Momentous vote in Greece

The momentous victory of the radical left-wing Syriza party in Greece is certain to send shock waves through Brussels, already trying to contend with the rising popularity of forces lined up against the European Union. The impact will be felt most notably in Spain and Britain, where elections are due in weeks. But the outcome of Sunday’s poll would have surprised few in Greece, whose macroeconomic indicators must cause near-disbelief considering that the country is clubbed with the states of the developed world. Nearly a third of the population is below the poverty line and about a quarter of the workforce is jobless. The hundreds of health clinics, social kitchens, education centres and legal aid hubs that sprang up in recent months testify to the collapse of Greece’s welfare state under the weight of half a decade of austerity. It is this Solidarity for All movement that constitutes the backbone of Syriza’s political programme that swung its fortunes: from being the principal Opposition in the outgoing government it has become the largest party in the new Parliament.

The coalition government of Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras’s Syriza and the right-wing Independent Greeks party has a common objective: of giving citizens a swift respite from the painful austerity of the recent past. To what extent the left extreme factions within Syriza would countenance this pragmatic arrangement remains to be seen. Equally crucial will be the ability of the ruling combine to rise above the ideological divide. The new coalition’s first — and arguably the biggest — challenge in office will be to renegotiate the terms of the international bailout that is to run out at the end of February, and to secure a write-down of Greek debt by half, as it had promised. That will also be the moment to watch for the EU’s broader response to the threat from protesting parties in different countries of the 28-member bloc. The Finnish Prime Minister’s recent conciliatory tone at Davos on renegotiating the Greek debt burden is significant considering Helsinki’s previous unwillingness to relax the terms. As the largest creditor-nation, the domestic fallout in Germany to the EU’s economic rescue programmes has been enormous. Berlin will look to such accommodation from fellow eurozone members. Syriza’s triumph must also renew hope within the European Left that has largely remained politically divided and electorally decimated since the end of the Cold War. Its critical role in forging strategic alliances with the political centre to counter the forces of the far-right could not be overstated. Mr. Tsipras himself attributed the rise of the extreme right as a reaction to the failure of austerity. The Greeks have voted for change; their hopes should not be belied.

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