Greek election: How Syriza, a radical left-wing party, could lead the country
Years of harsh austerity have Greek voters looking for change
Greek voters this weekend are expected to usher in historic change, by electing a self-proclaimed radical left-wing coalition that has garnered support from a weary public, battered and bruised by years of austerity cuts.
But Syriza (also known as the Coalition of the Radical Left) has also triggered fears that the party's agenda of reversing those cuts and seeking debt forgiveness would lead to a clash with its creditors, resulting in Greece leaving the eurozone and defaulting on its debt.
Greece's Prime Minister AntonisSamaras has exploited those fears, suggesting that handing power to Syriza and its leader Alexis Tsipras, a former Communist youth member, is a recipe for economic catastrophe.
"[Samaras] been playing the card that if you vote for [Syriza] the country will go to the dogs. It will be a disaster," said Emmanuel Sigalas, a professor at the Vienna Institute for Advanced Studies. "And they’ve been doing this for years now. And I guess for quite a few people, the currency of this argument wore off. It's been overused."
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The ineffective scare campaign along with four years of austerity measures have soured the public on Samaras. Now polls suggest voters seem poised to give Syriza, at the very least, a minority government, meaning Greece for the first time will be ruled by a party other than the right-leaning New Democracy or left-of-centre Panhellenic Socialist Movement (PASOK).
Austerity measures insisted on by the European Union and the International Monetary Fund to curb Greece's debt crisis have brought Greece's budget slightly into the black, but the pain has been severe.
Human cost has been 'immense'
"The human cost of that has been, of course, immense," said Randall Hansen, director of the University of Toronto's Centre for European, Russian and Eurasian Studies. "Cut wages, incredibly high unemployment, even shortages of cancer drugs, cut pensions, on and on and on. That background of suffering, even if it was necessary, which it arguably was, has led to an upsurge in this populist party’s popularity."
Tsipras has pledged to end the "national humiliation" of austerity by scrapping the cuts and raising the minimum monthly salary from €586 to €751 ($816 to $1,045), provide free power and food coupons to 300,000 households, raise the tax-free income threshold from €5,000 ($6,960) to €12,000 ($16,705), reverse public sector firings and liberalize labour laws.
But he also favours writing off most of Greece's debt, a burden he describes as "not just unbearable, it objectively cannot be repaid."
The party had sparked fears in the past with suggestions that it didn't care if Greece remained in the eurozone, Sigalas said.
"But now they clearly, for the past few six months or so, explicitly say, 'We are a pro-European party, we want to stay with the eurozone, we want to keep having the euro, so there's nothing to be afraid of.' This is probably the most important change in the near past."
"I think he’s selling them a bill of goods by saying they can stay in the euro," Hansen added. "So he’s really promising that they can have their cake and eat it too. That you can repudiate austerity and carry on in the euro, and I just don't think that can happen."
Greece's main creditors, including Germany, Finland and the Netherlands, have all suggested they won't budge on debt forgiveness, a situation that could lead to a political standoff and the eventual exit (or Grexit as it's been dubbed) by Greece from the eurozone and a default on its debt. And that in turn could have far-reaching economic consequences in Europe.
'Game of chicken'
"It's possible that a game of chicken will be played, and in the end the Germans will decide the risk to the overall euro is so great that they will, in fact, cave. That's possible, but I think that's unlikely because that would be politically incredibly bad for [German leader Angela] Merkel domestically," Hansen said.
But it's also possible that Syriza could back down on some of its own demands and pledges. Reuters reported earlier this month that although outright debt forgiveness is being ruled out, an extension of Greece's EU loans beyond 30 years appears to be an option EU partners could accept.
Kurt Huebner, director of the Institute for European Studies at the University of British Columbia, said a minority victory may be the best outcome for Syriza, which could then blame any softening of its promises on the constraints of a coalition.
"They definitely will roll back a couple of those austerity measures, but at the same time will have to keep a lot of others. They will have to endorse business as usual, and they will have all the excuses why they didn’t touch x, y or z.
"Because If they rolled back everything this would be an utter disaster."
With files from The Associated Press and Reuters