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Moment that mattered: Syriza wins the Greek elections

Leader of Syriza left-wing party Alexis Tsipras speaks to his supporters outside Athens University Headquarters, Sunday, Jan. 25, 2015. A triumphant Alexis Tsipras told Greeks that his radical left Syriza party's win in Sunday's early general election meant an end to austerity and humiliation and that the country's regular and often fraught debt inspections were a thing of the past. "Today the Greek people have made history. Hope has made history," Tsipras said in his victory speech at a conference hall in central Athens. (AP Photo/Petros Giannakouris)

The campaign that Syriza ran over the last three years was flagrantly populist and they have generated a set of expectations that were impossible for any government to meet. They campaigned with a fundamental inconsistency – to keep the country inside the eurozone, but implement a radical shift from the economic adjustment policies of the last four years. The message was that the eurozone would accept this radical shift because it would have to respect the will of the Greek people. I think they had a certain degree of understanding of the impossibility of that.

I didn’t have high expectations, but Syriza have even disappointed their supporters. Firstly they formed a coalition government with a right-wing populist party which has held outrageous positions, including dangerous nationalist positions. Secondly they locked the country in a prolonged negotiation with its creditors, which has imposed a liquidity stranglehold on the economy. They have proven to be totally unprepared for this negotiation, which I find distressing for a party that came very close to government in 2012 and has been the frontrunner for at least the past two years. The irony is that while they engaged in negotiations in order to prevent austerity measures, the economy, which was in recovery, went back into recession. I don’t call that a record of success. Syriza has had some good moments. The party’s critique of the shortfalls of Europe’s response to the crisis – the excessive reliance on austerity, the lack of an appropriate investment boost towards the periphery of the eurozone, and an insufficient set of measures to confront the huge problem of unemployment – was well-founded. But the government has been lame in terms of the reforms it has proposed.

Four months after the election there is a growing sense of disappointment with Syriza. It shows in the polls – the approval ratings of the government’s policies have become negative. But the approval of the prime minister Alexis Tsipras is still high. He raised a sense of dignity for many who feel that Greeks have been treated badly by the elites, Europe, and its creditors. Tsipras spoke about the quest for a sense of national pride. The economic cost of the last few months is not yet clear to many but, most importantly, people have not yet seen the compromise agreement. They still have the expectation that this government can come up with a deal that will constitute a real abandonment of austerity policies. I think this is one of the reasons why Tsipras’s popularity continues to be high.

“The campaign that Syriza ran generated a set of expectations that were impossible for any government to meet”

To get Greece back into economic shape, the austerity mix will have to loosen. Creditors have to give the country some oxygen for the economy to breathe. Greece itself has to reform. We need to have a significant degree of flexibility in our labour market. We need to overhaul our social security system to ensure that it doesn’t cripple economic growth and that the next generation of pensioners have pensions. We need to make our state more efficient and our economy more export-oriented and more welcoming to investment. But we need change in the eurozone as well. We need closer integration combined with a bold investment package to allow for the reconstruction of the peripheral economies which have lost hugely in terms of productive capacity and human capital in this crisis. Finally, debt relief must be on the cards.

It will be difficult, but I’m hopeful. Tsipras has shown a significant degree of pragmatism and has moved away from many of his extreme positions since the election victory. If the government manages to come up with a deal, this could be the beginning of stabilisation and positive change in Greek society. The difficulty is that Tsipras might not be able to manage it politically. He carries behind him a party full of radicals who have originated from the leftist and populist fringes of the Greek political system and who have no understanding of the real policy world. If they go the whole way, they will lose MPs. But in doing so, they can create the conditions for longer-term political viability and they might manage to transform the Greek radical left into a more pragmatic and mainstream European left.”

You can read George Pagoulatos’s work at pagoulatos.eu/en

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