of the main players—such as the Troika of lenders and the German government.”

In fact, news of Syriza’s win garnered a number of hasty rants from German politicians and pundits.  Tsipras has said he plans to negotiate directly with German chancellor Angela Merkel, who has refrained from comment on the Tsipras plan, but who said she would work with the new Greek government.  But news reports in Germany echoed what many feel is a nonstarter between the two.  “Sorry, Mr. Tsipras, but that goes too far!” Bild warned. “The eurozone is not a gambling den where everyone can play as he likes.”

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There is little doubt that Tsipras has his work cut out to fulfill his campaign promises, but the bigger challenges may start before he even leaves Athens.  Syriza won 149 seats in parliament, including the 50 free seats the winning party automatically secures as a victory bonus.  But they needed 151 to have a majority, and, as such, Tsipras needed to find a partner with whom to create a coalition. 

After unsuccessfully trying to negotiate with more like-minded leftist parties with enough seats to help lead the government (but not too many to hold Tsipras by the collar) a deal was met with the most unlikely partner —the staunchly conservative Independent Greeks party, which is as far to the right of center as Syriza is to the left. 

“I think in the short term the support of Independent Greeks will give Mr. Tsipras the backing for a tough stance during the negotiations,” Gerodimos told The Daily Beast.  “However, it is very difficult to see how such a heterogeneous coalition would survive beyond a period of a few months. [Independent Greeks] party has a track record of xenophobic, homophobic and anti-immigrant policies, whereas, for example, Syriza has traditionally supported a separation of Church and State, civil partnerships for same-sex couples and giving second generation migrants Greek citizenship.”

Not only that, there are many supporters of Syriza, which itself is a coalition of radical left parties with varying ideologies, who may not tolerate a marriage to a party as far right and intrinsically at odds with Syriza.  “Syriza itself is a very heterogeneous party so unless there is a major success on the debt negotiations front, I think Mr. Tsipras will find it increasingly hard to keep this coalition together after the so-called ‘honeymoon period,’” says Gerodimos.

Still, the feeling at the moment in Greece is that, at the very least, change means there is a chance for something better. “We are regaining our lost dignity,” Tsipras said during his victory speech as Greeks reveled in Syntagma square in Athens.  “Our victory is… a victory for all the people of Europe that are fighting against austerity that’s ruining the common European future.”  That victory, of course, is not so sweet for those who are actually paying the bills.