A Predictable Outcome – and High Stakes – in Greece

La victoire de Syriza en Grèce a des implications non seulement pour la politique économique européenne mais aussi pour les relations transatlantiques. Il est peu probable que le gouvernement d’Alexis Tsipras se départisse des orientations des gouvernements de centre-gauche en Italie, estime Ian Lesser, directeur du bureau du German Marshall Fund à Bruxelles. Washington devrait y être attentif.

The landslide victory of SYRIZA (Coalition of the Radical Left) in Greece’s national elections was predictable, and is likely to have important consequences at the national, European, and potentially transatlantic levels. The way this development is treated by European leaders will be influential on the future of the European Union, and the United States will be an important stakeholder in this process.

Having visited Greece in the days before the election, it was clear that the party’s charismatic leader, Alexis Tsipras, would lead the movement to an impressive victory. Their success owes a great deal to the collapse of confidence in Greece’s traditional mainstream parties : the center-right New Democracy and the center-left PASOK. Early results suggest that SYRIZA garnered some 36.2 percent of the vote, followed by New Democracy at 28 percent, and the far right, neo-fascist Golden Dawn with 6.3 percent. KKE, Greece’s unreconstructed communist party received roughly 5.5 percent.

Clearly, the Greek center has been pushed to the margins. The result left SYRIZA close to, but not quite in a position to form a government on its own, and Tsipras has apparently opted for a coalition with ANEL (the Independent Greeks Party), a minor anti-austerity partner of the center-right. The imperative is to avoid an unstable coalition or the need for new elections, both of which could spell trouble for politics and markets.

How radical will SYRIZA turn out to be ? Much will depend on internal dynamics within a party that is really more of a movement, composed of everything from moderate populists to the radical left. Tsipras will certainly need to deliver on his principle goal of scrapping the current financial deal with the country’s creditors, restructuring the Greek debt, and rolling back the severe austerity measures of recent years. By all accounts, the SYRIZA leadership has been making some efforts to put forward a more moderate face, especially beyond Greece. Once in power, this pragmatism will be tested.

Assuming that SYRIZA can form a government, EU leaders will face a near term challenge, as much political and geopolitical as economic. The current debt and reform deal with Greece is widely seen as unsustainable. The troika of the International Monetary Fund, European Commission, and European Central Bank — and above all Germany — will need to decide very quickly whether Europe is willing to subsidize a softer path for Greece in the interest of stability within the eurozone and the viability of the European project, or whether Greece needs to be held to account, even at the risk of default, and exit from the euro, or both. In this atmosphere of brinksmanship, it is likely, but not certain, that EU leaders will opt for compromise. Certainly, Tsipras will be betting on this outcome.

The SYRIZA victory could also have wider implications for Europe. Like-minded anti-austerity parties of the left, such as Podemos in Spain, will be buoyed by the result. A broader set of victories of this kind will place in stark relief the tension between austerity and stimulus, and the critical question of whether the EU will continue to evolve as a transfer union, even — perhaps especially — under conditions of slow or no growth within the Union.

Greece’s transatlantic partners, including Washington, will also have important stakes in the outcome. These stakes go well beyond the issue of financial stability. Little has been said about the foreign policy implications of a SYRIZA win. Foreign and security policy issues have not figured prominently in the election discourse, and much that can be said is in the realm of speculation. Initial impressions suggest that Tsipras and his advisors are not inclined to take a nationalist line on relations with Turkey or Balkan neighbors, and their external priorities will probably resemble those of the center-left in Italy and elsewhere — non-confrontational on Russia, activist on climate diplomacy, human rights and human security, etc.

The SYRIZA line on austerity versus stimulus is more in line with Washington (and Paris) than Berlin, and the party has been supportive of the most recent counter-terrorism measures in Greece and elsewhere. In short, you see a mixed picture from a transatlantic perspective, but not far out of the European mainstream. SYRIZA is not automatically Atlanticist, but they also do not bring the nationalist baggage that has hampered U.S.-Greek relations in the past.

With critical and durable security challenges in the Eastern Mediterranean, the evolution of Greece’s foreign policy under a SYRIZA-led government will matter in geopolitical terms. Early engagement from Washington could pay significant dividends in shaping relations at a moment of great flux.