In the days ahead of Greece's January 25 general elections, all signs point to victory for the Alexis Tsipras-led Coalition of the Radical Left (SYRIZA).
The big unknown is whether the party will win an absolute majority in the 300-seat Greek parliament, freeing it from the need to negotiate with minority parties and ending the chance of a further national poll in case negotiations fail.
All Greek political actors are behaving as if SYRIZA will win. The campaign of the ruling New Democracy (ND) of Prime Minister Antonis Samaras has been lackluster, with almost no ND propaganda to be seen on the streets.
On January 16, Ta Nea, the daily paper closest to the government, finally conceded a two-page interview to Tsipras, an admission that SYRIZA might actually have an important role to play in Greek politics.
SYRIZA will win a majority of seats if it gains between 35% and 39% of the vote, with the exact percentage depending on the distribution of the remaining vote among the minor parties and ND. If SYRIZA passes that threshold, it will, under the Greek system of awarding 50 extra seats to the party that wins enough votes, be able to govern alone.
With several minor parties — including the moribund social-democratic Panhellenic Socialist Movement (PASOK) and the Democratic Left (DIMAR, a right split from SYRIZA) — facing possible extinction by getting less than the 3% minimum for parliamentary representation, a late surge in support for SYRIZA from “useful voting” is possible.
The efforts of the Greek and European ruling elites are being directed towards blocking that result. A SYRIZA government unencumbered with partners would be harder to besiege by the European Commission and European Central Bank. It would be freer to set an example that could inspire people in other countries suffering austerity, starting with Spain and Portugal.
Failing fear campaign
The last days of ND media campaigning have featured new depths of anti-SYRIZA hysteria. It has been aimed at panicking right-wing voters inclined to abstain into voting to save Greece not just from a mythical exit from the euro, but from “Bolshevism” and “Sovietisation”.
Not only has ND propaganda stooped to stirring Greece’s nightmare memories of the 1946-49 civil war, the recent Paris terror attacks have been exploited. An ND video claims that SYRIZA's immigration policy would leave the country “without defences”.
Nor has pressure from Brussels and Berlin been subtle. The German government backed away from initial statements that a SYRIZA-governed Greece might have to leave the eurozone. But on January 21, the European Central Bank (ECB) agreed to a request from the Greek private banks for an emergency funding line to counter any run on its banks after January 25 — but only for 15 days.
The response of the ECB — part of the “Troika” including the European Union and International Monetary Fund that have imposed crippling austerity on Greece — was simple: “Don’t expect us to help out for long if a SYRIZA government misbehaves.”
None of this will have any impact on those who have already decided to vote SYRIZA — including many former voters of ND, PASOK and even the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn. After two-and-a-half years of the ND-PASOK coalition government implementing the Troika-imposed austerity measures that have created a social catastrophe, they are inoculated against the right’s fear-mongering.
Rather, the danger for the right parties and their establishment backers is that much of the 8%-10% that polls show are undecided will get captured at the last moment by SYRIZA’s “hope is on its way” message.
Just how contagious SYRIZA’s message can be was on show at its final rally, held in Athens on the evening of January 22 (see Vivian Messimeris's eyewitness account).
The SYRIZA campaign has been a new phenomenon in Greek politics. Firstly, because — despite claims from right-wingers like Samaras and Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy that it promises the impossible — the SYRIZA program is concrete, modest and, in immediate economic terms, quite doable. Its starting point is an emergency plan of support for people most hurt by the crisis.
Secondly, it addresses the root causes of Greece’s economic predicament — its unpayable debt mountain and its collapsed levels of investment, public and private — and proposes solutions that have been shown to work in the past.
This covers debt forgiveness of the kind negotiated for Germany in 1953 and greater public investment along the lines of the 1930s New Deal in the US, to be funded by those who can afford to pay.
When Tsipras explains this plan to start lifting Greece out of economic disaster and social hopelessness, what reasonable person would disagree? When he explains that the program can be funded by big Greek ship-owning and media concerns paying tax for the first time, who, apart from a handful of the hyper-rich, could reasonably dissent?
In fact, rather than promise the world and then deliver nothing (a la ND and PASOK), SYRIZA emphasise that achieving its goals is impossible without the active participation of its support base, the ongoing intervention of the social movements and a radical democratisation of Greek state structures.
In this way, SYRIZA has been able to build its support beyond the ranks of the traditional left that gave it about 4% of the vote before the crisis struck in 2008.
Now, according to commentator Yiannis Mavris, on the back of big electoral gains in 2012 and last year,“SYRIZA is succeeding in rallying and now absorbing a significant segment of the ‘anti-memorandum’ vote, which in 2012 had cast ballots for other [right] party groupings”.
“At the same time,” Mavris said, “voters who … up until the European elections continued to have reservations about the main opposition party’s capacity to govern now appear to have overcome them.”
Also, “due to the open crisis and multiple break-up of the centre-left party formations (PASOK, DIMAR), a not-insignificant portion of the two parties’ electoral base is also turning to SYRIZA”.
Nikos Xydakis, a well-known political commentator standing as a SYRIZA candidate in the large, socially mixed, Athens B electorate, said: “SYRIZA is first in Athens B and does very well in other middle-class areas.
“So there is a turn. The crisis showed the class inequalities in society and this was apparent in the elections of 2012.
“A number of people with a conservative background will vote for SYRIZA out of dignity. It’s a matter of dignity now and national pride.
“They believe the country has become a colony of debt. They believe the state acts like a tyrant and a tax collector and offers them nothing. I think even conservatives will take a risk for a change and will vote for SYRIZA.”
The campaign is also marked by Tsipras's engaging personality. Tsipras is not a classical Greek political patriarch in the traditional style, but rather “that nice young man” who is always prepared to patiently explain and answer questioners’ doubts — and whom many people feel that they could easily invite home for dinner.
It is difficult to overstate the challenges SYRIZA will face in governing Greece, even with an overall majority. As one SYRIZA member told me: “Winning the election will be just one battle in a long and difficult war.”
Enemies loom on all sides. There are the heads of the state apparatus, an amalgam of ND and PASOK appointments, rumoured to already be at work shredding all signs of their shadier operations.
There are also the expectations of many voters that a return to pre-2008 living standards can come quickly once the old two-party corruption is rooted out. Yet all pro-SYRIZA economists are warning that the rebuilding of an economy that create jobs and a future for Greece’s young people will take years of struggle and confrontation with vested interests and economic mafias.
There is also the Greek far right. It is on the back foot after the “legal decapitation” of many of its leaders, but ready to exploit any popular disappointment with a SYRIZA administration.
There is also the need for SYRIZA to greatly strengthen its capacity to help build the mass mobilisations and social interventions needed to consolidate alternative, pro-people economic and social policies.
Most immediately, there is the European Union, which when faced with SYRIZA’s immediate break with Troika memoranda (agreements), will offer “reasonable concessions” that barely affect the Greek economy’s enslavement to debt.
Rejection of EU terms will lead to a phase of open warfare between a SYRIZA government and Brussels.
Against these enemies, SYRIZA will have the solidarity and support of its own people in Greece, and its friends in Europe. The signs from Athens, where nearly all the parties of the European left have gathered, is that a victory for SYRIZA will spark hope among millions.
Building solidarity so that other pro-austerity governments in Europe cannot support or ignore attacks on a SYRIZA government without paying a serious political price at home will be a vital component in defending the Greek people and ending the nightmare of austerity across Europe.
[Dick Nichols is Green Left Weekly’s European correspondent, based in Barcelona. He is in Athens as part of Green Left team covering the Greek elections.]