The specter of hope and change is once again in the air. After years of economic crisis and stifling economic austerity, all eyes are upon Greece once more, where the main opposition party Syriza is favored to emerge victorious in the snap parliamentary elections called for January 25.
Syriza has maintained a consistent lead in the opinion surveys, and throughout Europe and beyond, the prospect of a Syriza victory is viewed as the best hope for a reversal of austerity and neoliberalism and the beginnings of a leftward shift of the political and economic landscapes. Indeed, Syriza's campaign slogan translates as "hope is coming," while its campaigning happens to bear some similarities to President Obama's "hope and change" rhetoric prior to his election in 2008.
Yes, the current government in Greece must go, and yes, austerity needs to be relegated to the wastebin of failed economic policies, and yes, Syriza indeed represents the best bet to oust the current pro-austerity government in power in Greece. Despite this, forgive me for not sharing in the pro-Syriza enthusiasm and hype.
Syriza's economic platform indicates positions that are far from radical and which represent a significant rightward shift compared to the more radical rhetoric the party once supported. The transformation is stark: instead of declaring a unilateral debt cancellation or break in payments, Syriza's policy now is to negotiate the write-down of a portion of Greece's debt, along with a short-term moratorium on debt repayment and the long-term pegging of debt repayments to the country's growth index. Additionally, Syriza has scrapped plans for the nationalization of Greece's banks, while its plan for fueling growth and job creation is now predicated on selling bonds back to the European Central Bank and, vaguely, attracting private investors. The money raised from this would be used for such measures as the restoration of the minimum wage to pre-crisis levels, and the rolling back of many of the cuts and austerity measures of the past few years. Syriza proposes to accomplish these objectives strictly within the confines of the Eurozone, as it has categorically rejected, officially, any possibility of a "grexit," or departure from the Eurozone and return to a domestic currency.
Indeed, far from stating an intention to adopt any unilateral moves, Tsipras has stated that his government would repay in full the next set of Greek bonds which will come due at the end of March. Prominent Syriza candidate Giannis Dragasakis recently stated that "there must not be any letup in Greece's revenues and no overruns in expenditures," essentially describing further austerity. Rena Dourou, the prefect of the Athens region with Syriza, stated earlier this week in a BBC interview that Greece "will pay its debt as a matter of national pride." And well-known economist Yanis Varoufakis, a candidate with Syriza, stated recently at the presentation of his new book that a Syriza government "will not play with [the possibility of a] Grexit, will not even hint at it, will not seek to clash [with the troika] during negotiations, will not bluff." Varoufakis added his view that the Eurozone is an "empire," that the ECB would prefer not to lose any part of its empire, and would therefore be amenable to Syriza's positions. Notably, one of the co-presenters at this event was Skai TV journalist Mbambis Papadimitriou, famous for suggesting during a Skai newscast that New Democracy could form a coalition government with a "serious" Golden Dawn, Greece's far-right party.
In other words, Varoufakis proposes that Syriza will enter into negotiations with the troika without its strongest bargaining chip. What, then, is so radical about the economic platform that is being presented? As suggested by economist Stergios Skaperdas of the University of California-Irvine in a recent interview, if the ECB prefers to keep its empire intact, as Varoufakis put it, then wouldn't the threat of a Eurozone departure force their hand, even if Syriza genuinely intends to keep Greece within the Eurozone?
In other words, Varoufakis proposes that Syriza will enter into negotiations with the troika without its strongest bargaining chip.
In a recent article, investigative journalist Greg Palast, who has extensively studied the economic crisis in Greece as well as the operation of the Eurozone, wrote that the euro was founded upon the idea of stripping national governments of the ability to enforce fiscal and monetary policy, pointing out that economist Robert Mundell, the "father" of the euro and the man behind the theory of supply-side economics, theorized that by taking such powers away from national legislative bodies, the only way they would be able to retain jobs would be through "the competitive reduction of rules on business."
Palast also points out that according to the Eurozone's "convergence criteria," Greece and all other Eurozone member-states are required to run deficits of no more than 3% of GDP. With such limitations, and with complete oversight over national budgets by European technocrats, Syriza's proposals are simply not feasible. These concerns were mirrored by economist Leonidas Vatikiotis in a recent interview. Vatikiotis pointed out that it is EU policy for member-states to maintain a "balanced budget." Within these strict confines, and in the name of eliminating deficits, salaries, pensions, and expenditures inevitably must be slashed further.
At the same time that Syriza, publicly at least, refuses to entertain the notion of a Greek exit from the Eurozone, other countries have prepared contingency plans. Economist Dimitris Kazakis, in a recent interview, addressed the emergency plans which have been drafted by Holland and Germany for a possible return to their previous national currencies, in the event that a crisis in the Eurozone became uncontrollable or economically harmful for their national economies. Why, then, is such a "Plan B," even if it remains a remote possibility, suitable for Germany and Holland, but not for Greece?
Why, then, is such a "Plan B," even if it remains a remote possibility, suitable for Germany and Holland, but not for Greece?
This aversion to entertain even the possibility of a Greek exit from the Eurozone or the EU is reflective of a longstanding inferiority complex seen in Greek society. EU membership, and later, the adoption of the common currency, were viewed in Greece as a break with the country's previous history of poverty and political instability, and as Greece's "membership" in the club of successful nations. Opinion polls conducted in Greece have consistently shown a pro-Euro majority. These poll results have likely influenced Syriza's shift. But are these polls even accurate? Public opinion surveys in Greece have long been considered to be politically motivated, commissioned for newspapers and media outlets which benefit from the status quo and have clear political preferences. This has often resulted in poll numbers that were wildly different from the real results, as was the case for the May 2012 parliamentary elections, in which Syriza showed up in 6th place instead of its actual 2nd place finish.
The supposed pro-euro majority in Greece is called into question by the results of an annual pan-European poll conducted by Gallup International. The results are striking: 52% of respondents in Greece stated that they felt less European in 2014 compared to the previous year; almost 50% of respondents stated that they wish for Greece to leave the EU or were undecided on the issue; 62% of Greeks did not believe that elections in Greece are free and fair; 73% did not believe that Greece is ruled based on popular and democratic will, and perhaps most strikingly of all: 52% of respondents desired a return to a national currency.
52% of respondents desired a return to a national currency.
Not once has the current government nor Greece's mainstream media commented on the results of this survey. Neither has Syriza. Instead, Syriza continues to insist that it can accomplish all of its goals within the context of the Eurozone, and indeed, to spearhead a shift in thinking within Europe. The fact that, after January 25, it will likely replace a corrupt, undemocratic government should not give Syriza a free pass. Indeed, with all of the lofty promises that it has made, Syriza should be held to a higher standard, and should continuously be pressured to make good on its promises. And should Syriza fail to deliver, it may well find itself on fragile footing, with an electoral base that has not developed loyalties to the party and a significant percentage of which is voting Syriza simply to oust the current government.
A slim parliamentary majority is only one of the many vulnerabilities that a new Syriza government may face. Its willingness to tackle many significant issues plaguing Greece, above and beyond the economy, will determine the success and longevity of a Syriza government and whether all of the hope and optimism was warranted. What follows are some questions on these issues, posed towards Syriza, for most of which the party has offered unclear or conflicting positions - or no position at all.
Why should Syriza's promises be any more believable than those made by New Democracy prior to the 2012 elections, when it presented a platform of 18 promises which pledged to end austerity?
Why is it that after over six years of crisis and economic austerity in Greece, and despite the proliferation of many left-wing and populist anti-austerity parties, that Syriza is the only such party that has made any headway in the polls, while most other such parties have declined or remained stagnant? How did Syriza become the voice for the anti-austerity, anti-memorandum movement in Greece? Why is it that Greece seems to again be returning to a bi-polar, two-party system, and whose interests does this serve?
Syriza itself is a coalition of various left-wing organizations and movements. Will the many factions which together comprise Syriza, a significant minority of which apparently do not support the party's pro-euro, pro-EU line, continue their opposition as part of a Syriza government? Or will the sweet taste of power temper their convictions?
Syriza has made many pledges: to abolish the regressive property tax, to restore the minimum wage to pre-crisis levels, and to roll back some of the more severe cuts of the past few years. Will Syriza keep these promises, however? What will its excuse be if it does not, and how will the public react? Why should Syriza's promises be any more believable than those made by New Democracy prior to the 2012 elections, when it presented a platform of 18 promises which pledged to end austerity? And why has support lingered for Syriza despite the fact that it has watered down so many of its previously radical positions?
The current government, most of Greece's media, and many EU officials, have in 2012 and again this year, attempted to terrorize the Greek public by posing a false dilemma to the public: us and the Euro, or them, the drachma, and chaos. What would stop Syriza, however, from justifying potentially unpopular policies and broken promises of its own with a false dilemma such as: it's either us or the far-right?
Will Syriza make an honest effort to cleanse the Greek system of corruption and patronage, or will we see a return to the old ways of PASOK?
Syriza's ranks also encompass numerous former members of PASOK, the party which governed Greece for the majority of the past 40 years and which is renowned for its corruption and nepotism. Will Syriza make an honest effort to cleanse the Greek system of corruption and patronage, or will we see a return to the old ways of PASOK?
Why is Syriza so adamantly pro-euro and why does it insist that it is not even going to use the potential departure from the Eurozone as a bargaining chip with the troika? Why would Syriza not want to use one of the strongest negotiating cards that it has, to achieve its objectives? And what will Syriza do if the EU does not budge, if it insists that Greece maintain a balanced budget, if it insists on more cuts and more austerity, and if it refuses to renegotiate Greece's debt? Will Syriza still maintain its pro-EU, pro-Euro stance? And why is there such a fear of "leaving Europe" or the Eurozone? Have Sweden or the United Kingdom or Denmark been hurt by the fact that they have remained with their own domestic currencies? Have Norway and Switzerland, or even Turkey, been hurt by not being EU member-states? Why is there such a fear of acting unilaterally?
How does Syriza plan to combat the Greek media and its corrupt owners, who are also behind Greece's banking system, major construction firms, major oil and gas companies, and other major business interests? Will it investigate their practices? Will Syriza finally issue licenses to television and radio stations instead of simply allowing media moguls to operate as they please on the airwaves?
How does Syriza plan to combat the Greek media and its corrupt owners, who are also behind Greece's banking system, major construction firms, major oil and gas companies, and other major business interests?
Does Syriza plan to combat the absolutely corrupt Greek justice system, which is plagued by a huge backlog of cases, long delays, and a lack of independence, and to build a system that is truly free of political or other forms of interference?
What is Syriza's plan to reinvigorate Greece's education system, to rebuild Greece's decaying public universities, to provide a quality public primary and secondary education without forcing families to spend a fortune on private tutoring lessons just so their children can pass? Will Syriza invest in funding for research and development, in which Greece is presently in last place within the EU? Does Syriza have a plan to attract some of the brightest young Greek scholars that have left the country in droves, back to Greece?
Would Syriza be willing to create an independent commission to investigate Greece's debt, to determine if any portion of it is odious or illegitimate?
Does Syriza have a plan to restart public works throughout Greece and projects that could jump-start the economy and put thousands of people back to work?
Is Syriza willing to investigate and to prosecute corrupt politicians from previous PASOK and New Democracy governments for their misdeeds and criminal actions? Similarly, would Syriza be willing to create an independent commission to investigate Greece's debt, to determine if any portion of it is odious or illegitimate?
Syriza is promising measures to assist poor households, to put an end to foreclosures of a family's primary residence, and to restore electricity service to the many thousands of poor households where it has been cut. In recent years, grassroots groups, such as the "I Don't Pay" movement, Antarsya, and the United Popular Front (EPAM), have taken a leading role in preventing home auctions and foreclosures, in reconnecting electricity to those in need, and in protesting other high taxes and fees, such as excessive tolls on highways which have not been completed and which are often quite hazardous for drivers. These groups have been on the ground and have risked arrest and prosecution with such actions. Where has "radical" Syriza been during this time?
What is Syriza's stance on the many pressing foreign policy issues which Greece faces, such as an increasingly hostile Turkey, whose military continues to illegally occupy over one-third of EU member-state Cyprus? What is Syriza's stance on the "Macedonia" naming dispute and on the many attempts by Greece's northern neighbor to reappropriate Greek history and culture as its own?
What are Syriza's positions regarding the TTIP?
The European Union and the United States have been engaged in largely secret negotiations regarding the proposed Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), a "free trade" agreement which would likely lead to more austerity, a further stripping away of labor rights, and which would override domestic law in Europe in a number of areas pertaining to economics and business. What are Syriza's positions regarding the TTIP? It should be mentioned that the current Greek government strongly supported the European Parliament's recent decision to allow EU member-states to determine, on an individual basis, whether to permit GMO crops in their countries, in a first step towards the TTIP. Does Syriza support this?
What is Syriza's position regarding the Dublin II Regulation, which forces the EU member-state where an undocumented migrant has arrived to process their request for asylum. This regulation has placed a tremendous burden on countries like Greece which, due to their geographic location, bear the brunt of the inflow of migrants from the Middle East, Asia, and North Africa. Not only is Greece ill-equipped to deal with the asylum applications of millions of migrants, many of whom never intend to remain in Greece, but until such applications are processed - a procedure which usually takes several years - these migrants live in legal limbo: they have no legal status within Greece or the EU, but if they move on to another EU member-state and are caught, they are sent back to Greece. Does Syriza believe that this regulation should be upheld? If not, what are its proposals to amend it or replace it?
Finally, who is funding Syriza, and what are their motives?
Finally, who is funding Syriza, and what are their motives? Syriza, which consistently polled in the single digits, has been transformed within just a few years into a political force, with a nationwide network of offices, with slick advertising all across the country, and with a growing network of Syriza-owned radio stations in major Greek cities; a sudden burst of expenditures which leads one to perhaps wonder who might be funding Syriza.
The above questions are not posed as an affront to Syriza, but to challenge it to make good on its promise of hope, change, and optimism for Greece and for the Greek people, who have suffered through an economic depression the likes of which is unprecedented in the post-war period. Syriza, despite watering down its rhetoric, still presents a number of proposals which seem necessary as, at the very least, a starting point for rebuilding the country. Will it make good on these promises though? Time will tell.