The Fragility of Hope in a Broken Greece

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by Gáibhin McGranaghan, contributor

“The verdict of the Greek people has rendered the Troika a thing of the past.”

Newly elected Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras was unequivocal in his acceptance speech on the Voulí’s steps, declaring that “the age of austerity” was over, his government determined to break the “vicious cycle of economic debt, and for Europe to return to growth, stability and its founding values of democracy and solidarity.”

Garnering up to 39.5% of the popular vote, Mr Tsipras’ Coalition of the Radical Left (commonly abbreviated as ‘SYRIZA’) won 149 seats in the 300-member Hellenic Parliament in the snap general election in January. The party has been steadily positioning itself as the prima inter pares within Greek left-wing politics since its 2004 formation, having experienced periodic gains in each passing election. PASOK, the once dominant party of the centre-left, has been effectively supplanted; their delegation to the smallest grouping in parliament – just behind the Communists – speaks to the levels of dissatisfaction Greek voters are currently holding with the establishment parties.

SYRIZA served as the chief opposition party in the previous parliament, lambasting the conservative New Democracy-led government for the stringent austerity measures Greece has undergone for the past five years. Their pledges to reverse ‘cancel austerity,’ reorganise and expand the welfare state and cease interest payments on the enormous national debt evidently struck a chord with Greek voters, particularly in young people, up to 50.6% of which are still unemployed.

Indeed, SYRIZA’s victory seems to have instigated a renewed atmosphere of optimism amongst sections of the Greek electorate, but also across the wider European left. French President Francois Hollande warmly congratulated Mr Tsipras and expressed his “desire to pursue the close cooperation between our two countries in service of growth and the stability of the euro zone, in a spirit of progress, solidarity and responsibility.” Closer to home Sinn Féin’s Gerry Adams echoed similar sentiments, dubbing the results as “a victory of hope over fear” and “opens up the real prospect of democratic change not just for the people of Greece, but for citizens right across the EU”. Already there is talk of elsewhere in Europe ‘doing a SYRIZA’ – and in Spain, where the leftist party Podemos is scoring 25% in the polls, more than talk.

Sweep aside the red seas of confetti and remove the rose-tinted glasses however, and the scenario loses much of its initial gloss.

To be sure the results were an impressive feat, considering the nature Greece’s PR electoral system and SYRIZA’s relative youth as a party compared to its opponents. New Democracy were beaten by a comfortable ten percent margin and are now consigned to the opposition benches, yet choosing the Independent Greeks (ANEL) as a coalition partner has put Tsipras on a seriously precarious political tightrope.

This loose alliance of right-wing populists and social conservatives makes an odd bedfellow for a socialist-led government. Its positions on illegal immigration, gay marriage and role of the Greek Orthodox Church stand worlds apart to SYRIZA’s, and its rabidly nationalistic rhetoric bears a marked similarity to the irredentism peddled by the Jobbik movement in Hungary, or even the resident neo-fascist Golden Dawn. Not even a month in office yet, and their leader (now defence minister) Panos Kammenos sparked tensions with Turkey by taking a helicopter trip over the uninhabited islands off the Turkish coast that nearly started a war in 1996.

In fact, the only tangible tether holding the coalition together is the two parties’ mutual hatred for the bailout programme keeping the country afloat. Once it arrives to the business of domestic policies, where then will they stand? The atheist Tsparis broke tradition by swearing a secular oath of office during his inauguration rather than one overseen by the state Orthodox Church – yet one of ANEL’s flagship proposals is the development of an explicitly Christian Orthodox-orientated education system.

Hesiod wrote that one of the gifts in Pandora’s Box was hope. Hope can indeed be a powerful force in politics. Yet turbulent episodes with ANEL underlie the challenge SYRIZA faces as a government party now. Hope will prove to be as crucial a stabilisation agent as their leader’s vigour and wider political will, for there will be many and more clashes to come.

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