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Syriza: A step away from Grexit?

By Iosif Kovras & Neophytos Loizides

Following three weeks of tense negotiations, the Greek government and its creditors have reached a deal that averted the nightmare scenario of Greece abandoning the Euro. Discussions for a Grexit are now over, for at least an additional 4 months, following last Friday’s deal with the Eurozone and the IMF to extend Greece’s financing program.

European countries initially assumed an uncompromising mood fearing a domino effect, if Syriza had achieved changes to the terms of the Greek bailout. Many in European capitals still worry that Podemos, the new anti-austerity party in Spain, would triumph in the Spanish elections later in the year. Indeed Syriza’s leadership campaigned for an abrupt end to anti-austerity policies and it has not been shy in its ambitions for a domino effect for radical change across Europe. However, it is unlikely for the party’s success to be replicated elsewhere in the Eurozone.

Syriza was essentially confronted with two choices none of which will be appealing to voters in future Eurozone country elections. Greece had to either to reach a compromise with its European partners or to face the prospect of a collapsing Greek banking sector. Syriza triggered the January 2015 elections by using a provision for a super-majority in the election of the president. By the time the new PM Alexis Tsipras was elected, all financial indicators have worsened to such an extent that Greece lost any leverage in the negotiations. Syriza was confronted with the tough realities of the debt crisis in its first hours in government; any compromise had to be made in a matter of days, not months. The result is a good one for Greece judging from its alternative; however, Syriza will have hard time explaining the compromise to its radical left constituency.

Despite the comfortable majority, Syriza has to maintain a balance between extremely tight external conditionality, and growing intra-party challenge to its party leadership. Just a couple of days ago, the emblematic figure of the Greek Left and Syriza MEP, Mr Manolis Glezos, condemned the negotiating strategy of the party as too compromising. He went as far as to ‘apologize to the Greek people for contributing to this illusion’, namely that Syriza will keep its electoral promises to end the bailout agreement. One of the unique features of the Greek political system in times of crisis has been the high number of MP defections which trimmed the power of coalition governments to effectively deal with the crisis. The early challenge of the handling of the negotiations by leading Syriza members, reveals that MP defections or other forms of intra-party resistance would minimize the appeal to domestic and international sympathizers.

Syriza’s victory does not only have to be attributed to the socially devastating effects of an externally imposed austerity program. The party also benefited from the distortions of the Greek electoral system which grants a ‘bonus’ of fifty seats to the largest party nationwide. This is a system that hijacks the democratic process. Syriza’s early lead in the polls meant that the party could easily win between 140 to 150 seats (out of 300) narrowing the options for coalition formation. Essentially, with a third of the vote Syriza would either win the elections or block the formation of the new government thus eliminating any electoral chances for the incumbent PASOK Nea Demokratia coalition (only parties, not coalitions, are eligible for the bonus in Greece).

These distortions are largely absent from continental political systems where coalitions are incentivized and frontrunners need to convince a number of coalition partners on the credibility of their programs, a real obstacle for radical parties. Even if Podemos or Sinn Fein in Ireland win the plurality of votes it does not mean necessarily that they will be able to form a government. More importantly, austerity policies are coming to their natural end in most of Eurozone countries which are more likely to distance themselves from the ‘Greek model’. In fact, some of the strongest opponents of Syriza have been incumbent governments in the rest of Southern Europe especially Spain.

A nation proud for its democratic tradition, Greece faced unparalleled difficulties dealing with the post-2008 debt crisis. The Greek leadership could not even reach a minimum degree of consensus in dealing with the crisis and its consequences. The absence of a consensus political culture and institutions could be particularly damaging in times of transition. Greece, the country that historically relied most extensively on majoritarian institutions and single-party governments entered the global financial crisis in the most vulnerable position while subsequently faced insurmountable political and institutional obstacles in its management.

Given the particularities of Greek political culture and institutions, it will prove difficult for the Syriza effect to spill over to other European countries. Even if Syriza succeeds to reach a compromise that will be far away the expectations of the radical left. More importantly, punishing Syriza to prevent the rise of Podemos or Sinn Fein will add another catastrophic decision in the mismanagement of Europe’s debt crisis. Instead the Eurozone countries are right in treating the crisis in Greece on its own right taking into consideration the suffering caused by six years of continuous recession. Prioritising the human dimension of a protracted economic depression rather than the perceived domino effects is the way forward in Greece.

Dr Kovras is a Research Fellow at Queen’s University, Belfast and Dr. Loizides is a Reader in International Conflict Analysis at the University of Kent.

**Turkish version of this op-ed was firstly published at Analist monthly journal’s March 2015 issue.

JTW

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The Journal of Turkish Weekly

JTW is a respected Turkish news source in English language on international politics. Established in 2004, JTW is published by Ankara-based Turkish think tank International Strategic Research Organization (USAK).

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