As anticipated, the far-left Syriza Party emerged as the big winner of Greece’s Parliamentary election this Sunday. The Syriza victory marks the first time in E.U. history that a member country has been dominated by a democratically elected far-left party.
Led by the former Communist youth activist Alexis Tsipras, Syriza racked up over 36% of this weekend’s popular vote. (It hadn’t polled higher than 5% until 2012.) The party’s appeal lies in its defiance toward the European Union, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund — the so-called “troika” behind the strict and painful policies imposed on Greece as a condition of large bailout loans since early 2010. Such austerity measures — including a rock-bottom minimum wage and deep cuts to public health and assistance — have pushed lower and middle-class Greeks into a desperate situation. The unemployment rate for Greeks under 25 is nearly 60%, and others toil for wages reportedly as low as two or three euros per hour.
Syriza’s campaign promise to renegotiate its position with its powerful creditors, dial up government spending to create jobs, and redistribute wealth thus resonated profoundly with the Greek people. Hand-wringing about Syriza’s rise has focused largely on skittish foreign investors, which is to tacitly focus on the very demographic — wealthy allies of the E.U. elite — whose interests Greece is clearly sick of deferring to.
Beyond economic justice, there is another reason to be optimistic about Syriza’s win outside of Greece’s borders — its potential role as a powerful example to the rest of Europe of an alternative to the continent’s troubling rise of the nationalist right. In the coming years, all member states will in some way grapple with the balance of national sovereignty and European unity. Many far-right politicians have approached such questions with overtly nationalistic and anti-democratic solutions. In France, the right is increasingly associated with xenophobic violence and Islamophobia. In Hungary, President Viktor Orban has taken steps to seriously erode democratic governance, election laws, and independent media. The right wing in both countries also raise concern with their enthusiasm for economic cooperation with Russia, thus undermining their ability to promote peace through the use of sanctions.
So far, Syriza has emphatically disputed the notion that their win could signal the beginning of the “Grexit,” and has asserted Greece’s commitment to the European Union. If that is true, the left may prove less politically threatening to the E.U. ideal of continental peace than the right. After all, the union was conceived as a way to avoid another World War II, which had far more to do with nationalism than anti-austerity.