Leftist Syriza Party Victory in Greece Strengthens Anti-Austerity Movement Across Europe

Posted Jan. 28, 2015

MP3 Interview with Richard Wolff, professor of economics at New School University, conducted by Scott Harris


Running on an uncompromising anti-austerity platform, Greece’s Syriza party, the Coalition of the Radical Left, won a decisive victory over the conservative New Democracy party in the economically battered nation’s Jan. 25 election. Syriza fell only two seats short of winning an absolute majority in Greece’s 300-seat Parliament, prompting party leader Alexis Tsipras to form an alliance with the small, center right Independent Greeks party to form a governing coalition.

Sworn in as Greece’s new prime minister, Tsipras has vowed to re-negotiate better terms for Greece with its creditors as his nation suffers from 26 percent unemployment and a 30 percent decline in its GDP. Since the imposition of harsh austerity measures, one-third of Greece's population has slipped below the poverty line and many people have lost health insurance and now struggle to pay for basic necessities like heat and electricity.

With the election behind him, Tsipras must now convert his victory at the ballot box into convincing the European Commission, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund to ease the terms of their collective $270 billion 2010 bailout.

Between The Lines’ Scott Harris spoke with Richard D. Wolff, professor of economics emeritus, University of Massachusetts, Amherst, who is currently a visiting professor in the graduate program in international affairs at New School University. Here, Wolff discusses the significance of the Syriza party victory and the ripple effect their anti-austerity message may have across Europe.

RICHARD D. WOLFF: This is a major left-wing shift in European economics and European politics. Let me explain how and why. What the (Jan. 25) vote means is that finally, after waiting and watching for seven years while their incomes were savaged — average income in Greece is 40 percent lower today than in it was in 2010. One-quarter of their labor force is out of work. They have lost benefits from medical care to pensions. It's really a disastrous savaging of a society. They finally passed a verdict: They're not going to wait any more, they're not going to watch any more, and they voted in a political party committed to turning Greece fundamentally around, and not just in terms of getting rid of the austerity policies, the savaging of their society in order to pay off the banks that they feel let them down in the first place, but more than that, they're willing to question to question all of the status quo. They're willing to question capitalism as an economic system. They're really representing a whole radical new direction.

And since there are other countries in Europe facing not quite as bad, but almost as bad conditions – and I'm thinking here of Portugal, Spain, Ireland and Italy – this is something that is very likely going to spread and represent, as I say, a historic shift.

BETWEEN THE LINES: What can Alexis Tsipras and Syriza do to renegotiate the austerity imposed on Greece by the troika, by the IMF (International Monetary Fund), the European Central Bank and the European Commission? Does he have the power in terms of his new leadership position in Greece to force a renegotiation?

BETWEEN THE LINES: Professor Wolff, we only have a couple of minutes left, but I wonder if you would tackle this question. Discuss for our audience the ripple effects that you see from the Syriza Party victory in Greece, the Coalition of the Radical Left's win here in this election on other countries across Europe that include Spain, Portugal, Italy, Ireland. How deep and wide will be the effects, in your view.

RICHARD D. WOLFF: They're incalculable at this point, in other words, we're only guessing. But I think they will be significant and I think they will reach across the Atlantic Ocean and affect us here in in the United States as well. And here's why.

Five years ago, the groups that came together to form the coalition called Syriza altogether got 3 or 4 percent of the vote in Greece. They were a small marginal party, and nobody took them seriously as a contender for power. They would be the first to agree that what created their opportunity politically was the failure of capitalism to prevent this crisis, to deal fairly and equitably with helping people through it, and all the while making the gap between rich and poor worse.

Those realities about how capitalism worked since 2007 destroyed the political support for the status quo, the traditional two parties and produced an unexpected surge in which a marginalized leftist party becomes the powerhouse in the country. The French worry about it. In Spain, there's already a group that's explicitly doing the same thing, called Podemos. In Ireland and Portugal, also. But even here in the United States, what this teaches is, "When two parties" seem to have a lock on politics, like the traditional two in Greece did. The system can undo their dominance. And if it can happen in Greece, why not in the United States as well?

Richard Wolff is also author of “Democracy at Work: A Cure for Capitalism.” Visit Richard Wolff's website at rdwolff.com.

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