European leaders are nervously awaiting Sunday’s snap parliamentary elections in Greece, where predictions of a groundbreaking win for the leftist Syriza party are stoking speculation of Greece’s eventual exit from the eurozone. A victory for Syriza (a Greek acronym for "Coalition of the Radical Left") would mark a major act of defiance against the debt-ridden country’s European creditors, but analysts say it’s not time to prepare for a “Grexit” just yet.
Greeks, fed up with painful spending cuts and soaring unemployment, have rallied around Syriza’s anti-austerity platform.
“Society’s going from bad to worse, people are losing subsistence and the middle class has been collapsing,” said Michalis Spourdalakis, a political science professor at the University of Athens. “People are desperate, and change comes from that.”
In the six years since Athens accepted its first conditional bailout from the so-called troika -- the International Monetary Fund, the European Commission and the European Central Bank -- its economic malaise has not abated. Unemployment stands at 25.8 percent, youth unemployment is at 50 percent and the outstanding debt is some 175 percent of Greece’s GDP. Syriza leader Alexis Tsipras has pledged to end what he calls the country’s “national humiliation” by boosting spending and cutting taxes -- which would be in violation of its bailout conditions -- and negotiating a dramatic debt writedown for Greece’s debt.
It’s a bold plan, and one that’s proving popular. Pre-election polls on Friday showed Syriza leading its main competitor, the governing center-right New Democracy party, by 6.7 percentage points, capturing some 33 percent of the vote. It’s a drastic turn of events for the party, which gained just 4.6 percent of the vote in the 2009 parliamentary elections. At that time, Syriza was synonymous with Grexit, but the party has changed course since then.
The party has said it does not want Greece to leave the eurozone, but a Syriza win would launch Tsipras into a daring game of chicken with European Union leaders. Some observers fear that the likely hardball negotiations could finally drive Greece out of the common currency.
“It’s very difficult to predict what will happen,” said Vincenzo Scarpetta, a policy analyst at London think tank Open Europe, who describes Syriza as a “shadow euroskeptic” party. “Its economic policies and proposals would be incompatible with the current fiscal rules governing the eurozone,” he said.
Moreover, Scarpetta noted, Europe’s other debt-saddled countries would be watching closely. “Any concessions made to Greece will probably mean that other countries will come knocking and demanding the same treatment,” he said. “If Syriza obtains a writedown of Greek public debt, there’s no reason why Portugal or Spain or even Italy could not ask for the same thing.”
Much will depend on the scale of Syriza’s win. Polls suggest the party will fall short of an absolute majority of parliamentary seats -- if it even wins the popular vote -- requiring it to form a coalition government with an allied group. So far, there aren’t many options: Syriza has ruled out a coalition with New Democracy or the formerly dominant, self-described socialist party Pasok, both of which it blames for Greece’s current problems. It also says it won't join with the Communist Party of Greece. The far-right Golden Dawn, which is considered a neo-Nazi group by most Greeks, isn’t an option either.
That leaves the centrist To Potami (“The River”) party, which “could end up being the kingmaker,” according to Scarpetta, although it has stark disagreements with Syriza over continuing Greece’s bailout commitments. But a coalition government with To Potami could potentially soften Syriza’s negotiating stance with European leaders and improve chances for a debt agreement.
Observers note Tsipras has adopted a more conciliatory tone in the final days of the campaign. In an op-ed for the Financial Times published this week, he pledged to “negotiate openly, honestly and as equals with our European partners.”
That’s led some analysts to believe a Syriza win won’t force European leaders into an all-or-nothing scenario. “The negotiations will be complicated, but I do think there would be room for a compromise,” Scarpetta said.
Spourdalakis agreed there is a “very small” probability Syriza would lead Greece out of the eurozone. “There is no legal provision for that sort of thing,” he said, refering to the fact EU treaties have no mechanism for allowing a unilateral eurozone exit. Moreover, he said, the derivatives tied to Greek debt are far larger than the amount of the debt itself, making the consequences of a Grexit too overwhelming to bear. “There would be a tidal wave if that happens,” he said.
Meanwhile, Syriza’s performance Sunday will be closely monitored by other leftist parties on the rise in Spain, Italy and Ireland. Pablo Iglesias, the leader of Spain’s upstart anti-austerity party, Podemos ("We Can"), joined Tsipras on stage Thursday night at his closing rally in a show of solidarity. “A wind of democratic change is blowing in Europe,” Iglesias said at the rally, according to reports.
“For many people, Syriza is the only democratic response to austerity policies,” Spourdalakis said. “It’s a very historic moment, not just for Greece, but for Europe, and maybe for the world.”