The headquarters of the Greek left-wing party Syriza is a small, drab, gray building on a corner of Eleftherias Square in downtown Athens. Only the party’s banner and a small police presence outside hint that this isn’t just another aging office block in a rundown part of town. Two blocks away, a city-run soup kitchen is bustling with people who never dreamed, five years ago, that they would need such a thing. But this unprepossessing base is home to a diverse group of politicians, academics and activists who now look poised to win Greece’s snap election on January 25. As the left’s first anti-austerity party to come to power in Europe, Syriza may be about to change much more than Greece’s future.
Mercilessly beaten down by both the debt crisis and the medicine prescribed to cure it, and despite the anemic signs of recovery, Greece appears to be trapped in an L-shaped recession—scraping along the bottom after a very steep fall with no prospect of a meaningful rise. Almost all of the projections made by Greece’s lenders (the International Monetary Fund, the European Commission and the European Central Bank) have proved outrageously off. After two bailouts and one debt write-down, unemployment is hovering around 26 percent (60 percent for the young), the country has lost a quarter of its gross domestic product, and public debt is as high as it’s ever been.
Crippling austerity enforced first by the Socialists under George Papandreou, and then by the conservative-led coalition government of Antonis Samaras, has left the country poorer, disillusioned, exhausted and angry. Pasok and New Democracy, the parties that have alternated in power for forty years and are arguably responsible for bringing Greece to this pass, have more or less imploded under the pressure. It is from this same melting pot that Syriza has emerged as the frontrunner in the election, building its base among those who have suffered the most from austerity, supporting community projects, and speaking the language of protest and the “movement of the squares.”
Syriza, or the Coalition of the Radical Left, is the product of a turbulent series of realignments on the Greek left outside the ranks of the KKE, the veteran Moscow-oriented Communist Party. Its origins can be traced to the coalition that was formed in 1989 between the Communists and the reformed left wing, which (after the Communists’ departure) joined with other Marxist, Trotskyist, Green, feminist and independent groups. Popular in intellectual and cultural circles, it had little success at the polls until the crisis propelled it to second place in the elections of 2012.