Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Greece wakes up to a different world.

By all rights the world, at least that corner of the world that is forever Greece should be in tatters, the the entire nation in ruins, or at last teetering on the edge of the abyss. Sorry for the hyperbole but that's what happens when you follow too much of the media coverage of Syriza's unprecedented election victory on Sunday. For those unfamiliar with modern Greek politics for the first time since the mid 70's neither the conservative New Democracy or the nominally centre-left Pasok party will be in government. It is as if USA had just elected a president who was neither Republican or Democrat or that the UK was now governed by the Green Party.

The electoral self-immolation of Pasok along with growing disenchantment with its right wing coalition government partner New Democracy drove away voters who in other eras would never have countenanced voting for a party as avowedly left-wing as Syriza. In doing so they have changed the political landscape more radically than at an other time since the fall of the military junta what ruled Greece till it was toppled in 1974.

Voters, sick of austerity and the endless succession of promises of recovery being just around the corner made by a political elite widely seen as out of touch abandoned the dominant parties to vote for Alexis Tsipras's Radical Left Alliance. Even the weeks of scare mongering by the government and its allies in the media proved insufficient to convince voters to give prime minister Antonis Samaras the mandate he needed to stay in power.The daily predictions by Greek and EU officials of a Grexit, bank runs and even the possibility of a collapse in the economy so dire that ordinary people would not be able to buy even basics such as toilet paper failed to win back lost ground.

However, this  switch in allegiances had less to do with a general surge in sympathy for radical leftist ideas than with a groundswell of disgust with the politics of business as usual which have left many Greeks jobless, poorer and without hope for the future. The siren call of stability which the PM promoted so hard during the short but divisive campaign cut little ice with those who desperately need to see real change and not just endless talk of improvement in the the nation's 10 year bond yield or its standing with credit rating agencies such as Standard and Poors.

Since the the announcement of Syriza's victory on Sunday evening, the political developments have been coming thick and fast. Lacking the 151 seats needed to form a government on its own Greece's new prime minister, Alexis Tsipras brokered a deal with the right-wing Independent Greeks party to form a coalition. The announcement, which was made at midday Monday suggests that neither side was surprised by the offer and that the groundwork had been laid in advance, so catching off guard the other opposition parties who had assumed that the search for a partner would be a long and convoluted process, or even the prelude to another round of elections.

The choice of Independent Greeks has surprised many observers, especially those abroad who find it hard to comprehend a partnership between a radical socialist party and a conservative nationalist one, Yet for Syriza this constitutes the least worst choice given the options available. The most obvious candidate for coalition partner would have been the Greek Communist Party (KKE) but anyone even vaguely aware of Greek politics would have known that such an alliance would have been impossible as KKE would never compromise on its own leftist principles which include leaving the European Union, the Eurozone and NATO.

Others may have considered a partnership with PASOK (well, the S does stand for Socialist) would have been a better fit, but once again the party's role in imposing austerity plus its identification with the country's corrupt political elite would have proven unacceptable to Syriza rank and file, not to mention the fact that it would have instantly damned Tsipras in the eyes of voters seeking change.

The other likely partner for many analysts would have been the recently formed Potami (River) party headed by ex -TV presenter Stavros Theodorakis who's attempt to carve  out a centre - left niche for themselves in the Greek political landscape made them a good match for Syriza, at least on paper. However, this was never really on the cards for a number of reasons. Theodorakis, whose party's funding and basic policies still remain a mystery is widely seen by the Left as a stalking horse for Greece's oligarchs, a front for the vested interests that have been forced to abandon the traditional parties of power. To give Theodorakis the political equivalent of a "kill switch" would have not been acceptable.

So, in the end Independent Greeks who are often painted as a collection of right wing conspiracy theorists and borderline racists (imagine UKIP a la Grecque) made the cut, a decision that has already been condemned by many on the Left, both inside and outside Greece (for an account of why this is so, I recommend this blog post). However, the party led by Panos Kammenos repeatedly made clear its opposition to Troika imposed austerity measures and its participation will perhaps assuage more conservative Greeks that issues such as defence and policing will not be solely decided by a bunch of "wild radicals". It's also an admission that much of Syriza's support is not from those who traditionally identify themselves as left wing, let alone radical socialists.

Above all, such an alliance allows Syriza to implement policies which will be popular with voters and build up a more solid base ahead of any confrontation with Greece's creditors who seem unwilling to back down on the issue of debt renegotiation.

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