“Hope is coming!”
That’s the slogan that Syriza, the left-wing Greek coalition party, used throughout the campaign to distinguish itself from its fear-mongering opponents on the right. But on the night of January 25, as Syriza won almost 36 percent of the vote and ascended to power, the slogan could have spoken for all of Europe. In a tent in Athen’s Klafthmonos Square, a marble plaza dotted with Coca-Cola kiosks, banners from all the rising left parties in Europe—Podemos of Spain, Die Linke of Germany, the Left Bloc of Portugal, as well as various social movements, including the rainbow LGBT flag—waved proudly. Greek leftists and their European allies broke into a riotous rendition of “Bandiera Rossa,” the Italian socialist anthem. Die Linke members carried signs reading “Change in Europe Begins in Greece.” The international left seemed raised from the dead. Athens was celebrating a miracle.
At the other end of the square, in front of the neoclassical main building of the University of Athens, a red dais and empty microphone awaited the arrival of Alexis Tsipras, Syriza’s 40-year-old leader. Tsipras had already been shown exiting Syriza headquarters on television, as political commentators, employees of the media monopolies his party has pledged to start charging for their use of the airwaves, spoke solemnly against a backdrop of crowds cheering and dancing. Directly addressing his supporters, Tsipras declared that “to all the Greeks, whether inside or outside of the country, particularly to the thousands of young university students who are living as migrants abroad and who could not come back to vote, we dedicate this victory. We promise them that our great national interest is to regain work in our homeland, so we can bring them back and work all together to lift this country up high.” Later, Antigone Sacher, a young woman involved in local solidarity activism, would tell me that, while she didn’t know if Syriza would succeed, “we felt like we were free, like out of a war, like out of the civil war.”
In Klafthmonos Square, I ran into Nikolas Koumoundouros, an IT professional who works with Syriza and has for years worked with Avgi, the party newspaper. He has thick-rimmed glasses and an elastic face, and I expected him to be delirious with joy. Instead, he declared himself “very nervous.” Like many Syriza members, he viewed with trepidation the prospects of a tiny party with no government experience being saddled with the worst crisis ever to occur within the EU. Despite winning a resounding victory, Syriza had only about 15,000 registered members as of 2012, in a country of 11 million people. The material basis of its success is not broad-based commitment but broad-based desperation.