In the first week of May, the people voted—in Britain, in France, in Greece, in the German state of Schleswig-Holstein—and sent markets tumbling. In Britain, the Tories took a serious beating from Labour in local elections (though Ken Livingstone lost in London to Mayor Boris Johnson) and their Liberal Democrat coalition partners suffered a humiliating wipeout. France elected a Socialist president for the first time since 1981 (though, as I recall, that one didn’t turn out so well); François Hollande has pledged to challenge European austerity measures and renegotiate the German-driven fiscal treaty that has in effect outlawed Keynesianism on the continent. Schleswig-Holstein dealt a blow to Angela Merkel’s ruling CDU and elected members of the Pirate Party to its regional assembly. And Greece voted loudly, if not quite coherently, against the austerity program imposed in exchange for loans by the EU and IMF, which has destroyed the economy, shredded the social fabric and devastated countless lives. Across Europe, it’s no to austerity, and yes to—what?
European voters everywhere are turning against the elites who have managed most of the continent for the past decades; ten eurozone governments of both the center left and the center right have been kicked out of office in just over a year, from Ireland to Finland, from Portugal to Slovakia. The financial crunch has broken the illusion of stability and exposed a deeper crisis of representation: it’s obvious now that the control the European democracies once imagined they had over their own affairs has long since been ceded to global financial markets. And the cracks in the concrete of the eurozone are gaping; the present arrangement, in which the German economy thrives while the periphery flounders, has become unsustainable and intolerable. Unless something shifts, and soon, Europe may be heading for a continent-wide depression, with all the usual social and political consequences.
The voices raised against austerity are coming from the far right as well as the left. In April anti-Muslim politician Geert Wilders brought down the Dutch government when he refused to agree to new austerity measures. In May Greece became the first European country occupied during World War II to elect neo-Nazis—twenty-one members of the racist Golden Dawn party—to its Parliament. Their leader, Nikolaos Mihaloliakos, dedicated his victory to “the brave boys in the black shirts.” “Those who slander us,” he barked, “those who betray the fatherland should be afraid: we’re coming.” Golden Dawn won votes across much of the country, even in districts that suffered massacres during the Axis occupation—not just in the inner cities, where its supporters stage pogroms against immigrants and woo old ladies with offers to escort them to the cash machine. It also got the support of about one in ten young people. Together, Golden Dawn and the other two far-right parties, the Popular Orthodox Rally and the new Independent Greeks, polled at 20 percent, which means that one in five Greeks voted for nationalism and anti-immigrant rhetoric.
The horrifying rise of Golden Dawn in Greece has three main roots: the humiliation and rage provoked by austerity and by the crude scapegoating of Greeks abroad; the presence in Greece of thousands of destitute migrants desperate to go north but trapped there by the EU’s cynical migration policies; and the fact that mainstream politicians have pandered to its blood-and-belonging rhetoric. But it’s also part of a wider European phenomenon. Crushed by forces beyond their control, people turn against the “strangers” in their midst and retreat to the fortress of nationalism. We have been here before.
The left’s response to the crisis is still under construction. The biggest winner of the Greek election was Alexis Tsipras’s Syriza, or Coalition of the Radical Left, which came in second—ahead of the corrupt and discredited center-left Pasok, which called in the bailiffs of the EU and IMF—and which, as we go to press, is negotiating to form a government. It’s highly unlikely to succeed—the numbers don’t add up—but Tsipras has already called for the cancellation of further austerity measures and a moratorium on debt repayments pending an international audit, causing panic in the markets. Meanwhile, the party is positioning itself for a bigger win in the next election, which may come very soon.
Syriza is an electoral coalition of various tendencies, from Trotskyist to Green, from Maoist to social democrat. The charismatic Tsipras managed to articulate a basic program—opposition to the EU/IMF measures, redistribution of wealth, a restoration of welfare rights—that much of the broad left opposition to austerity could sign on to.
He is also the man who figured out how to speak to the protesters in the streets, the occupiers of government buildings, the organizers of barter systems and solidarity networks. “We are the many, they are the few,” goes one of Syriza’s slogans; “They decide without us; we proceed without them,” goes another. Greeks who remember the 1980s and the speeches of Pasok’s founder, Andreas Papandreou, see qualities in Tsipras that remind them of that master rabble-rouser. Although he swears he’s for “the people,” not the state, he has refused to talk about the reform of Greece’s creaking bureaucracy, or about how exactly he plans to save the economy, beyond taxing the rich and calling the Europeans’ bluff on ejecting Greece from the eurozone.
Tsipras is playing a risky game. But at moments like this, populism can be (briefly) useful, as well as seductive and dangerous. Set beside Hollande’s victory in France, Tsipras’s success has helped drive home the message that Europeans have had it with austerity. The question now is whether Germany will bend. The German finance minister issued a shameful threat to the Greeks before their vote, saying they must honor their commitments to the bailout program or “bear the consequences.” It isn’t at all clear yet what those consequences will be, for Greece or for the rest of Europe; but then, what we’ve got now clearly isn’t working either. In the long battle between the markets and democracy, this is one for democracy—with all its flaws and pitfalls. No one said it was going to be easy.