Greece’s Hope and Change Moment
The charismatic, far-left Alexis Tsipras is poised to take back parliament and stick it to the Germans. And Greeks are loving it.
ATHENS — On a frigid Friday night in mid-January a swarm of journalists from Greek and international media waited outside a cultural center in central Athens. Alexis Tsipras was an hour and a half late. The French television crew standing beside me smoked nervously. Photographers positioned themselves along the pavement of Piraeus Avenue, while Syriza activists parted to form two lines, creating a path to the center’s door.
Then Tsipras’s car pulled up. The leader of the Greek opposition stepped out — and suddenly the crowd came to life, clapping and cheering. With a cheeky smile, Tsipras teased the mobbing crowd of journalists surrounding him: “What’s going on guys?” His casual manner belied the fact that he is the only politician receiving this kind of reverential treatment in Greece these days; most avoid public spaces for fear of being jeered.
Similar scenes would play out across Greece over the course of the next few days, as Tsipras conducted a grand tour that was one part campaign, one part early victory lap. All signs point to him likely becoming prime minister of Greece come Monday, Jan. 26, marking the first far-left victory in Europe in decades.
That night, inside the cultural center, the youth wing of the Syriza party had organized a last-minute event for the charismatic 40 year old to address his party’s base. Young Greeks have a special relationship with Tsipras and Syriza: In Greece’s last general election, in 2012, 45 percent of people under 25 threw their support behind what was then a marginal force. They were a big chunk of the support that took Syriza from 4.6 percent of the vote in 2009, to 26.9 percent in 2012 and is helping it poll at more than 30 percent now.
It was obvious that these kids, convened around him, have pinned their hopes for their futures on a man who doesn’t look all that much older than them. “Being young in Greece feels like a negative, doesn’t it?” he asked the crowd, winning a round of applause. He electrified them when he condemned the Greek government for failing to ensure voters who turned 18 since the last update in voter registration rolls could exercise their voting rights in this election: “They didn’t allow 100,000 18-year-olds to vote this time, because they are afraid of you,” he said.
Tsipras sounded comfortable addressing this audience, presumably one that he had won over years ago. But the scene in the amphitheater revealed a good deal more than that. It was filled with young people from all walks of Greek life. People in suits and smart dresses; hipsters; immigrants — for better or worse, they were all infatuated. A passion for politics has returned to Greece.
“Who are we voting for in the elections?” asked Andreas, 27, a Greek investment banker who lives and works in London. He posed the question after a round of drinks in a tavern in the southern city of Patras, the same day Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras failed to secure the votes he needed to elect a new president, forcing the country into snap elections. A mere 27 days stood between us and voting day.
I was among a group of friends who were all young and educated: members of the generation that had graduated into the 2008 financial crisis and left Greece to find a better future abroad. They nodded and agreed that Syriza, the party promising to end austerity and renegotiate the country’s mountainous debt of more than 370 billion euro ($427 billion), would be getting their votes. But the decision didn’t come without doubts. Would Syriza keep to its word — or behave like the previous government that abandoned its pre-electoral pledges as soon as it came to power? Would the country’s lenders play ball?
The tables around us were also debating politics over wine and meze. Eventually, some of them joined in. “I think we should go even harder to the left,” a bearded young man declared. “They won’t be able to do anything anyhow,” said a girl sitting at the table across him.
Patras, the third largest city in Greece, has often played the role of kingmaker — it’s the traditional stronghold of the Papandreou family, which has loomed large in Greek politics since the 1940s.
But this year, Tsipras has decided to run for a seat here alongside his traditional seat in Athens, where he usually stands for election. It is a daring move, high on symbolism: Patras looked ready for change, and Tsipras wants to take the chance. Months before, he encouraged the city to elect a communist mayor who ended up winning his race, and now the whole city looks ripe to go left in the national elections too, along with Athens and Thessaloniki, where Syriza leads with more than 13 percent of the vote. And like the whole of Greece, Patras is on fire with anticipation.
With only a few days away from the vote, polls suggest Greece is likely to see the radical left in charge very soon. Syriza has a lead of anywhere from 3.5 percent to 8.5 percent over Samaras’s center-right New Democracy party, and more than 70 percent of Greeks believe the leftist party will be the winners.
Syriza emerged as the de facto opposition after the 2012 elections, when the previous coalition, comprised of the center-left Panhellenic Socialist Movement, the center-right New Democracy, and the far-right Popular Orthodox Rally party collapsed, giving way to Samaras’s conservative-led current government. Syriza started out as a loose coalition of smaller left-wing parties that included a party, Synaspismos, led by a then-unknown Tsipras. But by 2012, it had transformed into a unified party — which made it a force to be reckoned with.
At the time, Syriza came in a close second to New Democracy with 26.9 percent of the vote. Then, last year, the far-left party won the European elections with 26.58 percent of the vote, leaving little doubt that its anti-austerity message had found traction. But doubts about the feasibility of its economic program, which includes relief for millions of unemployed and vulnerable Greeks in the form of free electricity and healthcare, persist — it’s been called too optimistic, and underpriced — but a chunk of the population sees it as the only solution after five tough years under austerity.
Many Greeks have pegged their hopes and fears on the young and charismatic Tsipras. When he became the leader of Synaspismos in 2008, he wasn’t even an MP. In 2009, Syriza just barely squeaked into parliament with 4.6 percent of the vote. No one could have predicted that in 2015 they would be the frontrunners in the upcoming elections.
But longtime party members say Syriza’s ambitions have always run large. “Since we were polling 2-3 percent, we had the aim of creating a new left,” said Yiannis Dragasakis, a leading economist in Syriza. He is the Greek Parliament’s vice-president and his office of late has been flooded with press and visiting officials. He is likely to be deputy prime minister of the country, and his confidence in a coming victory — the result of plans made long ago — is obvious. “We could see that the crisis was coming and we were building the foundations of a 21st-century party,” he said. “We also thought, even back then, that this left should come to power and enact its program.”
All of Europe is watching the elections closely for signs of what it might mean for Spain, Portugal, Italy, and the future of the eurozone in general. Should Syriza successful renegotiate its debts and make a break with austerity, it could signal a way out of the pattern of stagnation that has dogged Europe since the start of the crisis. Spain, in particular, facing its own elections in December with an insurgent left-wing party, is watching particularly intently. Pablo Iglesias, the leader of the far-left Podemos paid a visit to Greece this week to show his support. Others are eyeing Athens nervously: In Germany, finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble has attempted to send tough messages that there is no room for renegotiating the country’s rescue package, and that by electing Syriza, Greece could risk its membership in the eurozone.
In the northern cities of Ioannina and Arta, Tsipras received a hero’s welcome as he passed through during his tour last week, with rallies that dwarfed the sizable crowds that had met him earlier — in both size and energy. There, the mood seemed to be turning against traditional parties, despite the fact both cities have been some of the last bastions of the old Greek two-party system, which saw the socialist PASOK party and New Democracy alternate turns in power over the last forty years. Lili is 35 and runs a pharmacy in Syvota, a coastal resort town situated between the two cities. “I’m voting for Tsipras this time — what’s the worst he could do?” she said.
When asked about the dismal mood that hangs over Greece, Syriza MPs are adamant: “The policies that allowed for the systematic impoverishment of the Greek people will end with Syriza,” Giorgos Stathakis, the shadow Minister of Development who is touring Crete, told me.
Stathakis is representative of a new current inside the party — one that has moved Syriza away from its pre-2012 pledges to take Greece out of the eurozone and has transitioned it to a new, more moderate approach that seeks to work within the EU to solve Greece’s and southern Europe’s issues. It is unlikely that without this turn the party would have gained the trust of non-traditional left-wing voters.
Stathakis is a favorite target for criticism coming from the government and its allies in the media, who frequently brand him a populist. But he says he remains unfazed in the face of pre-election mud throwing. “We are unshakable in the promises we made in Thessaloniki last summer,” he told me, referring to a speech by Tsipras in which he announced the basic backbone of the party’s policies, which remain unmistakably left-wing: a minimum wage restored to 751 euros ($853) per month, negotiated debt relief of at least 50 percent from the country’s lenders, and an end to austerity policies that have seen healthcare spending reduced dramatically and the welfare system gutted.
On Jan. 3, in a stadium in Athens packed with 7,000 party members and supporters, Tsipras repeated these promises to roars of approval. That night, Tsipras once again put on a show of saber rattling, vowing to go to war with Greek oligarchs, who he accused of living the high life as the rest of the country suffered under austerity. If elected, Tsipras says he plans to consolidate the agencies tasked with supervising financial and business affairs in the country in a single entity, directly under the office of the prime minister — a sign that he sees tackling corruption as both a personal issue and vital to the survival of a Syriza government.
The snap elections have caught all parties off guard. The campaign rallies staged across Greece over the last two weeks were bare-bones affairs compared to previous years, when posters and flyers littered the Greek streets and the media covered candidates nearly non-stop for at least a month in advance. In Athens — usually noisy and infested with rallies across the city in the days before national elections — it is simply business as usual. On Wednesday, just four days before the big day, one party – it wasn’t clear which — was still setting up its kiosks in central Athens. Rather than waging battle out in the streets, this is an election that has been fought mainly in the media, via op-eds and television appearances: New Democracy is mounting in a campaign that paints Syriza as a force that will bring destruction to Greece; Syriza posters, meanwhile, carry a big “Hope is coming” slogan.
Last night, Syriza held a massive rally in Omonia, Athens’s biggest square. Thousands of people attended, in what was probably the largest pre-election gathering so far. Delegations from Germany, France, Spain, Portugal, and Britain attended, holding banners in the front row reading “Change Greece, Change Europe.” Tsipras gave his most confident and Prime Ministerial speech yet, and Podemos leader Iglesias joined him on stage to declare “Syriza, Podemos, venceremos! (we will overcome).”
They are right to feel confident. The very latest polls are showing an easy Syriza victory, with Alco giving them 33.8 percent of the vote — very close to the 37 percent required for a parliamentary majority. The signals from Europe slowly seem to begin turning toward the potential for compromise — and just like that, hope is making a return to Greece. If austerity in Europe started with Athens, it might also be here that it will end — all because of a party that started small, with a once-unknown politician at its helm, and the votes of the young people who believe in them.
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