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What Syriza's Victory Means for Europe

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Original published at Consortium News

By *Andres Cala


Alexis Tsipras, leader of Greece's Syriza party.
(Image by (Photo credit: FrangiscoDer))
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Traditionally "democracy" has meant government by the people, particularly their ability through voting to make their societies bend to their needs and interests. However, in recent decades, the word has undergone a significant redefinition, made to mean the right of business elites to operate with relative freedom.

That is why "democratic reform" in Eastern Europe has referred to the opening of former communist societies to "market forces," even if that means the demise of popular safety-net programs. The same has held true across Europe during the Great Recession. What the powers-that-be have insisted on is repayment of debts owed to banks, even if that requires painful austerity and unemployment for average citizens.

What happened in last week's elections in Greece was, in many ways, a reclaiming of the old definition of democracy, which, of course, the Greeks are credited with inventing around the Fifth Century B.C.

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Tired of an economy crippled by austerity -- and frustrated by moral lectures about the responsibility to pay creditors -- the Greek voters threw out the old political establishment and elected the leftist Syriza party which had highlighted popular demands for more economic stimulus and fewer cuts to government spending.

In effect, what the people of Greece were saying was that they want their political system to work for them, not for the banks and other elites. It is a message with strong appeal across other parts of Europe where the Wall Street collapse in 2008 and the ensuing Great Recession have caused years of suffering and despair.

The ruling elites and their supporters now worry that Syriza's ascent is the inflexion point that may usher in popular resistance to the European Union's austerity programs that will spread through Italy, Spain, Portugal, Ireland and other countries tired of joblessness.

"The winds of change are blowing in Europe," Pablo Iglesias, leader of the Podemos told Syriza supporters in Greece ahead of the election. "In Greece it's called Syriza. In Spain it's called Podemos" -- "We can" in English.

Though Greece itself is small with a modest-sized economy and limited political influence, the message that Syriza is sending is potentially Continent-shaking. Syriza's leaders are determined to renegotiate Greece's credit terms, but they also are at pains to show they can govern responsibly and avoid radical moves that would do more damage to the Greeks than to the Continent's elites.

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A Continent-wide Revolt?

Yet, while Syriza may have many sympathizers especially around Europe's long-suffering periphery, the populist anti-austerity drive has many powerful opponents, too. Germany, with its strong economy, has been most insistent on the poorer countries repaying their debts but Germany's position is also supported by conservative governments ruling Spain, Portugal and Ireland that have humbly accepted austerity.

Those governments, which are facing their own challenges from Syriza-like movements, were the first to deny Athens any flexibility. These conservative parties are worried less about Greece than empowering their own anti-austerity challengers by admitting mistakes.

Other European leaders, along with most of the media and international institutions such as the International Monetary Fund, are resorting to fear-mongering by grouping this new, still undefined Left in the same basket with extreme-right, ultra-nationalist, anti-immigrant political movements, creating a frightening image of these populist parties.

Such tactics have worked in the past with many Europeans cautious about appeals for radical change because of the Continent's troubled history with extremist movements over the centuries. The European establishment offers a comforting sense of order but that appeal has eroded along with the living standards of millions of citizens and popular patience is growing thin.

And, though Syriza is regarded as a leftist party outside of Europe's recent mainstream, it represents an anti-austerity bloc that is actually rather moderate, pro-European and inclusive. What this bloc is demanding is serious reform in how the Continent's economy is managed to concentrate on making life better for average people rather than comfier for the rich and powerful.

Europe's Right has exploited the economic pain in another way, by focusing on how immigration from the Middle East and poorer parts of Europe has taken jobs from the white traditional citizens of European countries. But those messages from extreme-right parties, like UKIP in the U.K. and the National Front in France, represent a lesser threat to Europe's establishment because most Europeans don't favor these extremist appeals.

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