Recent polls show that Greece's far-left Syriza party is poised to gain the most votes in the newly called June 17 parliamentary elections. The news has many wondering exactly where the popular opposition party came from, what it represents, and how it would address Greece's crushing debt burden while living up to its promise of resisting austerity.
The word 'Syriza' is an abbreviated version of Synapsismos Rizospastikis Aristeras, which can be loosely translated to mean 'Coalition of the Radical Left.' It is an umbrella term for several leftist parties in Greece. Its main bloc, called Synaspismos, is led by the 37-year-old Alexis Tsipras.
Syriza politicians promise a new direction for Greece, which is struggling to overcome the catastrophic economic crises that have hit the Hellenic Republic in recent years.
A Country In Crisis
After racking up an unsustainable debt burden and endangering the economic stability of the euro zone, Greece endured harsh austerity measures beginning in 2010 in exchange for two bailouts and a massive debt restructuring deal.
Cuts to public sector budgets hit citizens hard, and protests erupted across the country as Greeks watched unemployment rates rise to nearly 22 percent. Standards of living have fallen dramatically, resulting in increased rates of poverty, depression and even suicide. There is no short-term solution in sight.
Most voters chose outsider candidates during parliamentary elections on May 6, roundly rejecting the austerity pact engineered by the mainstream incumbent parties in tandem with euro zone leaders.
But the newly elected politicians, who represented both the far left and the far right, have failed to agree on a new government coalition.
On Wednesday, President Karolos Papoulias put an interim government in place and called for a new election, expected on June 17.
Syriza candidates made a fair showing on May 6 with almost 17 percent of the vote. But this time around, polls show that their support has risen to 20.3 percent at the expense of contending parties. That means Syriza may very well become the most influential force in the Greek Parliament, making Alexis Tsipras a very important man for the future of the euro zone.
Politician In The Making
Alexis Tsipras was born just days after the collapse of a seven-year period of military rule in Greece in 1974. He first became involved in politics when he was only 17, reports the BBC, leading a successful student takeover of his public high school in protest of the right-wing government's education policies.
Even then, Tsipras was known for his intelligence, calm demeanor, and remarkable ability to unify diverse groups of people into cohesive, politically effective blocs.
Tsipras remained politically active in university, where he was member of the Communist Party. He rose to prominence in 2006, when he was a candidate for mayor in Athens. He represented Syriza and came in third, which was an impressive run for a relatively unknown politician. Voters appreciated his youth, casual style and convivial campaigning methods.
Tsipras remained in the public eye after losing the mayoral election. Only a few years later, he was appointed to lead Syriza.
Creating A Coalition
Like Tsipras, Syriza also has Communist origins. Many members of its main party, Synaspismos, came from youth wing of the traditional Communist Party, the KKE. In general, they were less Moscow-influenced than some of their counterparts, leaning instead towards parliamentary socialism. But any concise description of the evolving Synaspismos party risks oversimplification; the party included Communists, moderate leftists, radicals and a solid contingent of ecologists.
Synaspismos essentially became Syriza in 2004, when it tacked on some new parties and dumped others to form a new coalition. The realignment worked, giving the party a broader public appeal. It won 14 seats in Parliament in 2007, one year after Tsipras had taken the reins.
Tsipras went on to lead the Syriza bloc in parliament after he was elected to a seat in 2009.
During that time, leftist voter sentiment in Greece was coalescing for another reason. Following the killing of an Athens teenager by two policemen in 2008, huge protests and demonstrations erupted. The movement helped to unite many of Greece's young voters against moderate and right-wing policies. Syriza was still relatively small then, but it was gaining a reputation as a party of change.
That proved advantageous following the Greek debt crisis in 2010. Mainstream parties accepted austerity measures, leaving the Communist KKE and Syriza as the only parties in opposition.
Now, if June election results match current poll figures, Syriza will have the opportunity to show their suffering country what exactly an anti-austerity government would look like.
Greece After Austerity?
Tsipras is known for making populist promises. But what policies would a Syriza-led parliament advance? Sifting through Tsipras' rhetoric has some analysts hard-pressed to find a real plan of governance.
Anti-austerity sentiments are frequently paired with notions of leaving the euro zone, but Tsipras has defied that convention. He voices support for maintaining Greece's membership in the EU and keeping the shared currency, but he demands a renegotiation of the EU/IMF bailout terms.
It seems unlikely that such a policy would be feasible.
In order to remain in the euro zone, Greece must respect the terms of the bailout deal. So said Jose Manuel Barroso, head of the European Commission, in no uncertain terms on Wednesday. There is no way of changing the commitments taken by Greece and also by the other 16 euro area member states, he said.
Those commitments include deep budget cuts and austerity measures, in return for the $170 billion in loans Greece recently received from the EU and IMF.
It is possible to work with the Greek authorities on measures to enhance growth, added Barroso. But frankly, it will not improve the situation of Greece or the euro area in general if the message is that we do not stick to our commitments.
If a Syriza-led government resists austerity, Barroso's statements imply, Greece may face expulsion from the euro zone. European officials have even begun publicly discussing a Greek exit in recent days.
But without bailout money, Greece has no apparent source of adequate funding to weather this economic crisis. It may become necessary to compromise, and many analysts hope that a victorious Syriza would do just that--especially if it formed a coalition with more moderate blocs. Such cooperation may result in scaling back on promises to eliminate austerity measures.
But for now, Tsipras remains adamant, telling BBC on Wednesday that if the disease of austerity destroys Greece, it will spread to the rest of Europe.