As the opinion polls anticipated Syriza, the ‘Coalition of the Radical Left’, won the Greek general election on Sunday and ushered in a dramatic new phase in European politics. Amid celebratory flag-waving and songs I heard the new prime minister Alexis Tsipras tell a crowd of 100,000 packed into Propylaia Square in central Athens his triumph was “a victory for all the peoples of Europe fighting against austerity” and a resounding defeat for bankers and the forces of neoliberal capitalism.
Not since the 1930s has such a “radical” left-wing party been elected to government in Europe. Syriza will govern outright after winning almost half the seats in the Greek parliament as it also secured the support of another anti-austerity party, the Greek Independents. The implications of its success will be far reaching as it will now take up seats on the European Commission and Nato.
What is so radical about Syriza? First it promises to cancel half of Greece’s debts having concluded they are now unpayable. Greece owes €319 billion (£238bn) to the European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund but Syriza insists Greece cannot pay. Its creditors, however, do not agree and demand the loans are paid back in full. The stage is set for a profound confrontation. There appears to be little mood for compromise on either side. Moreover, the leader of the Spanish anti-austerity party Podemos, Pablo Iglesias, has resolved to follow Syriza’s lead if he wins the general election there in November.
Equally, if not more important, to Greek voters was Tsipras’ promise to double the state pension and return the national minimum wage to 2008 levels. The Greek economy has shrunk by 25 per cent since 2008 and social security has collapsed as a result of the austerity measures imposed by the ECB in conjunction with previous Greek governments.
Many in the Syriza leadership I spoke to, including Alexis Tsipras himself, recognise the enormity of the task now facing them. Indeed many have told me that winning Sunday’s election “may be the easy part” given the profound weakness of the Greek economy and the huge expectations there is in them from voters.
Notwithstanding such sober thoughts, the mood in Athens as I set out for the Athens of the North yesterday morning was both celebratory and resolute. And Tsipras was up just as early to announce his key ministerial appointments and their immediate targets.
Colin Fox is leader of the Scottish Socialist Party and a former Lothians MSP