29 Dec 2014

Crucial moment for Europe as Greece’s government falls

The coalition government that steered Greece through four years of the most bitter austerity in modern history has fallen. The Greek parliament just triggered a general election – and it could be a crucial moment: for Greece, for the eurozone and in global economics.

For months, the far-left opposition party, Syriza, has been ahead in the polls. If the polls stay the same, they’ll be the largest party and form a government come the end of January. The mainstream Greek newspapers are cranking out panic signals as if fuelled on 100% strength kaffe eleniko.

But people all over Europe who’ve opposed austerity see it as a turning point.

The Greek economic crisis has destroyed the prospects for much of a generation. Youth unemployment is 60 per cent. What this has done to people’s lives was well explored in a documentary I took part in this year –

Amid the sudden poverty and chaos, almost out of nowhere, a fascist party emerged that was getting 14 per cent in the polls. Last year it was busted by the Greek police, who accuse Golden Dawn of being a criminal operation. But it was a measure of how fragmented politics have become in Greece.

All the main parties were at some point clustered into the coalition – the ruling New Democracy, and the formerly large social democratic party Pasok, which has been more or less destroyed in the process. Other, minor parties were destroyed by their preparedness to sign up to austerity: LAOS, the Greek version of Ukip, and latterly the Democratic Left, a moderate left party.

So the crisis is a mincing machine of both ordinary people’s hopes and ordinary politics.

Now we will get extraordinary politics. Two years ago I sat in the HQ of Syriza waiting for a very close election result. “Thank god, we’ve lost. That’s great for us,” said one of the party’s journalists as they greeted me. You could see why: they were not prepared for power – the entire party records were in six or seven box files on the shelf next to me.

But in the past two years Syriza has professionalised, mounted a fairly consistently slick performance as the official parliamentary opposition, and moderated its demands. Instead of cancelling the debts to the EU and IMF, it wants to negotiate half of them away. It is pledged to something George Osborne will only achieve in 2018 – a balanced budget.

So even as the symbolism of moderate Marxism is plastered all over Syriza, in reality its programme for Greece is mainstream Keynesian economics.

If it wins, the question is: can the European institutions stomach it. The ECB, European Commission and IMF are all pledged to an economic doctrine that demands a further decade of austerity, tight finances, and cautious use of monetary policy and central bank tactics.

So at some point – especially if financial markets take fright – a Syriza government will clash with the orthodoxy of Europe.

But the bigger clash will be within the Greek political system. The main parties are run by old men and women, with leadership styles and personal networks steeped in a culture one former MP described to me as “Godfather III”. There are young, modernising MPs in the ruling New Democracy party, but they don’t run it. Such modernisers as existed inside Pasok have been wiped out as the party itself has collapsed – and some have gone over to Syriza.

So the more immediate issue for the upcoming Greek election is: can the Hellenic Republic’s governance system tolerate a leftist government – or will it rebel, like a body given an organ transplant that goes wrong?

There is skin in the game, obviously, for the whole left of centre in Europe. But also for the concept of the eurozone and the EU institutions themselves: they were set up around one economic orthodoxy. We will now see if they can work with and tolerate a different one.

Follow @paulmasonnews on Twitter