Syriza sweeps to victory in Greek election, promising an end to ‘humiliation’

Syriza leader Alexis Tsipras addresses his public. EPA/Michael Kappeler

As had been widely predicted, the left-wing party Syriza has secured a victory in the Greek election. Having finished with just short of enough seats in parliament for a majority, leader Alexis Tsipras has agreed to form an anti-austerity coalition with the right-wing party Greek Independents.

Throughout the short campaign, it appeared the relative newcomer to Greek politics, led by the charismatic Tsipras, would win. Now it appears he has done so by a significant margin.

Speaking in the wake of the victory, Tsipras said the vote would end years of “destructive austerity, fear and authoritarianism” and that his country could now leave behind the “humiliation” it has suffered.

The last half of 2014, which became essentially a prolonged general election campaign, saw the Syriza leadership (especially Alexis Tsipras) toning down its extreme rhetoric. Instead of pushing for radical reform, it focused on promising simply to abandon austerity and challenge Greece’s external debt commitments.

Syriza has pledged to tackle what it calls Greece’s “humanitarian crisis”. It plans to feed and house the worst affected by the crisis, providing them with free electricity and medication, and reintroducing a higher minimum wage.

Internationally, it has promised to bring Greece’s creditors to the negotiating table, with the intention of thrashing out a deal more favourable to Greece. In essence, this will amount to requesting debt redemption, or a “haircut”.

This toned-down platform may have won Syriza the election by attracting enough of the political centre, but it may not be enough to sustain the support of the more radical elements in the party’s leadership and political base.

The worry is that the whiff of power may not be strong enough to placate radical elements, who really do want radical domestic policies. They would like to see austerity abandoned and replaced by increased government spending across the board, and the restitution of public salaries and pensions. The public sector workers made redundant over the past four years would be re-employed and state property nationalised.

Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras concedes defeat. EPA

They also want a more confrontational policy towards Greece’s creditors and the so-called troika (the EU, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund). This could ultimately result in the dreaded Grexit.

If Syriza’s more radical elements feel betrayed by watered-down policies, the party faces the prospect of internal division, and Greece could soon see social unrest and demonstrations. That would weaken the new government dramatically, and could further destabilise the country at a very delicate moment.

Despite the scene of triumph, Greece is entering a period of deep uncertainty, and Syriza’s victory may indeed turn out to be pyrrhic. It is confronted by the immense task of governing at a time when Greece may be ungovernable, while also facing a potentially divisive internal struggle. International partners have also made it clear that the new Greek government, whatever its makeup, will have to honour the country’s existing agreements and commitments.

If Greece’s international creditors don’t come through with quick concessions, or if radical opposition rears its head against Syriza’s more moderate approach, this could trigger an uncontrollable reaction based on fear of uncertainty. That could lead to an accidental default, which would have disastrous consequences for Greece.