Wednesday, 3 July 2013

Can Syriza really “open the way to hope”? Can any party in Greece accomplish that task?

Syriza leader Alexis Tsipras (Louisa Gouliamaki/AFP/Getty Images)
Last week in The New York Times, James K. Galbraith and Yanis Varoufakis wrote a thought-provoking piece on Syriza (the Coalition of the Radical Left), a party which has received an explosion of support since Greece’s economic crisis began. Once just a cornocopia of diverse ideological groups loosely drawn to each other by an aversion to growing income inequality and government malfeasance, Syriza and its leader, 38-year-old Alexis Tsipras, took the international stage by storm when Syriza nearly won Greece’s elections last year.

At the time, Syriza’s message was simple: we’re not them. Them was the parties in power — the socialist PASOK and the conservative New Democracy which have controlled Greek politics for generations. Yet beyond promoting an anti-incumbency message and drawing a stark line in the sand against troika-imposed austerity, Syriza offered up little else. Frankly, it didn’t need to. The promise of something – anything – different from the lead-weight political system that was dragging Greece down the rabbit hole was enough to catapult Syriza from single digits in the polls to a resounding 27% in the vote (just three percentage points shy of New Democracy’s victorious 30%).
Flash forward a year since those elections, and the latest polls show that the political numbers game among major parties in Greece has changed litte: Syriza’s support remains at around 27%, two percentage points down from New Democracy — well within the margin of error. The ground has shifted in the last twelve months, however, with respect to support for the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party. It received about 7% of the vote in June 2012. Polls now peg its support at about 11.5%. PASOK, meanwhile, continues on proverbial life-support at about 7%.
It’s Syriza’s resilence that makes Galbraith and Varoufakis’s piece so important. Clearly, support for Syriza last year was more than just a flash in the pan or a generic anti-incumbency protest vote. That said, you’d be hard-pressed to find a serious analyst who can argue that Syriza was prepared for that support, much less prepared to competently take over the reigns of government. The problem for Syriza and Greece overall is that time is running out for Syriza to mature from a hodgepodge of leftist interests into a institution that can present viable solutions to Greece’s crisis, and the other major parties haven’t used their established institutional power to generate any either.
The title of Galbraith and Varoufakis’s piece is “Only the left can save Greece.” On his blog, Varoufakis points out that they originally entitled their op-ed “Why a Syriza victory is not against the interests of the United States or Europe.” The New York Times ran with the much more dramatic headline of saving Greece, a headline that Varoufakis writes is “not to my liking.”
In the piece, Varoufakis and Galbraith deftly accomplish what Syriza has not been able to accomplish. They lay out facts assuaging concerns that Syriza would act against the European Union project and American interests in the region. Those concerns are valid and needed to be addressed, given Syriza’s abysmal message discipline in the 2012 elections.
After all, Syriza’s messaging on just what it will accomplish if given governing authority is muddled, at best. During the 2012 election  what began as an anti-euro chorus quickly turned into a mea culpa tour by Tsipras as he took to European television pledging that a vote for Syriza wouldn’t be a vote for a eurozone exit. First Syriza was going to tear up the bailout agreement, then it was simply going to try to renegotiate it. It promised a sweeping overhaul of Greece’s diseased bureaucratic system, presenting generic campaign promises in eloquent rhetoric diagnosing the problem, yet it offered few detailed solutions.
The result of this relative silence on details is that speculation fills the void. If Syriza were handed the keys to Greece’s government tomorrow, which policies would it enact? More importantly, how would it enact them?
It’s one thing to promise that no hospitals will be closed, that human rights will be honored, that the middle class will be restored and that politicians will be held accountable for their reckless and immoral handling of the public’s coffers. All valid and laudable goals, indeed, but the devil as they say is in the details.
Syriza’s motto is “Ανοίγουμε δρόμο στην ελπίδα” (we open the way to hope). In short, there is little doubt that Syriza provided a glimmer of hope to many in Greece when it bursted onto the political stage. But it’s been a year since that hope was expressed at the polls. Syriza needs a roadmap for solutions now more than ever if it is to cement itself as a lasting force in Greek politics.
Greece's new Cabinet ministers take the oath of office during a ceremony officiated by Greece's Orthodox Archbishop Ieronimos, 2nd left, at the Presidential palace in Athens, Tuesday, June 25, 2013. Greece’s new cabinet was sworn in Tuesday after a broad reshuffle in which conservative Prime Minister Antonis Samaras handed key posts to the coalition government’s minority Socialist party following a political crisis. (AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis)
To be clear, it’s not just Syriza that lacks a coherent, credible agenda. Greeks deserve better than the revolving door of old faces promising change on the one hand and offering the status quo with the other. Neither New Democracy nor PASOK, working independently as political parties or together as a governing coalition, have been able to present a comprehensive vision of what Greece should look like five, ten or twenty years from now, much less a plan to make that vision a reality.
Instead, what the Greek people are treated to are waves of brutal, everyday realities (increasing unemploymentbrain drain of Greece’s brightest, and widespread poverty) punctuated by nuggets of good news (selection of the TAP pipeline through Greece for transporting of Azerbaijan’s natural gas, increased tourism, etc.) The nation’s balance sheet is slowly but steadily getting itself in order, but the balance sheets of ordinary Greek families are going in the opposite direction.
What is any political party to do when an entire generation falls into poverty? When youth unemployment hovers under 60%?
There are no easy answers to Greece’s economic and social crisis and there are no painless roads to recovery. Greeks know this. They’re not looking for an easy way out, just a viable and consistent one. It’s a pity that neither Syriza’s promise nor New Democracy and PASOK’s experience have been able to produce a way forward. Greeks deserve better. 

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