Greek voters ‘choose confrontation’

Alexis Tsipras, leader of Greece's leftwing Syriza, greets supporters after initial election results Keystone

Syriza, a radical leftwing party vowing to end Greece’s painful austerity programme, won a historic victory in Sunday’s parliamentary elections. Swiss newspapers foresee a showdown with the country’s international creditors that could shake the eurozone. 

This content was published on January 26, 2015 - 09:06 and agencies

“Electoral earthquake in Greece: victory beyond expectations for Syriza” was the front page headline of Le Temps in Geneva. 

“Those who fear seeing Greece renounce on the necessary reforms following Syriza’s triumph have legitimate reason to be concerned,” the paper said in an editorial. “Without any government experience, the opposition alliance led by Alexis Tsipras has promised a lot, notably renegotiating the still astronomic sovereign debt.” 

Syriza won 149 seats in the 300-seat parliament in Sunday’s election, two short of an absolute majority, but the result marked a comprehensive rejection of the years of austerity demanded by the European Union and International Monetary Fund (IMF) in return for the €240 billion (CHF237 billion) bailout. Tsipras later struck a deal with the rightwing, anti-bailout Independent Greeks party to form a government.

The euro hit an 11-year-low versus the dollar after initial results came out, as markets reacted to the prospect of a standoff within the EU, although many analysts believe a Syriza government can reach a settlement with its partners. 

While Le Temps said the election of 40-year-old Tsipras would immediately test his ability to defend the nation’s long-term interests, “it would be a political and moral mistake to disregard the act of major dissidence which Greek voters have just committed”. 

“In placing massive confidence in Syriza, […] they have dared to say ‘no’ to their discredited political elite and ‘yes’ to a redefinition of priorities.” 

Political somersaults 

Syriza’s campaign slogan “Hope is coming!” resonated with voters worn down by huge budget cuts and heavy tax rises during the years of crisis that have sent unemployment over 25% and pushed millions into poverty. 

Tsipras aims to move swiftly to create the first eurozone government elected to undo the orthodox conservative polices of strict budgetary rigour that German Chancellor Angela Merkel has championed for the bloc’s most troubled economies. 

“Greece chooses confrontation” was the front page in Zurich’s Tages-Anzeiger. 

“Up until the last minute Tsipras had cultivated an image of a rebel, but many of his compatriots, even before the result, were sure that the leftwing politician, once in power, would perform what the Greeks call a ‘koltumba’: a somersault,” it said in an editorial. 

Tsipras has already begun his gymnastics exercises, the paper continued. “For a while there hasn’t been any talk of the extravagant promise to tear up the bailout contract with the EU like waste paper.” 

Indeed, Tsipras, who promises to keep Greece in the euro, has toned down his rhetoric and said he will negotiate an agreement with the “troika” of the EU, European Central Bank and IMF. 

But after the euphoria of election night, hailed by flag-waving crowds in Athens, Tsipras faces daunting challenges and can expect strong resistance to his demands from Germany in particular. 

With Greece unable to tap the markets because of sky-high borrowing costs and facing about €10 billion of debt payments this summer, Tsipras will have to seek a deal to unlock more than €7 billion of outstanding aid by the time the bailout is due to expire on February 28. 

“The €240 billion rescue of Greece has unfortunately not become the success story wanted by Angela Merkel,” the Tages-Anzeiger continued. “The reason: good external advice is of little use if the required reforms lie in the hands of those who are largely responsible for the whole mess in the first place. This is why so many Greeks have voted for the new faces and the untested, inexperienced people of the left.” 

Out of patience 

“Patience at an end” was the headline of the editorial in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung (NZZ). “The verdict is clear: the left is expected to lead Greece out of misery,” it said. 

The paper had its doubts, however. “The crisis is above all the result of decades of domestic mismanagement. One of the roots of the trouble is the inflated, inefficient and expensive public sector. For decades the state served as a lavish trough, feasted on by clientele of the various ruling parties.” 

Whole generations of Greeks, it said, had grown up in the belief that the state would solve their problems for them and that state-owned companies were the nation’s real wealth. 

“Without a purification of the public sector the country cannot be turned around. Yet it is precisely among the left that belief in the state is deep-rooted.” 

The NZZ also believed Syriza’s victory had a European dimension politically, encouraging other anti-austerity forces in southern Europe and adding impetus to calls for a change of course away from the focus on budget belt-tightening and structural reform favoured by Berlin. 

“Tsipras wants not only to save Greece but also to change the entire continent,” it concluded.

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