The Case for Syriza
Greece and the tragedy of modern history.
January 23, 2015
Athens, Greece. The sun has never been so warm in a Greek winter. It shines on an election which will determine Greece’s future and quite likely vital parts of the future of Europe.
Greece’s new government after Sunday’s election (January 25) is likely to be headed by Syriza, a rag-tag and bobtail party of those who have been excluded from politics since the colonels were sent back to their barracks 40 years ago.
One thing is for sure: If Syriza decides to pursue an aggressive anti-European nationalistic and anti-market course, Greece will become a disaster zone.
But the odds are that Syriza will not do so. A strong and convincing case, one that ought to be embraced by every fair-minded European, can be made that the people of Greece are rising up against the rotten politics that has brought the country to its knees and made it the sick and poor man of Europe. Much of the crisis, though surely not all of it, is homespun after all.
Two parties over all
For 40 years, two parties – Pasok and Nea Democratia — headed by the same narrow group of men, often dominated by just one family like third-world tribes, have alternated in power.
They awarded jobs and contracts to their friends and allowed the professional middle classes and public sector unions to avoid all responsibility for paying taxes. And they shunned the actual task of governing – that is, reforming the state so it can deliver public services fairly and to all.
Syriza and its stylish and articulate young leader, Alexis Tsipras, have never been part of the Greek spoils system.
Granted, as elsewhere in Europe, the rhetoric may be anti-EU, but that’s simply politics. The overwhelming reality is that Greece’s long-time political elites not only have lost touch, but crucially also the confidence of the public.
So the election is a “throw-the-rascals-out” election. Greece is no different from the rest of Europe.
But Greece has suffered more than most countries. Its GDP dropped by 26%, unemployment rose to 27%, pensions were cut.
Greeks blamed the EU and painted moustaches on pictures of Mrs. Merkel. Syriza has been beating its chest it would challenge the Brussels orthodoxy and force Europe to be more generous.
Curiously, under a new government, Greeks may all of a sudden find that Europe is no longer such an ogre. Even the most hardline of anti-Greek bailout EU leaders in Finland and Germany have reluctantly accepted that forcing a Grexit – a Greek exit from the Eurozone or indeed from the EU – on the Greeks would be a disaster.
So Syriza will have to face up to an uncomfortable truth. The real problem is not Brussels, but Greece herself. It is the lack of competitive businesses and inward investment that holds Greece back.
A problem from within
The old system of clientelist politics in which governing parties slotted in their pals to key jobs and where bribes were paid openly to officials and politicians has not been reformed.
Athens should have the most stylish Riviera coastline in the world as it borders the beautiful, blue and ever warm Aegean. Yet, the coastline sports ugly highways, roads and rail lines along with derelict Olympic sites that planners cannot develop because of outdated laws.
Greece’s media and key shipping industries belong to a handful of oligarchs. They, in turn, dutifully but wholly self-interestedly supported politicians — as long as they got to keep their absurd privileges, especially paying no tax.
Every part of the Greek public and private sector needs reform to allow entrepreneurship and creativity to flourish. Greece does not need the old-style statist politics of hiring 100,000 new state employees to be paid for by taxpayers. It needs 10,000 new start-up businesses that can grow and hire young Greeks.
Does Syriza understand this is the key question?
In historic terms, Europe owes Greece a lot. In the Second World War, the Greeks held out long enough to delay Hitler’s attack on the Soviet Union so that it ended in a freezing disaster. And after 1945, Greeks resisted Stalin’s attempts to plant the Soviet Union’s red flag on the Parthenon.
In 1953, Greece supported Germany as German pre-war debts were wiped clean and Greece never even asked for the Greek gold stolen by Hitler to be returned. Why? It was felt, sensibly, that supporting post-war German reconstruction was a worthwhile affair.
Greece now has to change its own ways. If it makes the right move, the Syriza government deserves similar forbearance.
There is a danger that Syriza will mistake the left-wing rhetoric of its more militant activists and its supporters outside Greece for the reality of what needs to be done. If Syriza takes the Hugo Chavez road of leftist statism, it can indeed become the Venezuela of Europe – without the oil.
One must hope – even expect – that neither Tsipras nor the Greeks will be that stupid. The prospect of a country which may be able to make a fresh start by replacing a discredited elite with a fresh set of open-minded MPs is an alluring one.
But if tomorrow brings back the old politics of refusing to reform, modernize and make markets not the state the driving force in Greece, then the nation’s millennia-old penchant for tragedy will be confirmed once again.
For 40 years, Greece's two parties shunned the task of reforming the state so it can deliver public services fairly.
Syriza and its articulate young leader, Alexis Tsipras, have never been part of the Greek spoils system.
Syriza will have to face up to an uncomfortable truth. The real problem is not Brussels, but Greece herself.
Athens should have the most stylish Riviera coastline in the world as it borders the beautiful Aegean.
Every part of the Greek public and private sector needs reform.
If Syriza takes the Hugo Chavez road of leftist statism, it could become the Venezuela of Europe – without the oil.