As the first leftist party to win a national election in Greece, and the first anti-austerity party to claim power in Europe, Syriza has pulled off the impossible. Last night hope for real change brought the smiles back to Greek faces after five long years. Greeks needed this desperately, which is why we ignored the scaremongering.
This morning more sober thoughts and final results offer a chance for deeper analysis. Syriza didn’t claim the majority it so wanted, which for a moment last night seemed feasible. Getting into a governing coalition with Independent Greeks, a rightwing anti-austerity party, has already sparked growing suspicion among liberal supporters that Alexis Tsipras, the young and ambitious Syriza leader, will have to move more slowly or even freeze policy changes on crucial social and political issues. Social and human rights activists would quickly turn against Tsipras if they feel he is compromising on the liberalisation of, say, immigration policy and same-sex marriage. It should not surprise Europeans if the toughest opposition that Tsipras faces inside the country comes from the left of the party.
However, nobody can blame Tsipras and Syriza for not risking too much. Long negotiations with other parties, and possibly a second election next month, would have put enormous pressure on Greek society, and brought Greece’s relationship with creditors to breaking point. Moreover, the neo-Nazi party Golden Dawn came third, and so would have had to be admitted into formal proceedings to form a coalition government, creating a hellish atmosphere in Athens.
Golden Dawn’s success serves as a reminder that the social havoc caused by austerity politics has not gone away. Hope may have returned, but there’s a ghost in its wake. Syriza’s toughest challenge will be to reconstruct the fractured social cohesion of this country. The oligarchs who ruled Greece for years are not out of the picture, either. It’s unclear how immune Syriza is to the lures and privileges of the political system, nor is it certain that all of them are pure leftist ideologues.
One thing that can be said for sure is that it is not going to be easy. Enemies on all fronts, suspicion among friends and inexperience are there from day one. This is why Tsipras and his new government need to buy time. They will need clarity in their effort to renew Greece’s relationship with its European partners, and develop the skills needed to navigate this political minefield without compromising their leftist roots too much. If they survive the tough beginning, a looming change in European attitudes to austerity politics in Europe might vindicate their struggle. Failure would be disastrous given that most analysts expect a drastic rightwing swing throughout the country if Syriza falters early on.
Tsipras has worked hard to rise to power. But now he is finding out that the real struggle is just beginning. If he fails, so much will be lost.
This article was originally published in The Comment is Free of The Guardian.